Learnings & reflections: working from home in 2021

Until Spring 2020, a dominant part of the working experience for many of us involved leaving home, going somewhere else, encountering a specific bunch of people, trying to get along with them, doing some work, bidding them goodbye, and going home again. The office. The culture of this ritual with the same characters flung together day after day, attempting to accomplish grand or humble things fuelled Ricky Gervais’ and Stephen Merchant’s mockumentary The Office, the definitive faux-documentary series. Oh, the irony – not-being in the office has been the reality of WFH for 2021.

The first episode of The Office aired on 9 July 2000.  The show portrayed the cringe-worthy humour in the mundane and humdrum tedium of the office in fourteen episodes. Gervais’s portrayal of David Brent, was a jokey, goateed nightmare boss wrapped in neediness and a tie (I’m a friend first, a boss second, probably an entertainer third). The show was addictive, skewering the common ordinariness of office life with brilliantly painful observational humour. 

We might not have realised how going to the office lent our daily lives a sense of occasion but seeing folks putting on their coats dashing out the door for the bus home, we now do. Over the past 18 months, the routine world of the office has been out of reach. There was something very pleasing about being able to spend time in the company of those people, a comforting routine in this little hermetically sealed world that you can kind of go and swim around in for a bit. There’s a wistful frisson in remembering that feeling; we hadn’t accomplished everything we’d hoped to do today, but we’d come back tomorrow, encounter the gang, and give it another go. 

But 2021 saw us firmly adopting the ‘hybrid’ model which overall has worked for me personally. Yes, I’ve hidden under the duvet – both actual and spiritual, and got fed up with the consecutive days WFH sometimes which has encouraged outbursts of hysterical flippancy at times. Of course, many startups had already adopted this flexible model before Covid, embracing the freedom, space and cost advantage of free-spirited working, but for me there have been lessons learned about leadership, human needs, habits, processes and automation, so here are my five primary takeaways from 2021, personal reflections that I hope you’ll find useful.

1. Leadership should be based on trust We learned that we don’t need to be co-located with colleagues for team to be effective. Individuals and teams can perform well while being entirely distributed. So, the future of work is here, but it’s a bit different from what we expected. Without question, the model offers notable benefits to startups with flexibility, elimination of time-wasting commutes, and better work/life balance. However, concerns persist regarding how this will affect communication, knowledge sharing, socialisation and camaraderie.

Big companies are adapting too, for example Siemens, with 380,000 employees. The company adopted a new model allowing employees to work from anywhere they feel comfortable for an average of two to three days a week as a permanent standard. But it was other words in the announcement from CEO Roland Busch, that really stood out to me:

The basis for this forward-looking working model is further development of our culture. These changes will also be associated with a different leadership style, one that focuses on outcomes rather than on time spent at the office. We trust our employees and empower them to shape their work themselves so that they can achieve the best possible results.

There is so much good here, and I’d emphasise two points: focus on outcomes rather than time spent in the office; and trust and empower your employees. Put together, these words make for a brilliant management strategy founded on emotional intelligence – the ability to make emotions work for you instead of against you.

WFH takeaway: If leaders support synchronous and asynchronous communication, brainstorming, problem solving, lead initiatives to codify knowledge online and mentoring rather than management, a distributed leadership model can work creating a more trust-based work environment.

2. You can always improve processes Like many, I enjoyed the novelty, the hamster wheel of the office routine had broken and I had a three-minute commute from breakfast table to desk. This was what work/life balance looked like. But I swapped some of that ‘free time’ to take on a greater share of domestic work after years of not doing my fair share, and it was illuminating.

Working from home unearthed previously hidden domestic tensions. I realised I got upset by my wife Sue’s lackadaisical approach to dishwasher loading. It is not quicker to chuck the cutlery onto the cutlery tray at random. It takes just the same time as doing forks in one section, knives in another and then the spoons. Pointy side down so they are closer to the washer. And just think of the time you save unloading. Who says romance is dead?

I adopt the if a job’s worth doing, it’s worth doing fastidiously approach. After years of taking the lion’s share of the domestic routine unpaid labour, Sue pointed out she takes the all the jobs need doing, so get a flipping move on approach. This, I can now see, is the only sensible approach to most domestic challenges. But not stacking the dishwasher.

But Sue settled it. She conducted thorough research. She referred me to You Tube videos. Here is the answer: you must put the cutlery in the dishwasher pointy end up, not down. Yes, it is slightly more dangerous, although the NHS does not isolate dishwasher-loading injuries in its injury statistics, but there’s more water circulation to better clean them.

But she refused to concede on put all the forks, knives and spoons together in one compartment, to aid unloading. This cutlery segregation is deeply psychologically satisfying for me, her strategy of random cutlery stacking is subversive. Spoons tend to spoon each other, just like people who have been married for many years. Obviously, this is dirty. Food can nestle in between (the spoons, not the happily married people). Research is ongoing and inconclusive in our household.

WFH takeaway: There are always surprising process improvements and learning opportunities, and gender barriers left to smash. Sue goes suddenly 1950s when I suggest by Easter she’ll be doing the bins. I’ll introduce her to OKRs in 2022.

3. Invest in human needs, not just technology for efficiency You can’t do everything, so focus on human priorities, not just business priorities. I learned this from GitLab – the world’s largest all-remote company with 1,300 employees – as to what they saw as their key challenges, and their approach offers insights for startups:

  • Communication Invest in asynchronous communication, whether through Slack channels or Google docs, in which distributed team members input and trust that other team members will respond at the first opportunity. GitLab found employees were more likely to share early-stage ideas to garner early feedback, as the pressure to present polished work was less. Timeliness ahead of completeness creates connectivity.
  • Knowledge sharing Another challenge for distributed teams is that they can’t tap one another on the shoulder to ask questions or get help. Much workplace knowledge is not codified and resides in people’s heads. Gitlab had a strategy to codify knowledge and democratise sharing information on a wider, more transparent and trusting basis.
  • Socialisation Gitlab made significant changes to the physical space in their office, with a ‘offices aren’t for hard work, but soft work’ philosophy – face-to-face interactions are for creativity, personal interaction and spontaneity; they encouraged ‘deep work’ – that capable of being done alone – be done at home.

WFH takeaway: Remote work can be empowering but isolating. Create an intentional social experience online to keep team spirit and individual engagement going; for the days back in the physical office, make it a difference experience.

4. Smart devices aren’t all they’re cracked up to be I thought I’d stepped into a Salvador Dali painting. My Hive smart thermostat tried to ruin my life. I held out for years until January, when I installed a Hive smart thermostat. It will be great, I convinced myself. I won’t have to fumble in the airing cupboard every time I want to tweak the settings. I can do it on the app from anywhere.

The new thermostat was as billed as smart, so that’s an upgrade on me. Then in the icy wasteland of March, the thermostat became possessed by a poltergeist. Quietly, surreptitiously, it developed a mind of its own. It disagreed with my energy strategy and simply ignored it, and adopted a medieval monk’s approach to heating in the morning but went full-on Florida in the evening. After many increasingly desperate factory-setting restorations, I finally managed to exorcise the device. But it didn’t like that at all and upped the malice: for the next week it randomly switched on the heating in the middle of the night and turned it off an hour before dawn.

This smart thermostat ruined my life one cold bath at a time. It harassed me, sending notifications, and tips. It tried to convince me to bring its mates into the house – smart lightbulbs, smart plugs, smart doorbells.  It rebranded itself as the Greta Thunberg of C21st eco-central heating, offering me meaningless rewards of ‘bonus points’ if I used less electricity than my profligate neighbours. It was not a smart thermostat but a malevolent technology Trojan horse disrupting my life.

WFH takeaway: All these time-saving gadgets and apps mean we spend every waking minute in a state of permanent distraction. A smartwatch interrupts a smartphone interrupts a smart speaker interrupts a smart fitness tracker interrupts a conversation you were trying to have with your wife about the stacking of the dishwasher.

5. Focus on purpose and outcomes: declutter As I had more time at home, 2021 was the year of the Big Work Clear-Out, with stuff I’d squirrelled over the years from clients, boxes of workshop material going back to the 90s. I followed Marie Kondo’s advice and chucked out everything that did not bring me joy. But it’s a pendulum situation. You have a big clear-out and feel great. Then you realise you can’t part with that table-tennis bat from the CISCO Amsterdam conference in 2004.

I’d clipped articles from newspapers – an eclectic mix of inspiration, obituaries and stuff to learn – and had my own library of hard-copy journals – all editions of the Harvard Business Review since January 1996. I’d kept all my work moleskins notebook (96) since I started work in 1984 recording client meetings, jottings and quotes from work colleagues, my own observations and occasional insights of value. Some went, some stayed. It was emotional.

Alongside this deep cleansing of analogue artefacts, there were many times I wasn’t productive in my digital habits of 2021 as I simply let my focus drift. The problem with not a pandemic is that there’s not much else to do as tomorrow is another day: eat at home; sleep at home; work at home. Repeat. There’s no variety, nothing to separate the days. I even convinced myself that at times there was no time to be productive. If only we could have time at home to get on with that thing we’ve always been meaning to get on with. In reality, I did declutter my thinking significantly, but it needed some effort to do so.

WFH takeaway: Having more time on my own, shutting out the noise of the outside world and reconnecting with my own thoughts, lead to incredible self-discovery. I do my best thinking when in my ‘note to self’ mode, jotting down that would otherwise have been lost with the ordinary routine of work tasks compressing the mind. Now, I spend more time thinking through purpose and outcomes, not process.

As we come to the end of 2021, we’ve eschewed the Orwellian routine of the office and on the other hand, appreciate the most mundane things like never before, like walking to the cheese shop in the high street to buy, well, cheese. The key is not to prioritise your schedule but schedule your priorities.

I now focus on doing stuff that can positively impact the future, nothing else. Think about it, all that really belongs to us is time in the moment. What might have been in 2021 is an abstraction, whilst time remaining is a perpetual possibility, but both exist only in a world of speculation. As T S Elliot said, Footfalls echo in the memory, down the passage which we did not take, towards the door we never opened. Or was that David Brent?

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