Tag Archives: time-management

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

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

Lights, camera, action

Profiling a Prince’s Trust supported entrepreneur

The logic behind young mum’s setting up their own businesses is clear – the flexibility around childcare and working from home, the excitement of turning a hobby into an income source, and the stimulation of growing a business alongside a family. Sadly, for many women in this situation the demands of juggling self-employment and parenting can be too much, even with support through The Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme .

This is not the case for Emily Mashiter who runs her photography business from her home in Milton Keynes while combining caring for a three-year-old son with shift work at a local hotel. And all this despite her admitting “I’m one of the most disorganised people – it’s really bad.”

Photographer Emily specialises in taking pictures of babies aged between five and ten days old. The tranquil and angelic image of a young person at peace with their world (the newborn, not the photographer) belies the effort that goes into creating it. “Newborn shoots usually take about four hours; most of that time is spent putting them into a deep sleep so you can then do pretty much anything with them, while keeping them safe at all times. I love cuddling them and they always fall asleep – I haven’t yet had one that didn’t like me.”

It sounds as though Emily could have a second career as a baby-whisperer if her current photographic venture doesn’t develop (pun intended).

Emily’s love of shooting babies (which would sound terrible in any other context) started with her own son’s newborn photos, after which, in Emily’s own words, “I fell in love with little ones and it was babies, babies, babies!”  

The route to a career in photography started in childhood “copying my Dad with a point-and-shoot camera on holiday in Wales.” That initial interest was followed by A levels and a college course to learn photographic technique. A lifelong love of art, combined with her innate eye for a good shot and important editing skills, captures moments that, as evidenced by repeat commissions, delight her clients as much as the photographer herself.

Having a baby soon after leaving college thwarted plans for further study – in Wales and New York – in fashion photography. For someone who became a mum at 19 years, Emily is happy with career decisions that have brought her to her current situation where she hopes the new business is, with support from the Prince’s Trust, about to take off. “I think I made the right choice with the camera I bought originally, but I should have invested in other equipment such as lighting, and buying props to make my early work look more professional.”

In what she thinks is a wise move, Emily works with parent and babies she doesn’t already know – avoiding a potential difficult mix of professional and personal relationships. “People you know tend to want more for less. I’ve never had a problem asking strangers for money and they’ve always been happy to pay.”

The cool, calm, capable baby-whisperer that is Emily Mashiter is at odds with the disorganisation she confessed to. How does she manage to juggle clients, hotel work and motherhood? “I have a set rota for my job so I remember that. Every other weekend is free for photoshoots and I make do without ever having enough sleep. I have a very good childminder and can do business admin in the evenings when my little boy is sleeping.”

Emily’s business is called Faegrian Photography – Faegrian is the old English work for ‘beautiful’. No one who has seen her work could deny its beauty; Emily’s love of her art shines through every image.

www.facebook.com/faegrianphotography

About The Prince’s Trust https://www.princes-trust.org.uk/help-for-young-people/support-starting-business

For further profiles on Prince’s Trust supported entrepreneurs, click here  https://enterpriseessentials.wordpress.com/category/experts-by-experience