In-Person Workplace Serendipity – All Is Not Lost with Remote Working

In-Person Workplace Serendipity. Like discovering a waterfall.
In-Person Workplace Serendipity Doesn’t Just Happen

This CBC news article “Working from home makes sense for some, but we can’t afford to sacrifice serendipity” article argues that remote working results in a loss of “In-Person Workplace Serendipity” from “[running] into each other without an agenda, get to talking, and creativity is sparked.” I don’t know. I remain skeptical of this.

My experience with my own workplaces is that there is very little creativity. When a person only interacts with their teammates who are people in the same field, I argue very little serendipity happens. In fact, there are theories about this in that it lacks “creative abrasion” and experiences “group think”.

How To Properly Access Serendipity

Where I’ve experienced serendipity is from “going outside the normal”. That is, attending cross-disciplinary events and getting views from completely different life experiences. It is unlikely most people will get this kind of cross-disciplinary access at work unless they have access to great leadership. The TED talk “The secret to great opportunities? The person you haven’t met yet” explains how this cross-disciplinary approach to networking changes life in what I feel is true serendipity.

Now, of course, the benefits of in-person workplace serendipity depends on the actual work. If a person is in a field that requires constant creativity/building of something it may make sense for in-person interaction… but again, these types of activities benefit usually by working in pairs which may still be able to be done remotely just fine (e.g. “pair programming”). There is a lot of evidence that groups beyond 2 people become less productive.  The article mentions summer students and yes, I agree, in person interactions would work best for summer students. However, saying that a lot is lost by interacting remotely just seems wrong. I myself have supported developing individuals and adapting to what they need remotely has been similar to what I would do in-person.

Perceived Barriers to Remote Working

If you watch the video in this same article Linda Duxbury mentions remote workers don’t have child or elder care. Why?? How is that the fault of working remotely? That sounds like it’s not structured correctly. She does mention that bosses may not be familiar with managing people remotely but again, this comes around to the fact no one has been willing to try it, learn and change on a mass scale until now. This sounds a lot like “we’ve always done it this way why would we change?” thinking.

A related article “Video chats short circuit a brain function essential for trust — and that’s bad for business: Don Pittis” suggests that video meetings are “an inadequate substitute for real-life interaction” causing a phenomenon now referred to as “Zoom fatigue”. As a long time remote worker, I whole-heartedly agree that video meetings are bad. But audio meetings? Us long time remote workers haven’t used video for the most part except for screen sharing.

There are obvious problems with video meetings; Have you noticed that you look at a person’s eyes but they are also looking at your eyes and because the cameras are at different spots it just comes off as awkward? This is why I’ve discussed teleprescence which would resolve this and many other issues. But the fact is, we don’t have access to this technology at the individual level yet. In the meantime, audio is superior to video/audio meetings. That’s why I suggest for productivity purposes that after initially meeting by video that folks move to audio-only. The article agrees by saying “you can make a better judgement from listening to audio alone” versus using video.

In-Person Workplace Serendipity

I believe this is just change at work. I don’t think all is lost with remote working and In-Person Workplace Serendipity won’t get replaced completely by remote working. It will get modified. I believe this experience is giving us the opportunity to learn and grow. For instance, maybe we learn exactly those types of situations of which being in-person leads to true serendipity. Then, I believe we’ll have come through to the other side.

If you’d like more articles on the dangers of like-mindedness, a danger present in most teams, see more here “Why Being With Like-Minded People Is Dangerous”  

About the Author

Trevor Textor has worked in various roles requiring remote work since 1997. Since 2014 he’s been supporting small, medium and large businesses as a freelancer (contingent labor) with a “swiss-army knife”-like suite of skills. In addition to setting up policy, procedures and technology for himself and his partner he has also met this need with clients in enabling their remote work. Trevor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.

Work from Home Burnout #Coronavirus #COVID19

Work from Home BurnoutAs everyone rushes to working remotely, which encompasses work from home, it’s good to see recognition that burnout can still happen in this environment:

Global News Article: “Burnout is real — even when working from home”

In the article the advice is “Do not expect employees to be as productive”; but I’m not sure that’s the right statement. I think staff can be more productive in the hours they work, but do not expect them to work a contiguous 8-hour day as if they were in the office. During Coronavirus, the pressures of family life are more acute than ever. Specifically: caring for young kids, caring for seniors or both if you’re unlucky enough to be part of the sandwich generation (like we’ve been).

Why I became a Freelancer Project Manager

Myself, I became a freelancer because the freelance arrangement is focused on productivity, not the office hours you keep (see article “When Your Employees Are Remote, You Have To Stop The Body-In-Seat Mentality”). I’m able to bill my Clients for only the hours I work and they don’t have to worry that they paid for an 8-hour day when I only worked 4 because of “this or that” like what would happen with an employee.

Personally, burnout, and managing Work from Home Burnout, was a big factor in encouraging the freelancer move and in becoming a PMP certified Project Manager. Being a PM allows me to help my team smash stress as I’m in a leadership/culture role but I’d like to expand on the freelancing angle.

The Critical Personal Events that Lead to Burnout

Let me rewind to the late 2000’s. I had just been cleared as a cancer survivor and the expectation to overwork was exploding. The company I worked at unnecessarily, and possibly foolishly, decided to split into two. As I was a member of the networking team, we were the first team to work on the split (splitting and acquisitions create critical networking work). The CIO made a sweeping edict that all IT take their vacation before the actual split date. The edict decimated the networking team by 70%. Because the entire project depended on the network being installed as soon as possible, I spent an entire month building most of the new company’s data centre myself. For those who don’t work in IT that means a sterile environment with no food and water and a nice cool breeze that encourages you to forget about thirst. It’s migraine city!

Closely following the split my company decided to move data centres. I wasn’t directly part of that project but I helped out a number of times. One of the important events was that my boss decided that the on-call person would be enough to cover any issues during the actual move ignoring the team’s advice to assign a person to manage the move. It’s important to note that this is not a physical move. It’s more like transferring a consciousness from one computer system over to another one using the network. In this instance, one would assume that the network is critical.

That weekend I spent 16 hours on two conference calls in my basement; one headset on each ear. One conference call was to direct my network staff and the other call was to communicate with the wider project. This created a “firewall” so my team could get the critical work done (me included). There were no breaks. My wife brought me food. When I got up to go to the bathroom I could barely move. I called in the entire network team sans my boss who was disappointingly absent despite receiving a lot of phone calls from me and the other project leaders. Clearly, he had turned off his phone on purpose. The following week other IT leaders decided to declare that they were the person who fixed the networking issues burying my contribution to the entire project (which was ultimately successful).

In addition to this, on the same project, my boss had screamed at me over the phone about why I couldn’t move a 500 lb router by myself when it was at the loading dock. This is the only time I’ve cried at work. Subsequently this boss and three other guys installing it in the data centre ultimately dropped it because it was too heavy. The same router later caught fire while in the data centre.

Conclusion

Yes, it was events like these that lead to my burnout. In contemplating my career changes, I wanted to have control over my life because I knew there would be controllable and uncontrollable stress. Working stress, in my opinion should be largely controllable. That is, it’s my hypothesis that stress in work environments is largely unnecessary and caused by culture and leadership. And if it’s controllable, then that should free up bandwidth to deal with the uncontrollable stress.

As a freelancer I can, and have, said no to clients. I’m always clear I get the job done but how it’s done is up to me. I was often told that moving to being a contractor wouldn’t help with managing the stress but that’s because no-one considers that freelancing is a lot different than being a full-time contractor*. So more than 5 years later, I can say I proved my hypothesis.

Unfortunately, for most people, the game (employee/full-time contractor) is rigged and most people will fail and experience burnout. Hopefully, the silver lining of #Coronavirus #COVID19 is that companies accept there are alternate arrangements that exist and they might work a whole lot better in the right situations. Then maybe we can meaningfully reduce burnout, including work from home burnout.

  • I would like to call it what it is: a fake employee. It just changes where the number falls on the balance sheet. No surprise that nothing changes.

Review of article “When Your Employees Are Remote, You Have To Stop The Body-In-Seat Mentality”

body-in-seat mentalityThe “body-in-seat” fallacy is one I’ve followed for well over a decade and COVID-19 may finally tip the scales. I’m talking about “… [The] insidious attitude permeating many companies; that when employees have their bodies-in-their-seats, it means they’re productive.”

The author of the article “When Your Employees Are Remote, You Have To Stop The Body-In-Seat Mentality” puts this issue directly in the cross-hairs and explains exactly why it’s a problem.

“…[T]here’s much to be said for focusing on the results someone achieves rather than how long they sit in front of a computer. But when we’re operating with a body-in-seat mentality, we’re de facto telling people, ‘it’s not what you get done but how long you sit there that matters.'”

He further goes on to explain why top freelancers are more productive and how they do it. I highly recommend having a full read if productivity is of concern.

Body-In-Seat Mentality A Distraction

I often hear “yes but”. For many, it’s obvious that productivity and ability to work remotely all depends on the development level of the individual. The body-in-seat mentality is simply an inappropriate leadership response and distracts from addressing the needs of each individual.

And this is a problem best addressed separately from working remotely since it exists no matter what the setting. The Hersey-Blanchard model can shed some light on this and the leadership styles that need to be applied. The take-away though is that each individual needs varying levels of support and an organization needs to be able to supply this support. It’s important to note that the tools to address staff developmental support might change with remote work.

Body-In-Seat Mentality Blocking Productivity Gains

There is a large and growing body of research showing productivity gains with remote work. 

Reasearch by Adam Ozimek, chief economist at Upwork, shows that “32% of hiring managers say remote work has increased productivity“. Jory Mackay of RescueTime blog dives more into how exactly working remotely translates into productivity, which the reader can access here.

One issue exasperated by COVID-19 is technology issues.  Companies have not been ready to supply the technology and training required for staff to make the remote work switch. The NPR Podcast “The Indicator” speaks to Adam Ozimek about the future of work from home and you can listen to or read the transcript of the the episode here. The expectation though is that this is a temporary problem.

Preparing for Remote Working

Working remotely does not “just happen”. Preparing for it is critical. See my article “Preparing for Remote Working – During Coronavirus (covid-19) or Otherwise” for tips on where to start.

About the Author

Trevor Textor has worked in various roles requiring remote work since 1997. Since 2014 he’s been supporting small, medium and large businesses as a freelancer (contingent labor) with a “swiss-army knife”-like suite of skills. In addition to setting up policy, procedures and technology for himself and his partner he has also met this need with clients in enabling their remote work. Trevor has been quoted by Reader’s Digest, NBC News, Reviews.com and MarketWatch.com regarding setting up appropriate Internet and WiFi service for remote work. Ask Trevor if he can help: https://www.textor.ca/contactme/.

How to write Productive Emails

Writing a Productive Email

Considering how much office workers use email it’s appalling how bad we are at it. Luckily there is a resolution and it doesn’t take more than a couple minutes to review the productivity tips and start writing emails effectively.

Starting by writing an appropriate subject line will immediately improve the productivity of all your recipients. Keep it to 3-4 words and make sure it describes the content in a unique way. More here: http://www.asianefficiency.com/email-management/productive-email-subject-lines/

For the email body, as long as it’s appropriate to your subject, keep it to between 50-125 words, use a 3rd grade reading level and do not include more than 3 questions.

Always consider the intended audience and adjust TO:/CC: lines. Consider if “reply-all” is appropriate and if changing audiences, consider if the subject needs to be modified in order to take the conversation in a new direction (thus avoiding the “grouped conversations” stack).

If your email is attempting to “hook” your audience – e.g. to get information, sell/market something or get an invoice paid, consider sending it in early in the morning or during lunch rather than mid-morning and afternoons. More here: https://blog.boomerangapp.com/2016/02/7-tips-for-getting-more-responses-to-your-emails-with-data/

Thinking that instant messages and shared calendars are going to be the answer to productivity challenges? I encourage the reader to reconsider: https://www.npr.org/sections/money/2018/08/21/640596144/why-people-cant-get-work-done-at-work

This was the secret to how I built my company: “The secret to great opportunities? The person you haven’t met yet”

The opportunities we have available to us depend on our network of people. If you want to imagine a different world or life, you need to meet the right people. The people you know now are unlikely to get you there or worse, block you. More on this important concept on TED:

https://www.ted.com/talks/tanya_menon_the_secret_to_great_opportunities_the_person_you_haven_t_met_yet

Review of “7 Workplace Myths Disproven By Research”

Anybody who has had a long enough career already knows about some of these workplace myths disproven by research. The reality?

  • Remote workers are 13% more productive (9.5% attributable to no commute/more working hours),
  • Most productive people take ~15 min break per hour of work,
  • Engagement level doesn’t lead to results,
  • Being recognized for your work matters more than money,
  • High-achievers make great managers,
  • You don’t do what you went to college for and;
  • Do what makes a difference in other people’s lives (*don’t* do what you love unless you like being broke).

http://www.octanner.com/insights/infographics/7-workplace-myths-disproven-by-research.html

Smartphone is a Double Edged Sword

Since 2004 there has been very little meaningful change. Productivity has fallen despite the smartphone. You might be wondering why this info on the smartphone all of a sudden? I’ve received a critical mass of research. I believe that it is telling us that the smartphone is a double edged sword and we need to respect that.

Planet Money explains our period of falling productivity: http://www.npr.org/sections/money/2017/05/19/529178937/episode-772-small-change

This article explains the psychology of the smartphone and how it has made us less intelligent and is responsible for poor social skills and the gullibility crisis:

https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-smartphones-hijack-our-minds-1507307811

However, it could be that it takes humanity 50 years to adopt the changes enabled by the smartphone. Take the story of electricity. It took nearly 50 years from the light bulb before the economy showed a productivity spike. More on this via the history of the dynamo: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p057xsl0

Update 14Jan2019: Wall Street Journal article on the start of the waning of the smartphone: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-big-hangup-why-the-future-is-not-just-your-phone-11547269202

Review of “The Dark Side of Resilience”

In another one of life’s ironies, somebody could label you “not resilient” when in fact you might be “too resilient”. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic and Derek Lusk’s insightful article on “The Dark Side of Resilience” highlights another humbling highlight of our collective human ignorance. Indeed, everyone should be aware of this reminder of a dangerous psychological bias.

Key quotes that resonated with me from the article:

” …[E]xtreme resilience could drive people to become overly persistent with unattainable goals. Although we tend to celebrate individuals who aim high or dream big, it is usually more effective to adjust one’s goals to more achievable levels, which means giving up on others….[P]eople waste an enormous amount of time persisting with unrealistic goals, a phenomenon called the “false hope syndrome.”

…[T]oo much resilience could make people overly tolerant of adversity. At work, this can translate into putting up with boring or demoralizing jobs — and particularly bad bosses — for longer than needed.

…[The goal is to compete between groups not within the team, so,] …choosing resilient leaders is not enough: they must also have integrity and care more about the welfare of their teams than their own personal success.

In sum, there is no doubt that resilience is a useful and highly adaptive trait, especially in the face of traumatic events. However, when taken too far, it may focus individuals on impossible goals and make them unnecessarily tolerant of unpleasant or counterproductive circumstances. This reminds us of Voltaire’s Candide, the sarcastic masterpiece that exposes the absurd consequences of extreme optimism: ‘I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one’s very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?’”

Quora – What is your super-productive life hack?

To become super-productive in life: Replace bad habits with good habits and then measure success against yourself (not others). Success is just personal improvements usually made by many small changes over time.

Easier said than done! Some tips:

Inventory habits – tools can be as easy as considering critical feedback you might already be receiving. Or you could make lists.

Find good habits and practice them – they don’t just fall in our laps. This requires research (mentors, books, etc). Clues on what materials to read might be gleaned from knowing your bad habits 🙂 I highly recommend fostering an internal locus of control or “I make my own destiny” vs “everything is always somebody else’s fault” (external) Locus of control – Wikipedia

Remove bad habits – Lots of habits are subconscious so look for tools that help with retraining subconscious. This can be difficult and very personal; reference motivational self help courses. Tools may include alt therapies like protocols around EMDR: Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing – Wikipedia Don’t discount personal trauma when trying to change habits. You might have to address a trauma before being able to proceed in an area of your life (improve your window of tolerance).

Repeat… forever! After all, that is just the journey of life. It’s not a destination.

Originally posted at: https://www.quora.com/What-is-your-super-productive-life-hack/answer/Trevor-Textor