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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Woke up this morning to the radio talking about the cost of living rising a further 5%. It infuriates me the index that they use for this calculation, which grossly underestimates the real cost of inflation as it happens to people with the least. Allow me to briefly explain.
Delighted to be able to tell you that the @ONS have just announced that they are going to be changing the way they collect and report on the cost of food prices and inflation to take into consideration a wider range of income levels and household circumstances 👊 #VimesBootsIndex
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.
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:
10. This is why hybrid models generate problems. Having half of a meeting’s participants dial in while the rest are co-present around one camera+screen+microphone generates the worst of all worlds because the participants have unequal access to the resources we use to interact.
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:
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:
manage a robust process for determining the work they will do,
make good decisions,
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:
The Enterprise Architecture asset — the collection of capabilities that allows the organisation to function, polished and groomed by the IT team.
The IT people asset — ensuring that the organisation has the right skills.
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:
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 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’man 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
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.
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
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:
Hire the best people;
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;
Have an understanding that being in an open-plan office is more about relationship building than getting work done;
Provide a variety of activity-based workspaces in their offices;
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.
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. ↩
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.
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.
LeanKit is my favourite productivity tool. Our team has been using it for the past couple years to manage our work across a series of Kanban boards. It is super easy to use, and offers a massive amount of flexibility compared to the implementation of Kanban boards in Jira, Trello or Microsoft Planner. You can configure both vertical and horizontal swimlanes, instead of just the vertical columns of tasks that the other tools offer. It is easy to represent your team’s workflow as it feels like the tool is working with you instead of against you.
Recently we have also started to use LeanKit to manage our department’s risks. At our company, we have an Operational Risk framework used across the organisation that looks like this:
The first job is to reproduce this layout in LeanKit so that everyone can relate the board back to the model. The board editor makes this super easy.
Here the typical Kanban setup of ‘to do’, ‘doing’ and ‘done’ is represented by the ‘New Risks’, ‘Current (Residual) Risk — After Mitigation’ and ‘Closed — Ready To Archive’ lanes respectively:
In the ‘New Risks’ column we have a space for a template as well as a ‘For review’ section which has been allocated as the drop lane. By default, new risks will go here when we think of them; we then periodically review them as a team and drag them to the appropriate place on the board.
We then need to configure the board. The Board Settings tab can be used to set a title, description, custom URL and specify who gets access:
In this example, I’m not yet ready to let anyone else use it so I have set the default security to ‘No Access’:
In the Card Types section we define three types of card. The main one is ‘Risk’ but we also create ‘Theme’ to group our risks together. We also left ‘Subtask’ as one of the defaults in case someone wants to use the on-card mini-Kanban board to manage the tasks relating to an individual risk. We pick some colours we like, and delete all of the other default types of card:
We also set up a Custom icon so that we can see at a glance which of our risks are mitigated/accepted, those that we are working on and those where we need to give them attention.
We ensure that every card has one of these custom icons when we create it. During a review we can then filter the board so that, for example, only the red-starred cards appear.
Next we create the template card. First, we set the Card Header to allow custom header text. With templates, I like to leave the board user with instructions such as ‘Copy me!’:
We then create the template card itself. This goes some way to ensuring that all of the new risks get created in a similar way, with similar information. This card will be put into the ‘Template’ section of the board:
In order to distinguish one risk from another, and report them to wherever they need to go, we want each risk to have a unique identifier. We can now go back to the Card Header in the board’s settings and select ‘Auto-incremented Number’ with a header prefix of ‘Risk ‘. This means that new cards added to the board will be called ‘Risk 1’, ‘Risk 2’, ‘Risk 3’ etc.:
The ‘Risk ‘ prefix does have the effect of changing the name of the template card, but this isn’t too confusing:
We can now start adding risks to the board, and linking them to themes as shown below:
Having a visual representation of our risks in this way is so much better than the usual spreadsheet with one risk per row. It’s allowed us to incorporate risk management much more into our day-to-day work. We can assign owners to each risk, and use all of the rich features of LeanKit such as adding comments, due dates etc.
If we decide a risk needs to be reclassified in terms of its likelihood or severity, we simply drag the card to the new location on the board. The card itself will keep a history of its journey in its audit log. If we absolutely have to submit our risks in a spreadsheet somewhere, we can export the board contents as a CSV file and format it in Excel.
The best thing about managing the risks in this way is that we can link any mitigation work directly to the risks themselves. Where we agree a follow-up action, we create a task cards on the appropriate team Kanban boards and then link each of those cards to the risk — the risk card becomes the parent card of the task. In this way, we can see at a glance all of our risks and track the work as it gets completed across the organisation.
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?
Back in August, my company organised a get-together in Hyde Park for all of our London staff. For many people, it was their first time getting back on a train into Central London since we first locked down. At the event, people expressed very different views about how much they thought that we need to be back in the office, but everyone seemed to enjoy being together again. More than one person commented that they were happy working from home, but they hadn’t realised just how much they had missed their colleagues.
My conclusion is that it seems to make sense to be in the same place with your team, or your organisation, for at least some points in the year. But how much is the right amount?
All about me
On a personal level, aside from the terror of a deadly disease sweeping through the population, I think that I am going to have very positive memories of my experience during the pandemic. Partly I think this is because I am wearing rose-tinted glasses — I was extremely anxious for a lot of 2020, and this has definitely abated since my vaccination — but looking back I can see so many positive things to take from the lockdown.
I am a 44-year-old man who has spent 22 years at work. I have two (almost) teenage children and a wife who doesn’t currently work long hours at her job. For many years my usual pattern of work was to leave the house at 7am, commute into London, spend the majority of my day in meetings, and then to work late in order to catch up with emails and messages, and to get other work done. So many times I would grab a sandwich for dinner on the way home and arrive back after the children were asleep. Sometimes I might go a couple of days without seeing them. The lockdown forced me to see that my staying late in order to be productive had been at the expense of seeing my family. Obvious, perhaps, but I hadn’t really felt it until I’d experienced the alternative.
Ah, the joys of an Upper Crust Taw Valley Cheddar & Tomato baguette for dinner. Like an old familiar and slightly stale friend.
We are so fortunate to have a house that is just the right size to ensure that we all regularly bump into each other but also to be able to get out of each other’s way. I have a comfortable space to work undisturbed with an excellent Internet connection. During the lockdown, I swapped my morning commute for exercise and I’m now the fittest I have ever been in my life. In the past 18 months, I’ve eaten dinner with my wife almost every night. My boys and I have much better relationships for me having been around — the proportion of poor-quality time spent with them moaning about picking things up and keeping the house tidy is much lower than it otherwise would have been. I feel so lucky to have been present as my eldest son moved into his teenage years.
Now that I’ve experienced all of this, it’s a lot to give up.
Being in an office
Since I started working with my current employer in 2017, my immediate team has always been global. We support and partner with our business colleagues in cities all over the world. Pre-pandemic, it was rare for a meeting not to involve one or more people dialling in. Before Teams became so central to our day-to-day work we used BlueJeans for video calling, and I was regularly in the top three monthly users of our 55,000-person strong organisation. Many times we’ve wrestled with meetings that involved a myriad of connections, usually wasting time at the start, connecting from large meeting rooms in our main offices as well as the odd person dialling in from home or more exotic places like the back of a taxi as it travelled along streets of Hong Kong. The pandemic has been a great leveller in that it pushed us all into our individual ‘Brady Bunch’-style video boxes, and now everyone joins our meetings on an equal footing. Colleagues in other locations have told me that their experience is much better now that they have an equal seat at the table and aren’t battling to contribute while a group of people in a meeting room have a discussion amongst themselves.
Going back to the office will mean a return to hybrid meetings, which in my mind are the worst kind. There is a hierarchy of good meeting configurations:
Everyone physically together beats
Everyone remote, which itself beats
Some together and some remote.
People are now used to putting their virtual hands up in a Teams or Zoom meeting, but what does that look like when ‘the room’ puts a hand up? Matt Ballantine has recently experimented with a hybrid workshop and his conclusion is that it can work, but it needs a lot of planning and moderation, something that we won’t have the luxury of putting in place for most of the meetings that we have. My view is that we should be encouraging people to think about what kind of meeting they are running and how they will set it up to be effective and inclusive. As technologists, we should be leading the way in showing people how to use tools such as digital whiteboards and tablet devices more effectively, bridging the gap to the utopia of all being able to be in the same place.
All teams in our London office have selected a ‘team day’ where they will be together physically during the return to office experiment. A few months ago our entire global organisation implemented ’step-back Wednesdays’, where we don’t schedule any internal meetings. If the goal of being in the same physical space together is collaboration and culture, this seems like the ideal day for us to be together. Other days are inevitably filled with meetings, almost always with someone who is not based in the same country, so we’d be stuck at our desks on Teams calls. Using Wednesdays to collaborate means that we miss out on the ‘deep work’ focus time for which they were intended, so we’ll need to see how we get on.
The office is a great leveller in that everyone has the same space to work in, no matter whether they live in a palace or a studio flat. Having space at home is a luxury, one that many people miss out on. This may play a significant role in how often someone wants to work in the office:
“For me it [working from home] means I now sit on the sofa 16 hours a day as there is nowhere else in a small flat to work. It is uncomfortable, not like sitting at a desk and my hands and arms sometimes hurt. I miss the office banter, working from home when you live on your own and in lockdown is very isolating. It is all email and not much conversation, or if it is – it’s a meeting that is much more painful to do over zoom or skype or whatever.” Woman, 60s, London… (Source: Demos — Distanced Revolution: Employee experiences of working from home during the pandemic, June 2021)
There are many other factors at play too. An office may be a safe space for some, removing themselves from difficult or violent relationships at home. The Demos report also highlights that not all home working is equal; people in higher-paid jobs are likely to have a much better time of it than those on low incomes. Some may also experience the added stress of employee surveillance such as presence and content monitoring. I am lucky in that I am able to pay for a good home broadband connection; with inflation starting to take hold again in the UK, people on low incomes may be forced to make difficult choices.
A close friend of mine works for a very well-known giant technology company, and we were reflecting on our thoughts about returning to the office. He was a much bigger enthusiast than I was. Putting aside any fears about being on a train full of unvaccinated anti-mask commuters (of which there are many), I could see why:
His office is walking distance from the mainline station that we both travel into so he doesn’t need to take the tube; his train fare is almost £10 cheaper per day than mine.
He gets three free meals a day, along with endless snacks and barista-made coffee on tap.
He can wear his regular clothes instead of business attire, and therefore doesn’t need to spend money on regular dry cleaning.
His office has incredible facilities, including a running track, music room, rooftop cafe and many more things besides.
My office is a beautiful space in an incredible location, but it doesn’t quite compare on any of these fronts.
I think that in general there may be stages of life where people want to be more present in an office. The version of me in my early 20s, living in a tiny studio flat in London, would desperately want to have the structure of travelling to work every day. Living in such a small place, consisting of one sleeping/kitchen room and a tiny bathroom, was terrible for my mental health. The office was a big part of my social life; making friends in a big city can be hard. Now that I have a family and a bigger space to roam around in, my mental health is so much better and I don’t feel a desire to be at the office as much. If and when the children leave home, I may feel that I want to be back at the office a little more.
It will be interesting to see what the labour market norms and expectations will be in the future. It may be that people entering the workforce for the first time would prefer to work remotely, or at least be within a legal framework that allows them to work remotely by default, with the onus being on the employer to prove that the job needs to be done from an office some or all of the time. I can see a case being made for people wanting to be based anywhere in the country — or the world — so that they can afford to buy a property and lead the lifestyle they want outside of work as well. Some people are concerned that if a job can be done from anywhere, the person hired for that job could be hired from anywhere too, putting their roles at risk. At a macro level, I believe this ‘flattening’ of the world is something to be embraced; assuming that rich countries should keep hold of all of the high-paying good jobs doesn’t feel right. We might try and fight it individually, but this trend has been coming for some time and is unlikely to stop.
Obligations to each other
If we assume, possibly incorrectly, that the people at the start and towards the end of their careers are the ones who want to be at the office and we just let that happen, what would the impact be? What obligations do those of us in the middle of our careers have to our colleagues to be ‘present’ in a broader sense than just at the end of a phone, email, instant message or virtual meeting? I learned the ropes of work through observing other people and how they themselves interact with others, like Corporal Barnes in A Few Good Men:
One of the concerns about moving to being completely remote is a breakdown or erosion of company culture. Wikipedia tells me that:
Ravasi and Schultz (2006) characterise organizational culture as a set of shared assumptions that guide behaviors. It is also the pattern of such collective behaviors and assumptions that are taught to new organizational members as a way of perceiving and, even thinking and feeling. Thus organizational culture affects the way people and groups interact with each other, with clients, and with stakeholders. In addition, organizational culture may affect how much employees identify with an organization.
I don’t think that just learning how the company does things through reading manuals, watching videos or having formal interactions in meetings are sufficient by themselves to adequately absorb the culture of an organisation. Intuitively, there is a lot of value in being able to observe the ambient behaviour of your colleagues every day. A week’s business trip abroad to another office has immeasurable value to create a frame of reference for how that part of the company operates.
Distribution made us more resilient
From a technology perspective, one of the major advantages of having a distributed workforce has been that IT issues tend to only impact a single person at a time. A failure in a firewall or Wi-Fi system at the office can take everybody offline, whereas an issue with a home router or even a regional Internet provider outage is unlikely to be a widespread problem. Working remotely made our technology setup more resilient.
But the world of work is becoming much more ambiguous. Whereas twenty years ago workplace was boundaried by the limitations of availability of equipment and people, information technology has broken those dependencies. When work was a place, charging by the hour made sense. The concept of “Compensation” (what a shit term that is) to reward you in return for your physical presence.
Today work can be anywhere for many of us. For many of us we are taking advantage of that. For many others they are being taken advantage of.
Over the last three months, our new Technical Architect unconstrained by physical location has been ramping down his old job and ramping up his new. He’s been attending new team meetings when old team commitments allowed, and generally getting his head around the new place. The last two weeks of his old job were actually quite busy as his former colleagues stepped out of denial that he was actually leaving, but otherwise the transition has felt far smoother than the usual new employer experience of “3 months of waiting”.
None of this would have been possible if not for the fact that both old and new employers were working completely remotely throughout.
I’ve come to the conclusion that my answer to the question of ‘where do you work?’ is now ‘online’. Being forced to work digitally has many advantages. I remember pre-pandemic that we might have an impromptu discussion in our London office that would lead to some important decisions or action points. A number of days later we might realise that nobody wrote down and published what was discussed, so everyone who wasn’t in that office at that moment was out of the loop. Being remote means that you are more deliberate about communicating, and the chances of someone in a different office not knowing what’s going on is vastly reduced.
The main contact at one of our key vendors got in touch a couple of weeks ago to see about meeting up in person. Pre-pandemic, I had already developed a preference for meeting via Teams as opposed to asking people to travel to our office for an hour. If we had work to discuss then we should do it remotely as it would save both of us time. But if the reason for meeting up is to be social and build on our relationship, getting together in person makes sense.
I don’t see working primarily online as a net negative. For all of the reasons that my life has improved since we locked down, I prefer working remotely to going to the office. The technology to bring us closer together, towards the experience of all being in the same room despite being physically remote from each other, is only going to get better as time goes on. With all the recent talk of metaverses, my bet is that while our need for connection and developing a common culture will remain, the need to be physically together will gradually disappear, allowing us to be wherever we want to be and to pursue as fulfilling a life ‘outside of work’ as we want to. It will be interesting to see what norms emerge.
I had set my alarm early, but woke up before it went off. After leaving the office on 23 March 2020, I was going back. My company have asked for people so start formally returning from the end of September, but the office is already open for those that want to use it now. I figured that it would be good to test the water before everyone is back. Meeting up with my boss, some colleagues and a whiteboard to try and make sense of where we are and where we are going work-wise seemed like a good excuse to go in.
One of the best things about working from home is that for the first time in my life I’ve been able to develop a regular exercise habit, either getting on my bike trainer or going for a run most days. At the weekend I noticed that this year I have covered more exercise distance than at any other point in my life. It didn’t feel great to miss out on exercise today, despite being up earlier than usual to get ready for the commute. As I wandered from my house to the train station I was already missing being at home.
Take *that*, 2015!
Regretting the journey, five minutes in.
The station was dead. Usually there is a long queue for the ticket machine; I expected this to be longer than usual if people had ditched their season tickets. But there was nobody there. The car park was nearly empty. On the platform, where previously there would have been hundreds of people milling about I counted less than 20.
Where *is* everybody?
Barely anyone to the left of me…
…barely anyone to the right.
I have heard horror stories of people being stuck in COVID carriages where fellow passengers had long since abandoned their masks. Happily, this wasn’t the case on my journey, with about 95% of people that I could see all sporting masks of various shapes and sizes. The train was extremely quiet, and although we picked up what seemed to be quite a few passengers all the way into London Euston, I ended up getting to the end of the journey with a still vacant seat next to me.
Oooh, new trains!
Taken as we pulled into Euston. I wasn’t the only one with a vacant seat next to me.
At the other end, the usually bustling streets of Euston Road were far less busy than usual, and the tube station was quiet too. I almost had to double-check that it was the middle of the week.
Euston Road, as it usually looks on a Sunday.
Euston Square tube
It looked like this up and down the train.
Arriving at Moorgate was discombobulating. The modernisation work on the station had come on significantly, and there is now a shiny new entrance that I had to navigate. It took me a few seconds to get my bearings and point my feet in the direction of the office.
A shiny new Moorgate, emerging from the construction work.
At the office I was greeted by a new layout in the lobby, with plastic screens shielding the receptionists and a large temperature sensor that had to give me the all-clear before I could be let in. My pass didn’t work; I had become a permanent employee during lockdown and needed to get a new card that reflected my change in employment status. After a little bit of admin to validate that I really did still work there, I was given my new key and was let in.
After so long out of the office, it felt strange to be back, but also like I had never been away. Everything was pretty much just as we had left it over five hundred days ago, with only some additional signage to indicate that we had been through (or are still in) a pandemic.
I’ve missed this view.
Some of my IT colleagues were in the office, and I found myself listening to a conversation that someone was having with a coworker in Johannesburg. I wandered over to contribute to the discussion, and realised that this is the sort of thing that I had been missing out on. With a handful of us in the office this kind of ‘distraction’ was valuable, but with more of us it could easily get frustrating; I was reminded of times where I had sat at my desk with noise-cancelling headphones covering my ears, playing ambient cafe sounds to drown out the words around me.
One of the perks of going in before everyone else returns is the free food and drink currently on offer. It was brilliant to get a good morning coffee again along with a cooked lunch. I found out that I’d turned up on bean burger and curly fries day — perhaps not the best idea when I’d done less exercise than usual, but I had to have them. I’d missed them.
Bad, but *so* good.
Wednesdays are usually meeting-free but today was unusual in that we had a couple in the diary. We fired up our Surface Hub in our collaboration space and joined a ‘town hall’ discussion with the CEO of our Angola office. It felt good to be sitting there with other people as we watched the session, with everyone else dialling in remotely, particularly as we were passive participants in the meeting. One of our colleagues wanted to ask a question, and it was interesting to see him go back to his desk and dial-in to Teams separately to ask it.
Getting together in the afternoon with a few of my colleagues to talk about the bigger picture of what we are doing was superb. This is the reason to go back. We didn’t solve it all — far from it — but we offloaded a lot of our thoughts to each other and made an excellent start.
I ended the day at around half-six, the last person in the office, and wandered back to Moorgate. Again the tube and train were very quiet, although I did see quite a few more maskless travellers than in the morning.
I think it is going to take some time to get a balance back again. Working from home permanently is definitely not ideal, but I am not sure how much time in the office is the sweet spot, particularly when half of my immediate team are located in other countries. But I’m confident we’ll work it out, and I’m glad I took the first steps back today.
With the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks fast approaching, the TV schedules are filled with lots of programmes related to the event. This week we watched Surviving 9/11, a moving documentary that gives an insight into some of the lives that were directly impacted by the horrors of that day. The range of people featured in the film, and the ways in which they have survived and coped — to varying degrees — with the aftermath of the trauma, were delicately and thoughtfully presented.
It’s a cliche to say that it seems like yesterday, but it’s true. On the day of the attack I was in London, sitting at my desk, filling out a form to try and make a case for getting myself transferred to work in New York on a company assignee scheme. The bank that I worked for had recently bought a large US-based brokerage firm and we were getting a programme off the ground to integrate our two HR systems. That August, I had been to New York on a business trip and had started to build relationships with our new colleagues. Much earlier, when I started at the company in 1999, I had met a bunch of New York-based fellow graduates and made some solid friendships. I was enthused to think about spending time with them all in a new and exciting place.
Early that afternoon, I read a glib message about the first plane crash on our internal chat system and we all turned our attention to the news websites. I don’t think much work got done after that. At some point I had to walk across the city to another of our buildings for a seminar about the company pension fund. I knew it was going to be about as interesting as it sounded, but I felt obliged to go. On my way I saw scores of people standing outside office lobbies, staring through the glass to watch the news on the TV screens. At some point, somebody came into the seminar and told us that everyone was being sent home. It was weird — New York was so far away, but we somehow all felt as though we were connected to it. Nobody was sure that there wouldn’t be a similar attack in London. I packed my bag, jumped on the tube and then stayed up watching the TV until the early hours, hitting refresh on the Metafilter thread to find out what was going on via my dial-up Internet connection at home.
An American friend of mine had just moved from London to New York, and years later he wrote up his experience of that day. Re-reading it now brings back more memories. I moved to Manhattan exactly two months later on 11 November 2001. It was a strange time; when I arrived there I felt a little as though I was an outsider intruding on a shocked and numb city. I lived on my own, and spent many evenings walking for miles just to be around people. The bus shelters were still filled with candles and photos of missing friends and relatives.
My new office was in Weehawken, New Jersey, a ferry ride across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was open plan, with glass-walled single-person offices around the edges for the senior managers on each floor. One of those was kept locked — the occupant had been tragically killed by the first plane crash as he waited for a bus to work outside the World Trade Center. In the weeks to come, I overheard my new colleagues talking in hushed but animated tones about whether his office should be left alone out of respect or cleared out so that they could move on. I couldn’t share their pain as I had never met him.
In the year I spent in New York the demand for flights from London was understandably low and tickets were cheap; consequently I had many friends and family come to visit. I loved having a stream of guests to entertain and take on a tour of the city. Some of them wanted to go down to the World Trade Center. I didn’t want to go, but I did accompany them. It felt somehow macabre to go and look. It was already a tourist destination, despite the memorial being some years away.
The two decades have passed in a flash. Watching the documentary this week reminded me of how primitive things were back then and how long ago it was. Analogue video tape recordings from the events of that day. VoiceStream being the only phone network that provided a local GSM service, on handsets with tiny displays. No mobile web as we know it now, and no Facebook or Twitter to share status updates. I still had to email or call my friends and family if I wanted to catch up. In the past couple of years I have worked with a colleague who was born after 9/11, which was difficult to get my head around at first. I guess this is what getting old feels like.
My year in New York was a seminal time for me and I think about it often. The integration programme was a great success and I learned a lot from working with some wonderful colleagues, many of whom I still speak to. My girlfriend came to visit a number of times before eventually quitting her job and coming to live with me. We came back to London together and got married less than two years later.
Twenty years on, the mental and emotional impact of 9/11 is unsurprisingly still raw for those people directly impacted by the horrors of that day. Surviving 9/11 offered a moving and sensitive insight into this. I feel very privileged to have been able to have made my own memories of the city during those fragile months.
Finished reading The Year Without Pants by Scott Berkun. I picked this up as I’ve started to think about the potential shift back to the office as the pandemic abates here in the UK.
I’d previously read and enjoyed Berkun’s Confessions Of A Public Speaker. He has a very readable style with an honest approach to his writing, and that is also true of this book. It’s a quick read.
The book documents his life as an employee of Automattic, the company that runs wordpress.com. He worked there in 2011–2012, a time which feels like it was only yesterday, but clearly isn’t. I think this is a consequence of me getting old. Everything feels like yesterday as time speeds up.) At that time, the company had grown to 50 staff, an inflexion point where they felt that they needed to move away from a completely flat structure to having small teams. Berkun was appointed by the CEO, Matt Mullenweg, as team lead for group that developed the social features of WordPress. He’d agreed to join for at least a year, on the condition that he could write this book about his experiences. It’s interesting to note that ten years on the company has now ballooned to 1,486 employees.
The book gave me food for thought, but not always in the way that I was expecting. It isn’t a book of tips and tricks. As one Goodreads reviewer said:
It’s interesting that a book about the author’s experience working for a company with a distributed work model focuses so much on his time spent with his team during in person meet-ups.
In our Teams, Zoom and WebEx-fuelled existence of today it is difficult to remember how things worked ten years ago. In the book, the Automattic teams depend on IRC text-based chat, Skype and writing on their team blogs (known as P2s), as well as a little bit of email. Back in 2006 when I was working at a large investment bank I remember some of the executives getting desktop videoconferencing; a very expensive affair involving dedicated hardware at their office desks. We now carry this capability wherever we have a computer, tablet or smartphone. It would be great to understand what impact this technological shift has had within the company.
Almost nobody at my current firm would consider themselves to be a blogger, but writing has snuck in the back door in the form of threads on Teams channels. I see people using Teams chats and channels very differently, with the former being ephemeral, ongoing conversations similar to Automattic’s IRC, and the channel posts being longer-lived items under a common topic. Any further chat on that topic is effectively a comments thread.
There were a few passages in the book that really resonated with me. In the past I’ve said to team managers that “the reason the team are laughing at your joke is that you’re the boss”, something that nobody likes to hear but is often true. The power wielded by people in charge can be wielded on chats and blogs too, and there is a real danger from dipping in and out. It’s not clear whether the CEO was conscious of this:
An example was something that came to be known as “Matt bombing.” This was when a team was working on something on a P2, heading in one direction. Then late in the thread, often at a point where some people felt there was already rough consensus, Matt would drop in, leave a comment advocating a different direction, and then disappear (not necessarily intentionally). Sometimes these posts were cryptic, for two reasons. First, it wasn’t clear if he was merely offering an opinion for consideration or giving an order, and even if it was an order, it wasn’t clear what the order was. Other times it was unclear how much of the thread he’d read or what his counterarguments were that led to his disagreement. Matt was brilliant, but it was hard to believe he had the same depth of understanding on every aspect on the thread that those on the project did.
This isn’t quite as bad as the Jeff Bezos ‘question mark email’, but it would still leave staff guessing about what was meant. I assume that if everyone had been together and weren’t working asynchronously via blogs there would have been room for some quick clarifying questions. Could you just call Mullenweg up to ask? I assume not, and Berkun identifies the lack of co-working space as muting the understanding that develops in an organisation in terms of how to go about challenging and questioning those people in positions of authority:
Most companies have confusing politics about who is allowed to disagree with whom and how they’re allowed to do it. However, in conventional workplaces, everyone gets to observe how their boss handles different situations and how other leaders challenge and convince them.
This past year of home working has left me feeling both better and worse about different aspects of my day-to-day life. Berkun nails it when he talks about remote work resulting in the highs and lows being more muted than before:
But the best things about workplaces, like sharing an epiphany after working for hours at a whiteboard, were gone too. Working remotely mellowed everything out, dropping the intensity of both the highs and the lows. Depending on your previous experience, this made things better or worse.
Being at home when there is an occasional drama going on has been much healthier, but I do miss collaborating with the team and the little jokes and amusing incidents that peppered the days.
I did make emotional connections with my team, just as I would if I were working with them in the same building every day. But that connection was fueled and recharged by the intensity of our meet-ups. Rarely did I think our work suffered because we were working remotely. But I did have times where I thought our work would be even better if we were in the same place and time more often.
There’s definitely something about being in the same place with everyone on a regular basis. However, pre-pandemic my existence mainly consisted of sitting on desktop video calls in our office for most of the day, talking to our global team. I am hoping the days of doing this five days a week are now in the past. For me the advantages of working from home — exercising every day, seeing my wife and children, saving money on commuting and avoiding the stress of the terrible train service — makes it my preferred option.
Many Automatticians, including Mullenweg, believe that distributed work is the best possible arrangement. I don’t quite agree. There is personal preference involved in how people want to work and what they expect to get from it. For me, I know that for any important relationship, I’d want to be physically around that person as much as possible. If I started a rock band or a company, I’d want to share the same physical space often. The upsides outweigh the downsides. However, if the people I wanted to work with were only available remotely, I’m confident we could do great work from thousands of miles away.
I think his conclusion nails it, but doesn’t leave any easy answers for companies looking for a model to turn to post-pandemic. If we agree that remote can work, how much choice should employees get? It’s one thing to decide for a company where everyone is a technologist and does a similar job, but quite another with a less homogenous workforce — should it be one rule for one team and something different for another?
A worthwhile read, and one that I regret getting to so late. I’d love to read a follow-up ten years on.
Since early last year, my team at work have been doing something which has made a big difference to how we keep aligned with each other, and how we see ourselves.
On Friday afternoon we get together to share our ‘wins’. There is a broad definition of what constitutes a win, but generally it is either:
Anything we have got over the line and finished off
Anything we’ve learnt in the past week
We go around each of our sub-teams in the room and I make a note of the essence of what gets said. This then gets posted onto an ongoing Teams thread for everyone to see:
The idea was sparked from the book Radical Focus by Christina Wodtke:
We have found that the session has all of the positive benefits pointed out by Wodtke in her book — the team look for wins, feel like they are part of a winning team and hear about what people have achieved. People know what is going on across the team, and it has been excellent for team morale. We also have a great record of our achievements to look back on, especially useful when it comes to writing our annual self-appraisals.
It was a struggle today. I only managed just over four hours’ sleep last night. I was up just very early this morning in order to fit my indoor bike trainer session in before an early work meeting.
I’m very surprised it was as high as 67%!
I had planned to go to bed earlier, but we have a young teenager who has just moved into the ‘not tired at night’ phase and it doesn’t yet feel right to leave him to shut down the house while we ascend the wooden hill.
Due to the lockdown I am missing the hour of walking that used to be part of my daily commute to and from the office, so since March I’ve been prioritising exercise on most days. I enjoy exercise for its own sake, but it’s also motivating that there are numerous articles about how desk-based jobs are literally killing us:
Both the total volume of sedentary time and its accrual in prolonged, uninterrupted bouts are associated with all-cause mortality, suggesting that physical activity guidelines should target reducing and interrupting sedentary time to reduce risk for death.
What makes business so hard is that success is not simply about top-line revenue — I could sell dollar bills for 90 cents and achieve incredible revenue numbers — but rather about building something that sustainably delivers profits