My recent journeys to the office came to a juddering halt this week when my youngest son had a positive COVID-19 lateral flow test result. We quickly booked a PCR appointment for that morning and ended up with a positive result the next day. His symptoms weren’t too bad, but enough to justify some time on the sofa with a duvet. He’s stuck in the house until Wednesday and I can’t go back to the office until then.
The shame about it is that he was offered a vaccine through school a few weeks ago, but something went wrong which meant that he and a lot of other children in his year didn’t receive it. I’ve heard that it was due to the massive (unanticipated?) demand and/or how long the process took, but nobody has told us directly.
I’ve also spoken to my grandmother this weekend; she told me she’s yet to be offered a flu jab or COVID-19 vaccine booster shot, despite being in her 90s. With the numbers of cases, people in hospital and deaths all increasing here in the UK, it doesn’t bode well.
The rest of the family all thankfully tested negative on both our lateral flow and postal PCR tests. I didn’t feel 100% for a couple of days this week, with a general malaise, but now I’m back in the wild again it could have been anything. I am very grateful for the vaccines.
Not going into the office did mean that my week was more productive, with almost a full day on Wednesday put aside to work on writing a draft paper to be taken to one of our governance committees. Since publishing a post a couple of weeks ago about the pros and cons of returning to the office, I’ve had some conversations which have got me rethinking my assumptions. I need to put some time aside to write these thoughts up.
This was a week in which I:
Welcomed a new nephew to the family. It’s been a while since there was a new addition. His photos are super-cute, and we’re all looking forward to meeting him.
Put together the first draft of a slide deck to be taken to our firm’s Governance Committee, on the topic of mandatory Compliance recording. There’s a lot to unpack, and I learned so much through the process of putting it together. It got me wondering about how the Engineering/IT team in an organisation has to be made up of generalists who collectively know enough about all of the other parts of the firm in order to support and partner with them.
Reviewed and made some edits on our regular report for our company board.
Was contacted by the head of one of our departments to look at a SaaS application that they want to use for our year-end town hall meeting.
Had a Friday evening all with one of our country CEOs and caught up with all of the recent personnel and structural changes there. Heard that he has been having a poor experience with his home Wi-Fi and dropped him a note with some suggestions for upgrading to a mesh system.
Unusually, only had one meeting this week on the topic of our big group programme. Caught up on how data take-on is being implemented and what the rollout approach is.
Got set up with an external telephone number in Teams as part of a pilot. I’ve used it to make a few calls and so far it has been superb on both the desktop and mobile.
Raised an issue relating to our Teams meeting rooms and how long it takes for the join button in each room to become ‘active’ once someone schedules a meeting there.
Joined the second CliftonStrengths Team Effectiveness workshop for our Engineering team. I felt as though I got a bit more out of this one.
Attended one of the most incredible webinars that I have ever been to, on the topic of Creating a trans-inclusive culture hosted by BIE Executive in association with Fighting With Pride. I hadn’t expected to take so many notes! The stories shared really opened my eyes to experiences of the world that are so very different to my own, and what things I need to think about doing to promote inclusivity.
Took a call from someone surveying clients of my financial advisor, and gave some honest feedback.
Enjoyed a lovely ‘random coffee’ with a member of our team whom I work with every day but have yet to meet in real life.
Spent a couple of hours on Saturday putting together a ‘lightning talk’ on typography tidbits, to be delivered next week. I am really looking forward to delivering this.
Signed off on my tax returns and paid the accountant.
Ordered a replacement battery for my four-year old MacBook Pro. I had advice that I may want to think about getting a new laptop instead, but I’m not willing to splash out right now. The service from Apple costs £204. For that money, they sent a UPS box sent to my home for me to package up my computer and send it off to the Czech Republic to get its new battery and be sent back to me again. Being both a Mac and Windows user I much prefer using the latter; if it wasn’t for the integration with my mobile devices I might think about switching next time I upgrade.
Joined the Herts for Learning Chairs’ Strategic Information Briefing. The agenda is always so packed that the two hours fly by. We had updates on finances, cybersecurity, Prevent, improving board diversity, HR, the HfL Chairs’ Network, the role of evidence in supporting a Pupil Premium strategy and an assortment of other items. I need to process my notes to extract all of the actions.
Had a bit of an up-and-down week on the bike. Events seemed to conspire against my turbo attempts at the start of the week. Unexpectedly Working from home was a big help later on though, and I ended up going out for two lovely rides at the weekend. It was nice to spend more time with my eldest boy. He’s getting faster!
Bought a vinyl copy of McCartney after the Super Deluxe Edition blog alerted me to a great deal. I’ve loved this album for decades and it is great to have it in my hands again.
Next week: Back in the office again, catching up with my overdue document reviews backlog, and two album club evenings.
Reading Chris Grey’s latest post, it seems things are going to get worse before there is a possibility of them getting better. How depressing.
🎬 Enjoyed The Beatles And India (2021). Learned a few new things where I previously thought there was nothing else to know about their trip. Fascinating to hear Indian perspectives. Shots of the Rishikesh ashram that blended footage from 1968 and the present day were wonderful.
📚 Finished reading The Pursuit Of Power: Europe 1815–1914 by Richard J Evans. As you would expect, there is so much packed into this. It is not just a catalogue of military conquests and events; it touches on so many other aspects of life during those times. A fascinating book.
A pretty regular week, with another couple of days in the office. On Wednesday I had another reminder of the ‘before times’ when the train turned up at the station and zipped right on past me due to being only two-thirds of the size that it was meant to be. Cue me running down the platform and being stuffed into a sweaty carriage with the other lucky commuters.
The garden is letting me know that autumn is here; we’ve had a few leaves falling down and await the first big windy day to strip them all from the trees.
This was a week in which I:
Took part in a Friday afternoon workshop on the big strategy questions facing our team and how we think we can hone our mission statement for the coming years.
Picked up a couple of new short projects, one in our Cybersecurity space and another relating to the physical infrastructure in one of our offices. My team’s workload is maxed out from now until the end of the year.
Reviewed an updated specification for implementing Teams-based telephony in two of our offices. Asked for reviews from the other internal sub-teams that are involved in the work.
Continued follow-up work on mandatory call recording.
Presented the initial proposal for Teams-enabled conference rooms in one of our offices and agreed follow-up actions to revise the plans.
Reviewed a proposal for monitoring and maintaining our conference room equipment as well as the quality of our voice and video experience globally, and agreed follow-up actions with the team.
Had a follow-up meeting on a network routing issue and agreed how we will tackle it.
Took part in a technical discussion on the implementation of authentication technology for our most remote offices, and agreed a simple high-level solution.
Agreed to terminate an old leased line Internet connection in one of our offices.
Had a broad discussion with a senior manager about what ‘digital transformation’ means and the risks of being left behind as the world changes.
Caught up with a week’s worth of Kanban board updates across the entire team.
Attended a talk on the strategy of our Infrastructure and Operations team.
Watched a ‘town hall’-style demo of a new in-house built software suite that solves business problems we were working on nearly a decade ago. The way in which the old project had gone about things, with a system that had a monolithic architecture, was a textbook example of how not to do it. It was amazing to see the current team doing so many things right using a modern agile methods and a much more incremental approach to the design.
Was rightly told off by a colleague for having enquired about their family for the third or fourth time and not remembering what they had told me before. I am terrible at this. I spent a few minutes re-looking for a personal CRM system where I can store this information and look it up again. Contacts+ looks good, but the data that you store is accessible by their employees. I’ve settled on using CardHop for now, which is a little step up from the built-in Contacts app on iOS/iPadOS.
Had a representative from Owl Labs come to our office to give us a demo of the Meeting Owl Pro. The technology is impressive, and offers a significant upgrade for the experience of someone attending a meeting remotely where most of the discussion is happening between participants in a meeting room. It has a camera facing a 360° mirror to obtain a panoramic shot, and then zooms in on up to three places in the panorama from where sound is emanating. It’s not perfect — the video quality is relatively low and the remote participant needs to ensure that Teams shows the incoming video stream in its full width — but it was impressive all the same. I am hoping we can obtain some devices and see how they can work for us as hybrid meetings become much more common again.
Had a random coffee with a colleague in our Wealth Management team who only joined us six months ago. It’s always interesting to hear about what the experience has been like to move companies when everyone has been out of the office.
Had an online conversation about whether calendars are openly visible or showing ‘free/busy’ only at work. There is a lot of merit to having an open culture where everyone can see what everyone else is up to, with private appointments being tagged as private, but if you don’t start from that place it would be a massive shift to flip the bit from closed to open. In these days of online calls I would also be concerned with random people having access to digital artefacts that go along with the meeting, such as whiteboards and chats.
Had a wonderful lunch with an old boss, having not seen him since the start of 2020. He’s from Beijing and has been on assignment here in London for the past six years; talking to him about current events always gives me new perspectives.
Met with a couple of school governor colleagues to refine the draft vision work that we started some months ago. I was glad to find that it was in pretty good shape and only needed a couple of tweaks. Next step is to socialise it further with the team.
Joined the 16–17mph group for the Saturday morning club cycle ride as my son was away attempting his Duke of Edinburgh bronze award. I managed to hold my own, particularly up the hills, and only got dropped by some of the riders as we pummelled our way on a long drag back into town. Fun!
Ran the line for my youngest boy’s football match away at St Albans. A fantastic end-to-end match which they won 2-1.
Had a wonderful dinner out at Thai Cottage with friends we haven’t seen in a long time.
Caved in and bought the Bluetones’ Expecting to Fly boxed set and the reissued Return To The Last Chance Saloon. I love these albums. They were definitely one of ‘my’ bands back in the mid-1990s. Having the b-sides from the era of the first album on vinyl is a dream come true — the songs are superb. The pressings sound amazing and I’m glad to have added them to my collection.
Made a concerted push in my effort to complete The Pursuit of Power: Europe 1815-1914. I’m over 90% done, with nearly 300 highlights made, and I’m now on the final chapter. There is a lot to unpack.
Mowed and fed the lawns. I find it very difficult to judge whether I’m I under- or overdoing it with the ‘feed and weed’, so I’ll guess I’ll find out in a couple of weeks.
Started watching Ted Lasso after hearing so many people talk about it, including one of the FT business podcasts that I regularly get in my feed. We’re six episodes in and I love it.
LeanKit is my favourite productivity tool. Our team has been using it for the past couple years to manage our work across a series of Kanban boards. It is super easy to use, and offers a massive amount of flexibility compared to the implementation of Kanban boards in Jira, Trello or Microsoft Planner. You can configure both vertical and horizontal swimlanes, instead of just the vertical columns of tasks that the other tools offer. It is easy to represent your team’s workflow as it feels like the tool is working with you instead of against you.
Recently we have also started to use LeanKit to manage our department’s risks. At our company, we have an Operational Risk framework used across the organisation that looks like this:
The first job is to reproduce this layout in LeanKit so that everyone can relate the board back to the model. The board editor makes this super easy.
Here the typical Kanban setup of ‘to do’, ‘doing’ and ‘done’ is represented by the ‘New Risks’, ‘Current (Residual) Risk — After Mitigation’ and ‘Closed — Ready To Archive’ lanes respectively:
In the ‘New Risks’ column we have a space for a template as well as a ‘For review’ section which has been allocated as the drop lane. By default, new risks will go here when we think of them; we then periodically review them as a team and drag them to the appropriate place on the board.
We then need to configure the board. The Board Settings tab can be used to set a title, description, custom URL and specify who gets access:
In this example, I’m not yet ready to let anyone else use it so I have set the default security to ‘No Access’:
In the Card Types section we define three types of card. The main one is ‘Risk’ but we also create ‘Theme’ to group our risks together. We also left ‘Subtask’ as one of the defaults in case someone wants to use the on-card mini-Kanban board to manage the tasks relating to an individual risk. We pick some colours we like, and delete all of the other default types of card:
We also set up a Custom icon so that we can see at a glance which of our risks are mitigated/accepted, those that we are working on and those where we need to give them attention.
We ensure that every card has one of these custom icons when we create it. During a review we can then filter the board so that, for example, only the red-starred cards appear.
Next we create the template card. First, we set the Card Header to allow custom header text. With templates, I like to leave the board user with instructions such as ‘Copy me!’:
We then create the template card itself. This goes some way to ensuring that all of the new risks get created in a similar way, with similar information. This card will be put into the ‘Template’ section of the board:
In order to distinguish one risk from another, and report them to wherever they need to go, we want each risk to have a unique identifier. We can now go back to the Card Header in the board’s settings and select ‘Auto-incremented Number’ with a header prefix of ‘Risk ‘. This means that new cards added to the board will be called ‘Risk 1’, ‘Risk 2’, ‘Risk 3’ etc.:
The ‘Risk ‘ prefix does have the effect of changing the name of the template card, but this isn’t too confusing:
We can now start adding risks to the board, and linking them to themes as shown below:
Having a visual representation of our risks in this way is so much better than the usual spreadsheet with one risk per row. It’s allowed us to incorporate risk management much more into our day-to-day work. We can assign owners to each risk, and use all of the rich features of LeanKit such as adding comments, due dates etc.
If we decide a risk needs to be reclassified in terms of its likelihood or severity, we simply drag the card to the new location on the board. The card itself will keep a history of its journey in its audit log. If we absolutely have to submit our risks in a spreadsheet somewhere, we can export the board contents as a CSV file and format it in Excel.
The best thing about managing the risks in this way is that we can link any mitigation work directly to the risks themselves. Where we agree a follow-up action, we create a task cards on the appropriate team Kanban boards and then link each of those cards to the risk — the risk card becomes the parent card of the task. In this way, we can see at a glance all of our risks and track the work as it gets completed across the organisation.
🎶 Magdalena Bay’s Mercurial World is so good. They keep pumping out one startling musical idea after another, and here they have stitched a whole set of them into something wonderful.
Pre-pandemic, this was the time of the year where someone could paint your house pink and you wouldn’t know until the weekend.
Commuted into London on Monday and Wednesday, the first time I’ve gone in on multiple days in one week since March 2020. A day in the office is exhausting, partly because of the early starts to get there on time, and partly because of all of the distractions that come with being around so many people again. On both days I barely made a dent on my to-do list, and was grateful to be back home again the following days where I could be more productive.
There is an assumption that being together with colleagues is unquestionably better in some sense, and this is an assumption that I have shared. However, I’ve been pointed at the work of Liz Stokoe who is a Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. She debunks the myth that “93% of communication is non-verbal” by asking how we can hold conversations in the dark or develop relationships via the telephone, and states that “(in)effective communicators are (in)effective communicators regardless of modality.” I’m still thinking deeply about this, and how I feel much closer to my colleagues that have always been physically remote to me as we have worked together through the pandemic. I’ve ordered Liz’s book, Talk and have added it to my reading list.
This was a week in which I:
Vowed never to stay late in the office to attend an optional video meeting again. Being on a Zoom call with Simon Sinek was pretty cool, but with a late finish and a reduced train service I was home way past dinner time. I missed my family.
Started thinking about the discipline of Service Design as it applies to our business, spurred on by some ideas from our CIO and discussions I have had with the members of the WB-40 community. On their recommendation I have picked up a copy of Lou Downe’s Good Services and hope to get around to reading it shortly. I’m interested in how things differ when the client expects a ’white glove’ service and won’t just be serving themselves via a webpage.
Joined a meeting with one of our senior business leaders to review the roadmap for the big group programme, its impact on our part of the organisation and how we plan to take it forward. We received so much useful feedback that will help shape the work over the next few months.
Had a meeting to discuss how we will resource this work.
Met with a cross-functional team to review our WAN routing strategy.
Completed some template slides for our 2022 priorities, to be submitted to our business function CIO.
Attended a ‘masterclass’ on setting learning objectives and linking them to training in the various HR tools.
Reviewed our draft Operational Risk self-audit ahead of its annual submission.
Ran a cross-functional meeting to look at mandatory compliance recording and how it fits into a world where there are so many ways of people speaking to each other. I have some follow-up work to do before we meet again in a couple of weeks’ time.
Reviewed the first draft of our revamped department financial forecast for 2022.
Picked up a new project to move our endpoint monitoring and antivirus to a new platform over the next few months, and allocated it to one of my team members.
Had a one-on-one coaching session as part of a broader team effectiveness process within our department. I haven’t had any coaching for quite a few years and it was great to have someone to bounce things off of again. I have some homework to do before the next session in a couple of weeks’ time.
Took part in a workshop with the rest of the department as part of the same team effectiveness work, based on our CliftonStrengths assessments.
Attended an update session run by our Corporate Services department to get up to speed with all of the work being done in that space.
Watched a ‘town-hall’-style overview of a digital solution put in place by our Investment Banking team in South Africa.
Received an update on our approach to third-party risk management.
Published two weeks’ worth of Wins, and got our weekly random coffee pairings sent out.
Joined our school Full Governing Board meeting in-person, at the school, for the first time in 18 months. It was lovely to meet some of the new governors that I have only previously met via Teams. In preparation, I had to review the latest version of Keeping Children Safe in Education as well as a crop of policies. I agreed to continue as vice-chair for another year.
Had a lovely catch-up call with an ex-colleague that I hadn’t spoken to in a couple of years.
Enjoyed another Berkhamsted Cycle Club ride on Saturday morning with my eldest son. We tried running in the 15–16mph group this week and had no problems keeping up. The early morning mist was stunningly beautiful, and I spotted a fox as we journeyed along a country lane. We finished the ride with a coffee and croissant at Musette Cafe in Aldbury, before a trip to the local bike shop for a quick tune-up and to buy some mudguards ready for winter group rides.
Took a trip with my wife to Tring to visit Our Bookshop. They opened in September 2019 and I had bought a few books from them during lockdown via their Bookshop.org website. I was a bit disappointed with how small the shop felt compared to the photos, but they seemed to be doing a fantastic trade with a constant stream of people wandering in. We popped by Musette cafe on the way home for a coffee and cake, my second visit that day.
Mowed the back lawn, possibly for the last or penultimate time this year as the days draw in.
Bought a vinyl copy of Designer by Aldous Harding, which sounds superb. The album is my current obsession, and I find myself singing the songs all the time. The videos are striking in a way that I haven’t seen in many years.
Was very happy to find that Magdalena Bay’s debut album Mercurial World was released on Friday. I bought it without hesitation when it was announced, but will have to wait a few weeks for the vinyl to turn up.
Next week: Another couple of days in the office, a strategy session and meeting another ex-colleague for a catch-up.
🎬 Schumacher (2021) is a wonderful, family-led portrait of the man. It isn’t perfect in that it misses some important events such as the Monaco incident in 2006, but that doesn’t really detract from reliving his accomplishments and remembering just how good he was. Touching.
📺 Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution was totally compelling. Recent history, but it feels so very far away. I first voted in the ‘97 election and went on the anti-Iraq War march in ‘03. Fascinating to remember those times and hear directly from the main characters.
Network Rail, I could have told you this wouldn’t work. #SipSaveRecycle
Stayed at the office late to join an online meetup. Great, engaging session but I’m longing for home. Now waiting 30 minutes for the next train from Euston. I don’t think I’ll prioritise meetups when I’m in London in future.
A normal week, full of more meetings than usual. Wednesday in the office was good for collaboration but not that great for getting things moved on.
This was a week in which I:
Ran an internal review of our team’s roadmap, checking how well we did in Q3 against what we said we would deliver, and reflecting on how we take any lessons from this into future quarters.
Met with colleagues who are establishing a Teams mandatory compliance recording capability, with a view to using it within our part of the organisation.
Met with Procurement to discuss and agree principles and processes for purchasing IT consultancy in the future.
Had a one-on-one with a colleague in Beijing, the day after the team completed the new network infrastructure implementation in that office. It was great to know that our connection was flowing through all of our newly configured equipment. Updated our submission for the next local governance committee meeting to reflect that we have now got most of the back-end infrastructure work completed.
Reviewed the proposed DNS strategy for our part of the organisation.
Met with our Internet Service Provider in Dubai to discuss our current and future needs in that office.
Had meeting with a vendor to clarify some details on our planned move to Teams for telephony in London and Dubai, and the support of our telephony infrastructure in all of our offices.
Had an initial discussion with our head of Operational Risk on our annual self-assessment, and walked through the tools we use to manage our operational risk on an ongoing basis.
Joined a meeting to discuss our organisation’s ecosystem and platform strategies.
Had an introductory meeting with an external consultant who is helping us with formulation and articulation of our strategy. Followed this up with a one-on-one meeting later in the week to explore some ideas.
Met with one of the steering committees for the big group programme and had an update on the architectural approach. Designing and customising a system to be used across so many countries and teams is no simple task. Also reviewed our own internal plans for delivery.
Attended an interesting talk given by one of our team members on Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM), neither of which I previously knew about. DKIM uses DNS to store public encryption keys so that email can be verified as having come from the sender, which seems like a clever idea to me.
Watched a presentation and demo on a new client-facing part of our website.
Met with our Marketing and Operational Risk teams to agree a short update to all of our colleagues on the new data loss prevention tool that we rolled out.
Had a virtual ‘random coffee’ with our Company Secretary. I’m looking forward to bumping into him as we spend more time in the office in the coming weeks.
Met up with an ex-colleague from our Marketing and Communications team. It was so good to see her, and to reminisce about the work we collaborated on a couple of years ago.
Interviewed a prospective new school governor. It’s always exciting when somebody new expresses an interest.
Completed one of our tax returns for the year.
Reviewed and filed all of my personal scanned documents from the past two years. I need to make this a weekly habit to avoid it becoming a multiple-hour job in future.
Decided that our wasp nest had to go. The noise inside our house was getting so much louder, and the entrance to the nest was directly overhanging our elderly neighbours’ garden. Chris from Approved Services Pest Control fixed it for us about an hour after I called him.
Picked up a new road bike for our eldest boy. His recent growth spurts resulted in him outgrowing his old one. I love it that it’s something we can do together, so we decided on an early Christmas and birthday present for him. It had its first outing on the Club ride on Saturday and he seems very pleased with it.
Ran the line for my youngest boy’s football match. I was so glad that we played on the dry Sunday instead of the washed-out Saturday. They lost for the first time this season but I am sure they will be able to take a lot of lessons from the game.
Completed my year’s programme of TrainerRoad cycling and started a new one. My training has ramped down a little bit as I have replaced my Saturday and Sunday turbo sessions with a Cycling Club ride and the boys’ football matches. It’ll be interesting to see how much fitness I can keep as we go back to the office.
Next week: Returning to the office for multiple days in the week for the first time since March 2020, an in-person school governor meeting and a Zoom call with Simon Sinek.
🎬 Watched Falling Down (1993) for the first time. I thought I knew what it was about from the memes that have been in circulation since it came out, but I was wrong. He’s not a normal guy who one day tips over the edge and loses it, he seems to have lost it long before then.
My employer has asked for UK-based staff to come back to our office in London on a trial basis from October, for around 50% of the time. I don’t envy the people involved in making the decisions around this as they will never completely satisfy everyone. I know that they have put a lot of thought into it and I think that this request probably strikes the right balance for now.
I think of ‘where you work’ as a spectrum, from completely remote to completely in the office. In the future, where will the optimal point be?
Back in August, my company organised a get-together in Hyde Park for all of our London staff. For many people, it was their first time getting back on a train into Central London since we first locked down. At the event, people expressed very different views about how much they thought that we need to be back in the office, but everyone seemed to enjoy being together again. More than one person commented that they were happy working from home, but they hadn’t realised just how much they had missed their colleagues.
My conclusion is that it seems to make sense to be in the same place with your team, or your organisation, for at least some points in the year. But how much is the right amount?
All about me
On a personal level, aside from the terror of a deadly disease sweeping through the population, I think that I am going to have very positive memories of my experience during the pandemic. Partly I think this is because I am wearing rose-tinted glasses — I was extremely anxious for a lot of 2020, and this has definitely abated since my vaccination — but looking back I can see so many positive things to take from the lockdown.
I am a 44-year-old man who has spent 22 years at work. I have two (almost) teenage children and a wife who doesn’t currently work long hours at her job. For many years my usual pattern of work was to leave the house at 7am, commute into London, spend the majority of my day in meetings, and then to work late in order to catch up with emails and messages, and to get other work done. So many times I would grab a sandwich for dinner on the way home and arrive back after the children were asleep. Sometimes I might go a couple of days without seeing them. The lockdown forced me to see that my staying late in order to be productive had been at the expense of seeing my family. Obvious, perhaps, but I hadn’t really felt it until I’d experienced the alternative.
Ah, the joys of an Upper Crust Taw Valley Cheddar & Tomato baguette for dinner. Like an old familiar and slightly stale friend.
We are so fortunate to have a house that is just the right size to ensure that we all regularly bump into each other but also to be able to get out of each other’s way. I have a comfortable space to work undisturbed with an excellent Internet connection. During the lockdown, I swapped my morning commute for exercise and I’m now the fittest I have ever been in my life. In the past 18 months, I’ve eaten dinner with my wife almost every night. My boys and I have much better relationships for me having been around — the proportion of poor-quality time spent with them moaning about picking things up and keeping the house tidy is much lower than it otherwise would have been. I feel so lucky to have been present as my eldest son moved into his teenage years.
Now that I’ve experienced all of this, it’s a lot to give up.
Being in an office
Since I started working with my current employer in 2017, my immediate team has always been global. We support and partner with our business colleagues in cities all over the world. Pre-pandemic, it was rare for a meeting not to involve one or more people dialling in. Before Teams became so central to our day-to-day work we used BlueJeans for video calling, and I was regularly in the top three monthly users of our 55,000-person strong organisation. Many times we’ve wrestled with meetings that involved a myriad of connections, usually wasting time at the start, connecting from large meeting rooms in our main offices as well as the odd person dialling in from home or more exotic places like the back of a taxi as it travelled along streets of Hong Kong. The pandemic has been a great leveller in that it pushed us all into our individual ‘Brady Bunch’-style video boxes, and now everyone joins our meetings on an equal footing. Colleagues in other locations have told me that their experience is much better now that they have an equal seat at the table and aren’t battling to contribute while a group of people in a meeting room have a discussion amongst themselves.
Going back to the office will mean a return to hybrid meetings, which in my mind are the worst kind. There is a hierarchy of good meeting configurations:
Everyone physically together beats
Everyone remote, which itself beats
Some together and some remote.
People are now used to putting their virtual hands up in a Teams or Zoom meeting, but what does that look like when ‘the room’ puts a hand up? Matt Ballantine has recently experimented with a hybrid workshop and his conclusion is that it can work, but it needs a lot of planning and moderation, something that we won’t have the luxury of putting in place for most of the meetings that we have. My view is that we should be encouraging people to think about what kind of meeting they are running and how they will set it up to be effective and inclusive. As technologists, we should be leading the way in showing people how to use tools such as digital whiteboards and tablet devices more effectively, bridging the gap to the utopia of all being able to be in the same place.
All teams in our London office have selected a ‘team day’ where they will be together physically during the return to office experiment. A few months ago our entire global organisation implemented ’step-back Wednesdays’, where we don’t schedule any internal meetings. If the goal of being in the same physical space together is collaboration and culture, this seems like the ideal day for us to be together. Other days are inevitably filled with meetings, almost always with someone who is not based in the same country, so we’d be stuck at our desks on Teams calls. Using Wednesdays to collaborate means that we miss out on the ‘deep work’ focus time for which they were intended, so we’ll need to see how we get on.
The office is a great leveller in that everyone has the same space to work in, no matter whether they live in a palace or a studio flat. Having space at home is a luxury, one that many people miss out on. This may play a significant role in how often someone wants to work in the office:
“For me it [working from home] means I now sit on the sofa 16 hours a day as there is nowhere else in a small flat to work. It is uncomfortable, not like sitting at a desk and my hands and arms sometimes hurt. I miss the office banter, working from home when you live on your own and in lockdown is very isolating. It is all email and not much conversation, or if it is – it’s a meeting that is much more painful to do over zoom or skype or whatever.” Woman, 60s, London… (Source: Demos — Distanced Revolution: Employee experiences of working from home during the pandemic, June 2021)
There are many other factors at play too. An office may be a safe space for some, removing themselves from difficult or violent relationships at home. The Demos report also highlights that not all home working is equal; people in higher-paid jobs are likely to have a much better time of it than those on low incomes. Some may also experience the added stress of employee surveillance such as presence and content monitoring. I am lucky in that I am able to pay for a good home broadband connection; with inflation starting to take hold again in the UK, people on low incomes may be forced to make difficult choices.
A close friend of mine works for a very well-known giant technology company, and we were reflecting on our thoughts about returning to the office. He was a much bigger enthusiast than I was. Putting aside any fears about being on a train full of unvaccinated anti-mask commuters (of which there are many), I could see why:
His office is walking distance from the mainline station that we both travel into so he doesn’t need to take the tube; his train fare is almost £10 cheaper per day than mine.
He gets three free meals a day, along with endless snacks and barista-made coffee on tap.
He can wear his regular clothes instead of business attire, and therefore doesn’t need to spend money on regular dry cleaning.
His office has incredible facilities, including a running track, music room, rooftop cafe and many more things besides.
My office is a beautiful space in an incredible location, but it doesn’t quite compare on any of these fronts.
I think that in general there may be stages of life where people want to be more present in an office. The version of me in my early 20s, living in a tiny studio flat in London, would desperately want to have the structure of travelling to work every day. Living in such a small place, consisting of one sleeping/kitchen room and a tiny bathroom, was terrible for my mental health. The office was a big part of my social life; making friends in a big city can be hard. Now that I have a family and a bigger space to roam around in, my mental health is so much better and I don’t feel a desire to be at the office as much. If and when the children leave home, I may feel that I want to be back at the office a little more.
It will be interesting to see what the labour market norms and expectations will be in the future. It may be that people entering the workforce for the first time would prefer to work remotely, or at least be within a legal framework that allows them to work remotely by default, with the onus being on the employer to prove that the job needs to be done from an office some or all of the time. I can see a case being made for people wanting to be based anywhere in the country — or the world — so that they can afford to buy a property and lead the lifestyle they want outside of work as well. Some people are concerned that if a job can be done from anywhere, the person hired for that job could be hired from anywhere too, putting their roles at risk. At a macro level, I believe this ‘flattening’ of the world is something to be embraced; assuming that rich countries should keep hold of all of the high-paying good jobs doesn’t feel right. We might try and fight it individually, but this trend has been coming for some time and is unlikely to stop.
Obligations to each other
If we assume, possibly incorrectly, that the people at the start and towards the end of their careers are the ones who want to be at the office and we just let that happen, what would the impact be? What obligations do those of us in the middle of our careers have to our colleagues to be ‘present’ in a broader sense than just at the end of a phone, email, instant message or virtual meeting? I learned the ropes of work through observing other people and how they themselves interact with others, like Corporal Barnes in A Few Good Men:
One of the concerns about moving to being completely remote is a breakdown or erosion of company culture. Wikipedia tells me that:
Ravasi and Schultz (2006) characterise organizational culture as a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving and, even thinking and feeling. Thus organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. In addition, organizational culture may affect how much employees identify with an organization.
I don’t think that just learning how the company does things through reading manuals, watching videos or having formal interactions in meetings are sufficient by themselves to adequately absorb the culture of an organisation. Intuitively, there is a lot of value in being able to observe the ambient behaviour of your colleagues every day. A week’s business trip abroad to another office has immeasurable value to create a frame of reference for how that part of the company operates.
Distribution made us more resilient
From a technology perspective, one of the major advantages of having a distributed workforce has been that IT issues tend to only impact a single person at a time. A failure in a firewall or Wi-Fi system at the office can take everybody offline, whereas an issue with a home router or even a regional Internet provider outage is unlikely to be a widespread problem. Working remotely made our technology setup more resilient.
But the world of work is becoming much more ambiguous. Whereas twenty years ago workplace was boundaried by the limitations of availability of equipment and people, information technology has broken those dependencies. When work was a place, charging by the hour made sense. The concept of “Compensation” (what a shit term that is) to reward you in return for your physical presence.
Today work can be anywhere for many of us. For many of us we are taking advantage of that. For many others they are being taken advantage of.
Over the last three months, our new Technical Architect unconstrained by physical location has been ramping down his old job and ramping up his new. He’s been attending new team meetings when old team commitments allowed, and generally getting his head around the new place. The last two weeks of his old job were actually quite busy as his former colleagues stepped out of denial that he was actually leaving, but otherwise the transition has felt far smoother than the usual new employer experience of “3 months of waiting”.
None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that both old and new employers were working completely remotely throughout.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my answer to the question of ‘where do you work?’ is now ‘online’. Being forced to work digitally has many advantages. I remember pre-pandemic that we might have an impromptu discussion in our London office that would lead to some important decisions or action points. A number of days later we might realise that nobody wrote down and published what was discussed, so everyone who wasn’t in that office at that moment was out of the loop. Being remote means that you are more deliberate about communicating, and the chances of someone in a different office not knowing what’s going on is vastly reduced.
The main contact at one of our key vendors got in touch a couple of weeks ago to see about meeting up in person. Pre-pandemic, I had already developed a preference for meeting via Teams as opposed to asking people to travel to our office for an hour. If we had work to discuss then we should do it remotely as it would save both of us time. But if the reason for meeting up is to be social and build on our relationship, getting together in person makes sense.
I don’t see working primarily online as a net negative. For all of the reasons that my life has improved since we locked down, I prefer working remotely to going to the office. The technology to bring us closer together, towards the experience of all being in the same room despite being physically remote from each other, is only going to get better as time goes on. With all the recent talk of metaverses, my bet is that while our need for connection and developing a common culture will remain, the need to be physically together will gradually disappear, allowing us to be wherever we want to be and to pursue as fulfilling a life ‘outside of work’ as we want to. It will be interesting to see what norms emerge.
🕯 This monthly payment was £89 when I joined my energy supplier in 2017, rose to £114 and then £135 in 2018, went to £175 at the end of last year and then £183 in May. I’m sure some of it is down to increased consumption from working at home, but a 271% increase in 4 years is 😳
Perhaps – like a policy equivalent to a market adjustment – a new group of politicians will now emerge to supply the policy seriousness that is now demanded.
This would be like how in many wars, new worldly commanders come to the fore to replace the clumsy peacetime generals who make the initial mistakes.
But unless we soon have a generation of politicians that have the measure of the practical problems facing the United Kingdom then there can only be more chaos and crisis-management, instead of planning, thought and policy.