The Floundering Myth of Open Offices

The idea behind the open office trend is that having all your colleagues in one big room fosters collaboration. I imagine building the spaces is less expensive as well. Unfortunately, we’ve been hearing about how poorly this works for people who need to have a distraction-free environment, like some of the software developers that these spaces were initially designed for.

Just today I read about yet another nail in the open office coffin. Cal Newport’s email newsletter advocating deep work referenced an interesting study performed by researchers Bernstein and Tubman at the Harvard Business School showing that employees spent 72% less time in face-to-face interactions, sent 56% more email and 67% more IMs after being moved to an open office space.

The study sampled 152 employees across two companies and found similar results in both cases. It’s remarkable that in-person communication actually went down when switching to open offices – the opposite effect of what people had predicted. The researchers speculate that this is a reaction to a lack of privacy – that people might look around, see that someone is at their desk, and choose to send an email or IM rather than walking over to say hello. It will be interesting to hear how these initial observations are extended. Maybe there is a sweet spot in terms of group size, or the amount of personal space each worker has, or the layout of the desks in the open office.


Social Media’s Influence on a Generation

In my search for interesting news, I recently subscribed to The Atlantic after reading some interesting stories like this one about iGen written by Jean M. Twinge which raises some concern about how young people are (or are not) adapting to the constant-on internet.

A few the data graphs in the article are particularly striking – like the sharp spike of loneliness among 8, 10 and 12th graders starting in about 2012, combined with the author’s interviews with these kids reflecting a lack of interest in going out with friends since they have constant Snapchat and other Social Media access to each other. The online community simply doesn’t replace the IRL one.

The author’s tendency to blame the ills of the world on mobile technology is a little bit of a reach. She seems amazed that teens will sleep with the phone on or beside their bed at night. Their phone is being used as an alarm clock. If that alone is all that’s happening it’s hardly something to be concerned about. And some of the graphs, while showing an acceleration post-iPhone, are part of a much longer trend. The tendency for teens to spend less time out without their parents could be an effect of technology, or the rising trend of helicopter parenting. Of course, Twinge packs her conclusions in around plenty of reminders that correlation doesn’t equal causation, while yet trying to write the most impactful headlines and make the boldest statements.

Still, I expect to hear much more from Twinge as the book is published and the book tour begins. Regardless of the cause of increased loneliness and suicide rates especially among girls, this is something to pay attention to.



Remote Work: Just a paycheck?!

Brian de Haaff wrote an interesting article about remote work myths that I want to come back to again sometime. But a quick notes on things I thought were interesting.

  1. The title of the article is “Would you take an 8 percent pay cut to work from home?” and most of the comments are an answer to this question rather than to the actual content of the piece. (Marketers and content producers take note!) As a side note – my answer since I wouldn’t have accepted my current position if it had required relocation must be yes, since that would effectively have been a 100% pay cut. Right?
  2. Most of the answers seemed to break into two categories – people defending the value of remote work (and, presumably, their paycheck), and people who don’t work from home suggesting that eliminating their time-consuming commute would provide more than 8% of value.
  3. I hadn’t heard that IBM was going back on their remote work policy by bringing everyone in to some random location – a move or quit mandate. Possibly a way to lay people off without laying people off? Or did they find that too many people were taking advantage of the “just a paycheck” mentality?
  4. That “just a paycheck” perception of remote work was a new one to me, and the most interesting part of the actual article. Because someone would actually submit an application that said, I really want to work for you so that I can collect a paycheck from you while working on my side-hustle?!? Are you freaking kidding me?


Ladies & Gentlemen, Glen Allsop, FTW

If you wanted to build a profitable company in a month with only a $100 budget, could you do it? Glen can, and he did. He did it publicly, stating the goal in advance, and pulled in $450 for his $100 investment, without using his existing reputation or contacts to make the sales.

You really ought to read his whole writeup in order because it’s quite a suspenseful story, and I don’t want to give too much of it away here.

My takeaways:

  1. Find the Gaps.
  2. Pivoting on ideas is OK, but
  3. Be Persistent – ruthlessly, relentlessly persistent. Don’t give up.
  4. Play the numbers game.
  5. Provide value to build relationships.
  6. Hustle. Just ask.
  7. Take Action.

In fact, the guy is brilliant, but if he could do it in just 28 days…



Location Independence and Other Words

I’m slowly learning the vocabulary of people who don’t go into an office every day. Remote Worker. Digital Nomad. Digital Expat. Van Life. Slow Travel. WWOOFER. And then there is my new favorite, Location Independence. There’s a whole verbal world in here that I was formerly oblivious to.

A Remote Worker is simply someone who doesn’t work from the office. “I work remote” can mean that you work from home just up the street, or in a rented shared workspace because you want the comradery of an office, but the people you work with aren’t close by. You can do this a few days a week, or a few days a month. It just means that you don’t see your co-workers every single day, but it doesn’t imply that you travel.

A Digital Nomad on the other hand, is someone who takes advantage of the remote work situation to move around. There are a couple of different ways to approach this, and it depends a little on the work that you do. Some people travel constantly for work anyway – photographers, travel bloggers, riggers, outdoor education instructors – and so it makes sense to cut ties to a home base and just travel full time. The #vanlife community would fall into this group, spending a week here, and a week there. Maybe it’s someone who is on an extended road trip, but managing to find time to do a bit of freelance work, or managing an online business as they go. So far, my favorite bloggers in this space are Tamara & Chris, who have been traveling in their mini-van, Red Delicious, since 2013. I love all the travel and lifestyle tips on their site, and their positive, enthusiastic but never saccharine or sugar-coated perspective on what that lifestyle involves.

If the stress of constant travel becomes a bit too much, you might instead choose to engage in “slow travel”. Slow travel involves choosing a spot, and deciding to stay put for at least a few months – maybe a year. The first slow travelers I’ve come across were Jacob and Esther who spend a year in each city they live in, exploring the best the location has to offer, and not letting themselves become complacent, because if you only have 365 days to explore a place, you can’t rest on your laurels.  You have to get out there and do it. These guys are a great resource for adventure trips.

Nora Dunn is more spontaneous in her style of travel, though I think she also falls under the label of slow traveler. Nora is also a travel/lifestyle writer, former financial planner and future shaman (probably), but makes her way around the world depending on what opportunities arise. She’s a wealth of information on things like how to find accommodations for free – via house-sitting, care-taking gigs, or by WWOOFING. Even Google isn’t sure if this acronym stands for World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, or Willing Workers On Organic Farms, but the idea is that you trade a bit of labor in exchange for a place to stay. There are Organic Farms all over the world you can work at.

Then, there is the Digital Expat, who takes advantage of being free to live wherever she wants to in order to settle down in some other country. I recently browsed a forum where someone said he wanted to be a Digital Nomad, but he didn’t really like travel all that much. He just wanted to get out of his country. That guy was promptly labeled a Digital Expat and booted from the Nomad forum.

The thing that all these people have in common, in my mind at least, is that they are location independent. Thanks to the digital age, there are many paths to being free of location tyranny. Video conferencing, screen sharing, email, chat, and the good old telephone, has made communication easy enough, ubiquitous enough, that you can still be in touch with a team of people regardless of where you work. But, then what you do with that freedom? There are so many options!

Late Night Hippo Party & The Setting Of Deadlines

Thanks to an aggressive deadline set by the HiPPO* in charge of his professional life, VIP is still at work at all hours this evening striving to meet an arbitrary deadline, and replacing a mostly acceptable product with a not-quite-finished product. When asked when he would be home tonight, VIP responded “I think I will be home Tuesday.” Since it’s still only Saturday, this answer displeases me.

Why? Why do we get ourselves into this position?

I understand the benefit of deadlines in some cases. They allow multiple members of a team to plan for when resources and people will become available for another project. And they also lead people to prioritize work to meet said deadline.

Unfortunately, just because something has a deadline doesn’t mean it’s actually a priority.

And if something can’t be done in X days, setting a deadline that pleases a HiPPO, doesn’t actually make the work any more possible.

Even having been recently introduced to the formal Hofstadter’s Rule, I don’t understand how it is that we keep doing these things to ourselves. How do I get better at estimating time? And how do I force HiPPOs to do the same?

Here Today Gone Today

I didn’t know TA well, but she seemed like the kind of co-worker that it would be good to be around – energetic, efficient, fun-loving and appreciative. Yesterday, the news started leaking out through post-it notes from people who had been asked to remove her access from various systems. Now. Rumors started flying, and were quickly confirmed but the only real information was “TA is no longer with the company.”

I don’t know what happened, and there is a sense in which I’d really rather not know. Given the circumstances, the departure hardly seems likely to be a happy story.

Some things seem so stable, so constant that we can take it for granted, and even grumble about “having” to go to work in the morning. But when you see that shift suddenly, and for someone whose work performance (at least to a relative outsider) seemed perfectly adequate, you lose that sense of certainty.

It’s the milder professional version of losing someone unexpectedly, and feeling like more than ever you need to take advantage of the time you have left, and maybe also stop eating quite some many french fries.

For me the professional version of cutting out junk food is sliding into using my work computer and work phone for personal tasks, because, hey, it’s MY computer. But it’s not my computer. It belongs to the company that bought it for me, and it can be gone as quickly as TA.

In fact, this is the second warning I’ve had along these lines.

When my company lost an important contract, and it looked like several employees were going to get let go, the company disabled all of the USB ports, drives, card readers etc. that would allow you to easily pull files off the computer. Of course, you could always DropBox or email it to yourself, but in fact they were monitoring those channels for suspicious activity as well. One person was caught and fired for emailing “company secrets” to herself after this policy was instituted.

Your co-workers are not your family. My VIP reminded me of something he’d read once… “The problem with loving your job is that a job can’t love you back.”

PS. The irony of this post following a post called “I Quit.” is not lost on me. Emotions change quickly.