Tag Archives: work

The backlash

The backlash has begun. Four months ago, everywhere was proclaiming that working from home was both the New Hotness and Here to Stay. In the last few weeks, those same venues have switched gears, documenting how people can’t wait to go back to the office. What changed?

Nothing. Simply the novelty wore off.

I get it. The last time I had a work-from-home job I didn’t really enjoy it. It was a decade ago and the technology wasn’t quite there. No Slack, an emphasis on phone calls rather than video-chats and much weaker collaboration tools like wikis. I was also one of only a few people working remotely. But, perhaps most significantly, I was at a different stage of my life.

If the pandemic and subsequent lockdown had hit back then, how would I have coped? It’s impossible to say for sure, of course, but less well I think.

And if you go back much before that and I wouldn’t have been able to work at all. I remember a teacher friend grumbling that she took work home but I didn’t. Couldn’t would have been more accurate: I didn’t have a £250,000 computer at home! A lot of business don’t even have machines like that any more.

Ultimately, people are learning that working remotely is a skill. If you just plonk people in disparate places and hope for the best, you’re probably going to fail over the medium term. Those unplanned meetings in corridors really won’t happen. As suspected, people won’t schedule a thirty-minute meeting to discuss… well, who knows what… the whole point is the serendipity. If these things are important — and I think they are — then you can’t just say “That doesn’t work remotely,” give up and insist everyone return to the office. That’s a total abdication of leadership!

The meeting won’t happen in exactly the same way, but you can encourage public conversations in Slack or Teams. You can have “happy hours” when the team can dial in for chit-chat.

I’m sure you have your own ideas. The point is that collaboration can and does happen remotely. Sure, there are cases where it can’t happen, or at least can’t happen easily. If you’re designing or making hardware it’s difficult.

Hopefully, as the threat of COVID-19 lifts, we’ll remember the lessons we’ve learned. We shouldn’t go back exactly to how things were before. The people who like working from home should still be able to do so, at least some of the time. I want to believe that the idea that people can’t be productive at home is no longer wide-spread. On the other hand, it’s not a panacea. We shouldn’t be closing all the office space in cities and we shouldn’t force people to work from home if they prefer being in an office.

In the end, treating staff like adults and trusting them to Get The Job Done is rarely a bad policy.

Meetings

After university, when I first started working, I jealously noticed people leaving their desks and attending meetings. I was left sitting at my desk, bashing out code. What was going on? What exciting things were being discussed without me? Sometimes they’d come back from the meeting and ask a random question. It was all very mysterious.

A while later I started getting invited to these meetings. I found what was being discussed. I discovered the mystery.

I’ve spent the rest of my career trying to avoid them.

Of course, meetings are not inherently bad. Sharing information, collaborating, making decisions are all vital functions of a company and you need meetings to do that. So why are they often so bad? And why do I spend so much time trying to avoid them?

Meetings are a cultural artefact. Good and bad etiquette isn’t evenly distributed. The companies with the worst meetings are also, ironically, the ones with the most.

What makes a good meeting? There are lots of articles on the web about this, so I don’t want to belabour the point, but, actually, I think it’s quite simple:

  • A defined function
  • The right people
  • The right duration

Missing any one of those means that the meeting is going to be a waste for at least some of those attending.

By “a defined function,” yes, I mean an agenda. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a full and formal written agenda, but all attendees should know the point of the meeting. If they don’t, maybe you do need to write it down. I encourage people to decline meetings with an unclear objective1.

The “right people” to invite to a meeting is often driven by the org chart, but this is completely the wrong metric. You need the fewest people that can meet the objective of the meeting. Don’t include someone just because they’re “important.” Don’t exclude someone because they’re too junior. Include everyone needed to share information or make a decision, or whatever the goal. But no more than that.

One thing that infuriates me is where people in a meeting have no “function.”2 Everyone should have a clearly defined role. If they don’t, they shouldn’t be there.

What about duration? I see two sides to it. First, work expands to fill the time available. Don’t do that. If you set aside an hour for a meeting but it actually only takes ten minutes, quit while you’re ahead. In fact, for people that tend to take a while to get to the point, I’ll deliberately book short meetings.

Conversely, if you’ve spent an hour going around in circles without making a real decision, maybe it’s time to call it a day. Your conclusion should be the information you need to actually make a decision, the people who are going to obtain it and, hopefully, when the next meeting will be.

Talking of “an hour,” that’s my benchmark for maximum meeting length. Anything significantly longer than that suggests to me that there isn’t sufficient focus or a tight enough agenda. And, perhaps more importantly, people are just not going to focus that whole time. They’re going to drift off into a dream world or check their phone. Why have them in the room physically if they’re not present mentally?

It all sounds so simple when you put it like that and yet we’re all guilty of Doing It Wrong. If there’s one thing to take away, it’s that meetings should be deliberate, just like any other corporate artefact.


  1. There are exceptions. For example, I wouldn’t decline a meeting with a client but I would seek clarification. ↩︎
  2. When Dilbert was good, there was a character called the Meeting Moth. I think we’ve all worked with people like that. ↩︎

WFH

Since the whole world is now working from home (terms and conditions may apply), everybody else is writing their working from home tips. I didn’t want to feel left out.

The way I see it, there are two related aspects: first, how you deal with it; two, how your office culture deals with it.

If you’re asked to work from home, you need to make the most of it. But right out the gate, it’s important to note that it doesn’t suit everyone. It sounds good, but some people just find it hard to be productive when there are distractions, from housework to a Nintendo, and they find it hard to manage without the face-to-face social interactions. There are many reasons and there’s no shame in admitting it’s not for you.

Of course, right now it’s not much of a choice for most of us. The common tips are stick to a routine, actually get dressed, and have a specific, physical work place. All these are good. I’m not going to argue with those, but it’s not the whole story.

Is it all about maximising productivity? Not everything I do is about increasing the amount of work I do, not directly at least. By not commuting I gain somewhere between ninety minutes and two hours a day. Honestly, I probably do spend some of that working, but I also exercise and have dinner with my family. I try to get some reading in. Occasionally do household chores. Getting the balance between taking advantage of the situation and Getting Stuff Done is the challenge and the hardest bit is that it’s you that has to set those limits.

What I’m saying is, don’t be afraid to mix things up a little to keep your sanity.

And, finally, one of the best things is that I can control my environment the whole day. In practice, that means that I play music most of the time without having to wear headphones! Game changer.

The other side is how your employer and your colleagues manage. This is the hard bit.

These days the technology is pretty good. When I first worked from home a decade ago, I found it difficult. Now we have fast broadband, collaboration software like Slack and reliable web conferencing software.

But, as William Gibson said, the future is here it’s just not evenly distributed. Just because the software exists, doesn’t mean your employer allows you to use it. And just because you have it, doesn’t mean that your team will use it well1.

One of the problems I had a decade ago was that there was a big development centre where most employees worked and there were a handful of people, like me, working remotely. Because most people were in the office, we remote workers often got forgotten.

The current situation means that we’re all remote, which, as odd as it sounds, actually helps.

Participating in remote meetings, using Zoom or Skype or whatever, is a skill that everyone needs to learn. Mute if you’re not talking. Agree whether you are or are not going to use video — being aware that video uses more bandwidth which might be a challenge if multiple people are working from home!

Using Slack or Microsoft Teams is also a learned skill. If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to new users, it’s err on the side of having discussions in public. It’s often tempting to directly message an individual or make channels private, but often the team can benefit from the answer or maybe the person you’re asking isn’t there currently.

Also, make sure you set aside a channel for chit-chat. You don’t only talk about work in the office so why would you expect that to be any different online?

What I’m saying is that working from home, counterintuitively, is a skill that everyone will need to learn. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about if you don’t know the etiquette of a web conference or a Slack conference. And managers who are used to being able to physically look over their staff will have to get used to trusting them to do their jobs.

As bad as this this situation is, if we all learn that our jobs can be completed without commuting and our managers learn not to micromanage, maybe we’ll come out of this with a stronger working culture.


  1. I’m leaving aside issues such as companies having VPN software but not enough licences. There’s no magic in solving this problem. ↩︎

Never split the difference

If I took this book to heart, I should try to convince you to read it.

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t sure I’d like this book, and I mainly took it out of the library so I could make the joke in the first paragraph (and others like it). I mean, negotiation isn’t my job. I’m not, like the author, a hostage negotiator. I’m not even in sales. The key, of course, is that we all have to negotiate from time to time. While I may not often have to negotiate money in my day job, I do have to agree on the scope of work. This is a form of negotiation. We all have to buy stuff or hire someone to deal with jobs around the house.

What I’m saying is this book won me around. Something that deals with “human factors” can never be a full instruction guide, but in ten chapters, from “mirroring” to trying to figure out those “unknown unknowns” Voss walks you through the whole process. The examples are varied, from sales to hostage negotiation, some more relatable than others, but they all serve their purpose.

Some areas you’ll have seen before. I’ve come across the suggestion to “mirror” previously But even in those cases, there are new suggestions or contexts to consider.

I guess the ultimate test is whether I’ll actually use the suggestions. Some will undoubtedly take some nerve, but I suspect most people will get something out it. I’m not sure I’m going full FBI the next time the need arises, but I absolutely intend to use some of the ideas around how best to ask questions and guiding people towards the correct — your — answer.

ReWork

The gist of “ReWork” is that anyone can be an entrepreneur but you don’t have to follow the Silicon Valley tradition of seeking venture funding and providing foosball tables. If you do things right — different — you can make a sustainable business in a more traditional, bootstrapped way, and you don’t have to continually grow to be considered a success.

Many of the “lessons,” however, apply to almost any knowledge work. They subscribe to a less-is-more philosophy, and the book follows that example by being a quick read. Like the less-is-more outlook, that doesn’t make it bad, only very targeted.

If you’re looking for a complete framework for running your business, this isn’t it. (But then you’re probably not the kind of person who is likely to start a business I guess.) Instead, it’s a collection of related vignettes touching on varied aspects, from funding to focus to culture.

Much of the advice is so obvious that you wonder why more people don’t do it. But the fact that people don’t is exactly why their business (was 37signals, now Basecamp) has been a success and that writing about how it works doesn’t give away any “secret sauce.” It’s not that people don’t know the “secrets.” It’s more that people don’t have the discipline to stick to the programme.

Overall, there’s a lot of good material in here. If you own or work for a small company where you can potentially put the advice into practice, it’s probably worth a read.

Productivity

I just can’t figure how to follow all those “improve your productivity” guides. I’m sure you know the ones I mean: they suggest exercising at 6am; or switching off your email and Slack during the day to avoid distractions; or to schedule all your meetings in the mornings; or…

Can anyone make those things work?

The problem I have is that I work and live with other people. So, sure, I can try to schedule my meetings in the morning but I don’t think my American colleagues will appreciate having to get up at 4am to make my 9am daily standup; if I don’t have Slack running I’ll miss the notification that the database server is going down; without email I won’t learn that the client meeting I’m preparing for has been cancelled; and going to the gym at 6am would be great except who is going to look after the kids while I’m out?

All these productivity guides fail to recognise that we all have external commitments, that we work in places with existing infrastructure and conventions. The best you can do is cherry-pick the bits from the guides that work for you and try to figure out your own process for everything else.

Which, if we’re honest with ourselves, is what we were already doing.