The perils of working from home

For those of you who have spent the last week tramping through the mountains outside Queenstown (it’s the only place I’ve recently come across that is completely devoid of an internet connection) the latest viral video on the net has been the interview of Professor Robert Kelly by the BBC. While a discussion about the impeachment of South Korean president would not normally be considered an internet sensation, when your two kids and your wife play an unexpected cameo in the background, well, then shit blows up!

So why is this such a big deal?*

*and is this blog making it an even bigger one?

As someone who spends a good 70% of my time working from a studio in the backyard, I’d like to think I’m qualified to talk about the perils of working from home…and this ain’t one of them. This is not to say I don’t get visits from my kids while I’m in Skype meetings. In fact, this happens all the time. I just don’t think it should be a big deal. To be honest, I love it when my girls visit me in my office. I love that they get to see what I do and meet some of the amazing people I work with. I also love that the childish curiosity that compels them to put their head in front of the camera and wave to whomever is on the screen provides a dose of reality, and humanity, to my work.

So if this isn’t one of the perils of working from home, what are (and how can you overcome them)?

  1. Distraction. A little bit of distraction is OK, constant distraction is bad. Working from the kitchen table when the TV’s on, people are talking or kids are screaming is hardly an environment for doing good work. Solution? You need to have a dedicated work place with a door that can be closed when necessary.
  2. Ergonomics. Because home is often a secondary workplace, we often don’t take ergonomics as seriously as we do ‘at the office’. But regardless of where you work, there is still a duty of care requirement that needs to be met. Solution? If you’re going to work at home regularly you need a decent desk and a decent chair (but you can pay for this out of all the money you save on fuel/parking/public transport).
  3. Internet. Working from home regularly means that you will be accessing more data, and wanting it faster. I’m a big believer in using Skype to build and maintain relationships and you don’t want your internet speed to ruin your catch-ups. Solution? Move to Mount Eliza with me where you get super fast fibre to the home NBN…or at least consider upgrading your data plan, modem and wifi to get the most out of where you currently are.
  4. Presentation. One thing that was clear in Robert Kelly’s video was that he was working from his spare room, you could even see the bed in the corner of the shot. Think about how you present to others in your video calls and make an effort to present as professionally as possible. Solution? The minimum is to have decent lighting and reasonable sound but you should also avoid using your laptop camera (unless you like the up nostril look and want to show of your ceiling cornices) and think about the backdrop.
  5. Listening to the radio. On most days my commute to work is about thirty seconds and as a result I rarely get to listen to the radio in my car any more. Is this a big deal for me? Not at all. I actually just wanted to reiterate that I get to save a couple of hours each day travelling to and from work, which is time I then get to spend at home with my family and friends. If you like your family and friends, you should try working from home more as well.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

An Unstoppable Force and an Immovable Object

What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object? Ultimately, a lot of energy gets consumed for very little result. Of course most objects are not truly immovable and if we apply enough force we can get our way. But much of this energy is wasted and, if we’d used it elsewhere, it is likely we could have achieved so much more.

In the Digital Champions Club we try and avoid projects that require people to be coerced rather than be convinced. There are so many improvement opportunities out there. You can generally cherry pick ones where each and every stakeholder is a winner. When you find these projects, people that might have otherwise seemed immovable are suddenly anxious for the project to start, thankful when it has been completed and interested in whatever you propose next.

The best way to deal with immovable objects is not to apply more force, it’s to show them it’s in their own best interest to get out of the way.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

A Minimalist Approach to Technology Part II

If you’re considering a minimalist approach to technology it is important to distinguish between technology minimalism and minimalist technology. If you’re feeling distracted, frustrated and otherwise overwhelmed by technology one of these options is potentially far more valuable to you than the other.

For those who have missed the hype from the Mobile World Congress Nokia has announced that it is releasing an updated version of the Nokia 3310. With over 126 million of the handsets sold (and at least one of them still in use) The Nokia 3310 is perhaps one of the worlds most iconic phones. It was near indestructible (check out the ‘Nokia 3310 crash test’ meme), had a massive battery life and included the classic game Snakes II…

…No really, if you read the press about the re-release of the 3310, these are the three things that people remember about the 3310, because pretty much that was all there was to say about the phone. The 3310 had a 84 x 84 pixel monochrome screen, there was no browser, no ability to sync your calendar or address book (each phone number needed to to be entered individually using tiny, difficult to use keys), no music player,  no camera, no maps…it was just a phone.

OK, maybe the “it is just a phone” sounds appealing. Maybe all we need is a phone? And this would be true as long as you still carry a Filofax with you, take photos with your old film camera and have a street directory tucked under the front seat of your car. This was life in the year 2000 when the 3310 was first released, and if you haven’t moved on from those days then perhaps this is the perfect handset for you. This is minimalist technology. It’s that one thing that does things well and most other things badly.

Ultimately it fails to recognise the inter dependencies between the different tasks and activities we undertake and the opportunities to save time and frustration by connecting them.

Want to visit your friend Jill? In the Nokia 3310 world you would need to look up your address book, enter Jill’s number in your phone, call Jill, look up your address book again to get Jill’s address, get out you’re map book, look up the address in the map book, find right map and coordinates, start driving, get lost, look up map book again, call Jill to describe where you are etc etc etc.

Or, get out your phone, tell Siri/Google “call Jill” then tell Siri/Google “Directions to Jill’s house”, drive.

The nostalgia we feel for devices such as the 3310 is reflects a desire for simplicity, but it is a fallacy to think that we can achieve this by buying yet another device. In this is the distinction between technology minimalism and minimalist technology. Rather than have our choices made by our technology, we should make choices for ourselves. We need to choose whether we check emails when we should be with family and friends. We need to choose how long we want to spend scrolling through Facebook. We need to choose to turn off our notifications and just enjoy dinner.

Einstein maybe once said (no one is really sure) ‘Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler’, but if we are to seek simplicity we risk oversimplifying something that is necessarily complex. A better adage for the digital age, and perhaps the ultimate objective of technology minimalism is ‘Make everything as complex as necessary but no more complex’
…unless of course you’re the hipster type that still wants to carry a Filofax.
This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

A Minimalist Approach to Technology Part I

I recently watched a documentary on Netflix called ‘The Minimalists’. It’s the story of two 20-somethings, Joshua Fields Millburn & Ryan Nicodemus, who decide to forgo their high-paying, high-pressure corporate jobs and pursue a life of less stuff. Along the way, they’ve shared their experience through their blog theminimalists.com, written a few books and now done a documentary. Clearly there is something here that resonates with people.

If I was to boil down the idea of minimalism to just one sentence it would be something like ‘get rid of the stuff that you don’t use, that doesn’t serve you, or doesn’t bring you joy’…and ever since reading the blog I’ve been wondering what it might mean to apply that same thinking to technology. So, like any good technology aficionado I did a google search to find out what I could about technology minimalism (these are three that might be worth a look The minimalist approach to technology, Minimalism and technology, How to be a technology minimalist).

A lot of what has been written focuses on technology as an enabler of minimalism. The ability to take big things, like CD and DVD collections, and make them really small, like files on a hard-drive, can help us declutter our physical spaces. Secondly, subscription services such as Netflix, Spotify or Apple Music mean that we can avoid ownership all together and just get our entertainment on demand.* On the surface this appears to be a good thing but it doesn’t necessarily address the underlying mental clutter we face when choosing which movie to watch. In fact, it potentially makes the situation worse. With the subscription services listed above the amount of choice and mental clutter can grow exponentially larger again.

*In fact it’s not just our entertainment we can get on demand it is also our cars via Zipcar, GoGet or Uber, our holiday houses via Stayz or AirBnB or even our tools via Open Shed

The other, less written about angle, is how we might take a minimalist approach to using our technology. This is not necessarily about using it less, it is about using it in a way that is more intentional and realising that our technology needs will change over time (though if we were to apply the ‘don’t use, doesn’t serve, no joy’ test many of us would probably end up using it less as well). In one of their posts The Minimalists allude to this point, a chainsaw could be used for chopping down a tree that threatens to fall on your house, or it could be used for carving up a neighbour (their example not mine). At the end of the day the chainsaw is just a tool and we need to be responsible for its good use.*

*But unlike a chainsaw, our modern digital tools come with built-in mechanisms to make us use them more. These include push notifications and game mechanics similar to those found in poker machines, all to encourage more technology use,  rather than the right amount (I’ve written before that the worst technology is not the hard and useful stuff, it’s the easy and useless)

So this is an exercise for getting rid of unwanted apps that I have recently undertaken myself (it’s based on a method for cleaning out your wardrobe in the book Simplify by Joshua Becker). Go through each of your apps and decide whether they meet the following criteria: Do you use them? Do they serve you? Do they bring you joy?

If they do put them on either the first or second page of your home screen (the first page should be reserved for “essential” apps), and if they don’t, delete them. If you’re not sure, which I imagine could be a large number of apps, move them to a third or fourth page, this become app purgatory. If over the next three months you find yourself using one of these apps over and over again then it might find its way back onto the front two pages, if not you can then delete it, safe in the knowledge that you can always download it again if necessary.

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Should we be doing a thirty hour week?

I grew up in Cervantes, a small fishing town in Western Australia where my dad was lobster fishing. One thing that my dad would always do on his boats (especially if someone else was going to be driving it) was limit the revs (or speed) that the engine could run at. If you rev an engine higher for longer you not only use more fuel, you also increase the rate of internal wear and the risk of long term damage. By artificially restricting the revs to an optimal level, the engine would operate more efficiently in the short term and be more reliable in the long term.

I think one of the big challenges we face with technology is that it’s allowing people to rev both faster and longer. Not only are we trying to get more done in each and every moment, we are also taking our work home with us and continuing it after hours and on the weekend. In the short term we might feel that we’re getting more done but we are experiencing diminishing returns on the time we invest, and over the long term there is potential for some serious damage to be done.

A recent study showed that workers in smaller Australian mid sized businesses were doing an average of 10.7 hours per week outside of normal business hours. As a business owner, these free hours might sound awesome but the truth is many of these hours are not that productive. In fact for the average worker doing an eight hour day only three hours of those are generally spent doing meaningful work.

Over the long term, our inability to disconnect is also impacting the quality of our relationships and in turn our happiness, health and well being. This in turn has a negative impact on our work. Those who work 55 hours a week rather than 40 were 21% less engaged and 27% less focused, often compelling them to put in a few extra hours to make up for the unproductive ones…

…and oh how the vicious circle continues especially now we are always connected, always contactable, always on.

So what’s the alternative? Well a Swedish software company Filimundus last year experimented with reducing the work day to six hours (whilst paying their people the same money). It has been successful enough that they plan to continue it and anecdotally report that there has been no perceivable drop in productivity i.e. their people are generating as much output from six hour as they use to get from eight…and they are more happy and engaged when they do it.

This is the same experiment that my team and I have now embarked on. Can we reduce our hours, improve our quality of life and still get the important work done? We are only a few weeks into the experiment but I feel there has already been significant benefit. Primarily, it has given me permission to seek better balance. As someone who works for themselves, there is always work to be done. The 30 hour target immediately gave me permission to switch off, take breaks, go for a swim or a walk, have lunch with Naomi or go to the movies with the girls on a Friday afternoon. In addition I’m more conscious how I spend my time when I’m actually working. I have two hours less each day which leaves less time for procrastination and low value work.

I want to start work when I’m ready, finish when I want, and get as much done as I can in between.

But this is not just an issue to be addressed by the self employed, it is just as relevant for larger organisations. One of the biggest fears I find amongst organisational leaders is the inability to escape their technology, and subsequently their work. Yet it is often the decisions that are made (or not made) at the top of organisations that are perpetuating the problem.

They’ve supplied employees with laptops and smartphones.

They’ve let their people to take work home on weekends.

They haven’t questioned emails sent by their direct reports late on a Sunday night.

And there’s still an expectation that everyone be in the office 8:00 AM on Monday morning.

The opportunity of technology was one of improved flexibility, not a hope of bonus productivity. And although this extra work may not have been requested, it is ultimately endorsed through its acceptance.

This is not a post aimed at discouraging the use of technology; it’s a post aimed at encouraging us to use it in the right way. As pointed out by the director of Melbourne University’s centre of workplace leadership, professor Peter Gahan

“When it is planned for well, you should be able to get the same levels of productivity out of people working shorter hours with more technology, and so on, than you used to get out of eight.”

Why not cash in some of our technology dividends and also take advantage of the flexibility that technology provides. Many of us now have a choice as to when and where we work which means we don’t need to turn up to an office and try and complete everything in one stint (either an eight hour or six hour one). We can work from home, break up our day…work when the inspiration hits us and in doing so work less hours and get more shit done!

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

Spending your technology dividends

In much the same way as we look at financial investments, putting our time, energy and money into technology should be done so with an eye on making a return. Whereas financial investments generally create a financial return on investment in, technology can generate a variety of benefits. Broadly I describe these as technology dividends.

Broadly there are four types of dividends; flexibility, productivity, monetary and quality.

Flexibility dividends arise because technology now allows us to work more easily across geographical and even chronological boundaries. Although many roles still require co-location with particular equipment or people (it is still incredibly difficult to be a work from home neurosurgeon or work from home mechanic) an increasing number of jobs can be done remotely and in different timezones.

Productivity dividends accumulate as we employ technology to do things faster. This could be as simple as sending an email as opposed to writing, printing, stamping and posting a letter or it could be through avoiding unnecessary travel by using Skype for a meeting. In both cases technology allows us to save time compared to what we did in the past.

Just as technology allows us to do things faster, it also allows us to do things cheaper. Monetary dividends are the cost savings we generate as a result of employing technology. Email is not only a faster way of sending a message compared to writing a letter, it also incurs a small fraction of the cost. The cost saving opportunities of technology include everything from cheaper airfares through easier comparison of prices, to cheaper music via streaming vs purchasing CDs.

Quality dividends are a result of doing better work (often whilst also doing it faster and cheaper). We can shoot HD video on our smartphones and edit it on free software cheaper, faster and more conveniently than a professional videographer could do five years ago. And we can make better, more informed and ultimately more valuable decisions because higher quality information is at our finger tips.

As technology continues to improve and we invest more time into using it, the question arises as to how we are going to spend our dividends? Much like with financial investments, some of these dividends might be reinvested, at other times we might want to cash them out.

When people say they’re not good with money it generally means that they don’t know how to spend it well, not that they don’t know how to earn it. I think the same applies to technology. People who think they aren’t good with technology probably lack intention on how to use their dividends. Rather than than the flexibility to work from anywhere and when they want, they end up working everywhere and all the time. Rather than using their productivity to reclaim some time, they end up filling time with more work.

Last year both myself and my business manager Sunny cashed in part of our flexibility dividend. I used mine to move out of the city to the Mornington Peninsula where I work in my backyard studio, Sunny uses hers to remote work from her home in Manila. This year myself and my team are going to cash in some of our productivity dividend and experiment with a 30 hour work week.

What technology dividends have you generated and how are you planning to use them in 2017?

 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

The missing technology instruction manual

With every new device we buy, with every app we download we get given a set of instructions. We may not always choose to read them but they are always there for reference should we need. In fact, we would like to think that our technology has advanced to the point where it is so intuitive and easy to use that needing a set of instructions has become quite unnecessary.


But its the opposite which is true.

Although the design of individual devices and apps has become increasingly sophisticated, the sheer number of technologies we need to manage and the interaction between these various devices and the rest of our lives has become increasingly difficult to manage.

Technology has in fact become far more complex

and instructions for how to manage this haven’t been provided.

Great technology should make low value time more valuable or eliminate it all together. It should help us connect meaningfully with one another and bring us closer together. It should enhance our real world experiences and allow us to focus on the work that matters.

Yet the apprehension and frustration we experience with technology is a sure sign that this is not always what we’re getting.

  • Social media is distracting us from friends and family (just as it connects us to people and ideas from the other side of the world).
  • Wikipedia is stifling debate and discussion (just as it enables learning and understanding).
  • Streaming music is drowning out the birdsongs and the rustle of the wind in the trees (just as it provides a soundtrack to our lives).

What is more, with each successive generation of technology the number of devices we have and the complexity that needs to be managed continues to multiply.

To a greater or lesser extent this is the challenge we are all facing. How do we live and work in an increasingly technology rich world without it taking over our lives? How can we obtain the benefits that technology offers without needlessly suffering the potentially negative consequences?

My mission for 2017 is to start exploring these types of questions. And hopefully to uncover the guiding principles that will allow for us to operate in a technology rich future without compromising what it means to be human.

So this is my invitation to you.

Perhaps you’re also dealing with frustrations and challenges, perhaps like me you worry that without due care and thoughtfulness a technology vortex that could suck us away from the rich, meaningful, real life experiences we ultimately crave. If so I invite you, in fact I encourage you to join me.

Share what you know,

confide in me your concerns and fears,

tell me who else I should to be talking to,

and when necessary, challenge my ideas.

May 2017 be a year of shared discovery.

 

This blog post has been syndicated to Medium. If you’d like to add comments or ideas, head over to this page.

All I want for Christmas…is some downtime

As the festive season fast approaches and we frantically try and poke a bit more work into the few remaining gaps in our already packed schedules…

…just stop for a moment

and ask yourself

When did it come to this?

We have access to extraordinary time saving technology and yet we’re all desperately craving more downtime.

[insert dramatic pause]

…and before you drop this thought from your mind as quickly as it came (because frankly who has time to explore such paradoxical questions…especially during work hours) let’s take a further moment to at least work out who’s to blame.*

* Most people are unlikely to do anything about this problem so identifying someone to blame will at least provide an outlet for their frustration.

I can immediately think of four areas where blame might be attributed
The technology
Us
Other people
The world

The technology
Technology never quite works as smoothly and easily as the marketing material suggests, but as much as we might like to blame the technology I doubt this is actually problem. After all, even with all the frustrations we voice about email no one is rushing to support Australia Post and sending snail mail in large quantities.

Us
So if it’s not the technology could it be us. To be honest we probably haven’t invested the time required to get the most we can out of our technology, but I also know some incredibly savvy technology users who are also struggling with this (including me at times). So if it was just about us, then the most tech savvy amongst us would have already knocked off for Christmas some time in early November.

Other people
So if it’s not the technology and it’s (thankfully) not us, could it be other people? When I mean other people I’m talking about the culture of businesses, organisations and other social groups. In so many of these groups there is a constant desire for ‘more’, busyness is seen as a badge of honour and in some cases downtime has become synonymous with laziness (and not the good laziness I talk about as part of the Digital Champions Club). I think there are definitely cultural issues that we face when it comes to technology. It is often seen as being OK for technology to take from our personal lives (such as taking our laptops home to work on the weekend) but not necessarily with an expectation that it also gives back.*

*Though before we absolve ourselves of all responsibility we need to acknowledge our role in shaping culture, either explicitly or by blind acceptance.

The world
As much as culture and the norms of others have a big part to play in this, I actually think it is at a global level where I think the true challenge lies. We are seeing structural shifts in how economies operate. Robotics and artificial intelligence are now becoming cheaper than cheap labour. Whether people deeply understand the significance of this I’m not sure, but it is certainly manifesting in concerns about job security (Trump anyone?) and in turn this creates a need for us to be seen to be productive every hour of every day.

Oh dear, so what now?

Is this out of our control? Are we doomed to work our asses off just waiting for the day when we’re replaced by a robot or an algorithm?

Perhaps working our asses off is not the best strategy. If we are trying to out-compete technology, productivity is not necessarily our strong suite. But thinking, questioning, daydream and pondering…

…well then the technology will never be as productive as us [insert subtle nod to Mykel Dixon from across the room].

*Just ask the truck drivers on Rio Tinto Iron Ore’s mine sites in the Pilbara who found the robotic trucks don’t take breaks, work 24 hour shifts and actually drive the trucks better than humans do.

When we get stuck in a rut of busyness and we don’t get the downtime we need we also stop reflecting, questioning and asking what’s next…so in our failing attempts to out-compete technology, we become most at risk of the technology we are trying to protect ourselves from (oh, another beautiful paradox).

So my Christmas wish for you is this: firstly, enjoy your downtime, you deserve it; and secondly, before you rush to clear your inbox before starting back sometime in January, take the time to stop, think, daydream and ponder how 2017 is going to serve you better.

Because unless we do something to make 2017 better it is likely to to be just a little busier than the one that’s just been.

Abundance, oversharing, and the paralysis of choice

We are moving from a world of scarcity to abundance. We are in an incredible era of connection, growth and improving quality of life. But the same systems that enable an abundance of value are also creating an abundance of crap.

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Cheap gadgets, toys, and trinkets will overflow from Christmas stockings

Ghost apps and gambling disguised as kids’ games fill the app stores

and a culture of oversharing weighs down the internet with an endless stream of motivational quotes.

The dark side of all this abundance is constant noise and a paralysis of choice. We have too many opportunities to pursue, too many options to consider, and too many variables to ever fully understand.

In a world where we can do just about anything, it often seems easier to just do nothing. We postpone until tomorrow, double down on the status quo, or tinker around the edges

hoping it will be enough, but fearing that it won’t.

The only true antidote for fear is to take action

…and let’s face it, it’s been a long time since someone was accused of doing TOO much when it comes to digital.

Are you an inventor or an improver?

This popped up in my Facebook feed:

“The electric light wasn’t created by continuously improving the candle.”

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No.

The electric light was created by

22 separate patent holders, working for over

70 years, and finally commercialised in a research laboratory that covered

2 city blocks.

And after all that, where did the benefits of this new fan dangled invention flow? Most of the benefit flowed to the factories, offices and cities that implemented electric lighting. Some of it flowed to patent holders such as Thomas Edison, Joseph Swan and investors such as J.P. Morgan

…most of the early inventors received nothing.

You need to know whether your organisation is an inventor or an improver. If you’re lacking the time frames and resources listed above, then identifying and implementing new opportunities may be a better strategy then creating them.