Author Archives: leeinroyston

This is a smart blog post

I was thinking about the word ‘smart’ the other day – as I drank from a bottle with ‘smartwater’ written all over it. The trendy label claimed the container was a plant bottle (meaning it was ‘up to 30% made from plants’) and the water was ‘vapour distilled with added electrolytes’ whatever that means.

In fact, I was drinking tap water – nothing particularly smart about that except it’s a fraction of the price, but the bottle’s a good size (850 mls) and fairly robust so I’m hanging on to it – no single-use plastic (however smart it is) for me if I can help it.

It wasn’t until sometime later I saw on the label – in very small print – the name ‘Coca Cola’. So this looks like some smart branding on their part (to appeal to people like me?)

I wondered what had happened to the ‘SmartWater’ of yesteryear – a theft deterrent liquid that was painted onto equipment that was then only visible under ultraviolet light. The idea was that you could paint your postcode onto your bike frame (for example). If your bike was stolen and recovered by someone with an ultraviolet light, it could be returned to its owner. I wonder whether it’s still in use….

Perhaps I should have mentioned that I was not being particularly smart while drinking the water; I was driving along a smart motorway (no – I wasn’t in a Smart car) on my way to Worcester. For those who don’t know – a smart motorway (formerly managed motorway) is… a section of motorway in Great Britain that uses active traffic management (ATM) techniques to increase capacity by use of variable speed limits and hard shoulder running at busy times. So now you know, and at least I wasn’t using my smart phone while drinking water and driving…

Which brings me to ‘smart working’. It was the subject of a blog post 18 months ago examining the logic behind ‘agile working’ ‘flexible working’ and all variations in between. I was suggesting that the concept is dressing up the idea of ‘getting more for less from employees’ to make it look new, dynamic and… well… smart.

So, what have I concluded about the use of the word ‘smart’? I may be an old cynic (I’m certainly an old pedant) but I see it in the same light as the word ‘exciting’ – it’s made to make something look or sound sexier and more interesting and desirable than it is; as if we ourselves become smarter by using the product – drink, phone, crime deterrent, motorway, or way of working.

Talking of a final ‘smart’ – Billy Smart – now he really was bright. Born one of 23 children he worked on fairgrounds until, with his brothers, he created what was the world’s largest travelling circus under canvas in the 1960s. Later, after a failed attempt to buy Blackpool Tower, he came up with the safari park idea and Windsor Safari Park went on to attract 2.5 million visitors a year.

On so-called smart working… https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2018/04/02/is-agile-working-the-answer

Shoulder to shoulder

A decade ago, I worked with the founder of a social enterprise that transformed the lives of young people who had been failed by the education system. They did amazing things but had a problem with their young learners – in the mornings they couldn’t get them to turn up on time, sometimes it was not at all! They solved this problem by buying a minibus and picking them up each morning at great expense in terms of time and transport. The tutors would take it in turns to drive around the houses of the trainees and, if necessary, they would almost literally lift them out of bed and dump them in the minibus.

Very quickly they discovered the unexpected benefits of providing this door-to-door transport service – that the conversations that took place in the back of the minibus while travelling to and from home to work gave them far greater insights into the real lives of these young people than any number of face-to-face conversations between tutors and students. The learners found it far easier to ‘open up’ about themselves when out of the classroom; liberated from the confines of the learner-teacher relationship. And another benefit – the young people got to know each other better, made friends, and supported each other.

I was reminded of this the other day when sharing an observation from the Australian Men’s Sheds Association (an observation that regular readers of this blog may already know) – men don’t talk face-to-face, they talk shoulder-to-shoulder. It’s a generalisation of course, but I think it’s generally true. We men are far more likely to open up and talk about the important things in life when working together on a joint project (and, I suggest, when walking side-by-side) than when sitting opposite each other, even in a social situation.

This is how the former head of the Irish Men’s Sheds Association puts it… Put 12 men aged over 55 in a room and say ‘please talk to each other about your lives, relationships and health.’ Six will leave the room immediately, and many of the remainder will sit around the walls. But is you throw in a broken lawnmower and say ‘hey guys, fix that’, within two hours you’ll have achieved your objective, plus they’ll know each other’s skills and aspirations and, of course, you’ve got a lawnmower that works!

Although pointless banter is an important element in any Men’s Shed, I think it’s also the purposeful activity that helps the conversation flow – whether that be making things to sell, getting involved in community projects, or developing personal projects in the company of others.

In my current mentoring work with long-term unemployed people, I am rediscovering the truth of the ‘shoulder-to-shoulder’ theory. In those one-to-one relationships I’m aware of the unequal relationship between the ‘adviser/expert’ and the ‘learner with issues’ (not having a job may be just one of a number) and it can create an unhealthy dependency. But recently I’ve been giving car lifts to some of these people – to attend meetings with the council about housing issues, to see charities about volunteering, and to counselling sessions. It means we’re sitting side-by-side in a car and, once again, I’m having conversations that I suspect would never have happened if we were always office-based, meeting on opposite sides of a table.

For more about the magic of Men’s Sheds go to www.menssheds.org.uk

My top tips for starting a Repair Café

I helped start the Royston Repair Café back in February 2014 which, at that time, was one of only 12 in the country. Since then we’ve organised 22 quarterly community repair events in Royston (in north Herts) and inspired a whole host of others in and around Cambridge. I’m pleased to say that interest in repair is spreading like wildfire, reflected in pieces on mainstream TV and radio. These days I get so many calls about starting Repair Cafes, I thought I’d put together my personal tips in case you’d like to start one in your area.

  1. Visit a couple of established Repair Cafes and ideally take along a broken item; there’s no better way to get a grasp of what it’s all about. Before planning the Royston Repair Cafe, I visited two very different ones – in London and Malvern. Organisers are usually happy to explain what’s going on, but it’s best to let them know in advance that you’re coming. Also look online for tips so you can ask useful questions when you meet organisers.
  2. Don’t get hung up on health and safety and insurance. Of course taking care is important, but people always imagine the worst possible scenario – someone taking a faulty item home after a ‘bad repair’ and then it (the item) burns the house down! It’s not a legal requirement to have insurance cover (but some venues require it) and the repair work at a public event is likely to be safer than a DIY job at home. Common sense is the best way to keep safe:
  • Make sure repairers work within the limits of their skills and, if necessary, get help from other repairers. We buddy up new repairers with more experienced ones to make sure everyone is happy about capabilities
  • Explain to owners that you are enthusiastic amateurs not paid professionals (also use a disclaimer – see below)
  • Don’t take on a major repair if you’re not happy to do so for any reason. We always say we’re a clinic not a hospital.
  1. Get advance bookings (we use Eventbrite for free online registrations) so you can let your repairers know what’s coming in (meaning your bike or clothing repairers don’t need to attend if no bikes or clothes are booked in). It also allows you to advise owners if any repair needs are unsuitable (for example, welding).
  2. Don’t offer appointment times as you never know whether a fix will take 5, 15 or 25 minutes. We are open for 3 hours and suggest that people don’t all come at the start nor 15 minutes before the end time. Depending on the items arriving and the repairers available with relevant skills, owners may need to wait – so tea and coffee, and tables and chairs are needed.
  3. Try to make sure your venue allows you to have repairs and waiting area in the same space. This means waiting owners can see what’s going on – that there’s a queue – and don’t feel they are being ignored. It also avoids any sense of ‘them and us’ – we’re not promoting ourselves as ‘experts’.
  4. If you’re having trouble recruiting repairers with relevant skills try contacting organisations that attract older members. Organisations like the University of the Third Age have members from a ‘make-do-and-mend’ generation – and skills to match – and they also may have more time on their hands. We recruited repairers through our local freecycle group (which we also run…)
  5. Encourage repairers to give a running commentary Owners are expected to stay with their items and the repairers while s/he assesses the problem and talks through any repairs undertaken. The idea is that the owner leaves knowing more about his/her item than when they arrived. Some Repair Cafes offer ‘skillshare’ sessions to teach DIY repair work.
  6. Encourage repairers to be honest about their abilities We aim to repair over 50% of items brought in for assessment. It’s disheartening to have a personal low fix rate, so make sure that repairers are, as far as possible, matched with broken items they are happy to work on. At our events the person booking in items on the day has a list of repairers with their skills listed to help the matching process.
  7. Make friends with your local professional repairers We want to stress that we are not about putting repairers (bike shops, shoe repairers etc) out of business. We produce a list of local repairers and their contact details and recommend them to Repair Café attenders as necessary.
  8. Talk to bookers in advance if there are things they need to bring/ do in advance Getting bookings in advance means that you can alert owners if they need to prepare for their visit eg by also bringing a monitor with their broken DVD player to test it if/when it’s fixed.
  9. Get owners to sign a ‘disclaimer’ when they arrive. We have a set of ‘rules’ that clarifies the relationship between owner and repairer. We ask the owners to read and sign this – it will not stand up in court but helps establish the amateur nature of our (voluntary) work.
  10. Do some market research You can test out the best times and days for running your events – with would-be attenders and potential repairers. We run four a year on Sunday mornings because that’s about the right frequency for our available repairers and people seem to be less busy on Sunday mornings. But many run on Saturdays…
  11. Get feedback We ask attenders to filling in a short series of questions when they leave and also record the success (or otherwise) of assessment and repair. This is useful for publicity, for reporting back to repairers, and useful if you ever need to make a grant application for running costs
  12. Invite donations We alert people in advance to the fact that the event is free, but we appreciate donations to cover insurance, venue hire, refreshments, consumables such as glues and fuses, publicity materials etc. We leave a clearly marked donations pot on the registration desk and often get very generous donations. If you build up a good pot of money you can develop a Repair Café Toolkit (but repairers tend to bring their own tools and seem happy to do so). Some Repair Cafes charge for teas, coffees and cakes as another way to raise funds.
  13. Don’t forget to include past attenders in your future publicity distribution Our Eventbrite online booking form (which goes live about 4 weeks before the event) captures e-mails but we ask people if they want to be mailed about future events when they register on the day. We mail past attenders about two weeks before the event and get a significant number of returning owners (when they’ve discovered how informal, fun and money-saving attendance can be!)

Saturday 19 October is International Repair Day – your chance to put repair on the map in your area https://openrepair.org/international-repair-day

For further information (including photos) go to www.facebook.com/RoystonRepairCafe and for a guide to setting up a Repair Café (and repair events in and around Cambridge) go to www.circularcambridge.org (click on ‘resources’) Other blog posts on repair theme are at https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/repairing-the-world

Here’s to paperless paperwork

Remember the paperless office? For those too young to remember the aspiration…. Decades ago (it was big in the 70s) we were told that the paperless office was the future – everything would be computerised (these were the days before words like ‘online’, ‘digitised’, and ‘cloud’ had been coined) and so paper – it was probably also a time when environmentalism was on the rise – would become a thing of the past.

15 years ago, the Chief Executive of the organisation employing me at the time claimed to have a paperless office. You would enter and see a big round table (clean top) for meetings, a small round table with a desktop PC on it, and nothing much else apart, no doubt, from the odd potted plant and a picture or two on the walls. But nearby was his personal assistant’s office – piled high with paper! So technically he did have a paperless office, but…

Now, after 40 years working in the not-for-private-profit sector with charities and social enterprises, I’ve sort of succeeded in having a paperless office – mainly because I don’t have an office! My work requires me to be mobile – dropping anchor at two main locations during my three-day working week, with meetings in other places as required (which is quite often). The A10 from Royston to Waltham Cross is my workspace and everything I need to do my job is carried in a rucksack on my back and a computer bag in my hand. There’s no scope for gathering the sorts of piles of paper I would previously have ‘filed’ in a tray or two on my desk in the days when I had an office (to be periodically sorted, used, ignored, thrown away).

It’s a great discipline, it calls for advance planning – making sure I have the right pieces of information to hand for the various 1-2-1 meetings that are at the heart of my work and, after seven months, I feel I’m getting to grips with the demands of this new office-free role.

But alas, even now it’s not paperless.

A large amount of paper is still required for an impressive amount of record-keeping that is required of my day-to-day activity. The records are read in hard-copy format before being stored electronically. This somewhat flies in the face of the increasing need to conserve resources, including trees, and the expectation that data is carefully protected. Sadly, the paperwork that goes with a funded-programme of work is, in our case just that – paperwork.

https://www.gocanvas.com/content/blog/post/the-history-of-the-paperless-office/

Wine by weight

I don’t want to give the impression that my holidays revolve around alcohol, but this June I was looking forward to a special service provided by a small Greek supermarket that I’d visited two years previously.

At that time the enterprising owner offered to fill your own container (usually a bottle, but it could be a basin – only joking) with pleasant and affordable local red or white wine and would then charge the customer according to the weight of wine (having weighed the container before and after). This meant you could buy as little or as much as you wanted and, importantly, it cut down on single-use bottles – never a bad thing in a world of increasing consumption and waste of non-renewable resources and in a country which is still , I think, in a financial crisis.

Sad to report then that this June the wine was no longer available on tap and the woman behind the counter – not the owner – had never heard of the idea and had been working there for nearly two years. So, the practice had ceased around June 2017 and, at that stage, I could only speculate why the service had been stopped.

Maybe, I thought, it was about demand – that not enough people could be bothered to bring their own bottles when out shopping (I hoped it wasn’t the case, even if we’re talking about people on holiday). I speculated that it could be the Greek weights and measures police (or the EU maybe!) closing a loophole that no one knew existed in the world of wine-retailing. Or possibly it was pure economics – that the supermarket made more money from selling bottled wine.

I was wrong in all my speculation! When I finally met the owner, she told me they’d stopped the service for a far more pragmatic (literally down to earth!) reason. Rather than wait to be served, the customers were carelessly filling their own containers and shop staff were constantly having to clear up a wine lake (took me back to the good old days of the EEC – remember the wine lakes and butter mountain?) on the floor; their liquid assets were literally flowing out of the business.

I live in hope that the supermarket owner will see the environmental sense in providing wine by weight and find a way to make it business sense as well – like not letting customers anywhere near the wine taps. We should encourage and support changing attitudes to unnecessary and wasteful food (and drink) packaging. I see that this June Waitrose launched a ‘package free’ trial in one of its stores in Oxford (with prices typically 15% lower than their wrapped cousins) – and this includes four beers and four wines available on tap!

I hope Waitrose can make it work financially, but it certainly makes sense in environmental/ethical terms; they are following a growing trend among small independent retailers. My daughter introduced me to one – Unwrapped in Sheffield – and I left the shop amazed by the ‘magic machine’ that turns whole peanuts into peanut butter with no additives or processing needed. Closer to home, I was pleased to be part of a successful crowdfunding campaign that will see Full Circle Shop in Cambridge expanding their product range and going mobile. Then, only last week, in my home town (Royston) I discovered a friend of many years has just launched Anahata – selling plastic-free, planet-kind products online and through market stalls.  If a former work colleague’s support efforts bear fruit, a new outlet for ‘naked food’ and other household items may soon be opening in Bedford.

Exciting times indeed, so let’s raise a glass to all retailers offering plastic and packaging free products the world over.  The wine-by-weight experience of that Greek supermarket might be a lesson for all bring-your-own container outlets – make sure your customers know how to fill their containers properly. Or maybe it’s only Brits abroad who need to be shown?

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2019/jun/04/waitrose-launches-packaging-free-trial

https://www.unwrappedshop.co.uk

https://fullcircleshop.co.uk

https://www.facebook.com/anahata.planet

 

Another birthday bucket list – part 1

Two years ago, I shared my dislike for the bucket list idea as it relates to ‘things I must do before dying’. I then went on to share a birthday bucket list of four free/low-cost ‘things I want to do to celebrate my birthday and keep myself out of the NHS for as long as possible’.

This August I’ve decided to come up with another short list of five not-very-challenging (apart from one) ways I plan to exercise my body and brain.

Learn birdsong We’re not talking Radio 4 ‘tweet of the day’ here – I’m not looking to become a global expert! I aim to recognise just the most common UK bird songs, but even then I think I’ll have my work cut out – this link takes you to the songs of 254 UK species https://www.british-birdsongs.uk. Not sure how I’ll test myself – maybe a showdown with my wife who’s pretty knowledgeable on these sorts of things…

Swim 200 lengths in five days No big deal in itself – I get bored with swimming lengths in a pool long before I have to stop (I’m a breast-stroker – none of that exhausting crawl style for me). But I’m taking advantage of five days free swimming – a special offer at our local leisure centre – to push myself to swim further than I would normally do for each of the five consecutive days. And to make it a bit more serious, I’m going to weigh myself before and after and note any effect on my physiology before, during and after – particularly any benefit to my running and sleep at night.

Station to Station run – Norwich to Sparham The swimming will be good preparation for a 14 mile run from Norwich City Centre to Whitwell Station along Marriott’s Way – a former railway track now used for bikes, walkers, horses and… runners. It’s a while since I’ve done that distance and, while it will be on a level surface, it will still be a challenge – an opportunity to apply my mindfulness on the move training!

Learn to use a multimeter I’ve got one of these but have never used it (a long story…) and it seems like the whole world (well, practically-minded friends) knows how to use a multimeter apart from me.  Since you ask, a multimeter is ‘an electronic tool used to measure voltage, amps and resistance across circuits.’ By attaching two leads to different parts of an electrical system you can trouble-shoot electrical equipment that’s not working. I’m hoping my mate Dermot will give me a lesson (in terms I can understand!)

Sleep under the stars This has become an annual event for me and every year I make myself more and more comfortable (must be an age thing…) from thin camping mat, to self-inflating mattress to, this year, an inflatable double mattress that’s already seen action at Latitude Festival. So, no hardship but I do love listening to the nearby sound of nature competing with the far-off traffic noise from the A505 (did I mention the sleep-out is in my back garden?)

Part 2 of this blog will report back to tell you how I’ve got on.

 

My first birthday bucket list  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/by-birthday-bucket-list-part-1

My four-day weekend

This June I’d expected to be completing a three-year contract and looking for new full-time employment (without dismissing the possibility of a part-time role). I’m lucky enough to love my work but regard my paid employment as more of a cause than a career; I describe all purposeful activity as ‘work’ – sometimes it’s paid, sometimes it isn’t, and sometimes that relates to the same activity! The line between the two has become increasingly blurred and I have concluded that work-life balance between different types of work is what determines my level of health and happiness.

Back to my non-career career, and what was planned for this June didn’t happen. My previous employers cut short my contract six months early but, luckily, I was able to seamlessly take up another role which, seven months in, I find really rewarding. That reward may be partly because the role is part-time – I enjoy a four-day weekend and can recommend it!

As an aside, I can confess to having worked an unofficial four-day week many years ago. I’m a believer in the principle of getting paid for work done rather than ‘hours on the job’ – a not insignificant difference. I was in a full-time job, which wasn’t office-based and I honestly felt I could get it done in four days (and I don’t mean by working 9.5 hours on each of those days). I was thinking of trying to make it official – discussing the idea with my employers – but my brother-in-law advised I simply do it unofficially. Which is what happened – I kept my phone on and was available for the five working days, but I reduced my hours to give me more time to be a father (commuting for six years I’d missed out on my daughter’s development). I got the job done, never missed any meetings and, to the best of my knowledge, no one was any the wiser about my ‘informal arrangement’.

But now I work Wednesday to Friday by arrangement and I can confirm I don’t get that dreaded ‘Monday feeling’ on a Sunday afternoon, nor even on a Tuesday! I don’t really know whether I can afford to be paid for only three days a week (the sort of charity jobs I enjoy are never particularly well paid…) but I do know the non-monetary compensation is massive. It’s taken a little getting used to; I have to keep my head down on a Friday afternoon when full-time colleagues around me are, understandably, winding down for the weekend. But for me the prospect of the four-day ‘weekend’ ahead keeps me going, committed to making sure my three days are fully worked.

Planning becomes all the more important when you know you’ll leave on a Friday and, in theory, you’ll be unavailable until the following Wednesday. My work involves 1-2-1 meetings so, with my flexibility reduced, almost invariably some of that planning has to happen on one of my days off, but that’s a price I’m prepared to pay for my re-balanced life.

Which is not to say that my ‘days off’ are spent sitting back doing nothing; I don’t even have enough time for some serious reading for pleasure, something I promised myself when I knew I was going part-time but have not achieved… yet. I have too many other interests to sit around idly but I now have half a chance of ticking off most of the items on the same to-do lists that I previously tried to cram into a two-day weekend.

Meanwhile, I’m also following with interest a national campaign for a four-day working week – something about which I blogged some years ago. How many people on their death-bed say with regret ‘I wish I’d spent more time at work’? Time for us all to focus on what really matter maybe…

The three day weekend https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/2015/02/27/time-trials-3-the-three-day-weekend

4 Day Week Campaign https://www.4dayweek.co.uk

Regrets of the dying https://bronnieware.com/blog/regrets-of-the-dying