Category Archives: Working well

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/

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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

 

Back to work

Last week I started a new job. For me that’s not so unusual – it’s not that I get sacked a lot; it’s just that for much of the past 20 years I’ve been working on time-limited projects lasting from one to three years.

What this means is that I’ve got a range of experiences of starting a new job; that exciting if a little scary introduction to your new employer and fellow employees. The learning is not all one-way of course – you and your new colleagues are both sniffing each other out (and are, presumably, both keen to make a good first impression).

I should say here and now that my new team (and yes – is does already feel like a team) have made me very welcome – the right balance of informal chat, hard information, and time to learn. I think this reflects well on the wider organisation which I’ve known for the past 15 years. What they’ve made of me is, of course, an unknown (and what they’ll make of me after a staff talent show at the end of this week is even more worrying…)

What may be more instructive is to focus on the best and worst introductions I’ve had to new employers and, particularly, that first apprehensive day. As we all know, you never get a second chance to make a first impression. To save their blushes, I’m not naming names here (maybe they know who they are?)

My worst first day was not as bad as the experience of two people I know who didn’t even make it to the end of the day – one of them even left his coat behind, so keen was he to escape after the lunch break. In fact, the day in question started well enough – on arrival I was presented with a folder to read with induction materials in it. I later discovered the organisation was jumping through an ‘Investors in People’ hoop and I was never referred to that file in the rest of the time I was with the organisation. But the most memorable moment was when the Chief Officer – my line manager – arrived and declared (without knowing I was in earshot) “Oh, I’d forgotten he was coming”. Not the most positive welcome and, in truth, the relationship never really recovered. Which isn’t to say I didn’t work with some great colleagues and enjoy my role, but first impressions do count. I don’t think it left a permanent scar – although here I am talking about it two decades later!

On my best first day I was introduced to one of the biggest and most friendly organisations with which I’ve worked. There was a bunch of flowers, a bowl of fruit, and a card waiting on my desk and when I was introduced to colleagues on two floors, I was amazed that everyone seemed to know about me and asked questions that conveyed real interest. I later discovered that the trick was pulled off by my line manager sending an internal e-mail around alerting staff to my arrival – simple but effective. That thoughtfulness and friendliness continued throughout my time in the organisation although, ironically, the job didn’t turn out as I had hoped it would.

So, what have I learnt about my various arrivals in new roles with employers in the not-for-private-profit sector?

  • First impressions count: It’s a cliché, but it’s very hard for employers to win back respect if they have sent out the wrong signals in the early days and weeks
  • It’s about culture not process: If the introduction and induction feel like management are going through the motions, they probably are; a reflection of organisational values which says more about the leadership than the staff team.
  • Flexibility in a framework: Marching new recruits through a rigid two-week induction process is not necessarily the answer – people have different learn styles – but ‘having a plan’ (however flexible) is reassuring for all concerned.
  • Seeing the situation from the other side: some staff members who have been in post for many years often forget what it is to be a ‘newbie’ – a bit of thoughtfulness can go a long way (it’s the little things…)
  • Balancing: Alongside being flexible is recognition that there’s no right or wrong way to do induction; it’s always going to be about balancing… formal and informal/ personal and professional/ rules and common sense
  • Pacing the introduction: My ‘best first day’ organisation’s induction lasted around three months! I wasn’t expected to get familiar with all part of the (large) organisation in the first few weeks.

A final thought… Joining organisations on a regular basis means I also have the experience of leaving them. I think there’s whole blog post to be written on this subject – in my experience a lot of well-meaning organisations take their eyes off the ball when it comes to looking after staff who are leaving, whatever the circumstances of that departure.

 

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

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