Showing all posts tagged work:

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

How to Survive the Home Office

Some tips from someone who hasn’t worked in an office in fifteen years

In the twenty-first century, many of us work in offices. In the EU and the US, the service economy represents roughly 80% of GDP. This growth of service work is a relatively recent phenomenon, compared to the past when most employment was in agriculture.

Office work comes with a number of perks over farming. For a start, it’s done indoors, generally in fairly comfortable surroundings. There may be perks like free refreshments, and if you are lucky you may even have fun colleagues that you like to hang out with during coffee breaks. You’re also fairly unlikely to be in any sort of physical danger, as long as you are careful with the stapler.

The problem is that the self-isolation protocols that governments and companies are putting into place require, among other things, that people work from home instead of going to the office. This is a new development for many employers and employees. In the spirit of helping out, I wanted to share some tips based on over a decade of working from home. I last had an office-based job in which I worked elbow-to-elbow with my team-mates in 2006. Since then, my situation has mostly involved team-mates and managers spread around the world, across many different time zones. Here is what I learned.

Save your Space

One of the good things about travelling to a physical location is that it enforces separation between work and not-work. If you’re in the office, you’re generally expected to be working – and if you’re at home, generally speaking you’re not working, apart from perhaps checking email or whatever.

When you work from home, you lose that separation. The risk then is that work and home life bleed into each other. On the one hand, you may find yourself working through meal times and into the evening, but on the other you might also get distracted by housework or errands.

If you can arrange it, physical separation is best. Don’t work from the couch; apart from anything else, that’s an ergonomic nightmare if you’re doing it all day, every day. Go somewhere to do work, and don’t go there when you’re not working. I’m lucky enough to have a home office that is physically separate from the family home, which is ideal, but not everyone will have that option, or be able to set it up at short notice.

At the very least, work from your laptop at the table, and close the laptop when you’re done. Even if you do dip into work after hours, do it from your phone, not from the laptop.

It might seem silly, but try to stick to office hours and dress: get out of bed and get dressed as if you were going to work. You have years of reflex telling you that when you shave or put on makeup (delete as appropriate to your own personal morning routine), you are going into "work mode". Take advantage of those reflexes even if you aren’t leaving the home.

If you are able to do so safely, i.e. without close contact with others, you may also consider replacing your commute with a run or a bicycle ride, just to start your day off.

Protect your Space

If you live with other people, you may need to negotiate this separation with them. If they see you in the house, they may ask you for your help, or to join in some activity, or just ask you questions. A physical indicator that you are working can be useful here. Again, if you have a specific location that you work from, that can be simplest: "if I’m in the spare room with the door closed, please don’t bother me; if the door is open, I’m available for coffee or a quick chat".

Make your Routine

On top of physical routine, it’s good to break up your day into units of time, and dedicate each one to a specific task. The method I use is the Pomodoro Technique, which is simple and fun. Basically, get a kitchen timer, and use it to time your tasks and breaks.

My Pomodoro timer on my desk

Over-Communicate

It can be very isolating to work at home on your own, if you are used to working cheek-by-jowl with your team. At least if everyone is self-isolating in their own homes, you don’t feel that you are being left out of impromptu conversations that happen in the office. There are ways of helping the team continue to feel and work like a team even when they are remote.

The absolute bottom line is that you need a chat platform of some sort. Slack is fast becoming the default, and has a free plan that is enough for most organisations at least to get started. Probably the biggest alternative is Microsoft Teams, but there are many other options.

Do not try to use WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, or similar mobile-only, single-threaded tools for anything beyond the smallest groups and simplest needs. Slack and similar tools allow you to create many channels, each dedicated to specific topics, and within a channel you can split a discussion off into a thread without cluttering up the main channel.

Another benefit of dedicated work chat tools is to further that separation between work and personal time. Train yourself to stop looking at the work tool after hours. Managers, be sensitive and avoid abusing personal channels like SMS outside of actual emergencies.

Catch my Video

Text chat is great for many things, but if you’re feeling lonely and isolated away from your team, turn on that webcam! We are social animals, and seeing people face to face really helps strengthen those team bonds. The coronavirus crisis is driving a huge uptake in video chat tools, especially Zoom, which has a useful free tier.

Another benefit of video meetings is that it reinforces your work routines, if only because you have to be presentable and ready to be seen on camera.

Track and Assess

Finally, it can be hard at the end of the day to work out whether you "got anything done". There’s a simple fix for that too: track what you do during the day, and assess the results at the end of the day. You can do this as part of your Pomodoro Technique, jotting down a quick note about what you achieved during each Pomodoro interval. Depending on what type of work you are doing, this can also help you track your time, if that is a requirement. Even if you don’t have that kind of need, though, it can be good to close out the day by looking back on what you have achieved.

Plan for the Long Term

The final reason to think about this topic now is that I suspect that many organisations that were only forced into supporting remote work by this crisis will find that it’s actually a great option, at least as a complement to their ordinary setup. Don’t fall into any bad habits because you think this setup will only last for a few days or weeks. Remote working is going to be much more prevalent in the future, so it’s worth getting it right straight away.

Do share any other tips that you personally know of or that work for you. I can usually be found on Twitter.


🖼️ Photos by Dillon Shook, Harry Cunningham and Andrew Neel on Unsplash, except tomato timer – author’s own

Classification

I just found out about Kurt Gebhard Adolf Philipp Freiherr von Hammerstein-Equord, and specifically this wonderful quote of his (emphasis mine):

There are clever, hardworking, stupid, and lazy officers. Usually two characteristics are combined. Some are clever and hardworking; their place is the General Staff. The next ones are stupid and lazy; they make up 90 percent of every army and are suited to routine duties. Anyone who is both clever and lazy is qualified for the highest leadership duties, because he possesses the mental clarity and strength of nerve necessary for difficult decisions. One must beware of anyone who is both stupid and hardworking; he must not be entrusted with any responsibility because he will always only cause damage.

I do not generally like military metaphors, but this classification seems very applicable to the enterprise world. We can all think of that one person who would make an immeasurable contribution to the work by just stopping what they are doing.

See also the VP of Nope.

Conference Booth Do's and Don'ts

Conference season has started up again with a vengeance after the summer break. If you’ve ever staffed or attended a conference, you know that there is always a room (or a hallway, or an out-of-the-way closet) where sponsors can set up more or less elaborate booths and talk to attendees about their offerings.

Staffing a booth is a particular discipline, with significant variations depending on the intersection of which company you represent and which event you are at. Let’s go through some of the factors that go into deciding what goes in a booth – or not.

What is the goal of the sponsorship?

Depending on the company and the event, the goal of an event sponsorship can vary widely. Sometimes you might be there to scan literally every attendee’s badge and get their contact details so that you can follow up later. In this case, you want the flashy giveaway, the must-play game, and in general the fun, look-at-me booth. You also want to make sure that you can process people through pretty quickly; it’s a numbers game.

In other situations – different event audience, or different product and pitch on your part – that is exactly the opposite of what you want. You are aiming for a smaller number of longer and deeper conversations. The sorts of attendees you want will be turned off by queues or flashy displays, and may prefer a sit-down conversation to standing at a demo pod.

Make sure that both sales and marketing agree on the goals! I have personally been involved in events that Marketing considered a great success – "look at how many leads we generated!" – but Sales ignored as a waste of time – "those leads don’t convert". Have that conversation up front, because afterwards it’s too late.

Outside help

At many events, at least some of the booth staffers will be outside contractors, not employees of the company sponsoring the booth. A few years ago "contractor" would have been a euphemism for "booth babe", someone significantly younger than the average conference attendee, generally of the opposite sex to most of the attendees, and wearing significantly less clothing. This kind of contractor is there mainly as eye candy to attract passing traffic.

At least at the sort of conference I go to, the straight-up "booth babe" sort of thing has more or less completely died out – and good riddance to it. Even so, there are still a lot of contractors about, especially at larger events such as Mobile World Congress. They are there to give a pre-rehearsed short pitch and hand out collateral and swag, no more.

There is nothing inherently wrong with using outside help in this way, but it does influence what the typical attendee experience of your booth will be – and therefore what type of leads you will get.

Be in the room

If you’re working a booth, again, know what your goal is. If you want all the leads you can get, go stand out in the hallway with an armful of T-shirts or beer coozies or whatever your giveaway is, and scan everybody in sight. If you’re after more in-depth conversations, stay in your booth perimeter and wait for people to come to you.

Either way, don’t just hang out in the booth, playing with your phone or talking to your colleagues – and definitely don’t get out the laptop and try to work in the booth. You’re there to be available to attendees! If you need to do something urgently, step out of the booth, find a café or whatever, and work from there. There may be a sponsor lounge, or if you’re a speaker there is almost always some sort of green room with WiFi and coffee – and with any luck, a somewhat ergonomic table to work at.

Booth design matters

The booth design is also a factor, and it will change based on your company’s market profile, the event, and once again, your goal for the event. If your company is well-known enough that people will stop by just to see what you’re up to or grab the latest swag, your booth needs to be all about whatever is the newest thing you want to get out there. If you are a startup or a new entrant, you need something eye-catching that explains what your core value proposition is. Either way, keep it simple: nobody reads more than a handful of words on a booth, and they need to be able to do that from a distance, on the move, with a crush of people between them and you.

Different events may also need different designs. If you’re at, say, a Gartner event where most of the attendees are dressed formally, you need to be a bit more grown up too, both in wording and in presentation. Focus on business value and outcomes rather than tech buzzwords. On the other hand, if you’re at a tech-centric event where most people are wearing black T-shirts, you want that checklist, and your benefits need to be couched in technical terms too. This is literally a feeds & speeds crowd, and you should cater to that.

Collateral and handouts

Collateral is a hard one. I have long advocated doing away with take-home collateral entirely, and instead offering to email people about topics they care about – which is an excuse to have a conversation and uncover those topics! You might also consider a row of QR codes on a wall that people can scan to request particular items. This is both more ecological and more practical, since most printed collateral is never read.

However, in certain industries and regions people do actually want something to take away with them, so be aware of those preferences and make sure you cater to them.

The one piece of printed collateral I do like to have in a booth is an architecture diagram, because you can pick that up and use it as a visual aid in conversations with people, even if they never take it with them. In smaller situations I’ve also done this with a diagram printed on the wall or even a whiteboard in the booth, but when there are multiple people who might need to use the visual tool, it can get messy. Better to have one each!

I wrote down some more in-depth advice about conference collateral here.

Further reading

Those are my thoughts, but here are some more from Cote. There is some excellent advice here – do read it! You can sign up for his newsletter here – and if you like this sort of thing, his podcast is pretty good too.


🖼️ Photos by Jezael Melgoza and Cami Talpone on Unsplash

Problem Solving

Take intractable problem. Abandon intractable problem. Run errands. Return home. Play with coloured pens for a Pomodoro. Transfer clean copy to iPad while Mac updates itself. Accomplishment.

Two key parts: doing something else to give your brain space to mull on the problem, instead of trying to solve it by head-butting a brick wall into submission. And structure your time working on the problem, breaking it into chunks that feel approachable.

Turning Over A New Leaf

Yesterday was the LinkedIn equivalent of a birthday on Facebook: a new job announcement. I am lucky enough to have well-wishers1 pop up from all over with congratulations, and I am grateful to all of them.

With a new job comes a new title – fortunately one that does not feature on this list of the most ridiculous job titles in tech (although I have to admit to a sneaking admiration for the sheer chutzpah of the Galactic Viceroy of Research Excellence, which is a real title that I am not at all making up).

The new gig is as Director, Field Initiatives and Readiness, EMEA at MongoDB.

Why there? Simply put, because when Dev Ittycheria comes calling, you take that call. Dev was CEO at BladeLogic when I was there, and even though I was a lowly Application Engineer, that was a tight-knit team and Dev paid attention to his people. If I have learned one thing in my years in tech, it’s that the people you work with matter more than just about anything. Dev’s uncanny knack for "catching lightning in a bottle", as he puts it, over and over again, is due in no small part to the teams he puts together around him – and I am proud to have the opportunity to join up once again.

Beyond that, MongoDB itself needs no presentation or explanation as a pick. What might need a bit more unpacking is my move from Ops, where I have spent most of my career until now, into data structures and platforms. Basically, it boils down to a need to get closer to the people actually doing and creating, and to the tools they use to do that work. Ops these days is getting more and more abstract, to the point that some people even talk about NoOps (FWIW I think that vastly oversimplifies the situation). In fact, DevOps is finally coming to fruition, not because developers got the root password, but because Ops teams started thinking like developers and treating infrastructure as code.

Between this cultural shift, and the various technological shifts (to serverless, immutable infrastructure, and infrastructure as code) that precede, follow, and go along with them, it’s less and less interesting to talk about separate Ops tooling and culture. These days, the action is in the operability of development practices, building in ways that support business agility, rather than trying to patch the dam by addressing individual sources of friction as they show up.

More specifically to me, my particular skill set works best in large organisations, where I can go between different groups and carry ideas and insights with me as I go. I’m a facilitator; when I’m doing my job right, I break information out of silos and spread it around, making sure nobody gets stuck on an island or perseveres with some activity or mode of thinking that is no longer providing value to others. Coming full circle, this fluidity in my role is why I tend to have fuzzy, non-specific job titles that make my wife’s eyes roll right back in her head – mirroring the flow I want to enable for everyone around me, whether colleagues, partners, or users.

It’s all about taking frustration and wasted effort out of the working day, which is a goal that I hope we can all get behind.

Now, time to blow away my old life…


  1. Incidentally, this has been the first time I’ve seen people use the new LinkedIn reactions. It will be interesting to watch the uptake of this feature. 

Gatekeeping

There has been a bit of a Twitterstorm lately over an article (warning: Business Insider link), in which the executive managing editor of Insider Inc., who "has hired hundreds of people over 10 years", describes her "easy test to see whether a candidate really wants the job and is a 'good egg'": Did they send a thank-you email?

This test has rightly been decried as a ridiculous form of gatekeeping, adding an unstated requirement to the hiring process. Personally I would agree that sending a thank-you note is polite, and also offers the candidate an opportunity to chase next steps and confirm timelines. However, I would not rule out a candidate just because I didn’t receive such a note – and I have also received overly familiar notes which actively put me off those candidates.

The reason these unstated rules are so important is because of the homogenising effect that they tend to have. Only people who are already familiar with "how things are done" are going to be hired or have a career, perpetuating inequality.

This effect has been borne out in a study recently summarised in The Atlantic:

The name that we gave to the culture there was "studied informality" —nobody wore suits and ties, nobody even wore standard business casual. People were wearing sneakers and all kinds of casual, fashionable clothes. There was a sort of "right" way to do it and a "wrong" way to do it: A number of people talked about this one man — who was black and from a working-class background — who just stood out. He worked there for a while and eventually left. He wore tracksuits, and the ways he chose to be casual and fashionable were not the ways that everybody else did.

There were all kinds of things, like who puts their feet up on the table and when they do it, when they swear — things that don’t seem like what you might expect from a place full of high-prestige, powerful television producers. But that was in some ways, I think, more off-putting and harder to navigate for some of our working-class respondents than hearing "just wear a suit and tie every day" might have been. The rules weren't obvious, but everybody else seemed to know them.

I have seen this mechanism in action myself – in much more trivial circumstances, I hasten to add.

One day I was in the office and unexpectedly had to attend a customer meeting at short notice. I was wearing a shirt and a jacket, but I had no tie and had on jeans and sneakers. I apologised to the customer, and there was no issue.

On the other hand, it happened to me to visit a "cool" cloud company in my normal business warpaint, and was told in the lift to remove my tie as "otherwise they won't listen to you"…
Let's not even get into the high-school sociological aspects of people wearing the wrong shoes. Distinctions between suits are subtle, but it's obvious when someone is wearing cheap sneakers versus branded ones.

Instead of unstated and unspoken implicit rules like these, it is much better to have clear and explicit ones, which everyone can easily conform to, such as wearing a suit and tie (or female equivalent – and yes, I know that is its own minefield):

In fact, suits & ties are actually the ultimate nerd apparel. You have to put some effort into shopping, sure, and they tend to cost a bit more than a random vendor T-shirt and ancient combats, but the advantage is that you can thereafter completely forget about wondering what to wear. You can get dressed in the dark and be sure that the results will be perfectly presentable. If you want you can go to a little bit more effort and inject some personality into the process, but the great thing is that you don’t have to. By wearing a suit & tie, you lead people to pay attention to what you say and do, not to what you are wearing. And isn’t that the whole point?

Another unstated gatekeeping mechanism is "culture fit". This is all but explicitly saying "I only want to hire people from my social/class background, and will exclude candidates with a different background".

Here I do think there is some subtlety that is worth exploring. I attempted to respond to the tweet above, but expressed myself poorly (always a risk on Twitter) and did not communicate my point well.

First of all, there is a collision here between "is this person like me" and "would I want to spend time socially with this person". I feel that the sort of people who do this implicit gatekeeping would indeed only want to associate with people from the same background as them, and so this question becomes problematic in that context.

However, some of the reactions to the original tweet appeared to me to take the objection too far, stating that looking for social compatibility at work was ipso facto wrong. Having made several friends through work, I disagree with that view. In fact, I would go so far as to say that my work friendships are influenced in no small part by the fact that my friends are good at their job, and the factors that make them good professionals are also the factors that make them good friends: intelligent, trustworthy, honest, high EQ, and so on.

The correlation is of course not 1:1; I have known many successful and effective professionals who are not my friends. However, by excluding these factors entirely from the decision matrix, I see a particular failure mode, namely the fallacy that only people with abrasive personalities are effective, and therefore all people with abrasive personalities are good hires because they will be effective. It is not surprising that those sorts of people do not make friends at work.

The particular weight placed upon these factors may vary depending on which role in an organisation is being looked at. Customer-facing positions, where it is important to establish and maintain a rapport, may place particular emphasis on high EQ, for instance.

Of course the opposite failure mode is the one where everybody looks the same, dresses the same, went to the same schools – and only hires people exactly like them. This is why explicit rules and failsafes in the process are important, to avoid "culture fit" becoming – or remaining, if we’re honest – a fig leaf used to cloak institutional racism and classism.

As ever, the devil is in the details.


Images by Kelly Sikkema and Hunters Race via Unsplash

Scheduling

I live my life a half-hour meeting at a time. Nothing else matters: not the mortgage, not the store, not my team and all their bullshit. For those ten seconds or less between meetings, I'm free.

(with apologies to fans of The Fast And The Furious)


🖼️ Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Let’s Shed Some Light on This

Do you know what would be really great, when I fly in from a time zone quite a few hours misaligned with the local one? It would be fantastic if you all did not immediately lock me in a room without any windows for several hours. I mean, that’s bad enough for people who have to work there all the time, but it’s murder for those of us whose home timezone is many hours adrift from local time.

Meeting rooms with actual daylight would be a great help to the much-abused circadian rhythms of overseas visitors. That way we can avoid coming down with a bad case of SAD.

Meanwhile, I will continue to self-medicate with my own cocktail of melatonin and gin&tonic. Cheers!


Image by Rawpixel via Unsplash.