When good is the enemy of the perfect

I’ve been working with Microsoft Teams Premium for a couple of weeks and it has got me worried. Part of the Teams Premium bundle is the ability to summarise a meeting recording, giving you an AI-generated set of collapsible bullet points of the key things that were discussed. It’s neat, clever, and…a little underwhelming, particularly when compared to the promise of the Microsoft marketing videos.

From the meetings that I have recorded, the ‘AI notes’ seem to lose a certain essence of some parts of the discussion, and the suggested follow-up tasks often don’t make sense. Aside from the often hilarious Teams chat response suggestions that have been in the product for a while now1, Teams Premium is my first encounter with the new large language model-based AI products from Microsoft. What concerns me is not how poor the product is today, but how close to perfect it is going to get over time.

I think the most worrisome aspect of AI systems in the short term is that we will give them too much autonomy without being fully aware of their limitations and vulnerabilities.
(Melanie Mitchell, Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans)

I see the output of these AI large language models on a spectrum. At one end, the tools may spit out complete and utter garbage, perhaps not even words. Their uselessness would be obvious to everyone who uses them. At the other end, the AI could output a perfect response (or summary of a meeting, in the case of Teams Premium) every single time. The problem lies in the middle, and gets worse the closer the system is to being consistently perfect:

Right now, I think that the quality of the Teams Premium ‘AI notes’ feature sits somewhere in the green area. It’s good and useful a lot of the time. For example, I can scan the notes and check whether a topic was mentioned. If that topic isn’t in the notes, it doesn’t mean that it wasn’t discussed; I’d have to watch the video back to check that the AI didn’t miss it. If the meeting was very important and needed to be formally minuted, I would still rely on the video.

As the product improves over time, we’ll move out of the green zone and into the yellow. At this point, I may consciously or subconsciously decide to stop routinely verifying the AI-generated output. It’s good enough, most of the time. Again, if a meeting is really important, I may watch the video.

The real danger comes in the red zone. Here, the AI output is superb most of the time, so much so that I never check it. I rely on the summary even for my important meeting minutes. But it’s not quite at the ‘completely perfect’ end of the spectrum. Occasionally it will trip up. Something will get missed — maybe one meeting in a hundred — and perhaps that something is critical to the conversation we’ve had. Perhaps it will attribute a comment to the wrong person, or miss the nuance of a discussion which was important to get exactly right. We may only find out that the AI produced flawed output for this meeting when an incident arises down the line.

This isn’t a concern about AI getting ‘too good’ and becoming ‘sentient’ in a general sense.2 It’s more that we have decided to stop thinking, that we have handed control of some part of our workflow over to the AI and no longer verify its output. For me personally, one bad output every 100 recorded meetings might be tolerable. But if we scale this across a large organisation where hundreds or thousands of meetings take place every day, we’re going to have problems.

Baldur Bjarnason explores this in his book The Intelligence Illusion:

I mentioned two of [the flaws] before, automation and anchoring biases. We, as human beings, have a strong tendency to trust machines over our own judgement. This kills people, as it’s been a major problem in aviation. Anchoring bias comes from our tendency to let the initial perceptions, thoughts, and ideas set the context for everything that follows. AI adds a third issue: anthropomorphism. Even the smartest people you know will fall for this effect as large language models are incredibly convincing. These biases combined lead people to feel even more confident in the AI’s work and believe that it’s done a better job than it has.

We’re using the AI tools for cognitive assistance. This means that we are specifically using them to think less. In every other industry this dynamic inevitably triggers our automation bias and compromises our judgement of the work done by the tools. We use the assistant to think less, so we do.

These models are incredibly fluent and—as we saw at the start of this book—are consistently presented by their vendors as near-AGI. This triggers our instinct towards anthropomorphism, making us feel like we have a fully human-level intelligence assisting us, creating an intelligence illusion that again hinders are ability to properly assess the work it’s doing for us.

AI-generated meeting summaries in Teams Premium is a useful starting point for thinking about this technology. There’s no user input beyond hitting the ‘record’ button during a meeting, and everyone with a Teams Premium licence gets access to exactly the same summary. The possibility for getting something wrong is limited to how good or bad the summary of the meeting is. So far, so harmless. But Microsoft 365 Copilot will be arriving soon, vastly expanding the problem space with its interactive, prompt driven approach. Where on the ‘useless to perfect’ spectrum will it land? What if just being ‘very good’ isn’t good enough?

  1. Superb Teams suggested chat responses.

    Superb Teams suggested chat responses.

  2. The more I learn, the less I’m worried about General AI being a problem any time soon. 

An ambulance for Ukraine

Next week, my colleague Roxanne Litynska is planning to climb Mont Blanc, Western Europe’s highest peak. Her team of seven Ukrainian women are attempting the climb in order to raise money for an ambulance to be delivered to Ukraine. They will climb the mountain without guides and with only the resources they will carry with them.

Roxanne is an incredible person who has already been back to Ukraine from London multiple times since the war began. If you feel able to donate to the cause, every contribution would help. 100% of the donations will go straight to British-Ukrainian Aid, a UK registered charity that will help to purchase the ambulance. Thank you for anything you are able to give.

My friction-filled information workflow

Every 18 months or so I find myself feeling that my personal information workflow is working against me. Sometimes I end up diving into an inevitably fruitless quest to find an application that could be ‘the answer to everything’.

Last year I thought that some of the friction might have been coming from where I am able to access each application that I use. In my personal life I have an iPhone, an iPad and a MacBook, but at work I use a Windows laptop. I always prefer web applications as they can, in theory, be accessed from anywhere. However, it’s difficult to find web apps that have all of the features that I want.

My whiteboard from December 2021 trying to work all of this out.

My whiteboard from December 2021 trying to work all of this out.

Mapping out each of the applications was useful; it made me realise that I could move my old documents and notes archive in Evernote over to OneNote, saving money on a subscription. After wrestling with the migration over a few days, that was that. Things got busy and I didn’t look at my personal workflow again. Until now.

After getting ‘the itch’ again, this time I’ve tried to map out exactly what my current personal workflow looks like, regardless of where the applications are accessible. Here is the resulting mess:

My workflow, such as it is, today.

My workflow, such as it is, today. (Click to enlarge.)

I haven’t decided where to go from here. What I do know is that I need to ponder this for a bit before making any changes. Experience tells me that the problems I have (or feel that I have) are less about the applications and more about the purposeful habits that I need to form.

Some disorganised thoughts:

  • There is still definitely an issue with where I can access each of the components from. Every time I need to switch devices, there is friction.
  • Finding apps that are super secure — i.e. those that encrypt data locally before being sent to the application’s cloud storage — do exist, but at the moment they feel like using a cheese grater to shave your legs. Yes, I could use Standard Notes everywhere, but the friction of working with it is much higher than being forced onto my Apple devices to use Ulysses.
  • Some of the apps are replacements for each other in theory, but not in practice.
    • Readwise Reader can keep YouTube videos I want to watch later, but they then become slightly less accessible if I am sitting down to watch them in front of a TV.
    • Readwise Reader can also accept RSS feeds, but at the moment the implementation is nowhere near as good as Feedbin. I tried it through exporting my OPML file of feed subscriptions and importing it into Reader, but when it wasn’t working for me I found I had to painstakingly back out my RSS subscriptions one by one.
  • I’m still searching for a good way to curate my reading backlog. I estimate that I have over 1,000 ebooks1, hundreds of physical books, hundreds of PDFs and nearly 9,000 articles saved to my ‘read later’ app. I’ve already done the maths to work out that even if I live to a ripe old age, there is not enough time left to get through all of the books that I’ve bought. As Ben Thompson has been saying: in an age of abundance, the most precious and valuable thing becomes attention. I have lists of all my books in Dynalist, but still rely on serendipity when it’s time to pick up another one to read.
  • I need to work out the best way to distinguish between the things I have to do versus the things I want to do. Not that these are absolutes; the amount of things that I absolutely, positively have to do is probably minimal. I might save a YouTube video that would be super helpful for my job right now, and want to prioritise this above others that I have saved for broader learning or entertainment. What’s the easiest way to distinguish them and be purposeful about what I pick up next?
  • Similarly, where should a list of ‘check out concept x’ tasks go? These aren’t really ‘tasks’. When is the right time to pick one of these up?
  • I’m finding that using Kanban for projects is much easier than long lists of tasks in a to-do app. At work we use Planview AgilePlace (formerly known as LeanKit) which from what I can tell is the most incredible Kaban tool out there; if you can imagine the swimlanes, you can probably draw them in AgilePlace. But it’s difficult to justify the cost of $20/month for a personal licence. I’m using Trello for now.
  • Needing to look at different apps to decide what to do next is a problem. But how much worse is it than using one app and changing focus between project views and task views?
  • Are date-based reminders (put the bins out, clean the dishwasher, replace the cycle helmet, stain the garden fence) a different class of tasks altogether? Are they the only things that should be put in a classic ‘to do’ tool?
  • One of the main sticking points of my current workflow is items hanging around for too long in my capture tools (Drafts and Dynalist) when they should be moved off somewhere else. Taking the time to regularly review any of these lists is also a key practice. Sometimes I haven’t decided what I want to do with a thing so it doesn’t move on anywhere, which is also a problem. I need to get more decisive the first time I capture a thing.
  • Document storage is a lost art. After I drew the diagram above, I’ve consolidated all of my cloud documents onto one platform — OneDrive — but now need to go through and file what’s there.

I know that there are no right answers. However, now that I can see it all, hopefully I can start to work out some purposeful, meaningful changes to how I manage all of this stuff. I’m going to make sure that I measure twice, cut once.

  1. The consequence of slowly building up a library as Kindle books were discounted. Aside from checking the Kindle Daily Deal page, I’ve largely stopped now. Looking back, I don’t think this was a great strategy. It seems much better to be mindful about making a few well-intentioned purchases, deliberately paying full price for books from authors I like. 

It’s all AI, all the time

All my feeeds seem to be full of reflections on the inevitability of the changes that will soon be brought about by artificial intelligence. After spending time thinking about this at length last week it may be my cognitive biases kicking in, but I’m pretty sure it’s not just me noticing these posts more.

Ton Zijlstra has an interesting view on today’s corporations as ‘slow AI’, and how they are geared to take advantage of digital AI:

…‘Slow AI’ as corporations are context blind, single purpose algorithms. That single purpose being shareholder value. Jeremy Lent (in 2017) made the same point when he dubbed corporations ‘socio-paths with global reach’ and said that the fear of runaway AI was focusing on the wrong thing because “humans have already created a force that is well on its way to devouring both humanity and the earth in just the way they fear. It’s called the Corporation”. Basically our AI overlords are already here: they likely employ you. Of course existing Slow AI is best positioned to adopt its faster young, digital algorithms. It as such can be seen as the first step of the feared iterative path of run-away AI.

Daniel Miessler conceptualises Universal Business Components, a way of looking at and breaking down the knowledge work performed by white-collar staff today:

Companies like Bain, KPMG, and McKinsey will thrive in this world. They’ll send armies of smiling 22-year-olds to come in and talk about “optimizing the work that humans do”, and “making sure they’re working on the fulfilling part of their jobs”.

So, assuming you’re realizing how devastating this is going to be to jobs, which if you’re reading this you probably are—what can we do?

The answer is mostly nothing.

This is coming. Like, immediately. This, combined with SPQA architectures, is going to be the most powerful tool business leaders have ever had.

When I first heard about the open letter published in late March calling on AI labs to pause their research for six months, I immediately assumed it was a ploy by those who wanted to catch up. In some cases, it might have been — but I now feel much more inclined to take the letter and its signatories at face value.

Increasingly obscured future

I recently watched this video from the Center for Humane Technology. At one point during the presentation, the presenters stop and ask everyone in the audience to join them in taking a deep breath. There is no irony. Nobody laughs. I don’t mind admitting that at that point I wanted to cry.

Back in the year 2000, I can remember exactly where I was when I read Bill Joy’s article in Wired magazine, Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us. I was in my first year of work after I graduated from university, commuting to the office on a Northern Line tube train, totally absorbed in the text. The impact of the article was massive — the issue of Wired that came out two months later contained multiple pages dedicated to emails, letters and faxes that they had received in response:

James G. Callaway, CEO, Capital Unity Network: Just read Joy’s warning in Wired – went up and kissed my kids while they were sleeping.

The essay even has its own Wikipedia page. The article has been with me ever since, and I keep coming back to it. The AI Dilemma video made me go back and read it once again.

OpenAI released ChatGPT at the end of last year. I have never known a technology to move so quickly to being the focus of everyone’s attention. It pops up in meetings, on podcasts, in town hall addresses, in webinars, in email newsletters, in the corridor. It’s everywhere. ‘ChatGPT’ has already become an anepronym for large language models (LLMs) as a whole — artificial intelligence models designed to understand and generate natural language text. As shown in the video, it is the fastest growing consumer application in history. A few months later, Microsoft announced CoPilot, an integration of the OpenAI technology into the Microsoft 365 ecosystem. At work, we watched the preview video with our eyes turning into saucers and our jaws on the floor.

Every day I seem to read about new AI-powered tools. You can use plain language to develop Excel spreadsheet formulas. You can accelerate your writing and editing. The race is on to work out how we can use the technology. The feeling is that we have do to it — and have to try to do it before everybody else does — so that we can gain some competitive advantage. It is so compelling. I’m already out of breath. But something doesn’t feel right.

My dad left school at 15. But his lack of further education was made up for by his fascination with in the world. His interests were infectious. As a child I used to love it when we sat down in front of the TV together, hearing what he had to say as we watched. Alongside David Attenborough documentaries on the natural world and our shared love of music through Top of The Pops, one of our favourite shows was Tomorrow’s World. It was fascinating. I have vivid memories of sitting there, finding out about compact discs and learning about how information could be sent down fibre optic cables. I was lucky to be born in the mid-1970s, at just the right time to benefit from the BBC Computer Literacy Project which sparked my interest in computers. When I left school in the mid-1990s, I couldn’t believe my luck that the Internet and World Wide Web had turned up as I was about to start my adult life. Getting online and connecting with other people blew my mind. In 1995 I turned 18 and felt I needed to take some time off before going to university. I landed on my feet with a temporary job at a telecommunications company, being paid to learn HTML and to develop one of the first intranet sites. Every day brought something new. I was in my element. Technology has always been exciting to me.

Watching The AI Dilemma gave me the complete opposite feeling to those evenings I spent watching Tomorrow’s World with my dad. As I took the deep breaths along with the presenters, I couldn’t help but think about my two teenage boys and what the world is going to look like for them. I wonder if I am becoming a luddite in my old age. I don’t know; maybe. But for the first time I do feel like an old man, with the world changing around me in ways I don’t understand, and an overwhelming desire to ask it to slow down a bit.

Perhaps it is always hard to see the bigger impact while you are in the vortex of a change. Failing to understand the consequences of our inventions while we are in the rapture of discovery and innovation seems to be a common fault of scientists and technologists; we have long been driven by the overarching desire to know that is the nature of science’s quest, not stopping to notice that the progress to newer and more powerful technologies can take on a life of its own. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

I’ve had conversations about the dangers of these new tools with colleagues and friends who work in technology. My initial assessment of the threat posed to an organisation was that this has the same risks as any other method of confidential data accidentally leaking out onto the Internet. Company staff shouldn’t be copying and pasting swathes of internal text or source code into a random web tool, e.g. asking the system for improvements to what they have written, as they would effectively be giving the information away to the tool’s service provider, and potentially anyone else who uses that tool in the future. This alone is a difficult problem to solve. For example, most people do not understand that email isn’t a guaranteed safe and secure mechanism for sending sensitive data. Even they do think about this, their need to get a thing done can outweigh any security concerns. Those of us with a ‘geek mindset’ who believe we are good at critiquing new technologies, treading carefully and pointing out the flaws are going to be completely outnumbered by those who rush in and start embracing the new tools without a care in the world.

The AI Dilemma has made me realise that I’ve not been thinking hard enough. The downside risks are much, much greater. Even if we do not think that there will soon be a super intelligent, self-learning, self-replicating machine coming after us, we are already in an era where we can no longer trust anything we see or hear. Any security that relies on voice matching should now be considered to be broken. Photographs and videos can’t be trusted. People have tools that can give them any answer, good or bad, for what they want to achieve, with no simple or easy way for a responsible company to filter the responses. We are giving children the ability to get advice from these anthropomorphised systems, without checking how the systems are guiding them. The implications for society are profound.

Joy’s article was concerned with three emerging threats — robotics, genetic engineering and nanotech. Re-reading the article in 2023, I think that ‘robotics’ is shorthand for ‘robotics and AI’.

The 21st-century technologies—genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR)—are so powerful that they can spawn whole new classes of accidents and abuses. Most dangerously, for the first time, these accidents and abuses are widely within the reach of individuals or small groups. They will not require large facilities or rare raw materials. Knowledge alone will enable the use of them. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

The video gives us guidance of “3 Rules of Technology”:

  1. When you invent a new technology, you uncover a new class of responsibilities [— think about the need to have laws on ‘the right to be forgotten’ now that all of our histories can be surfaced via search engines; the need for this law was much less pronounced before we were all online]
  2. If the tech confers power, it starts a race [— look at how Microsoft, Google et al have been getting their AI chatbot products out into the world following the release of ChatGPT, without worrying too much about whether they are ready or not]
  3. If you do not coordinate, the race ends in tragedy.

It feels like the desire to be the first to harness the power and wealth from utilising these new tools is completely dominating any calls for caution.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the documentary The Day After Trinity, Freeman Dyson summarized the scientific attitudes that brought us to the nuclear precipice:

“I have felt it myself. The glitter of nuclear weapons. It is irresistible if you come to them as a scientist. To feel it’s there in your hands, to release this energy that fuels the stars, to let it do your bidding. To perform these miracles, to lift a million tons of rock into the sky. It is something that gives people an illusion of illimitable power, and it is, in some ways, responsible for all our troubles—this, what you might call technical arrogance, that overcomes people when they see what they can do with their minds.” —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

Over the years, what has stuck in my mind the most from Joy’s article is how the desire to experiment and find out can override all caution (emphasis mine):

We know that in preparing this first atomic test the physicists proceeded despite a large number of possible dangers. They were initially worried, based on a calculation by Edward Teller, that an atomic explosion might set fire to the atmosphere. A revised calculation reduced the danger of destroying the world to a three-in-a-million chance. (Teller says he was later able to dismiss the prospect of atmospheric ignition entirely.) Oppenheimer, though, was sufficiently concerned about the result of Trinity that he arranged for a possible evacuation of the southwest part of the state of New Mexico. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

There is some hope. We managed to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons to a handful of countries. But developing a nuclear weapon is a logistically difficult process. Taking powerful software and putting it out in the world — not so much.

The new Pandora’s boxes of genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics are almost open, yet we seem hardly to have noticed. Ideas can’t be put back in a box; unlike uranium or plutonium, they don’t need to be mined and refined, and they can be freely copied. Once they are out, they are out. —[Bill Joy, Why The Future Doesn’t Need Us]

The future seems increasingly obscured to me, with so much uncertainty. As the progress of these technologies accelerates, I feel less and less sure of what is just around the corner.

Implications of the Twitter layoffs on all technology departments?

I’ve been pondering: does the fact that Twitter is still functioning set expectations for business executives, who will think it’s fine to slash a technology budget and still expect core services to remain? Will they be asking “what were all these IT staff doing all day”?

We know that the service is creaking and has some major problems, but the headline is that Musk slashed the workforce from 7,500 to 1,800 and it is still chugging along months later.

Internal blogs — an organisational hack

I love this Mastodon thread from Simon Willison:

Here’s an organizational hack I’ve used a few times which I think more people should try: run your own personal engineering blog inside your organization

You can use it as a place to write about projects you are working on, share TILs about how things work internally, and occasionally informally advocate for larger changes you’d like to make

Crucially: don’t ask for permission to do this! Find some existing system you can cram it into and just start writing

Systems I’ve used for this include:

  • a Slack channel, where you post long messages, maybe using the Slack “posts” feature
  • Confluence has a blog feature which isn’t great but it’s definitely Good Enough
  • A GitHub repo within your organization works fine too, you can write content there in Markdown files

One thing to consider with this: if you want your content to live on after you leave the organization (I certainly do) it’s a good idea to pick a platform for it that’s not likely to vanish in a puff of smoke when the IT team shuts down your organizational accounts

That’s one of the things I like about Confluence, Slack and private GitHub repos for this

The most liberating thing about having a personal internal blog is that it gives you somewhere to drop informal system documentation, without making a commitment to keep it updated in the future

Unlike out-of-date official documentation there’s no harm caused by a clearly dated blog post from two years ago that describes how the system worked at that point in time

I thoroughly endorse this. I’ve been setting up blogs and internal communication channels at all of the organisations I have worked at over the past few years. We’ve recently started an internal blog for our team using a ‘community’ on Viva Engage (formerly Yammer) as it is the only ready-made platform that has reach across the whole company. At the moment we are still talking into the void, but these things take time.

Microsoft 365 used to offer a blogging facility on your ‘Delve profile’, but this was squirrelled away on the web and was tied to your account; it wouldn’t be widely visible and would disappear when you left the company. That facility now seems to have gone away. We tried using SharePoint, but it felt a bit like using a cheese grater to shave your legs — it would do the job, but not without a lot of pain.

There is so much value in working out loud, but I’ve never had much success in persuading other people to start posting their thoughts in blog form. The closest thing we have to it are internal Teams posts, which team members do post and do look like blogs — they may have a title, there’s some content and then there is a thread of comments. Perhaps these are easier to write because the audience is limited to a few known colleagues. We’ll keep experimenting.

Recruiting and mental health

At dinner with friends and colleagues a couple of weeks ago we started talking about the risks people take when they go through the process of being hired for a new job. At some point you will get asked questions that can make you vulnerable. This topic had come up at at a seminar I attended last year on Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace:

  • There are many points of risk in the processes that we run. If someone who identifies as a different gender to the one they had at birth gets all the way through your interview process, there is a point of vulnerability when they have to hand over a copy of their birth certificate to HR. The HR employee who receives the certificate has a lot of power, and can have a massive impact on the candidate depending on how they handle it.

I was fortunate to go to a university that was a popular recruitment ground for big companies. Not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life, I managed to secure a graduate job offer before my final year began. My application involved tests, interviews and group assessments. I also had to fill out an application form to give to their HR department. I vividly remember that the form had a question on whether I had any history of mental health issues. I ticked the ‘no’ box — and then proceeded to worry about it for weeks.

During the first part of my time at university I struggled with my mental health. Early in my second year this culminated with a late night visit to the Samaritans in Coventry. They were wonderful; the person I met there made me a cup of tea and listened to me for hours. It was a massive turning point; I could glimpse a way back from how I was feeling. I soon sought further help from the University and was fortunate to have free access to on-site counselling, another significant step to getting myself back on track.

Back in January I started thinking about all of this this again, having read Ruth Davidson express her fears about her medical history being revealed to the world if she ran for a political leadership position. I remembered how stressful it was after ticking that ‘no’ box and then hoping that it wouldn’t come back to haunt me. In my early twenties I had no idea about how HR processes and whether the company would be able to find out anything about what I had been through. I worried about what would happen if my mental health issues came back, impacted my work and then someone looked started questioning me further. Almost 25 years later, I can look back and see that these worries were overblown, but they felt very real at the time.

While mental health issues still carry a stigma, I like to think that the consequences of sharing them with others — and in particular, prospective employers — are not as bad as they used to be. Mind have an excellent write-up on discrimination at work, including a section on applying for jobs. It’s interesting to note that “Generally employers can’t ask you questions about your mental health before a job offer is made.” If you are made an offer, and you are then later turned down once you are further along the on-boarding process, you can look at raising whether the decision was discriminatory. I’m not sure whether this is a recent change to the law or something that has always been there, but it is great that organisations like Mind are trying to reduce concerns and anxiety by making more people aware of their rights.

Put your camera on

It amazes me how many online meetings I go to where people don’t put their cameras on. Employee surveys show that people want to work from home, but then they don’t show up in the same way as they would at work. Having cameras on gives a richness to a meeting that you don’t get when you’re looking at a bunch of static avatars.

Like cyclists that jump red lights, I get the feeling that people who keep their cameras off give everyone else a bad name, and will be a factor in driving a push to returning to offices. I know that having cameras on isn’t possible 100% of the time, but it should be the default.


The second WB-40 podcast episode in their series on organisations with purpose is a fascinating listen. The hosts are joined by Kate Davies, CEO of London Housing Association Notting Hill Genesis.

The concept of being a non-profit that generates significant revenue in order to do more good with that money is interesting. In theory it isn’t so far from a for-profit organisation that puts its client’s (and employees’, and society’s) needs at the centre of what they do.

On the podcast Davies speaks about how expensive IT staff can be. They are able to keep their costs down by finding people who are motivated by the mission of the organisation. They use things like field visits to ensure that staff see the impact of their work first-hand. This got me thinking about whether I would be prepared to take a pay cut in order to work somewhere that was massively aligned to my values. I have great admiration for people who are willing to do this. For me, I think I would be more likely to forego future increases rather than deliberately reduce our family income.

📚 Why Workplace

A friend of mine recently handed me a hard copy of this free book from Leesman, the workplace consultancy firm. The writing is very considered and insightful, and the book does a great job of marketing the company as experts in their field.

It told me what I already know about open plan offices and emphasises that we must think about the quality of the time spent between collaborating.

If you are mainly trying to focus on individual work, or need to be on calls all day, an open plan office is unlikely to be as good as being in a dedicated home working space. At home, one-on-one meetings are a breeze — I just join the call at the scheduled time. In the office I have to find a meeting room, take my various devices there and get myself set up. It’s a little thing but it adds to the friction of the day.

I really like the emphasis on taking a bottom-up research-based approach to understanding who your people are and what they do, as the same setup will not be universally good for everyone:

Recent analysis by Leesman across a sample of 860,476 employees showed that 56% of respondents will select ‘collaborating on focused work’ as part of their role and 36% say they ‘collaborate on creative work’. But go further with the granular analysis of ‘we activities’ and ‘me activities’ and a mere 3% have roles where their selected mix of activities would have them categorised as highly collaborative.

In contrast, 19% have highly individual work profiles. When in the office, employees working in more collaborative roles have a better experience than those in more individual roles. But from home the opposite happens: those in highly individual roles have the better experience, while those in highly collaborative roles have the least positive.

It also reminded me of Liz Stokoe’s point that “good communication depends on good communicators — regardless of modality.”

But don’t be distracted by the overhyped talk of serendipitous ‘water cooler moments’. In the average office, you should expect there to be as much destructive gossip and toxic debate happening there, as there is the exchange of sparky ideas that trigger your next market disrupting solution. Engaged employees gathering at the water cooler is great. Actively disengaged employees gathering there is not.

The book emphasises that we need to be clear on how ‘productivity’ is defined. Working longer hours is not by itself a productivity gain:

A note of caution though on reported productivity gains. There is much discussion around the perceived productivity gain being a result of employees working during the time they might have commuted to an office, effectively extending their working day. Whether this truly represents an equitable productivity gain is highly questionable.

Productivity is defined as a ratio between the output volume and the volume of inputs, so more hours spent delivering more output is no improvement at all. Employees gifting you their commuting hours is not sustainable and remember their hours cost you way more in salaries than does the space you previously used to accommodate them. So as the sense of crisis response lessens and those employees progressively withdraw those commuting hours, expect those outputs to go back to nearer where they once were. If employees were suddenly rejoicing at halving the time taken to complete twice the work, that would be a different story. They are not.

As per the title, the emphasis of the book is to encourage leaders to think about why staff would want to be in your office. Are the trade-off of the costs and experience of commuting, versus the experience when they are there, worth it?

Each organisation will be different, and there will be different needs for different people within a firm. It makes sense to think of people’s homes as an extension of the office, with their home working space (if they have one) being conducive to different types of work.

One thing that has struck me as absent from all of the narrative about returning to the office are the needs and experiences of people that work in highly dispersed teams. I keep hearing that we have to get back to the office to keep our culture and collaboration going. However, at the moment half of my immediate colleagues with whom I collaborate and work with on a day-to-day basis aren’t in the same country. My team are responsible for the technology in five offices around the globe, only one of which is in the UK. We are unlikely to ever be all in the same space at the same time.

Back when I was working for a bank that had a much bigger presence in London than my current employer, colleagues were located across the City in buildings that could be a 15 minute walk away from each other. Some days could have intra-day commutes of an hour or more spent shuttling between offices. My time there pre-dated mass-market desktop videoconferencing, so I assume that the intra-day commute is now a thing of the past. But it means that there are many people who are spending most of their time in meetings with people that could be in a building next door, in their own home, or halfway around the world.

With our own return to the office pilot, I’ve found that on the days when there is a reason to be in the office — doing physical IT infrastructure work or being present for a ‘town hall’-style meeting — it has been great to be there. I’ve even enjoyed the commute, blocking the unmasked fellow commuters from my mind and using the time to focus on my writing hobby. But not all days are like this. A day spent in the office doing work and joining meetings that I could more effectively and efficiently accomplished at home feels illogical.

There isn’t yet a manual that tells you how to best approach the challenges for your own specific organisation, and this book won’t solve your problems. But it is rich in factors to consider and offers some jumping off points for much deeper thinking.

Paid sabbaticals at Monzo

Interesting to read that Monzo will be offering staff three months of paid leave if they have worked for over four years at the firm. It seems like a great idea. I’m sure there are interesting side-effects in terms of how those roles are covered while people are taking sabbaticals. Perhaps this will make the organisation more resilient and less reliant on specific people in their roles. I wonder how a company would introduce a policy like this — you don’t want half your company on sabbatical at the same time in the first year that the policy is introduced.


At work we recently had a guided workshop on the topic of resilience. We were asked about what resilience means to us. It brought to mind a few things that have stuck with me over the years.

Four lightbulbs

Hello Internet is a wonderful podcast hosted by YouTuber CGP Grey and video-journalist/filmmaker Brady Haran. Episode 3 introduces us to Grey’s metaphor that each of us has four 100 watt lightbulbs, each one representing an aspect of our life:

The catch is that we only have 100 watts to distribute across the four bulbs. So what do you do? Do you keep each of them glowing at a relatively dim 25 watts each, or do you divide your time up so that you are sending most of your watts to one bulb for a period before switching to another one?

In 2019 I was managing a programme of IT change work with a high-stakes, bet-your-job deadline of 1 July. Our programme had no budget. So to get around this problem, we spent money we didn’t have at the start of the year in order to meet our deadline. If we made it, we could switch off a raft of expensive SLAs and effectively cover what we spent in the first half of the year through the savings we made in the second half. If we didn’t make it, we would have gone over budget by millions of dollars. Over Christmas 2018 I had told my family that for those first six months I would have to sacrifice as much of my time as I could in order to meet my deadline. I worked evenings and almost every weekend. Nearly all of my watts went into the ‘work’ lightbulb and it glowed while the others were barely visible. We made it. The programme was a massive success, but it came at significant personal cost, with the latter part of 2019 being a time of reflection and recuperation whilst trying to keep the next set of milestones on track.

The lightbulbs are an imperfect analogy, but the concept is useful. Burning the work lightbulb really tested my resilience. The whole podcast episode on the topic is worth a listen, but the good stuff starts about 12m40s in.

Learning, and keeping resilient through failure

Back in the early days of Twitter, when it used to be a fun little community and not the rage-inducing doomscroll-fest of today, I often found myself chatting with JP Rangaswami. He had worked as a CIO in the same industry as me. His tweets and blog posts explored the new social media world, the need for a good information diet as well as his love of music. I even found out that he used to drink in the London pub owned by my grandparents many years ago.

JP’s LinkedIn profile is striking. Instead of the usual chronological list of roles and achievements, he reflects on each job from the perspective of what he learned from doing it:

Reproduced with permission.

Reproduced with permission.

It reminds me of the wonderful episode of the Postlight Podcast where Jennifer Dary discusses how she worked out what she wanted to do for a living; she focused on the verbs — what she actually wanted to spend time doing — as opposed to the job titles.

Jen: … I made a very long list of every job I’ve ever had, both volunteer and pay. And I wrote next to each job my favorite thing about it, using, like, a little phrase with a verb… And you know, the reason that I say that is because there may be people listening to this who have no idea what their next step is, and what they think their next step is is a title, and that is bullshit. I will just tell you that. People say titles and they mean lots of different things by them. … And so the three most popular verbs on that list were “leading,” “connecting,” and “writing.” So I thought, cool. If I stay at arc, I need to push for a role in which that is my focus. If I go to another company, I need to look for a role in which that is my focus.

In JP’s profile, he doesn’t shy away from an honest assessment of when things didn’t work out:

Reproduced with permission.

Reproduced with permission.

JP went on to be CIO, MD and Chief Scientist at BT, Chief Scientist at Salesforce and Chief Data Officer and Head of Innovation at Deutsche Bank, so his failure didn’t hold him back. Talk of resilience always makes me think of his LinkedIn profile.

Knowing when to step back

In 2002 I became an ‘IT owner’ of an internally-developed application for the first time. I had a team of two developers, one focused on our database and the other who worked on the front-end of the system. We were trying to get our heads around a particularly difficult problem. We needed to manipulate a database query to allow users of the system to pull data out in a specific way, but it felt brain-meltingly complex. After a couple of days and many hours of looking at it, seemingly making no progress, my front-end developer told me that he was going to step away from the keyboard, head home and do something else. In the middle of the afternoon. We had a deadline to meet and this had me panicking — he was going to leave right now?

I hadn’t been managing people for very long, and we had only been working together for a few weeks. But we had a great working relationship, and he had done some brilliant work. It seemed silly to argue with him and try to persuade him to stay. I’m glad I didn’t.

The next day he wandered into the office with a big smile on his face. The answer had come to him in a flash as he was pootling around his house. We made the changes, and got the system doing what it needed to do.

Twenty years on and I am unsure that I have the level of maturity and self-awareness that my developer colleague did. Sometimes, a rare day that is relatively free of meetings stretches out before me like the road on the cover of The Best of Eagles.

I start the day thinking of all the work I will get done, and then get bogged down by some issue or other. I keep trying to push on, thinking that the only way out is through. I end up tired, with the stream of work from my fingers reducing to a trickle. This isn’t resilience. Resilience is knowing when to step away and do something else instead of grinding myself into the ground.

Thinking about proxies

Recent conversations at work have got me thinking about the proxy metrics that we use, and how much nuance and detail they hide.


Last week, we had a look at a tool that presented a ‘cybersecurity dashboard’ for our organisation. It is a powerful tool, with lots of capabilities for investigating and remediating security issues across our IT infrastructure estate. But what struck me was a big number presented front-and-centre on the first page. It looked a bit like this1:

It was simply a percentage. I’ve been pondering it since, wondering if it us useful or not.

80.4%. Is this good? If that’s my organisation’s score, can I sleep well at night? When I was at university, an average score of 70% in your exams and coursework meant that you were awarded with a first-class degree. So that number has always stayed with me and has felt intrinsically ‘good’. 80.4% is substantially higher than this. But what about that other 19.6%? Can we relax, or do we need to keep pushing to 100%? Can you ever truly be 100% secure if you’re running any kind of IT system?

Perhaps it is meant as a useful jumping off point for investigation. Or it is meant to be used over time, i.e. last week we were 78.9% and now we’re 80.4%, so things are going in the right direction. Maybe both. I’m not sure.

It’s a common idea that executives don’t want the detail. They simply want to see a big green light that says that things are ok. If there’s no green, they want to know that things are being dealt with in order to bring the amber or red thing back to green again. In the example above, although the ‘speed gauge’ is blue, it is still an attempt to aggregate all of the cybersecurity data across an organisation into a simple number. To me, it feels dangerous to boil it down to a single proxy metric.

I likened the single score to a song being reduced to its average frequency. Music can make us laugh, sing or cry. It can make our pulses race and our hearts throb. But the beauty and nuance is completely lost if you take the average of all of the sound and boil it down to one long continuous tone. (Someone has actually done this so you can hear examples for yourself.2)


Food writer, journalist and activist Jack Monroe wrote an incredibly insightful thread on the latest inflation figures. The news headlines were screaming that the inflation number is 5.4% — a 30-year high. However, this hides the nuance of what exactly has been increasing in price and what has remained static. As usual, the poorest in society bear a disproportionate brunt of the increase. For people that depend on the cheapest goods, inflation is much higher, as the cost of those goods have been increasing at a much higher rate. Her original thread is well worth a read:

It was wonderful to see this thread get so much attention. Today Monroe announced that the Office of National Statistics will be making changes:

Financial data

I’ve been working in Financial Services for over 20 years. During the financial crisis of 2007–2008 I was employed by one of the banks that suffered terrible losses. In the lengthy report that was published to shareholders, it was notable that there was a dependency on a number of metrics such as Value at Risk which were in effect ’green’ even when the global financial system started to unravel. The actual problem was the sheer amount of toxic financial products that were on the balance sheet; as soon as the assumption of how much they were worth was revised, it triggered eye-watering losses.

From the report:

UBS’s Market Risk framework relies upon VaR and Stress Loss to set and monitor market risks at a portfolio level. [p19]

In the context of the CDO structuring business and Negative Basis and AMPS trades, IB MRC [Market Risk Control] relied primarily upon VaR and Stress limits and monitoring to provide risk control for the CDO desk. As noted above, there were no Operational limits on the CDO Warehouse and throughout 2006 and 2007, there were no notional limits on the retention of unhedged Super Senior positions and AMPS Super Senior positions, or the CDO Warehouse… [p20]

In other words, the amount of ‘good quality’ collateralised debt obligations (CDOs) that could be held on the balance sheet wasn’t subject to a cap. These were the instruments that were later found to be ‘toxic’.

MRC VaR methodologies relied on the AAA rating of the Super Senior positions. The AAA rating determined the relevant product-type time series to be used in calculating VaR. In turn, the product-type time series determined the volatility sensitivities to be applied to Super Senior positions. Until Q3 2007, the 5-year time series had demonstrated very low levels of volatility sensitivities. As a consequence, even unhedged Super Senior positions contributed little to VaR utilisation. [p20]

This means that the model, which produced a ‘green’ status for Value at Risk, was based on the historical data which said that ‘everything is fine’. No consideration seemed to have been taken on the sheer amount of CDOs that were being held. As the financial crisis unfolded and it became clear that the assets were no longer worth 100%, the revaluations resulted in nearly USD 50bn in losses.

Proxies should be a jumping off point

Proxies are attractive as they often boil down complex things into simple metrics that we think we can interpret and understand. Wherever I see or use them I need to think about what assumptions they are built on and to check that they are not being substituted for the important details.

  1. Taken from the Microsoft Windows Defender ATP Fall Creators Update 
  2. Lots of people on forums seem baffled as to why anyone would want to do that. I love that someone has done it. 

Enabling everyone in hybrid meetings

On Wednesday I attended a long workshop from home. A few of us were dialled in via BlueJeans, while the vast majority of attendees were physically present in the room. It struck me that being a remote participant must be a teeny tiny bit like having a disability; it was difficult to hear, difficult to see and I had to work extra hard to participate. We spent a significant amount of time staring at an empty lectern, hearing voices fade in and out but not seeing anyone on screen.

There’s a big push to ‘crack hybrid’. I know that the technology will inevitably improve to make these meetings better, reducing the friction between being in the room and out of it. But for now, if the meeting is a workshop, or just the kind where you want to democratise participation and involve everyone (as opposed to talking at them webinar or lecture style), then it makes sense to me to have everyone join in the same way.

Elizabeth Stokoe puts it better than me:

As we go back to our offices, the best meetings are going to be those where the organiser has put thought and energy into how they should be configured to meet their goals.

📚 A Seat at the Table

I picked up Mark Schwartz’s A Seat at the Table as I have recently been thinking about how we can move away from the perception of our IT team as the people who ‘turn up and fix the Wi-Fi’ to one where we are seen as true business partners. The book took me by surprise in being less of a self-help manual and more of a well-articulated argument as to why the old ways in which we did things no longer apply in the digital age. It is brilliant.

Schwartz has a way of encapsulating key concepts and arguments in short, smart prose. The book contains the best articulation of the case for Agile, Lean and DevOps that I have read. There is so much wisdom in a single sentence, for example:

What is the value of adhering to a plan that was made at the beginning of a project, when uncertainty was greatest?

One of the books referenced heavily in A Seat at the Table is Lean Enterprise by Jez Humble, Joanne Molesky and Barry O’Reilly which I read some time ago. Lean Enterprise goes into more detail in terms of the concepts and mechanics used in modern software development such as continuous integration, automated testing etc. and brings them together into a coherent whole. Schwartz does not cover these topics in detail but gives just enough information to make his case as to why they are the sensible way forward for developing software.

A company may typically engage their IT department as if they are an external supplier. They haggle and negotiate, they fix scope and cost and they then the work starts. This approach does make some sense for working with a truly external vendor where they are taking on some of the financial risk of overrunning and you are able to specify exactly what you want in detail, for example where physical IT infrastructure is being delivered, installed and configured. It makes little sense when you are creating a new software system. It makes even less sense when the IT team are colleagues in the same organisation, trying to work out what investments will make the biggest impact on the company. We win and lose together.

First of all, we came to speak about “IT and the business” as two separate things, as if IT were an outside contractor. It had to be so: the business was us and IT was them. The arms-length contracting paradigm was amplified, in some companies, by the use of a chargeback model under which IT “charged” business units based on their consumption of IT services. Since it was essentially managing a contractor relationship, the business needed to specify its requirements perfectly and in detail so that it could hold IT to delivering on them, on schedule, completely, with high quality, and within budget. The contractor-control model led, inevitably, to the idea that IT should be delivering “customer service” to the enterprise—you’d certainly expect service with a smile if you were paying so much money to your contractors.

For readers who are familiar with why we use Agile software development methods, the arguments against the old ‘waterfall’ approach are well-known. What is more interesting is that Schwartz also points to issues that advocates of the Agile approach have exacerbated. Agile people can be suspicious of anyone that looks like a manager, and want them to get out of the way so that they can get on with the job. Schwartz argues that the role of managers and leadership is to remove impediments, many of which the Agile team cannot easily deal with on their own:

When the team cannot accomplish objectives, I am forced to conclude that they cannot do it within the given constraints. The team might need members with different skills. It might need permission to try an experiment. It might need the help of another part of the organization. It might need a policy to be waived. But if the task is possible and the team cannot achieve it, then there is a constraining factor. My job is to remove it.

What if someone on the team is really just not performing? Perhaps not putting in his or her share of effort, or being careless, or uncooperative? Well, then, dealing with the problem is simply another example of removing an impediment for the team.

The critical role of middle management, it would seem, is to give delivery teams the tools they need to do their jobs, to participate in problem-solving where the problems to be solved cross the boundaries of delivery teams, to support the delivery teams by making critical tactical decisions that the team is not empowered to make, and to help remove impediments on a day-to-day basis. The critical insight here, I think, is that middle management is a creative role, not a span-of-control role. Middle managers add value by contributing their creativity, skills, and authority to the community effort of delivering IT value.

He makes a clear case for getting rid of ‘project thinking’ completely. If you want a software delivery initiative to stay on budget, the only way to do that is through an agile project. The team will cost the organisation their run rate which is almost always known in advance. Work can be stopped at any time, preserving the developments and insights that have been created up to that point.

As a former PMO head, and with my current responsibilities of running a portfolio of change initiatives, it was interesting to see the approach to ‘business cases’ recommended in the book. Instead of signing off on a set of requirements for a particular cost by a certain date, you should be looking to assess the team on what they want to achieve and whether they have the skills, processes and discipline to give you confidence that they will:

  • be effective,
  • manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
  • make good decisions,
  • seek feedback,
  • continually improve.

Schwartz gives a brilliant example of how difficult it is to articulate the value of something in the IT world, which gave me flashbacks to the hours I have spent wrestling with colleagues over their project business cases:

How much value does a new firewall have? Well … let’s see … the cost of a typical hacker event is X dollars, and it is Y% less likely if we have the firewall. Really? How do we know that it will be the firewall that will block the next intrusion rather than one of our other security controls? How do we know how likely it is that the hackers will be targeting us? For how long will the firewall protect us? Will the value of our assets—that is, the cost of the potential hack—remain steady over time? Or will we have more valuable assets later?

The word ‘requirements’ should go away, but so should the word ’needs’; if the organisation ‘requires’ or ‘needs’ something, what are the implications for right now when the organisation doesn’t have it? Instead of using these terms, we should be formulating hypotheses about things we can change which will help bring value to the organisation. Things that we can test and get fast feedback on.

Schwartz also argues against product as a metaphor, which was a surprise to me given how prevalent product management is within the industry today:

But the product metaphor, like many others in this book, has outlived its usefulness. We maintain a car to make it continue to function as if it were new. A piece of software, on the other hand, does not require lubrication—it continues to operate the way it always has even if we don’t “maintain” it. What we call maintenance is really making changes to keep up with changes in the business need or technology standards.

Senior IT leaders are ’stewards’ of three critical ‘assets’ in the organisation:

  1. The Enterprise Architecture asset  — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
  2. The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
  3. The Data asset — the information contained in the company’s databases, and the company’s ability to use that information.

Much of the book comes back to these three assets to emphasise and elaborate on their meaning, and the work required to “polish and groom” them.

The author makes the case that CIOs should take their seat at the table with the rest of the CxOs through being confident, bold, and simply taking the seat in the same way that the others do. To talk of IT being ‘aligned’ to the business is to imply that IT can be ‘misaligned’, doing its own thing without giving any thought to the rest of the organisation. The CFO, CMO or any other CxO does not need to continually justify their existence and prove their worth to the business, and neither should the CIO. The CIO needs to have deep technology knowledge — deeper than the rest of the people around the table — and bring this knowledge to bear to deliver value for the organisation, owning the outcomes instead of just ‘delivering products’.

It follows that the CIO is the member of the senior leadership team—the team that oversees the entire enterprise—who contributes deep expertise in information technology. I do mean to say deep expertise. Increasingly, everyone in the enterprise knows a lot about technology; the CIO, then, is the person who knows more than everyone else. The CIO should be more technical, not less—that is how he or she contributes to enterprise value creation; otherwise, the role would not be needed.

The age of IT organizations hiding behind requirements—“just tell me what you need”— is gone. IT leaders must instead take ownership, responsibility, and accountability for accomplishing the business’s objectives. The IT leader must have the courage to own outcomes.

IT investments are so central to corporate initiatives that it is hard to make any other investment decisions without first making IT decisions. This last point is interesting, right? Perhaps it suggests that IT governance decisions should be made together with or in advance of other business governance decisions. Instead, in our traditional model, we think first about “business” decisions, and then try to “align” the IT decisions with them. But in our digital world—if we are truly committed to the idea that that’s the world we live in—IT should not follow business decisions but drive them.

CIOs and their staff have an excellent “end-to-end understanding of the business, a discipline and mindset of accomplishing goals, and an inclination toward innovation and change.” They bring a lot to the table.

Schwartz makes a case for the rest of the organisation becoming digitally literate and sophisticated in their use of technology. This may extend to people from all parts of the organisation being able to contribute to the codebase (or “Enterprise Architecture asset”) that is managed by IT. This should be no different to developers on an open source project making changes and submitting a ‘pull request’ to have those changes incorporated into the official codebase. We should embrace it, fostering and harnessing the enthusiasm of our colleagues. We should care less about who is doing the work and more about whether the company’s needs are met.

As much as I enjoyed the book, there were points where I disagreed. Schwartz argues strongly against purchasing off-the-shelf software — ever, it seems — and advocates building things in-house. He makes the point that software developed for the marketplace may not be a good fit for our business and may come with a lot of baggage. My view is that this completely depends on where the software sits in the stack and how commoditised it is. It makes no sense to implement our own TCP/IP stack, for example, nor does it make any sense to develop our own email client. (Nobody ever gained a new customer based on how good their email system was. Probably.) But I do agree that for software that is going to give us a competitive edge, we want to be developing this in-house. I think that something along the lines of a Wardley Map could be useful for thinking about this, where the further along the evolution curve a component is, the less Agile in-house development would be the preferred choice:

Overall this book is a fantastic read and will be one I come back to. It’s given me lots to think about as we start to make a case for new ways of working that go beyond the IT department.

Returning to the office, redux

Recently I wrote up my thoughts on returning to the office. Underpinning this was an assumption, which seems to be widely shared, of the need to get people together physically on a regular basis, with intuition telling us that this somehow creates a shared culture. This week I heard a very senior executive express that “we can’t build a culture while we’re all shut away in our homes”. Since I wrote my post, my view has been challenged on this and I am no longer sure that this ‘intuitive’ understanding is correct.

The ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ myth

Matt Ballantine pointed me towards Liz Stokoe’s work as Professor of Social Interaction at Loughborough University. Her presentation on being Physically distanced, socially close from December 2020 is fascinating and well worth a watch.

The key points I took from her presentation are that:

  • The belief that ‘93% of communication is non-verbal’ is nonsense. If this were true, how could we successfully talk to each other on the phone, have conversations with blind people, or sustain romantic relationships via text message?
  • Being co-present doesn’t guarantee quality. From her research, people tend to be good or poor communicators regardless of modality. We’ve all been in terrible in-person meetings and excellent remote ones. Having a good chair can make all the difference in either case. Having people who get the chair’s attention either in-person or remotely (“Sarah has her hand up”) are also useful in both cases.1
  • Remote meetings can offer more than in-person meetings; the sidebar chat would be rude in-person but can offer another way for meeting participants to express their views and ‘get a word in’.

Stokoe explores this further in a blog post that questions whether in-person communication is really the ‘gold standard’:

…video-calling is said to involve “inevitable miscommunication” such as “those awkward nanoseconds of wondering who’s going to talk next, followed by four people saying “Oops, sorry — no, you — no, you go ahead” at the same time”. While such ‘miscommunication’ problems do occur in video calls, they also occur during in-person encounters — and are completely ordinary.

There is less of a difference between in-person and remote interaction than we may think.

The office is a place to build relationships, but at the cost of getting work done

There are many reasons to go into an office. Doing so in order to be more productive is probably not one of them. Having now been back a few days each week, I am concluding that being present in the office has a terrible impact on my productivity.

In a recent episode of the Postlight Podcast, co-founders Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Vicky Volvovski, Senior Director and Head of Product Management at their firm, who has worked remotely for a decade. The prompt for the episode was her push-back on how quickly Postlight were returning to the office. The episode was recorded during Volvovski’s business trip to their office in New York City from her home in Wisconsin. From the transcript (emphasis mine):

VV: … I’ve seen it done for 10 years, and I see how productive it can be. And for me personally, like, as I said, I think I’m an eighth as productive here as I am at home because I control my environment and my schedule and my time in a way that you just don’t do when you’re in an office.

It is really hard to tell your colleagues that you are busy on focused work when they interrupt you in person. If they try to get hold of you remotely, you can just not answer the call and get them back when you have finished what you were doing. In the years before the pandemic I have worked in offices where the odd person would have a physical sign to denote whether they could be interrupted or not. Even when you are not being interrupted directly, it is so difficult to ignore the myriad of conversations going on around you. Yes, I could put on my headphones like I occasionally used to do, but this now seems silly when I’ve made the effort to get to the office in the first place.

Matt Ballantine makes the point that we need a place within a modern office for working online. I can’t get over that this might look like a ’Dilbert cube’. I worked in one of these for a short time in 2001; they might have made some sense back when we the office was the only place where we had good, reliable computing and networking, but I am not sure about them now. Having single person booths in an activity-based workspace can help, but they are claustrophobic if you are spending most of your day in online calls.

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

Photo: Dennis Sylvester Hurd

You don’t need to be together physically to build your culture

If the driver of being in the office is to build culture across the organisation then I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason either. During lockdown I took part in the the process of interviewing, hiring, on-boarding and working with someone who is now a peer. In the months we have spent working remotely together, we’ve developed an cooperative, productive, trusting and psychologically safe relationship. We get stuff done. I have worked with some of my colleagues in the team for over two years without meeting them and we have great working relationships. My current organisation spans 23 countries, and I’ve recently been meeting remotely with people from most of those locations as part of a big group programme. From these encounters, I can say that we definitely have a recognisable company culture despite being remote from each other. Each office is slightly different, but in general the people working in each one understand what it means to be part of the greater whole.

The quality of our interactions are important, whether remote or in-person. A colleague of mine noticed that they had worked with someone else in the organisation for years but had never developed a relationship with them as most of the interactions were transactional. You definitely need to take the time to develop a relationship beyond the work at hand. This would probably be easier in person, but it can absolutely be done remotely. (Putting your camera on by default really helps, especially if you’re meeting someone to build your relationship, e.g. in a one-on-one.) From the Postlight Podcast again:

PF: Yeah, I’ll make a point here, which is that you [Rich Ziade] and myself as well, do not like relationship building remotely. We think it’s artificial and fake. And I hate it.

VV: But this is the first time you’re meeting me in person, I’d say we have a pretty good relationship. Like, it happened.

In another episode of the podcast, Ford and Ziade are talking to Tracey Zimmerman, President and CEO of rival firm Robots & Pencils. Ziade asks Zimmerman how they have made a success of remote working, given that they are a remote-first organisation.

TZ: I would say the number one thing is, you know, yes, Slack is our client, our partner, but like, first Slack solved our problem of working across all these different locations. Slack is Robots & Pencils’ headquarters. Absolutely. It’s where all the people are. It’s where we can work together on projects. It’s where we build culture. … But that is number one is actually starting with digital and distributed workforce first is like a mental model that I think then just removes a lot of problems.

They do get together, but it isn’t to work, per se:

TZ: We do conference every couple years that we call Robocon, where we take everyone from the entire company and fly them into one location. And we basically work learn and play together for a week. … And that’s, you know, you’re trying to create connection. But at the end of the day, we again, we’re trying to solve for the talent. So where the talent thinks they can do their best work is where they should work.

Back in May 2020 I introduced a weekly ‘random coffees’ initiative into my part of the company. We have around 75 out of 300 staff signed up across six cities, and have had over 2,500 coffees so far. I would argue that we are much more connected than we ever have been in the past, and this was achieved while we were all working remotely.

I’ve noticed that there is a danger of leaving some of the team behind as we talk about returning to our office in London. Globally, we are not all at the same phase of the pandemic. Our attempts at hybrid meetings have shown me what I knew beforehand in that this is the worst of all worlds, confirmed to me afterwards by those people who weren’t physically in the room. We have some Owl devices arriving soon and it will be interesting to see what difference they make.

Trusting staff to meet the needs of their clients

I have heard a lot of discussion about us being where the client wants us to be, and this is clearly important. In a lot of cases, where they want us to be may not be our office. The client may want us to come to them. But you would hope that if your staff are working with clients and are delivering excellent client service, they know exactly where they need to be and will act accordingly. Zimmerman again:

TZ: And I always say [to] the team, I’m like, look, 99% of the time, I’m going to give you so much flexibility you can’t even stand it. Every once in a while, I’m going to call you on a Sunday night, and ask you to get on a plane and be at a client’s office on Monday morning. I have never had a problem with somebody doing that. Because we try to be so accommodating to them. But from a delivery perspective, my clients, Paul, I couldn’t do that, if I didn’t screen for culture on the way in and hire people that could really lead themselves. They themselves will say to me, ‘Hey, I’m gonna fly in I decided Sunday night’ they’re telling me right? ‘Hey, FYI, I’m going to clients late on Monday morning, I booked my travel, you know, let me know if you want to talk’ or whatever, because they’re trying to solve the client’s problems, too.

What the future may look like if we dispel the myths

Back on the podcast with Vicky Volvovski, Paul Ford articulates a vision of the future:

PF: Five years from now, there is a group of people who just like to work together. There are certain projects that are more focused on in person interaction or [in] getting kicked off. And so people are in [the office] working on those. … And the office functions more as an event space and the organization does stuff like seminars, event[s], bringing clients in … And at that point, employees are expected to really be there and participate in those kind of interactions as a group in a structured way. … And then there is ‘headphones on’ design time and engineering time and product management time. We don’t care. You can do that on the space station.

…but we’ll get there slowly. It won’t switch to a utopian, fully optimised future state overnight:

PF: …what we’re doing is we’re waiting for other expectations to change that we can’t control right now. So there are expectations from our employees that we can’t control, there are expectations from our clients and expectations from the world about what an agency is, and what happens. Those are going to evolve. And I think they’re going to evolve in that direction. I’d be really surprised if they evolved into everyone back in the office all the time.

My view is that the best companies will end up in a situation where they:

  1. Hire the best people;
  2. Set some ground rules about what is expected, e.g. be where the client wants them to be, and to participate in-person on team-wide/company-wide event days;
  3. Have an understanding that being in an open-plan office is more about relationship building than getting work done;
  4. Provide a variety of activity-based workspaces in their offices;
  5. Let staff decide where the best place is to be productive on any given day.

Going into the office to work on your own, or to spend time online with your remote colleagues, makes no sense if you have a productive, healthy space to work in at home. Combine an office day with meeting people for lunch or dinner, or going to an event in the evening. Make the trip worth it.

It’ll take a while for us to get there, particularly while the myths persist that in-person working is the ’gold standard’ that we should all aspire to.

  1. It’s been interesting to observe that people are now putting their hands up in our in-person meetings, a change brought about by people getting used to the ‘raise hand’ function in Microsoft Teams. 

Creating a trans-inclusive workplace

I recently joined a lunchtime webinar on Creating a Trans-Inclusive Workplace hosted by BIE Executive. It was a superb discussion with excellent speakers and had me captivated. The session was led by Caroline Paige, the first openly transgender Officer in the UK Armed Forces and Joint CEO of the charity Fighting With Pride. I love reading, hearing and learning things that make me see the world from a different angle, and the experience and advice given by the speakers has been on my mind since the event.

Some things I learned from the webinar (with apologies if I use the wrong terms in places — I am very much a student):

  • The armed forces ban on LGBT+ staff was only lifted in 2000. Fighting With Pride are working to help redress the historical wrongs whose impacts are still being felt today.

Most LGBT+ personnel were dismissed immediately, though until 1996 male personnel also faced time in a military jail. Some gained the criminal record of a sex offence, for having a consensual relationship. They were outed to friends and family, bullied, harassed and assaulted, and commonly court-martialled, forced to resign, or left the services ‘voluntarily’ because of the hostile environment. Medals were ripped from uniforms, people with exceptional service records became nameless, homeless, jobless, and told to never associate with the military again.

  • Being told that “you can stay” in an organisation is not the same as being told that “you’re wanted here.”
  • It isn’t good enough to say that your workplace is a safe place to work, you also have to tell everyone what the benefits of an inclusive workplace are.
  • Just because somebody is LBGT+ doesn’t mean that they want to be on a working group for LBGT+ issues in the workplace, in the same way that a black employee may not want to be giving presentations on Black Lives Matter or fronting events during Black History Month. Many people just want to be employees and not speak for a whole group.
  • There are many points of risk in the processes that we run. If someone who identifies as a different gender to the one they had at birth gets all the way through your interview process, there is a point of vulnerability when they have to hand over a copy of their birth certificate to HR. The HR employee who receives the certificate has a lot of power, and can have a massive impact on the candidate depending on how they handle it.
  • Generally, the experience of trans people who identify as female is very different — and much worse — than those who identify as male. In addition to the stigma of being trans, those identifying as female have misogyny added into the mix.
  • Transitioning medically can be very difficult later in life. Becoming male means that puberty may happen in your 20s or 30s, with all of the physical experiences that go with it such as your voice breaking, acne etc.
  • Workplace policies are really important as they give people protection; they can be used when someone tells you at work that as a trans person you can’t do something.
  • It’s important to present the positives about having trans people in your organisation.
    • It shows that you are an inclusive organisation and inspires other people on how they can fit in.
    • If you have someone who has transitioned in the workplace then you have an employee who is resilient and has been able to deal with lots of big challenges in their life — skills that you would like your leaders to have.
    • Those that have transitioned have unique perspectives, such as knowing what it is like to be male and what it is like to be female at your company.
  • For policies, Stonewall has a lot of excellent resources. The Policy for the Recruitment and Management of Transgender Personnel in the Armed Forces (JSP 889) is also available online.
  • Active Bystander is a useful organisation that teaches people how to intervene if they see something going wrong; techniques that avoid escalation of a situation.
  • Little signals such as wearing a rainbow badge or putting pronouns in your email signature can go a long way. They show that you are a ‘safe person’ to be able to discuss these topics with.
  • It’s important that senior leaders in an organisation are seen to be supporting LBGT+ staff, for example through allowing their images to be used. Having the right messages from the top gives people working at an organisation the confidence that someone senior has their back.
  • If staff at your organisation travel to places which are not openly inclusive, for example countries where it is illegal to be homosexual, it is important that the company tells staff about the risks but also that they will be fully supported.

All of this has got me thinking about the things I can do to promote inclusivity at work. An hour very well spent.

Using a LeanKit board to manage risks

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:

The man section is then broken down into rows for ‘likelihood’, with ‘severity’ columns in each row. The coloured circles in each of the box titles are emojis that are added when editing the title of each box (on Windows use the Windows key plus ‘.’ to bring up the emoji picker, and on a Mac press ‘fn’ or use the Edit > Emoji & Symbols dropdown in the menu bar). We also have a ‘Themes’ section at the top of this lane — more on this later.

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.

The remote or office spectrum

[Note: Based on some useful feedback, I wrote a follow-up to this post.]

I feel so fortunate to have been one of the minority of people in the UK that could work from home during the COVID-19 pandemic. I found the initial stages of the pandemic completely terrifying, and my anxiety continued throughout the whole of 2020 while it seemed that everyone around me was relaxing their guard. I’m grateful to have now had two doses of a vaccine, and based on my perception of relatively low numbers of vaccinated people getting seriously ill, ending up in hospital or passing away, I’ve been tentatively out and about in society again.

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 and care into the decision 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?

I have not heard of anyone that promotes being completely remote, 100% of the time, as ideal. Technology companies such as Automattic (creator of WordPress, which powers around 40% of all websites) or Remember The Milk (creators of a very good to-do list application that I have used for many years) pride themselves on remote working as a core philosophy, but even they bring people physically together on a regular basis. When I read Scott Berkun’s book about his experience of working for Automattic for a year, it was amazing how much of the text was dedicated to their in-person meet-ups.

The founders and leaders of Basecamp also agree:

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.

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:

  1. Everyone physically together beats
  2. Everyone remote, which itself beats
  3. 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.

Where do you work?

When I first joined the WB-40 podcast community a few years ago, the question being asked by co-host Matt Ballantine was whether work is something you do or a place that you go:

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.

The pandemic has accelerated us to a position where ‘work can be anywhere for many of us’ is now true. It has resulted in some interesting observations, such as how remote working allows someone to avoid the post-resignation ‘no-mans land’ at their old employer:

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.

Working online

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.