Showing all posts tagged wfh:

Draining The Moat

Zoom is in a bit of a post-pandemic slump, describing its own Q2FY23 results as "disappointing and below our expectations". This is quite a drop for a company that at one point was more valuable than ExxonMobil. Zoom does not disclose the total number of users, only "enterprise users", of which there are 204,100. "Enterprise users" are defined in a footnote to the slides from those Q2FY23 results as "customers who have been engaged by Zoom’s direct sales team, channel partners, or independent software vendor (ISV) partners." Given that Zoom only claims 3,116 customers contributing >$100k in revenue over the previous year, that is hardly a favourable comparison with Cisco's claim of six million users of WebEx Calling in March 2022.

As I wrote in The Thing With Zoom, Zoom's original USP was similar to WebEx's, namely the lowest time-to-meeting with people outside company. As a sales person, how quickly can I get my prospect in the meeting and looking at my presentation? Zoom excelled at this metric, although they did cut a number of corners to get there. In particular, their software would stick around even after users thought they had uninstalled it, just in case they ever needed it again in the future.

Over the past year or two, though, Teams usage has absolutely taken off. At the beginning the user experience was very rough, even by Microsoft standards, confusing users with the transition from its previous bandwagon-jumping branding as Skype for Business. Joining a Teams meeting as an outsider to the Teams-using organisation was (and largely still is) a mess, with the client failing to connect as often as not, or leaving meeting invitees in a loop of failed authentication, stuck between a web client and a native client, neither of which is working.

And yet, Teams is still winning in the market. Why?

There is more to this situation than just Microsoft's strength in enterprise sales. Certainly, Microsoft did not get distracted trying to cater to Zoom cocktails or whatever, not least because nobody in their right mind would ever try to party over Teams, but also for the very pragmatic and Microsoftian move that those users don't pay.

Teams is not trying to play Zoom and WebEx at their own game. Microsoft doesn't care about people outside their client organisations. Instead, Microsoft Teams focuses on offering the richest possible meeting experience to people inside those organisations.

I didn't fully appreciate this distinction, since throughout this transition I was working for companies that used the standard hipster tech stack of Slack, Google Docs, and Zoom. What changed my understanding was doing some work with a couple of organisations that had standardised on Teams. Having the text chat, video call, and documents all in one place was wonderfully seamless, and felt native in a way that Google's inevitable attempt to shoehorn Hangouts into a Google Docs sidebar or comment thread never could.

This all-in-one approach was already calculated to appeal to enterprises who like simplicity in their tech stack — and in the associated procurement processes. Pay for an Office 365 license for everybody, done. Teams would probably have won out anyway just on that basis, but the trend was enormously accelerated by the very factor everyone assumed would favour Zoom: remote work.

While everyone was focusing on Zoom dating, Zoom board games, Zoom play dates, and whatever else, something different was happening. Sales people were continuing to meet with their customers over Zoom/WebEx/whatever, but in addition to that, all of the intra-company meetings were also flipping online. This transition lead to an explosion in the ratio of internal video meetings to outside-facing ones, changing the priority from "how quickly can I get the other people in here, especially if they haven't got the meeting client installed" to "everyone has the client installed, how productive can we be in the meeting".

As the ratio of outside video meetings to inside meetings flips, Zoom's moat gets filled in

Zoom could not compete on that metric. All Zoom could do was facilitate someone sharing their screen, just like twenty years ago. Maybe what was being shared was a Google Doc, and the other people in the meeting were collaborating in the doc — but then what was Zoom's contribution? Attempts to get people to use built-in chat features or whiteboarding never took off; people used their Slack for chatting, and I never saw anyone use the whiteboard feature in anger.

Once an organisation had more internal remote video meetings than outside-facing ones, these differences became glaring deficiencies in Zoom compared to Teams.1

Zoom squandered the boost that the pandemic gave them. Ultimately, video chat is a feature, not a product, and Zoom will either wither away, or get bought and folded into an actual product.


🖼️ Photos by Chris Montgomery and Christina @wocintech.chat on Unsplash


  1. The same factors are also driving a slight resurgence in Hangouts, based on my anecdotal experience, although Google does not disclose clear numbers. If you're already living in Google Docs, why not just use Hangouts? (Because it's awful UX, but since when did that stop Google or even slow them down?) 

Fun In The Sun

A reliable way for companies to be seen as villains these days is to try to roll back concessions to remote work that were made during the pandemic1. Apple is of course a perennial scapegoat here, and while it seems reasonable that people working on next year's iPhone hardware might have to be in locked-down secure labs with all the specialised equipment they need, there is a lurking suspicion that much of the pressure on other Apple employees to return to work is driven by the need to justify the massive expense of Apple Park. Jony Ive's last project for Apple supposedly cost over $4B, after all. Even for a company with Apple's revenues, that sort of spending needs to be justified. It's not a great look if your massive new vanity building is empty most of the time.

The same mechanisms are playing out in downtown business districts around the world, with commercial landlords worried about the long-term value of their holdings, and massive impacts on the services sector businesses (cafes, restaurants, bars, dry-cleaners, etc etc) that cluster around those office towers.

With all of this going on, it was probably inevitable that companies would try to jump on the bandwagon of being remote-work friendly — some with greater plausibility than others. I already mentioned Airbnb in a past post; they have an obvious incentive to facilitate remote work.

Other claims are, let's say, more far-fetched.

In a recent example of the latter genre, it seems that Citi is opening a hub in Málaga for junior bankers:

  • Over 3,000 Málaga hopefuls applied for just 27 slots in the two-year program, which promises eight-hour days and work-free weekends -- practically unheard of in the traditional banking hubs in Manhattan and London. In exchange, Málaga analysts will earn roughly half the starting salaries of their peers.
  • The new Spain office will represent just a minuscule number of the 160 analysts Citi hired in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, on top of another 300+ in New York.

This is… a lot less than meets the eye. 27 people, out of a worldwide intake of ~500 — call it 5% — will be hired on a two-year contract in one admittedly attractive location, and in exchange for reasonable working hours, will take a 50% hit on their starting salary. In fairness the difference in cost of living between Málaga and London will make up a chunk of that difference, and having the weekends free to enjoy the place is not nothing, but apart from that, what is the upside here?

After the two years are up, the people who have been busy brown-nosing and visibly burning the midnight oil at head office will be on the promotion track. That is how banking works; if you can make it through the first few years, you have a) no social life any more, and b) a very remunerative career track in front of you. Meanwhile, it is a foregone conclusion that the people from the Málaga office will either not have their contract renewed after the two years are up, or will have to start their career track all over again in a more central location.

In other words, what this story boils down to is some short-term PR for Citi, a bunch of cheap(er) labour with a built-in termination date, and not much more.

Then again, it could be worse (it can always be worse). Goldman Sachs opted for the stick instead of the carrot with its own return to the office2 mandate, ending the free coffee that had been a perk of its offices.

Even after all these years in the corporate world, I am amazed by these utterly obvious PR own goals. The value of the coffee cart would have been infinitesimal, completely lost in Goldman's facilities budget. But what is the negative PR impact to them of this move? At one stroke they have hollowed out all the rhetoric of teamwork and empowerment that is the nominal justification for the return to office.

Truly committing to a remote work model would look rather different. I love the idea of Citi opening a Málaga hub. The difference is that in a truly remote-friendly organisation, that office would not have teams permanently based in it (apart from some local support staff). Instead, it would be a destination hub for teams that are truly remote to assemble on a regular basis for planning sessions. The rest of the time, everyone would work remotely wherever they currently live.

Some teams do need physical proximity to work well, some customer-facing roles benefit from having access to meeting space at a moment's notice — but a lot of the work of modern companies does not fall into these categories. Knowledge workers can do their work anywhere — trust me, I've been working this way for more than fifteen years. Some of my most productive work has been done in airport lounges, not even in my fully equipped home office! With instant messaging, video calls, and collaboration tools, there is no real downside to working this way. Meanwhile, the upside is access to a global and distributed talent pool. When I did have to go into an office, it was so painful to be in an open-space with colleagues that were not on my actual team that I wore noise-cancelling headphones. If that's the situation, what's the point of commuting to an office?

This sort of reorganisation would admittedly not be great for the businesses that currently cluster around Citi offices and cater to the Citi employees working in those offices — but the flip side would be the massive benefits to businesses in those Citi employees' own home neighbourhoods. If you're not spending all your waking hours in Canary Wharf or Wall Street, you can do your dry cleaning at your local place, you can buy lunch around the corner instead of eating some over-priced plastic sandwich hunched over your desk, and you can get a better quality of life that way — maybe even in Málaga!

The only downside of working from home is that you have to pay for your own coffee and can't just get Goldman to foot the bill.


🖼️ Photos by Carles Rabada, Jonas Denil, and Tim Mossholder on Unsplash


  1. Not that the pandemic is quite over yet, but let's not get into that right now. 

  2. Never "return to work". This is a malicious rhetorical framing that implies we've all been slacking off at home. People are being asked to continue to work, and to return to the office to do so. They may want to pick up noise-cancelling headphones on their way in. 

From Provincial Italy To London — And Back Again

More reflections on remote work

Well, I'm back to travelling, and in a pretty big way — as in, I'm already to the point of having to back out of one trip because I was getting overloaded! I've been on the road for the past couple of weeks, in London and New York, and in fact I will be back in New York in a month.

It has honestly been great to see people, and so productive too. Even though I was mostly meeting the same people I speak to week in, week out via Zoom, it was different to all be in the same room together. This was also the first time I was able to get my whole team together since its inception: I hired everyone remotely, and while I have managed to meet up with each of them individually, none of the people on the team had actually met each other in person… We had an amazingly productive whiteboarding session, where we knocked out some planning in a couple of hours that might otherwise have taken weeks, and probably justified a chunk of the cost of the trip on its own.

This mechanism also showed up in an interesting study in Nature, entitled Virtual communication curbs creative idea generation. The study shows that remote meetings are better for some things and worse for others. Basically, if the meeting has a fixed agenda and clear outcomes, a remote meeting is a more efficient way of banging through those items. However, when it comes to ideation and creativity, in-person meetings are better than remote ones.

As with all the best studies, this result tallies with my experience and reinforces my prejudices. I have been remote for a long time, way before the recent unpleasantness, but I always combined remote work with regular in-person catch-up meetings. You do the ideation and planning when you can all gather together around the whiteboard — not to mention reinforcing personal ties by gathering around a table in a restaurant or a bar! Then that planning and those personal ties take you through the rest of the quarter, with regular check-ins for tactical day-to-day actions to implement the strategic goals decided at the in-person meeting.

Leaving London

Something else that was interesting about my recent trips was meeting a whole lot of people who were curious about my living situation in Italy — how I came to be there, and what it was like to work a global role from provincial Italy, rather than from one of the usual global nerve centres. Telling the story in New York, coming fresh from my trip to London, led me to reflect back on how come I left London and whether it was the right call (spoiler: it totally was).

The London connection also showed up in a pair of articles by Marie Le Conte, who recently spent a couple of months in Venice before returning to London. It has been long enough since I left London that I no longer worry about whether prices in my favourite haunts will be different, but whether any of them are still there or still recognisable — and sadly, most of them are not. But then again, this is London we are talking about, so I have new favourites, and find a new one almost every trip.

Leaving London was a wrench: it was the first place I lived after university, and I enjoyed it to the hilt. Of course I had to share a flat, and I drove ancient unreliable cars1. But we were out and about all the time, in bars and theatres, eating out and meeting up and just enjoying the place.

However, over the following years most of my London friends moved away in turn, either leaving the UK outright or moving out to the commuter belt. The latter choice never quite made sense to me: why live somewhere nearly as expensive as London (especially when you factor in the cost of that commute), which offers none of the benefits of being in actual London, and still has awful traffic and so on? But as my friends started to settle down and want to raise families and so on, they could no longer afford London prices. Those prices get especially hard to justify once you could no longer balance them out by enjoying everything London has to offer — because you're at home with the kids, who also need to be near a decent school, and get back and forth from sports and activities, and so on and so forth.

My friends and I experienced the same London in our twenties that Marie Le Conte did: it didn't matter if you "rent half a shoebox in a block of flats where nothing really worked", because "there was always something to do". But if you're not out doing all the things, and you need more than half a shoebox to put kids in, London requires a serious financial commitment for not much return.

But why commute to the office at all?

Even before the pandemic, remote work allowed many of us to square that circle. We could live in places that were congenial to us, way outside commuting range of any office we might nominally be attached to, but travel regularly for those all-important ideation sessions that guided and drove the regular day-to-day work.

The pandemic has opened the eyes of many more people and companies to the possibilities of remote work. Airbnb notably committed to a full remote-work approach, which of course makes particular sense to Airbnb, expecially the bit about "flexibility to live and work in 170 countries for up to 90 days a year in each location". I admit they are an extreme case, but other companies have an opportunity to implement the parts of that model that make sense for them.

Certain functions benefit from being in the office all the time, so they require permanent space. This means both individual desks and meeting rooms. Meanwhile, remote workers will need to come in regularly, but when they do, they will have different needs. They will absolutely require meeting rooms, and large, well-equipped ones at that, and those are on top of whatever the baseline needs are for the in-office teams. On the other hand, the out-of-towners will spend most of their time in meetings (or, frankly, out socialising), and so they do not need huge numbers of hot desks — just a few for catching up with emails in gaps between meetings.

If you rotate the in-office meetings so you don't have the place bursting at the seams one week and empty the rest of the time, this starts to look like a rather different office setup than what most companies have now. You can even start thinking of cloud-computing analogies, no longer provisioning office space for peak utilisation, but instead spreading work to take advantage of unused capacity, and maybe bursting by renting external capacity as needed (WeWork2 et al)

If you go further down the Airbnb route and go fully remote, you might even start thinking more about where you put that office. Does it need to be in a downtown office core, or can it be in a more fun part of town — or in a different city entirely? Maybe it can even be in a resort-type location, as long as it has good transport links. Hey, a guy can dream…

But in the mean time, remote work unlocks the ability for many more people to make better choices about where to live. Raising a family is hard enough; doing it when both parents work is basically impossible without a strong local support network. Maybe the model should be something like the Amish Rumspringa, where young Amish go spend time out in the world before going back home and committing to the Amish way of life. Enjoy your twenties in the big city, get started on your career with the sort of hands-on guidance that is hard to get remotely, and then move back home near parents and friends when it's time to settle down, switching to remote working models — with careful scheduling to avoid both parents being away at once.

Once you start looking at it like that, provincial Italy is hard to beat. Quality of life is top-notch, with the sort of lifestyle that would require an extra zero on the salary in London or NYC. If you combine that with regular visits to the big cities, it's honestly pretty great.


🖼️ Photos by Kaleidico and Jason Goodman on Unsplash; London photograph author’s own (the view from my hotel room on my most recent London trip).


  1. I only had a car in the first place because I commuted out of London, to a place not well-served by trains; I never drove into central London if I could avoid it, even before the congestion charge was introduced. 

  2. Just because WeWork is a terrible company doesn't mean that the fundamental idea is wrong. See also Uber: while Uber-the-company is obviously unsustainable and has a number of terrible side-effects, it has forced into existence a ride-hailing market that almost certainly would not exist absent Uber. Free Now gives me an Uber-like experience (summon a car from my phone in most cities, pay with a stored card), but using regular licensed taxis and without the horrible exploitative Uber model. 

How I Work From Home

Even though travel is (gradually) opening up, I still opted to invest in my home office setup, and I think you should too. Here’s why.

I have been fully-remote for fifteen years now, with only brief interruptions. By that I mean that I have not had a team-mate, let alone a manager, in the same country, and frequently not even in the same time-zone, for that entire time. It’s true that for most of it I have had colleagues in-country, and even offices of varying dimensions and permanence, but they were always in adjacent functions: sales, services, field marketing, and all the back-office functions required to keep an international enterprise functioning.

This means that I am very used to going into an office only rarely, and a setup that lets me work from home has been a requirement for that entire time. The details of my setup have evolved and improved over the years, with increased resources available, and increased permanence to plan for.

The biggest recent change has been recognition that the home office is now a much more permanent part of life. In the Before Times, I would spend a good 50% of my time (if not more) on the road, so the home office was for occasional work. Now, it’s where everything happens, so it had better work well, be comfortable, and look good in the background of Zoom calls.

Here is the current state of the art.

Deep Underground

When we moved into my current place, I earmarked the "tavernetta" for my home office. A "tavernetta" is a uniquely Italian phenomenon: think a US-style basement family room, except that it’s under a block of flats. Several of the flats in my building come with these spaces, but most are only used for storage; a couple are fitted out to be habitable, and mine even includes the luxury of an en-suite bathroom, so I don’t even need to go upstairs to the main family home for that.

There was, however, one minor issue: all of the fittings date back to the Sixties, when this block was originally built. Worse, the flat actually belonged to my wife’s grandmother — so the "tavernetta" is also where my wife and all her cousins held their teenage parties, not to mention her mother and aunts… Out of sight and (more importantly) earshot, but within reach if needed. Anyway, without going into detail, and even though the statute of limitations has long since expired, let’s just say that the furniture and carpets had suffered somewhat over the years of parties.

Over the past summer, therefore, we tore up all the cigarette-burned fitted carpets, ripped out and replaced the ancient and horrible plumbing, and repainted the walls a nice clean white. An electrician was summoned, took one look, sucked his teeth and muttered "vintage", and promptly added a zero to the painful end of his estimate. On the other hand, I do have a lot of electronics plugged in down here, so it’s worth doing it right.

It’s So Bright, I Need Sunglasses

Packing up my desk to make space for all this work was an enormous pain, but I took the opportunity to streamline my setup quite a bit. I was using an ancient Iiyama panel that must be at least a dozen years old; it’s full-HD and was a pretty good screen at the time, but the state of the art has moved on, and the Iiyama is now woefully dim and low-resolution. Worse, it sat between my MacBook Pro and its Retina screen, and a Lenovo 27" panel that I got from work as part of a programme to help employees get set up for work-from-home. The Lenovo has a halfway-house resolution that sits between HD and 4k, but it’s sharp and bright; I run it in portrait (vertical) orientation to look at reference material beside the main screen that I’m working on.

Between those two bright and sharp displays, the Iiyama really suffered by comparison. What I really wanted was a Retina screen to match the MacBook, but Apple only make the monstrous XDR, which is lovely, but costs more than my first several cars — especially once you add a grand’s worth of stand! I put off making a decision, hoping that Apple would finally do what everyone was begging them to and release the 5k panel that they already have in their iMacs as a standalone monitor without a whole computer attached. Apple, in their wisdom, opted not to do this, and offered as a substitute the LG UltraFine. This is supposedly that same panel – but the LG enclosure is ugly as sin, and reports soon surfaced of quality problems: drooping support stands, unreliable USB connections, and even flaky displays. Since the UltraFine is hardly inexpensive, and is also hardly ever in stock, everyone took the hopeful assumption that all these issues meant that surely, soon, Apple would do it right. And so we waited. And waited. And waited.

When last October’s Apple event rolled around with the announcement of the new MacBook Pros, which would have been the obvious time to release a screen to plug the new laptops into, and Apple still didn’t — that was when I snapped. I went out and bought an LG 5k2k Ultrawide panel. The diagonal is a huge 34", but it’s actually only the height of a 27", just stretched out wiiiiide. The picture is sharp, the screen is bright, and the increase in real estate is incredible. As with most "tavernette", mine is partly below street level, and my desk is in the back of the room (it’s fixed to the wall and can’t move), so more light is very welcome. I also added an LED strip above the monitor, and my webcam (a Razer Kiyo mounted on the shelf above the desk) has a ring light, so I think my SAD countermeasures are sufficient for now.

That desk is my working desk, so the only thing that gets plugged in there with any regularity is the MacBook Pro I get from work. I have it on a stand so that it’s at the level of my sight line, and aligned to the monitors too. Before, I had a combo USB hub, USB-C power pass-through, and HDMI adapter Velcro’d to one of the legs of the laptop riser, and that went into one USB-C port, while a second USB-C cable fed the Lenovo. I then had a bunch of USB-A peripherals depending either from that hub or from the USB hub in the back of the Lenovo: keyboard, webcam, microphone, audio device, Ethernet adapter and MuteMe hardware mute button.

I was never super happy with this setup, and with the advent of the monster LG panel, I had an opportunity to redo it properly. Now, I have a single Thunderbolt cable coming out of the MacBook Pro, that takes care of power and all data connections. That cable goes into a CalDigit TS3-Plus dock that feeds everything else: DisplayPort to the LG, Mini DisplayPort to the Lenovo, (gigabit) Ethernet, SPDIF for audio, and powered USB-A for keyboard, webcam, microphone, and MuteMe button — with several more ports still available.

I favour a Microsoft Natural ergonomic keyboard. This is a split keyboard; the benefit is that your wrists do not bend while using it, as they do for straight keyboards such as the ones built in to laptops. It took a little while to get used to, but it’s very comfortable, and I could never go back. It works fine with a Mac, especially once you use Karabiner-Elements to remap some important keys.

My setup is also ambi-moustrous: I have an Apple Magic Mouse on the right of the keyboard — and a Magic Trackpad on the left. This setup lets me alternate my pointing hand to avoid stressing my right hand and wrist, as well as opening up the possibility of trackpad gestures without having to reach up to the MacBook’s trackpad, which is elevated some way off the desk and not exactly natural to use.

Make Some Noise

The audio situation is also worth touching on for a moment. Previously I was running a CambridgeWorks 4+1 speaker setup that I got with a Soundblaster Live! card more than twenty years ago. They were fine for what they are, but Macs never properly understood them, even with a dedicated USB audio interface that has separate front and rear audio outputs. (The system’s audio setup utility can play test audio through each of the four speakers, but in actual usage, the rear pair make only the faintest noise.) On the other hand, I did like having a physical volume knob on my desk, so I could crank it all the way to the left and be certain that nothing was going to make noise, no matter what.

I replaced these with an Edifier 2+1 set of bookshelf speakers with a monster subwoofer — seriously, the sub is bigger than both speakers together, and by a substantial margin (you can just about see it under the desk in the pic above). They are fed by an optical fibre cable from the CalDigit dock, and sound absolutely fantastic! They also have their own remote, which still lets me mute them without having to trust that some piece of software won’t decide that it’s important to unmute for some reason.

I also have my podcasting setup: a Røde NT-USB microphone that plugs into the CalDigit dock, and a pair of audio-technica headphones that plug into the Røde. The mic is on a spring arm so that I can fold it out of the way when I’m not using it, and the headphones have their own stand to keep them out of mischief.

This is the best setup for me: a single cable to plug in, and the MacBook is docked to all of this setup — and when it’s time to go, one cable unplugged and I’m ready. I keep go-bags of cables and power bricks in both of the bags I use when I leave the house, so I just need to make sure the actual laptop is in there and I’m good to go.

Away From Keyboard

Beyond what is on the desk, my home office includes a few more amenities. There is a mini-fridge under my desk with drinks — mainly sparkling water (tap water plus Sodastream bubbles), but also a few fruit juices and the like for when I fancy something different, and a couple of beers in case of particularly convivial Friday afternoon meetings (although it’s been a while since I’ve had occasion to drink one). I also have an electric Bialetti moka coffee pot for when it’s stimulation that I need rather than relaxation.

Yes, there is a printer down here! After some unpleasant experiences with inkjets, I lived the paperless lifestyle for a long time, but finally caved and bought a laser printer in 2019. At the time I assumed it would remain largely unused, and if I’m honest, I only bought it to placate my wife — who was of course very soon proved to be not only Right (again), but scarily prescient, as we spent much of 2020 in home-schooling mode, printing reams of paper every day. Utilisation has died back down a bit now, but the benefit of laser printers is that they don’t dry up and gunk up their print heads if you don’t print every five minutes.

Moving away from the desk area, I also have a TV down here with a rowing machine in front of it. The TV is passed down from when the main living room TV got upgraded to 4k, but it’s still perfectly serviceable. It’s not connected to an actual TV antenna down here; instead, I have an AppleTV device plugged into it, which means I can AirPlay content to it from my MacBook. How this plays out is that when I am attending a webinar or any sort of camera-off passive presentation, I stream that to the TV screen (without having to disconnect from the desk), and follow the webinar from my rowing machine, getting an education and a workout at the same time.

Make Space

With remote work and work-from-home becoming normalised, at least part-time, I would recommend to everyone that they invest in their home-office setup. I am very conscious that not everyone has the luxury of a dedicated room — but remember, I have been building up to this dream setup for a long time. If you are able to set yourself up with even a desk in a corner, that will help to confine work to that space. The physical separation gives "I am going to work" and "I am leaving work" rhythm to your day. There’s also a practical benefit to having somewhere to leave work in progress, notes, or whatever without that stuff cluttering up space you need for other purposes (a table you need to eat meals off).

You should also do the best you can in terms of height of desk, chair, keyboard, and screen. Yes, those last two are separate; laptops are an ergonomic nightmare if you are going to be using them all day, every day. Investments in your working environment will pay substantial dividends in terms of physical and mental well-being. It doesn’t have to be a huge expense, either; IKEA stuff is pretty good.

Don’t be put off by the thought that this is all nerd nonsense. Remember, programmers and gamers care deeply about the ergonomics of their computers because they spend a lot of time using them. These days, that describes most of us in white-collar jobs. Leaving aside some of the questionable choices gamers especially might make in terms of the aesthetics of their rigs, there is a lot to learn from those groups. Big screens, comfortable keyboards and mice, and some attention paid to how those devices are laid out in relation to one another, will all make your work life much less painful.

If you don’t have room for a rowing machine — or a Peloton, or a treadmill, or whatever — you may be able to simply exercise in front of your computer screen, depending on personality and the sort of exercise you favour, without needing special equipment and the room to set it up. I would definitely suggest making time for physical exercise, though; a walk around the block before sitting down to work, a run between meetings, or a sneaky bike ride over a lunch break — whatever works for you. I got into the habit of taking a mental-health day every couple of weeks when I was otherwise not leaving the house, and getting on my bike and just disappearing up into the hills. Your precise needs may vary, but try to make room for something in your routine.

And here’s hoping that we get to vary the work-from-home routine with some (safe) in-person interaction in 2022.

Remote Events

In a normal year, this is high season for events and trade shows. Instead, because 2020, I’m at home with no immediate prospect of travel. While this lack of travel does have some benefits, I do miss events, and I hope that things will get back to normal, because virtual events — or at least, the sorts of virtual events I have attended — simply do not work for me, and I’m not the only one.

One big issue is just reserving the time to "attend" the remote event, because when we’re working from home, there’s a lot of other stuff going on.

To be fair, I also hope that we will learn from this year and add more and better options for remote attendees than just a video stream of the keynote, which has been the standard until now. I have not yet seen an event format that replicated what I love about in-person events, but there is value in doing that if we can, because whoever achieves that feat will unlock enormous amounts of value, for themselves and for their event’s attendees.

The environment is also benefiting from all of us being grounded instead of burning jet fuel, (although my luggage1 is getting very dusty!). On the other hand, the local economy in places that typically host events is suffering badly — although one sector that I hope stays dead is the one that generates useless conference swag.

Time Is Value

The most important factor is the dedicated time. An event that I attend from home will inevitably need to fit in around other tasks, personal and professional. Instead, if I have travelled somewhere and blocked out a day or a few days, I am motivated to make the most of that investment, and minimise other activities. There is also a feeling that I have permission to postpone everything else if I’m at an in-person event in a way that I at least do not feel that I have for virtual events.

There’s another aspect to time that is often overlooked, though, and that is time zones. If an in-person event is in a certain location, all the attendees agree to base their schedules on the local time zone. If it’s remote, all bets are off. Yes, there have been experiments with "follow-the-sun" conferences, with people either giving the same presentation several times, or recordings being rebroadcast after an offset, but it’s still not the same as all being there together, plus you also lose out on having one single conversation going on via Twitter or whatever social media about your announcements.

Hell Is No Other People

While perhaps not as quantifiable, the serendipitous networking is the aspect of in-person events the I miss the most, and certainly the hardest to reproduce online. You can have great conversations even just standing in the booth, if you ask punters questions about their work and situation instead of just regurgitating the same tired sales spiel for the Nth time.

In technical terms, you’re probably going to be able to give a better answer if you understand what the actual goal is. The first phrasing of a question from someone unfamiliar with your technology is probably not going to tell you that, because they are framing the question in terms of what they do know. Of course you’ll be even better placed if you can answer them in the context of what they know: "in Technology X that is indeed what you would want to do, but it has the following downsides: a, b, c; instead, in Technology Y we achieve the same goal in this other way, which delivers these benefits: foo, bar, baz; would you like to see a demo?".

A conference booth is also a great environment to practice your pitch many times, over and over, in relatively low-stakes conversations, and with lots of colleagues around you to ask for support or after-action critiques. I stood up in a booth on day two of my current gig, and by the end of the day I had learned more about actual customer needs and perception than in any office onboarding course.

Beyond that, I have benefited enormously from being dragged along in the wake of more senior colleagues, meeting people and participating in conversations that let me understand better how my industry worked. Just the questions that get asked in these senior-level conversations will tell you a lot, and topics that come up will tell you what is currently hot, what terminology is expected, and so on. In more recent years, I’ve been the one getting the invites, and so I try to bring other team mates along to benefit from their perspective and help them in their own careers.

In other words, it’s not (just) about the free drinks…

What Can We Do

There are some suggestions people have shared with me for how to improve remote events, which might also be applied as extensions to in-person events. After all, big events like WWDC or AWS re:Invent are already effectively remote events: even people who’re in town for the show end up watching video streams. Many people don't even have tickets, but they travel anyway for the networking and because everybody else is there, making it easier to meet a lot of people over the course of a week whom you would not normally have access to. Unfortunately, I am not quite convinced by any of these suggestions, precisely because they miss out on the reasons why people might travel to an event and only ever stay on its fringes.

Watch Parties

To combine remote events with at least some networking, some have suggested local user groups or similar organisations could meet up to watch the stream together. To me, this is the worst of both worlds, because I would still have to travel a bit, at least up to Milan, but my networking there would be restricted to the people who live and work there, who by and large are not relevant to me; my job is worldwide, not local or regional. This is the same objection I have to the suggestion of many local events instead of one big global event; I am specifically looking forward to getting together with everyone in the world who is interested in the same things I am. This sort of thing might make some sense if you’re in NYC and not wanting to travel to SF, or just not wanting to go to Vegas (sensible!), but it sucks for the lone person in Omaha or whatever who’s into that topic (replace US locales with your own; the same thing happens in every country/region). And again, time zones will complicate this. If you’re in Sydney, it’s going to be tough to follow a livestream from San Francisco or Amsterdam.

Portals!

I have been in many offices that have always-on video conferencing setups, usually in the kitchen or other common space, so that when you walk past you can wave at someone in the office in Bengaluru or wherever. This is the next step up from the social media walls that you (used to) see at in/person events, but again it seems to be a gimmick; a week after the first installation, nobody looks at the screens any more. They sometimes get used for all-hands meetings or similar occasions, but that’s it. They are more of a "digital transformation" checkbox, like the iPad for signing in on the front desk; gimmicks for companies trying to show how global and interconnected they are, rather than any sort of practical solution.

Another gimmicky technology that many expected to transform our lives is VR, but that's not working either, or at least not yet.

Look at the numbers

Attendance numbers are also not comparable between in-person and online-only events. The smaller numbers of people who attend in-person events have demonstrated significant commitment and are ipso facto extremely valuable contacts. The far larger numbers of people who register for online events have not made any such commitment; in fact, many have no intention of attending the live event at all, but will only look at a handful of recordings, potentially days, weeks, or even months later. How do you discount the quality of that lead? Is it any better than a webinar lead? Is it worse because of dilution (you don’t know which one session they were really interested in)?

So What?

Unfortunately, I have not found any good solutions. The best we can hope for is that by this time in 2021, we can once again have in-person events in safety, but that we also learn something about complementing the in-person experience with at least some remote-access options. Those remote options should also allow for time-shifting, whether by a few hours for people in other time zones, or by much longer periods for later review. The assumption that all speaking sessions are recorded should help ensure better content, as well as better outcomes for sessions that suffer from being scheduled across from a session on a hot topic or with a big-name speaker.

I’ll see you in my employer’s booth, and don’t forget to come to my session later!


🖼️ Photos by Samuel Pereira and The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash


  1. I even decided not to use a discount code for a piece of luggage I have wanted for ages, because I have no idea when I’ll get to use a carry-on bag again. 

One More Missed Opportunity For VR

SF authors have a lot to answer for. While they are popularly assumed to predict the future, most will be quick to disclaim any Nostradamus tendencies. Instead, they are trying to tell a story, and the setting is only a part of that effort. The problems arise when people read the story, fall in love with the setting — and decide to enact it in real life.

I’m as guilty as any other nerd, with my unmarked keyboard meant to evoke Case’s deck in Neuromancer that always got him into trouble at customs. I also have an Ono-Sendai sticker on my MacBook, just to complete the look. That sort of thing is mostly harmless. What about the people who read Snow Crash1 and decided to build the Metaverse, though? They read passages like this and think to themselves: "whoa, cool, I gotta build that":

He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all a part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.

And so they went and built those things. This is literally the origin story for a lot of the tech we have today, from the iPhone as Star Trek communicator on down. When it comes to VR, you might expect that now of all times, with nobody able to go to the office, VR would be having its moment. But it isn’t, at all.

Sure, there are hopefuls like Spatial, sometimes described breathlessly as "the Zoom of VR" — but it relies on the Oculus Quest hardware, which is hardly universal, or Magic Leap, which may never be seen at all. I tried it on the web and it’s buggy right in the signup experience, definitely not something I would introduce to colleagues, let alone clients.

Maybe when Apple brings out its AR headset we’ll have a platform worthy of the name, but right now VR just isn’t there. I’m a techie, an early adopter, and if you can’t sell me on VR when a) I can’t leave the house and b) there’s a new Halflife game which requires VR, I think it’s safe to say it’s a small niche and going to stay that way.

I’ve been fully remote for a long time, but most people, even among those who had the choice, preferred to go into offices. Now we are all forced into the WFH life, but it’s awkward. Too many Zooms, too few, how much communication is needed or wanted, what needs to be synchronous and what can go async via Slack — and how do we manage all of that when many of us are also juggling other responsibilities? The home schooling, oh God the home schooling. Give teachers raises yesterday, they earned them.

Part of the stress of WFH is communication, and the pitch of meeting in VR is to approximate the experience of a real meeting better than just a grid of people’s heads on screen. It turns out, though, that experience is sufficient for most purposes. People are using Zoom for karaoke, cocktails (quarantini, anyone?), weddings, graduations, and just about anything else.

So Where Did VR Get Lost?

Even with the head start of everyone stuck at home and hating it, VR still has not taken off. The reason is the sort of impact that always means that the future will not look like the past or even a linear extrapolation. It’s easy to think of remote working and see that it requires good bandwidth, that people with good written skills and ability to manage their own time might thrive, and so on. Not many futurists had considered the impact on a family with both parents trying to work from home while juggling child care and home schooling, for instance.

This is one reason why even in lockdown VR hasn’t taken off (that and it’s still too expensive, but that’s a chicken & egg problem). I’ve taken tons of conference calls — yes, even on video — with a baby in my arms2, or keeping one eye on the maths homework going on next to me, or simply with one ear cocked for mischief being perpetrated somewhere else. VR, if it works properly, excludes all of that.

Some of the reluctance to embrace new tech is also the fear of obsolescence. If we can all go back to the office as soon as possible, the old habits and rules that enabled people to be successful in the past can be reimposed and those people can go on being successful without having to learn something new or change their behaviour in any way.

This reluctance also applies to tech platforms themselves. Remote events — and all events are of course remote for the rest of 2020 at least — default to the tried and true format of fast-scrolling comments beside live streamed events. This format was already tired ten years ago, but nobody has come up with anything much better. Partly there wasn’t a need, because it was easier just to rent out space in Vegas or Orlando and run the conference there, and partly there wasn’t a platform to build on. That last issue is of course another iteration of the chicken-and-egg problem: nobody has been able to build a platform because the users weren’t there, because nobody had built it, and repeat.

That consideration leads us back to Apple potentially jump-starting the whole VR-AR market by pulling their usual trick of holding back, looking carefully at what’s out there, thinking really hard about the use case, and then bringing out something that defines the market such that soon afterwards it is seen as inevitable and everybody else simply has variations on Apple’s theme.

Until that happens, though, the Zoom+Slack combo is the best we have, and we had better get used to it.


We discussed the topic of remote working on Episode Two of Roll For Enterprise, a new podcast I co-host. Listen to the episode, and subscribe if you like what you hear!


🖼️ Photo by Hammer & Tusk on Unsplash


  1. My favourite Snow Crash quote, and one which more people should take to heart, is this one: "It was, of course, nothing more than sexism, the especially virulent type espoused by male techies who sincerely believe they are too smart to be sexists." 

  2. For whatever reason, when I do this, it’s adorable, and when my wife does it, it’s unprofessional. I find this very weird, and so one reason I don’t hide my kids away is to make a point of modelling this behaviour as being okay so that my female colleagues might also feel comfortable with their children being in view of the webcam. 

KonMari The Home Office

I was all ready to hate this list of work-from-home tips from Marie Kondo, but actually it’s… not bad?

I mean, some of it is disgustingly twee — striking a tuning fork to signal the start of the working day? — but other parts make a lot of sense, like keeping your work stuff in a box that you can put away outside work hours.

There is a certain amount of work-from-home advice that is not exactly helpful going about, so at this point I am reflexively sceptical of new advice. There was the Washington Post advising people to sleep in their spare room and pretend they were on a trip, to which people quite rightly pointed out that not everyone has a spare room they can just casually go and sleep in. Even leaving aside issues of sudden economic anxiety due to the lockdown, many people made trade-offs to live in smaller homes in more expensive areas that were closer to schools, parks, restaurants, or transport options — precisely none of which they can take advantage of right now.

Another strand of unhelpful advice is when people forget that other people have children, or seemingly have never met a child in their entire lives.

I’m lucky enough that I was already set up with a pretty decent home office, and I spent the early part of this lockdown fitting it out to the nines, but in my own WFH advice I tried not to assume that everyone was in the same fortunate position. Even people who had the space might not have basics like a reasonably ergonomic desk and chair, and many don’t have the luxury of dedicated space. This is where Marie Kondo’s advice chimes with mine:

  • Keep your work stuff in one place. Work from the kitchen table, and move to the couch when you’re done.
  • Separate work time from personal time. Work from the laptop, then close the laptop when you’re done.

There’s one more piece of advice that I need to add, though:

  • Give yourself and others permission to be their whole selves. Some of us are juggling home-schooling kids with work, and so work happens around other stuff. Even when I’m in my home office, my kids regularly burst in to grab something from the printer, ask a question about homework, or sometimes just to give me a hug. People seem to find it charming more than anything else. This may well be because I’m a man, so I go out of my way to reassure female colleagues that it’s okay for their kids to do the same sort of thing.

Maybe you don’t have kids, maybe it’s your dog barking or your cat deciding to sit on you, or your room-mate coming out of the shower behind you. It’s fine, we’re all in the same boat.

And it could always be worse.


🖼️ Box photo by Bench Accounting1 on Unsplash, others from Stephanie Insley Hershinow and Adam Graham via Twitter


  1. How interesting, advertising by creating a profile on Unsplash! I hadn’t seen that one before — for a non-photography business, that is. Curious to know how it works for them. 

New WFH setup

Inspired by Eddie Jaoude, I made some updates to my home office setup. Just like everyone else, I have been on a ton of calls and a couple of podcasts too, so I kept myself entertained — and the economy moving — by upgrading my work environment.

In the foreground is my Røde NT-USB microphone, with shock mount, pop shield, and boom arm. That last is especially useful so I can swing the whole rig back out of the way when I’m done with it.

Behind that, you can see my Microsoft Natural keyboard; I get RSI if I type too long on straight keyboards, like my laptop’s for instance, so when I’m at my desk I use the Natural which lets me keep my wrists straight.

I use an Apple Magic Mouse, and I know some people hate it. It’s true that it’s not the most ergonomic thing ever, but I love the gestures on it, and I don’t actually use my mouse that much; it’s all about the keyboard shortcuts for me. This also means that I only have to deal with the silly recharging setup quite rarely.

The screen is an Iiyama 26". It’s only HD, not 4k, so it’s probably the next thing due an upgrade. I was hoping Apple would get around to releasing one of its lovely 5k screens without an entire iMac attached, but that is looking increasingly less likely. The LG 5k screen is just too ugly for words, especially for the price, so I’ll probably blow my next bonus on a nice 4k screen. What else am I going to spend money on right now, anyway?

On the walls are generic sound-absorbent foam panels. They really do make a surprisingly audible difference compared to bare paint — nearly as much as moving from the mike on the little headset that’s hanging beside the monitor to the big Røde!

Nestled under the monitor is one of my ancient Cambridge Soundworks speakers and its volume controller; you can just about see the subwoofer under the desk. It’s a four-speaker (plus sub) setup, but right now I don’t have the rear two wired up, waiting for a USB sound card with front+rear outputs that is on a very slow boat from China.

On top of the monitor, the bright ring of light is my Razer Kiyo webcam with built-in ring light. My office is in a half-basement, and the desk is in the darkest corner, so I need all the help I can get.

The computer itself is a MacBook Pro 13" with Touch Bar. Personally, I like the Touch Bar, although obviously I don’t use it much when the MBP is on its stand like this!

The keyboard under the stand belongs to the computer you can just about see above the monitor — yes, that’s a computer! The keyboard has blank keycaps for that William Gibson hacker look, while the computer is in a Skeleton "case" from Antec which is pretty much just an open frame to mount components in, plus a big slow fan to blow air over everything. It’s perfect for what is basically a parts-bin computer. It runs Debian and lets me mess around without the risk of doing something silly on my work computer.

The wicker boxes beside the Skeleton are all full of ancient tangled cables. Because of course they are.

Break Down

This is the other half of my home office, with a rowing machine set up in front of a TV with an Apple TV attached. This lets me stream webinars via AirPlay and watch them while I get a workout in. Good for a change of pace in between all the Zoom calls!

Emergency Spare Backup Office Location

Sometimes I also work from a secure alternative location outside my usual office, partly for the view and partly for the company.

Things That Happen When You're Working From Home

So this is me, talking to dozens of colleagues about a new project — when my daughter, I mean my coworker, decided she needed something off my desk Right Now.

My colleagues all thought she was cute, so there’s that.

Working From Home Is Good, Actually

It’s an obvious time for people to think and write about working from home. I did my own bit yesterday, and today Kevin Roose joined in with this article in the New York Times, with the clickbaity title "Sorry, but Working From Home Is Overrated".

Mr Roose used to be a fan:

I was a remote worker for two years a while back. For most of that time, I was a work-from-home evangelist who told everyone within earshot about the benefits of avoiding the office. No commute! No distracting co-workers! Home-cooked lunch! What’s not to love?

But he changed his tune:

I’ve now come to a very different conclusion: Most people should work in an office, or near other people, and avoid solitary work-from-home arrangements whenever possible.

What drove this change of heart?

[…] research also shows that what remote workers gain in productivity, they often miss in harder-to-measure benefits like creativity and innovative thinking. Studies have found that people working together in the same room tend to solve problems more quickly than remote collaborators, and that team cohesion suffersin remote work arrangements.

I don’t disagree! I’ve worked from home for fifteen years, but I’ve always spent big chunks of my time on the road, travelling and meeting people. Working in a distributed team, it’s key to meet in person on a regular basis, at least once a quarter. If I don’t leave my home office for a couple of weeks straight, I start to get cranky – so while I’m more prepared than most for remote working, not least because I have a home office that is fully set up, with big screen, ergonomic keyboard, and even a whiteboard, I am still affected by the coronavirus lockdown.

As with most things, the answer is not a simple binary:

[…] research has found that the ideal amount of work-from-home time is one and a half days per week — enough to participate in office culture, with some time reserved for deep, focused work.

Around The World

There is one more factor that I don’t often see considered, and it’s geographical coverage. I am part of a global team, and one of the things that I bring to the team is the perspective of someone who is not based in New York City or in Silicon Valley. If the whole global team sat around a long table, they would miss important perspectives and developments on the ground. But if all of us are dotted around the world, why would we go in to our various local offices? There, we would indeed sit at long tables, but with people working on very different projects. Distraction and disturbance are rife in that sort of environment (I speak from experience here).

It can still be worth taking that hit on deep work occasionally for the serendipitous conversations with other teams which can occur in that type of environment, but there’s not the same benefit to doing it long-term. The way I do it is to stop in at the local office wherever I am and sit with different teams in rotation, working to facilitate serendipity in different circumstances. That way I can take the temperature of the extended organisation and report back to the team, sharing perspectives with others who are doing the same thing.

There are also things that can be done to help cohesion of remote teams. The NYT article mentions "virtual coffee breaks", which I haven’t tried, but simple things like holding regular calls and turning on webcams during them will go a long way. Floating Slack conversations about non-work topics are also good – again, especially if they are a way to maintain bonds that are built in person and regularly strengthened that way.

Bottom line, it does not seem like the right time to be negative about remote work, right when many people and organisations are trying it for the first time. By all means warn them of pitfalls, but suggest fixes rather than just writing off the whole thing.


🖼️ Photos by Jacky Chiu and Helloquence on Unsplash