Should We Keep Working From Home?

Over the past year did you get an opportunity to work from home? In my case I did it for a couple of days, but otherwise worked in my library office. My case was different from many people who shifted to a part time or fully virtual work situation. To reduce COVID spread, companies across many industries offered their employees the flexibility to work from anywhere. However, the big question yet to be answered is whether this change has enabled greater productivity and satisfaction or if it has become an impediment to creative teamwork. The initial answer to this question is a big maybe!

I recently came across two good explorations of this topic. The first was an article from The Guardian titled The empty office: what we lose when we work from home. Reporter Gillian Tett explored the this idea: For decades, anthropologists have been telling us that it’s often the informal, unplanned interactions and rituals that matter most in any work environment. So how much are we missing by giving them up?

Of particular interest is a look at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a group that designs the underlying architecture of the Internet. Over the years the IETF developed a fascinating way to poll the collective body on decisions. In a conference room, the group will ask members to hum to show support or opposition to an idea. It is a type of decision making process that can only work effectively in a real world environment. As Tett notes:

When the IETF members use humming, they are reflecting and reinforcing a distinctive worldview – their desperate hope that the internet should remain egalitarian and inclusive. That is their creation myth. But they are also signalling that human contact and context matter deeply, even in a world of computing. Humming enables them to collectively demonstrate the power of that idea. It also helps them navigate the currents of shifting opinion in their tribe and make decisions by reading a range of signals.

Photo by Vlada Karpovich on Pexels.com

Other view of the effects of work from home can be found in a recent Freakonomics podcast titled Will Work from Home Work Forever? In the middle of the podcast host Steven Dubner interviews economist Steven Davis about his studies on working from home prior to the pandemic and then a year afterward. Davis’ findings are illuminating.

The real benefit to being at the office is face-to-face interaction — which might be painful if it’s your boss reprimanding you, but this concept of a knowledge spillover — all of that causes, we think, productivity to be higher at the office than at home. But we also think working at home is not as unproductive as it used to be. Because we have all of these tools at our disposal.  

Later on in the podcast, Dubner interviews Raj Choudhury of the the Harvard Business School. His multiple year study of remote work done by U.S. Patent Office employees demonstrated measurable benefits from working at home. He found the examiners were 4.4% more productive at home than in the office. However, he also discovered another factor at play, increased loyalty.

And the story that came was one of loyalty. That “I was really helped by this policy because now I could move to Philly and my daughter needs some medical treatment, which is only available in Philly. No other organization will let me work in Philly and do the kind of work I’m doing. So I have to give something back.”

The factors that will determine the long term success of working from home are still being figured out. To learn more about the direction of work from home, I highly recommend both these Guardian and Freaknomics pieces. They are well worth the read and listen.

Is Productivity just is a Phase?

When did you decide to seek out personal productivity practices?

Many people do so when they feel overwhelmed by their work. Perhaps they have been given more and bigger projects or received a promotion with lots of responsibility. Others might have changes in their home life, such as a new child, that prevent them from putting in overtime. For these reasons and more they must become more efficient. Either way, personal productivity practices often make a huge impact on our work, but are they an end in themselves or a means to another end?

According to Tiago Forte of Forte Labs, learning personal productivity practices is only one step on a person’s journey. In fact it is an early stage. In a recent post on his web site he states:

I’ve begun to realize that the concept of “personal productivity” is just a season in people’s lives. It is a temporary phase that we each pass through on our way to other things.

Productivity as we know it is largely an entry-level concept. It caters to people just beginning their careers, starting their first professional jobs, or moving to new roles that demand a higher level of personal output.

Why is it attractive to people in an early stage of their professional life? Tiago believes it is due to leverage.

The reason productivity is just a phase is that it is relatively low leverage. “Leverage” refers to the ability to do more with less, such as using a lever to lift a boulder that you’d never be able to lift on your own strength.

You do need to reach a certain level of proficiency in your personal productivity. But once you do, you can go beyond it to greater sources of leverage. And you must, if you want to accomplish more while working less.

What are those other sources of leverage? There are many options.

Learn about these other sources of leverage by reading the rest of his posting.

Happy Mother’s Day – Now Clean Up Your Bedroom!

As we celebrate Mother’s Day, there are lots of ways to show appreciation for everything our mothers do. Flowers are nice. Chocolates are sweet. A prepared meal hits the spot. However, one thing your mother might really appreciate is if you take the time to tidy up your room! (BTW, May 10 is National Clean Up Your Room Day!)

Thankfully, the KonMari Method provides an easy solution to tackle that project. In an article on the Linen & Homes web site, Marie Kondo lists eight tips to keep your bedroom clean and organized. For example, Tip #5 states one should organize belongings by category.

When it comes to organizing, we have a tendency to store the same item in different places. So it’s more effective to start with categories than it is to start organizing by room. For the purpose of organizing in your bedroom, you can at least start with clothes then when the time comes, branch out to books, before going to the sentimental items like photos and letters. She even gets more granular with her process, suggesting to start with all your shirts before your pants, your pants before your socks, and so on.

To help you along the article links to a KonMari checklist that covers every possible thing you might own.

Cleaning your room will not only make your mother proud, but give you a peaceful place to rest your head after a busy day. Check out the other tips in the article.

Spring Clean Your Komono

Spring has traditionally been a time to clear out our closets and drawers of the things that no longer serve us. However, tidying up can be psychologically challenging not only due to the sheer amount of spaces where things are stored but also the psychological weight of our belongings. Many items we possess carry sentimental value that makes them hard to part with even when they no longer have any practical use.

Marie Kondo understood this problem which is why she created the KonMari Method. Through a simple process the Method helps people tackle their home cleaning through a five stage system. Recently on her web site she spent time providing tips on how to tackle the broadest category of items, komono.

We all have them: spaces and drawers where komono (miscellaneous things) live. These are the places where items sit idle because they haven’t found a true home. Designate a day to tackle your komono, give your objects final destinations and take back control. Remember, it is key to tidy by category – not location. 

Marie goes on to share what I consider the most important tip to cleaning any space which is to empty it out first. This aligns with Newton’s First Law of Motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. By getting the komono items moving it is just as easy to throw out or properly place an item as it is to put it back in it s initial spot. Marie advises:

Taking everything out of your komono hot spots and laying it out provides a fresh view of all the contents. You may find something that was once missing or something you forgot you owned. It is an opportunity for re-acquainting yourself with the objects that live with you and recognizing those that spark joy and those that don’t. Once those drawers or storage spaces are completely empty, take a moment to tend to them. Clean well with a soft cloth, replace drawer liners or add air fresheners if you’d like.

Read the rest of Marie Kondo’s tips on tackling komono on her web site.

Keeping the Calendar Clean

Almost everyone working in a professional job uses a calendar. Even people who are very loosely organized understand the usefulness of keeping track of upcoming appointments and commitments. However, many people try to use a calendar to remind them of next actions or keep track of things they are waiting for. They may also clutter a calendar with desired due dates for projects, but then have to sadly re-calibrate when life gets busy and the dates fly by.

David Allen has thought a lot about how to optimally use a calendar. In Getting Things Done he identifies three specific uses of the calendar as a productivity tool. They are the following:

Time Specific Commitments – Basically what most people use the calendar for: keeping track of appointments. i.e. Dentist 3 pm on Tuesday.

Day Specific Commitments – Things that have to be done on that day, but not linked to a specific time. For example, you must submit the monthly statistical report on Friday. Anytime that day is fine, but it has to be done before 5 pm.

Day Specific Information – Information about the day that you need to know. For example, your supervisor is on leave, which means you have to wait for her to get back to approve your project. Or there is server maintenance until 9 am, so email is not accessible.

What is not on the calendar are “to-do” items that are not specifically linked to the day. These items are best dealt with through action folders and project lists. David believes that operating this way keeps the calendar clean and by extension keeps your mind clear. So I invite you all to take a look at your calendar to see if it needs tidying up.

Finally, don’t forget to examine your calendar during the weekly review. It is a great way to keep track of where you have been and where you are going.

Important vs. Urgent: The Presidential Edition

Have you ever had one of those days where you were busy non-stop, but afterwards you felt like nothing got done? Most of us spend our days in a reactive mode as different people assign us work that is vital for them, but not for you. However, when we are caught in the busy trap it is easy to forget our own priorities. Is there a way to keep your own goals front and center in the face of worldly demands?

President Dwight D. Eisenhower understood this challenge. As the Supreme Allied Commander in Europe during World War II and then a successful two term President of the United States, Eisenhower had lots of urgent items brought to his desk. The difference for him was to make sure that the urgent never eclipsed the important. To ensure that he accomplished his goals he created a decision matrix now known as the Eisenhower Box. It was based on this line of thinking that he shared in a 1954 speech.

“I have two kinds of problems, the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent.”

The Eisenhower Box (or Matrix) is a simple four square grid. A visual of this box can be found here. Whenever any item came across his desk Eisenhower would decide whether it was important (aka aligned with his primary goals) and/or urgent (aka time constrained). His choice of what to do next was based on the answer to those two questions.

  • Important and Urgent = Do it immediately
  • Important, but not Urgent = Defer it (aka place on calendar)
  • Not Important, but Urgent = Delegate to someone else
  • Not Important nor Urgent = Drop it immediately

For a more detailed explanation of the Eisenhower Box, please review this article at the Todoist web site authored by Laura Scroggs. Then go ahead and put it into practice yourself. After all, if it worked for President chances are it will work for you!

Tips for Virtual Speaking

It used to be that many people were afraid to stand up in front of a room to give a presentation. With COVID sidelining most public gatherings, the fears have moved to the virtual realm. On the surface it should seem easier to speak on Zoom. Many virtual participants leave their camera’s off or the presenter can choose to minimize them away. However, this makes for an even more challenging problem: audience disengagement. Virtual speakers have to up their game in order to hold the attention of the audience. In turn, presentations require even more preparation and practice to make them engaging.

To help improve virtual presentations, Ljana Vimont managing director of Stinson Design wrote an article for the web site Presentation Guru. In it she provides ten tips to create and present great virtual presentations. For example, number 5 is:

Involve Your Audience

When you give a live presentation, you probably ask the audience questions, tell them to raise their hands or involve them in some other way to help keep them engaged. The same is true when giving a virtual presentation.

Get comfortable with the presentation software and learn how to ask people to raise their virtual hands and let them know at the beginning of the presentation that you will be calling some of them out and asking them questions. Create a plan for how you will incorporate audience interaction.

Photo by Julia M Cameron on Pexels.com

Take a look at the other nine tips on the Presentation Guru web site.

Basecamp’s Written Approach to Communication

It is a cliché nowadays to say how much people hate meetings. However, very few organizations have found a way to successfully avoid having them on a regular basis. It would seem there is a natural tendency for people to come together in a real or virtual room to discuss issues or advance projects. However, some organizations have tried to eliminate meetings by crafting a different priority straight into their DNA.

Basecamp, a company that produces project management and internal communication software, has decided that the company works best when its employees focus on written communication. According to their Guide to Internal Communication:

You can not not communicate. Not discussing the elephant in the room is communicating. Few things are as important to study, practice, and perfect as clear communication. Real-time sometimes, asynchronous most of the time. Internal communication based on long-form writing, rather than a verbal tradition of meetings, speaking, and chatting, leads to a welcomed reduction in meetings, video conferences, calls, or other real-time opportunities to interrupt and be interrupted.

Basecamp Press Resources

Why do they believe long form writing is the better way? It has to do with an understanding that most communication is asynchronous.

Communication shouldn’t require schedule synchronization. Calendars have nothing to do with communication. Writing, rather than speaking or meeting, is independent of schedule and far more direct.

Read the entire Guide to Internal Communication to learn more about how Basecamp encourages employees to keep each other updated on their projects.

Making Successful Resolutions

With 2021 a reality, many people around the world made New Year’s Resolutions. Unfortunately, most of those resolutions fail to make an impact. According to U.S. News, 80% of people give up on them within six weeks. Does this mean resolutions are useless to make? Not necessarily.

In an article from Forbes Magazine, journalist Jennifer Cohen shares reasons why people fail to achieve their resolutions. In those reasons are embedded ways to make them successful. For example:

We Fail To Pick Realistic Goals

According to Statista, the most common New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight, exercise and eat more healthfully. These are achievable goals, yet so many of us can’t follow through. It’s because we don’t take an approach that’s rooted in reality.

Ask yourself the following question—which goal is more achievable? Losing 100 pounds or cutting refined sugars from your diet? The answer is obvious. If you cut sugar from your diet, you’re more likely to lose weight. 

You should also keep in mind that choosing realistic goals or resolutions and achieving them improves our mindset. Even a small victory is still a victory (like 30 days without sugar) and you end up preparing yourself for a much larger one.

Photo by Breakingpic on Pexels.com

Not sure what resolution to make? Then you might benefit on a period of structured reflection. The good folks at Getting Things Done created a simple document to guide a review of the past year and to look ahead at the new one. The PDF handout can be found here.

Wishing you all a Happy New Year!