Category Archives: Working well

Juggling with buses

I have a great fondness for the number 73 London bus (or the ‘dear old 73’ as my mum might have described it). In my 20 years studying and working in the capital I lived on the 73 route at three different locations – Oxford Street, Islington and Stoke Newington – so I had lots of opportunity to ride on it at all times of the day and night. Those journeys bring back a variety of memories – associated with the state of the roads, the state of me (the amount I’d drunk), other passengers, and things going on in my life at those three locations (being a student – swatting, being employed – sweating, being married – swooning).

I was thinking about no 73 buses recently when discussing business advice with a recently retired consultant. She said she was enjoying her ‘new life’ because she no longer had to deal with small businesses that would “like London buses, come along in threes”.

Since I’m also involved with advising would-be business owners it got me thinking about whether I have had the same experience – demand coming in peaks and not a lot in between (actors know the problem…) I think this may be partly our mind playing tricks – we remember the busiest and slackest periods and the more manageable flow of enquiries goes by unremarkably. But I do have peaks and it’s of my own making.

I send out a fortnightly business support bulletin – Free Lunch – to my contacts* and I often get a mini flood of communications in the days after it goes out. And that’s the point – in nearly 20 years of advice-giving I’ve learnt that a short regular bulletin is a good way to remind people I’m around (as well as, hopefully, sending them some useful and interesting hand-picked information). It’s easier than a phone call, although I admit it’s also easier to ignore, so it’s not the only way I nudge people to do what we agreed they would do.

I’d like to say I deal with the rush of enquiries through an organised system of triage. I decide which communications are urgent and important, or one or the other, and aim to send at least a holding response within 12 hours and clear the whole thing off my desk, ‘touching the paper’ (metaphorically speaking in these digital days) only once, within 48 hours. I’d like to say that’s what happens… but it doesn’t. My response is much less consistent and systematic – but it largely works.

First, if it’s an e-mail I look at the sender and the subject line – but often that’s simply the same subject line as my bulletin mailing so that doesn’t always help – although it proves my particular nudge technique works! Next, I look at the nature of the enquiry – is it clear what the person is asking for (not a given), is the request polite and reasonable. Finally, how long will it take me to respond? And after that it depends on what else I’m working on – the importance and interest relative to the incoming enquiry.

But how do I build my responses into a wider consideration of what needs to be done and when? There’s some really useful advice from Stephen Covey in the form of his now-famous Time Management Matrix – it’s worth sharing here.

Covey argues that we get too distracted by things which are urgent but unimportant (quarter lll in the matrix) – they get more of our attention than they deserve simply because they are urgent. He also says that we tend to spend too little time in quadrant ll – areas of work which can enrich our working lives and keep us healthier by not having to rush from deadline to deadline. In reality of course, we spend too much time in the lower righthand corner – because it’s the line of least resistance and it can be more fun!

The new twist in the tail for my work-flow system is that new data controls (the GDPR – General Data Processing Regulations) mean I need to ask the current recipients of my fortnightly Free Lunch bulletin to opt-in to receive it after the end of May. This will probably decrease the circulation list to single figures and I’ll then be delighted if one bus comes along each fortnight, let alone worry about three at once!

*If you want to see the sorts of free business support items I share, go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/free-lunch-business-support

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Take note!

I recently did some mandatory online training modules at work. You know the sort of thing – manual lifting, equality and diversity and, new for 2018, GDPR (if you don’t know what that is, look it up). I’ve come to like this form of learning – it’s an in-my-own-time, read, listen and then answer some multiple-choice questions type of thing.

What online learning doesn’t dictate is how you absorb the information and, while it’s all fairly basic stuff, I do this by taking notes as I’m going through the module. I know my style of learning is ‘by doing’ which is not enough reason to start a fire to find out how to use the extinguisher… so I have to find other ways to embed the learning – hence the notes.

This note-taking is an extension on my normal practice when in meetings – it helps me to concentrate and to recall what was said and agreed – weeks later if necessary. And it’s surprising how often a discussion at a meeting can spark a completely unrelated idea; I need some means to record the idea for future investigation at a later date – I don’t trust my memory.

Another time I take notes at work is when I’m in a 1-2-1 with a would-be entrepreneur – often a young person thinking of starting their own business. I’ve been in advice roles for over 15 years and I find that being seen to take notes (pretty much whatever I actually write on my pad!) shows them that I’m listening; they’ve got my attention.

What worries me is that I’m not at all sure I’ve got the attention of the young people I support. I share detailed feedback on their business plans – usually my scribbled notes on their word-processed plan – and then see a look of horror on their faces when I say I’m going to hang on to their plan and my notes! Very few of them bring any note-taking materials to our meetings and I sometimes comment on this – giving them a pen and paper if they take the hint. Do they bring paper and pen next time? Not often.

I can only conclude that young people don’t need to take notes these days (and the hand-written work I’ve seen suggests some of them might not be able to) that in our fast-moving, information-filled lives the modern brains of the younger generation have adapted to record and recall information at will. Unlikely.

Which might bring me on to lists (my reliance on and love of them) and the state of my hand-written work diary, but that sounds like the subject for another blog post or two (or possibly a new online training module?)

For other blog posts about ‘working well’ go to https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/working-well

Is agile working the answer?

In our ever-changing world of work, management theories have had trouble keeping up with the speed of that change, and the ways of coping with the impact of these changes for workers. The ‘new’ solutions are often nothing more than a re-hash of old ideas (that may or may not have worked in the past) which is not in itself a criticism – most change is cyclical and re-inventing the wheel isn’t always a bad thing.

The idea of ‘flexible working’ has underpinned discussions about working practices for decades. Traditionally, standardisation with workers being treated as ‘units of production’ – a conveyor belt mentality – was seen as the panacea for running efficient and cost-effective organisations. Since then the pendulum has swung the other way. Flexitime – flexible start and finish times covering certain ‘core’ hours – has been part of the management speak lexicon for at least the past four decades; the concept was actually trademarked in 1971. Hotdesking may be seen as a more recent idea, but its origins date back to the 16th Century and the naval practice of ‘hot-racking’ where one sailor would vacate a bunk bed for use by another (so sleeping and working in shifts).

Nearly a quarter of a century ago, one of my heroes, Charles Handy, popularised the phrase ‘portfolio working’ – being employed by different businesses at the same time, often on a freelance basis. Handy’s book The Empty Raincoat was some brilliant crystal-ball-gazing into the future of work.

Behind all these concepts is the theory of making the best use of time and space.

Since the global financial crisis of 2007 at least, I’ve noted the rise of management-speak, business bullshit – call it what you like – that tends to put the focus on the individual worker’s behaviour, rather than that of the employer, as the potential remedy for inefficiency and under-use of resources in organisations of all shapes and sizes. This may be dressed up with words like ‘empowerment’ but, not surprisingly in the age of austerity, it’s more about cost-cutting than anything else.

We see increased use of phrases like ‘mobile working’. With the advent of technological advances, and the mobile phone in particular, not only can we work anytime, but we can work anywhere – at home, in our cars, in cafés. And if someone else is picking up the cost of heat, light and rent so much the better. In the name of increased efficiency and cost-savings in the wake of the financial crisis, a decade ago I also noticed the introduction of the phrase ‘smart working’. It was easy to say, sounded good but, in my experience, no one ever really defined what it meant (perhaps because we all already knew it was about getting people to do more for less).

And coupled with the idea of doing more for less, if that endangers out mental wellbeing we can now learn to be resilient – to bounce back whatever life and work throws at us. Resilience in technical circles is a measure of what stress it takes to break something… The NHS is awash with resilience training for staff which at least acknowledges that the service and the people who work in it are at breaking point.

This focus on the individual continues with ‘agile working’ which seems to differ from flexible working in that the latter is about what primarily suits the employer, which agile working is intended to (also) meet the needs of the employee. This is a 2013 definition…

Agile working is a way of working in which an organisation empowers its people to work where, when and how they choose – with maximum flexibility and minimum constraints – to optimise their performance and deliver “best in class” value and customer service. It uses communications and information technology to enable people to work in ways, which best suit their needs without the traditional limitations of where and when tasks must be performed.

Asking ‘Is agile working the answer?’ – the title of this blog post –  begs the question, what is it meant to achieve?

Cost-saving? Almost certainly, transferring core costs away from the centre and having them absorbed by others, often the employees (and owners of public meeting spaces such as cafes and bars).

Time-saving? Agile working, like home-working, implies less unproductive time spent travelling made ever more possible by technology. But I fear the reduction in face-to-contact with colleagues and customers may bring new costs (in terms of effectiveness) down the line.

Increasing productivity? More time ‘on the job’ – in your pyjamas at home late at night, on a laptop or mobile phone in your car (a mobile office) – is certainly more possible in theory but relies on the commitment of workers that will be increasingly managed at arm’s length. It also increasing blurs the line between work and play.

A happier workforce?  Being empowered and in greater control of our working conditions are objectively ‘good things’. But everyone is different, and many employees are happier working regular hours in a structured environment alongside colleagues they can see and bounce ideas off, rather than working alone with the freedom to decide when and where the job gets done.

At the heart of the debate about different ways of working is the difference between efficiency and effectiveness, about balancing short and long-term gains, and the importance of the health of the individual relative to the health of the organisation (the two may not always go hand in hand).

Efficiency is about the relationship between inputs and outputs, effectiveness is about inputs and outcomes. In a service-based business, the first tends to be about quantity and profit, while the second – effectiveness – tends to be about quality and people. As is the case in politics, when budgets are squeezed short-term decisions may be made for financial expediency without due regard for long term cost (and potential future savings). Witness pressure on the NHS to treat symptoms of ill health rather than the causes.

Employees across the UK are being asked to accept unpalatable changes to their terms and conditions for the greater good – sustaining services, making sacrifices now for jam tomorrow. This is all about changing cultures and mindsets and the best ways to do this will be as various as the organisations needing to make those changes.

My primary concern about this, borne out in part by personal experience, is that short term sacrifice is rarely rewarded in the long term. This is not just for individuals that feel the pain most personally, but also for the organisations and causes that are the reason we get out of bed in the morning. The health of well-run organisations is intrinsically tied up with the health of those running them; if staff get burnt out and leave, I fear for the future.

Further reading on agile working http://www.nhsemployers.org/~/media/Employers/Documents/SiteCollectionDocuments/Agile%20Working%20Guide.pdf

Is teamwork overrated?

“It takes three weeks to prepare an impromptu speech” Mark Twain

One of my hobbies is preparing ‘off the cuff’ responses to jargon-ridden (usually in business) bullshit. I already knew the “but there is ‘me’” response to the classic “there’s no ‘I’ in team”.

Now, thanks to writer Steven Poole, I know two more retorts – “but there are five in ‘individually brilliant’” and (as Poole puts is) a more forthright response “but there is a * in c*nt” (I’m saving the blushes of more delicate readers here)

I once worked with someone who, four years after leaving the Air Force (where I’m sure they go large on teamwork) had set up a successful social enterprise to meet a local need. He’d bypassed the local community and, when asked why he hadn’t involved other people – the politically-correct, textbook thing to do –  he replied “If I had, a committee would still be trying to agree a name for the enterprise.”

Throughout my career, my instinct has been to go down the collaborative route – probably related to my pacifist Quaker upbringing that advocates consensus as the route to conflict resolution. I still believe we can ultimately do more together than alone but, in the past decade, I’ve concluded that life is too short and real needs too great to wait to get everyone on board. A more productive approach (albeit potentially less sustainable in the long run) is to ‘just do it’ and bring in others later – on the principle that people want to be associated with successful initiatives and they will follow the ‘early adopters’.

Where I think that teamwork is essential is in bringing companionship into the office environment – mutual support that’s particularly vital when involved in emotionally-draining occupations.

Which is why I despair that some short-sighted policy wonk from on high is wreaking havoc with the morale of health service professionals by suggesting they take their laptops and ‘go mobile’ by working in their cars and at home. While this is no doubt meant to save the NHS on office costs, the result is that workers are leaving the Health Service in droves; it’s making them ill.

To read the worst examples of office jargon  http://www.hive.co.uk/Product/Steven-Poole/Who-Touched-Base-in-my-Thought-Shower–A-Treasury-of-Unbe/15772172

Green and Grey Repurpose – standing desk

img_0006Did you know that standing up at work for an average 3 hours a day for a year is the equivalent calorie burn (approx 30,000 calories) of running ten marathons? I discovered this amazing statistic when I discovered a beautiful standing desk (the Eiger) at the Entrepreneurial Spark ‘Hatchery’ in Milton Keynes (where I also got excited about their reclaimed scaffold board tables).

I couldn’t afford the Eiger, so it got me thinking… could I make one by re-purposing a slatted wooden chair? I put a call-out for such a chair through our local Freegle group. I got offered three!

With a bit of head scratching (I haven’t got hair to pull out) I can up with a low-tech height-adjustable design which also folds flat for easy storage and/or transport. I’m pretty happy with the result – I use it now at my work – and some days I stand up all day.

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I’m a runner, but I don’t do marathons (standing is more my scene)

9 more health benefits from using a standing desk:

  1. When sitting down, your metabolic rate crashes to an absolute minimum. You only burn 1 calories a minute – that’s less than chewing gum!
  2. As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your legs shuts down and enzymes that help break down fat drop 90%
  3. Sitting 6+ hours a day makes you up to 40% likelier to die in 15 years than someone who sits less than 3 hours (even if you exercise)
  4. Worldwide studies have warned that a sedentary lifestyle could be causing as many deaths as smoking
  5. People with sitting jobs have twice the rate of cardiovascular disease as those with standing jobs
  6. Regular exercise regimes do not negate the effects of a sedentary lifestyle – going to the gym two or three times a week isn’t enough
  7. Being sedentary slows down the circulatory system, blood, oxygen and vital nutrients
  8. In the UK, 30 million working days were lost in 2013 from musculoskeletal disorders
  9. Research published in The Lancet in 2016 on more than 1 million office workers found that sitting for at least 8 hours a day could increase the risk of premature death by up to 60%

Source: www.iwantastandingdesk.com  (click to learn more about the Eiger)

Interested in other re-purpose projects?  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/green-grey-repurpose