Graham’s WFH Tip #5 – Enjoy You Spaces

I take the word “from” in “Working from Home” to mean that I can work anywhere within easy access of my home location. While I have a place in my home where I primarily work, I do not regard it as the only place where I can work.

The organisation I work for is quite flexible about my working location, I could work almost anywhere, but I like my home. I’m conscious in writing this post that there are people whose work doesn’t look anything like the pattern I’m about to describe. Some of that is because your work needs you to be at a screen all the time, I’m also conscious that some people work in organisations where your screen time is being monitored all the time. What I am about to say probably isn’t overly helpful if your work looks like this. If you work in the later type of organisation, I would seriously question the motivation behind that monitoring.

For many of us, our work includes times when we could be somewhere other than sat at our main screen setup – and there are times when we should. A change of location can have a significant impact on how we see things.

There are times and types of meetings that require us to work in our “office” location. It’s not good manners to do a video call in your local coffee shop. My main reason for saying this is that you don’t want to be that person who disturbs all the other people enjoying their daily brew. Here in the UK we are mostly too reserved to say something, but there are times when we want to walk over and unplug you or push you out of the door. There are also, probably, good security reasons, but most of the time the issue is good manners.

For the other times there are good reasons why you should consider working in different places, even if it’s a change of location within your home.

Within the traditional office space many organisations have been embracing an approach known as “activity based architecture”, or “activity based working” for some time. This approach defines areas within a location and designs them to encourage distinct types of activity. There’s quite a lot of thought gone into that trendy new office with spaces for quiet working, stand-up meetings, one-to-one spaces, etc. Organisations aren’t doing this just because it makes for a cool looking office, they are trying to create productive places.

Our surroundings can have a significant impact on our how we think.

A simple example may be to think about ceiling height. Yes, even the height of the ceiling can have an impact, in this case, the impact is on creativity. There are studies that have shown that a high ceiling increases people’s ability to think creatively. How high should the ceiling be to make a difference? Preferably over 3 metres, or 10 feet, it’s known by some as the Cathedral Effect, I’m sure you can understand why.

Speaking personally, the only place in my house where the ceiling is anything like that high is halfway up the stairs. What I do have, though, is a garden, and there the ceiling is significantly higher than 3 metres. Some of my best thinking is done outside, sat at a table with sheets of A3 paper and a pen. However, rain is a characteristic of the weather where I live, and it’s not always possible to work in the garden, that’s when a local coffee shop provides me with some headspace.

For everyone wondering. Yes, low ceilings are supposed to produce a different effect, and that’s the ability to focus.

The effects produced by high or low ceilings
actually occur because such ceiling heights increase or
decrease vertical room volume, which in turn stimulates
alternative concepts and types of processing.

J. Meyers-Levy, R. Zhu (2007) The influence of ceiling height

Another example. There are times when I need to review a long report. My normal place of work is a place prone to interruption, not by family or anything like that, but by the screens and the constant flow of notifications. This is when I choose a place in my house where there’s an armchair and the notification noise is minimal (and the ceiling is relatively low). It’s a wonderful place to give something some extended focussed thought. I’m someone who prefers to review material on paper and with a pen.

I’m also privileged enough to have a comfortable seat in the home office which I use when I want to think differently about something. It’s still close to the screens and tends to be the place where I corelate several thoughts together. I often use this seating to do my daily planning, something about sitting in this seat helps me to order my thoughts.

Each working space come with a frame, sometimes the frame is visible, in others it’s not. Changing the frame can be an immense help in changing our perception and helping us to think differently.

Different people are impacted by different elements of a frame, it may not be the ceiling height for you. For some people it’s the light in a location, for others the smell, colour also has an impact, so does clutter and tidiness. The important part of this tip is that you start to recognise the frames and use them to your advantage.

Have you thought about the frames that you are working in, and how a different frame would help to create a different outcome?

The biggest challenge I have is motivating myself to get up and move to another space. I know it will do me good, but that doesn’t stop me procrastinating.

This tip has been about static space, some work is better done on the move – perhaps we’ll go there next time.

Header Image: Sunset from a local swimming spot, local enough for an evening dip. It’s a popular place in the day, leave it a little later and we get the place to ourselves.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

I’m Reading… “Wild Fell” by Lee Schofield

My wife’s family heritage is rooted in the hill farms of the Lake District, and I’ve been fascinated by the history, nature and indeed the natural history of the fells of what is now Cumbria for as long as we’ve known each other. My father-in-law was born in a farmhouse, by a tarn, in a hamlet a few miles from a main road.

Perhaps my interest started earlier than that?

I remember secondary school geography classes where we were shown the impact of tourism on the National Park. We studied the volume of cars and the need for roads and parking, which was nothing compared to today. The pressure for accommodation, cafes, and shops. We looked at the significant impact on the Lak District hotspots, of Bowness & Windermere in particular. That was more than 35 years ago. Today the pressure of tourism is greater than ever, and in amongst it all there are communities trying to work out a livelihood within the constraints of being a National Park and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The Lake District countryside has been shaped over thousands of years by two things farming and mining. Mining may no longer be economic; the farms, however, are still there. It may look like an idyllic way of life, but all is not well.

There’s a conflict between the desire for the National Park to be a place of natural beauty and the needs of farmers to make a living. I’m no expert on the challenges on either side, they are deep seated and long in the forming, but I would like to understand more, hence the reading pattern.

Across the Lake District there are groups of people trying to change things, experimenting with different paths. People trying to see if there are different healthier ways, ones that provide a long-term future for people and wildlife, together. One such group is the RSPB in Haweswater, Lee Schofield is one of the rangers there and this is the story of their journey.

Schofield talks about a desire to see wildlife, flora and fauna, return to a corner of the National Park that gets a moderate number of tourists, but is off the standard tourist routes. Situated on the eastern edges Haweswater is a man-made reservoir that supplies water to Manchester via a 96 mile long gravity-fed aqueduct. About 25% of the water for the North West of England comes from here, which makes it nationally important. In many ways Haweswater is industrial, yet it is also remote and peaceful. When I’ve walked there, I’ve always enjoyed a sense that I am somewhere where others aren’t, but I’ve not been looking with the eyes of Lee Schofield.

One the joyful parts of this book are the names of the various plant species that I so easily overlook. I can’t even remember most of the names but Schofield reels them off in a way that is glorious – Alpine Catchfly, Sessile Oak, Devil’s Bit Scabious, Goldenrod, Wood Crane’s-Bill, Lesser Meadow-Rue, Yellow Mountain Saxifrage, Globeflower, Melancholy Thistle, Common Polypody, Bog Myrtle, Bedstraw, Tormentil. The sad part is that this diversity is all too sparse in an environment where it should be abundant.

Although Schofield works for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, this book is much more about the creation of the right environment for the flora to thrive and in so doing enable the fauna to rejuvenate, including the birds.

This book is subtitled “Fighting for nature in a Lake District hill farm” – while I find the word “fight” to be a bit over-combative, having read the book, it’s certainly a struggle. The farming community is a loyal group and having outsiders come in was never going to be an easy journey. The book outlines those challenges, but also the inspirational successes that can be achieved when you work with people.

There is a big plan for Haweswater, the area is huge and there’s lots to do – rewiggling of rivers to allow healthy meandering, blocking water drains to enable mosses to reform and bogs to come back to life, fencing in areas to reduce the impact of grazing, changing grazing patterns and species to encourage different flora, to name a few. Each one having a different impact on the ecology of the whole area.

I’ve read a few other books covering similar themes:

If these book share something in common it’s not surprising Lee Schofield and James Rebanks are practically neighbours, and they’ve both been inspired by the work of Isabella Tree at Knepp.

The book concludes with the dream of a better future, a future that is thankfully looking like it might just be possible. Until a few years ago Haweswater was famous for being the only place where you could still see a Golden Eagle in England, sadly that’s no longer the case. I look forward to a day when we enable their return.

Header Image: This is the view across Haweswater with the dam at the far end. The few trees in the distance on the right are old woodland, the trees nearby aren’t native species. I’ve walked through both and the difference in diversity is stark.

Graham’s WFH Tip #4 – Thinking Music

It’s WFH Tips time again 😊

This time we are going to be thinking about the impact of music, and a bit about other sounds in our working environment.

What I really want to encourage you to do in this post is to consider the soundscape around you. Whoever you are, and whatever your preference, sound can have a significant impact on your creativity and productivity. There are elements of the soundscape that we probably can’t influence too much – if you live in a city, it’s unrealistic to expect complete silence – but you can control what sounds you put into your environment. Now you are working from home control of the soundscape is part of your new autonomy so make the most of it.

I wrote a little time ago about the power of a ticking clock, which has become part of my daily soundscape. I also love having music playing while I’m working, but it must be the right kind of music. There is music that helps me to focus, and music that is distracting or even annoying.

When it comes to music, people have all sorts of preferences – that’s part of the joy of music, after all. While I prefer music, others prefer silence, and that’s great as well, personally I find silence lonely.

If you search the internet, you will find people declaring music as a productivity improver, the popular posts are mostly subjective, but there are some that focus on research. One of the better ones is comes from Cognition Today – How does background music affect work productivity and creativity? 9 research findings – Cognition Today. As you might expect, the answer isn’t that music = better productivity, it’s more subtle than that. Let’s face it the definition of productivity is itself dependent upon the context in which it is being measured and the role being performed. Perhaps the most interesting study is the last one in this article that basically says that if you think music is helpful then it will be, but if you think it’s distracting, then that’s also likely to be true.

These are my focus music tips, which I accept may be completely opposite to yours:

  • Instrumental music – I find music with lyrics distracting, which aligns with some of the studies.
  • Curate your playlists – I use Spotify for my music and have playlists specifically built for focussing. I have different ones for types of instrumental music. It’s worth the effort to curate ones where the music fits with what you regard as pleasurable.
  • Observe the emotions – instrumental music can have a significant impact on our mood and it can creep up on you. One of my focus playlists includes music from soundtracks. When I was first building this playlist, I copied in some music from a nature program which accompanied a scene where a leopard seal was chasing a penguin. When I noticed that it was subconsciously making me stressed, I removed it.
  • Time for a change – I have several playlists because I find that music can move from pleasurable to annoying if I listen to it too much. That’s also one of the reasons that the playlists are long.
  • Keep it low – there are times when I like loud music, it’s not great for focus.
  • But not too low – music that is too low can also be distracting.

The music in my home office plays through a smart speaker which enables me to quickly turn it off when I need to respond to a call or other interaction. If I am at home on my own, I play the same music throughout the house. There’s something about walking into an empty room where music is playing that I find reassuring.

One of my favourite pieces of thinking music, at the moment, is the soundtrack to Planet Earth II. I’d love to hear some of your choices.

Here are a few of my playlists if you fancy a listen:

“My idea is that there is music in the air, music all around us; the world is full of it, and you simply take as much as you require.”

Edward Elgar

Header Image: This is a local sunset looking out across the Irish Sea and the wonderful expanse of wind turbines. You can just see the turbine sticking up alongside the setting sun.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #3 – Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)

Working from home means that you are working in a different location, but it doesn’t mean that you have to work in the same way. You have been liberated from the office, which for most of us was a noisy open plan disaster of a location where you were impacted by all sorts of other people’s poor behaviour. You now work in a location where, for most of us, you have significantly more control.

There is no need to work in the same way as you did in the office – you have superpowers.

You have the superpower of invisibility.

You are no longer at the beck and call of everyone who just happens to be walking around the office farm. There is no need to join others for a brew, or for lunch, just because it would be impolite not to join them. No one needs to know where you are – you are invisible, unless you make yourself visible.

Many people make the mistake of giving up their invisibility too easily. They feel like they need to answer every email and every text immediately. If there’s a call they feel like they have to join it. There’s a worry that others might think that they aren’t working hard enough if they aren’t immediately responsive. This is a mistake, by going invisible you will achieve far more.

You have the superpower of focus.

Open plan offices are such distracted places. The noise, the interruptions, the coming and the going. For many of us we are employed for our ability to solve problems and solving problems requires focus. Outside of the bustle of the office factory you can make the space to focus. You do need to talk to people and let them know about your progress, you need to collaborate with people and seek consensus, but you shouldn’t let that steal your focus time. In your focus time is your strength.

You have the superpower of time shifting

The 9-to-5 is such a cliché yet there are millions of people following it every day.

Why?

Some of this is a particularly British thing. In my culture good people are in the office from 9-to-5, five days a week and only take 30 mins for lunch. If you are particularly hard working you will take your lunch at your desk and not leave until 6. No one would dream of taking time out in the middle of the day, and if they did they would definitely make sure that everyone knew that they were just popping out for an hour to have a major organ removed. Presenteeism is highly valued.

Even organisation that have flexible working hour look on people who start early and leave early, or start late and leave late, with a suspicious eye.

There is good scientific evidence for this being a terrible way to organise a business if you want to get the best out of people. Some people work better early, others work better later. For most of us an afternoon nap would be highly beneficial. The four day working week has been shown to provide significantly better productivity. Taking time off work when ill leads to fast recovery. It goes on.

How much time flexibility you have depends on your role and your employer. For many reasons I have high levels of flexibility and I aim to put it to good use. I try to stick to a routine, as I suggested in the first tip, but it’s not 9-to-5. It’s taken me a long while to settle on a working schedule that, I hope, makes me productive. I don’t know what time flexibility you have, but perhaps you have more flexibility than you think you do?

You have the superpower of autonomy

I’ve previously quoted Daniel Pink as saying this (emphasis mine):

“When it comes to motivation, there’s a gap between what science knows and what business does. Our current business operating system–which is built around external, carrot-and-stick motivators–doesn’t work and often does harm. We need an upgrade. And the science shows the way. This new approach has three essential elements:

1. Autonomy – the desire to direct our own lives.
2. Mastery – the urge to get better and better at something that matters.
3. Purpose – the yearning to do what we do in the service of something larger than ourselves.”

Daniel Pink

I return to these three words regularly – autonomy, mastery and purpose.

Working from home should extend your autonomy and you should seize it with both hands.

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The

You have the superpower of space shifting.

The desk isn’t always the best place to work – I’m going to spend some more time on this one in a dedicated post, so that’s probably enough for now.

I titled this post “Put your Superpowers to work (but don’t overuse them)”. Overuse of your superpowers can be detrimental to your own wellbeing and also to your productivity. Time shifting needs to be balanced with routine. Focus needs to be balanced with communication and collaboration. Invisibility needs to be balanced with visibility.

Time to get those superpower to work, don’t be shy…

Header Image: A lovely day in the Lake District – this is Buttermere. A glorious walk, a lovely swim. While we were there we were enthralled watching a crew filming aerobatic paraglider sequences followed by a helicopter – not something you see every day. They were apparently for a future Mission Impossible. We didn’t see Tom Cruise, although there was no way of knowing if he was flying one of the paragliders.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

QUOTE: “Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by…”

Every decision that impacts our lives will be made by the person who has the power to make that decision – not the ‘right’ person, or the ‘smartest’ person, or the ‘best’ person. Make peace with this fact.

Marshall Goldsmith

Header Image: A local cornfield on a gorgeous even after a swim in the river.

Graham’s WFH Tip #2 – Wear Work Clothes

What do you wear when you are working from home? Do you have work clothes? I do, and I find it extremely helpful.

Perhaps you are the person who embodies one of those overused WFH caricature and works in your pyjamas? Or, perhaps you are someone who wears a shirt and tie above and Hawaiian shorts below? Maybe you just wear what you wear and don’t really give it any thought?

There are several advantages to having work clothes, a uniform.

Tip #2: Pick a uniform for work, wear it for work, change out of it when you are not at work.

You’ll feel better for it.

I feel I need to apologise a bit here, I am writing from a male perspective. I know that the pressures are different for women, but I don’t feel at all qualified to talk into that context – not being a woman.

Anyway, back to those advantages?

Uniformity requires limited thinking

When I talk about work clothes I’m talking about a uniform that you put on each day. I’m not talking about sitting in the home office with a shirt and tie on, although, if that’s what works for you, why not? I’m talking more about have a defined set of clothes that you only use for work, and likewise, you only work when you are wearing those clothes. The variation in these clothes should be kept quite narrow, they should, in essence, be uniform. It helps if they all match with each other.

Uniformity takes away a whole stack of cognitive load – also mentioned in Tip #1. Having a defined set of work clothes removes the morning effort of choosing, effort which, in most of our WFH situations adds no value.

Changing partitions the day

I have work clothes, I also have non-work clothes and I try to keep the two separate. At the end of each day I go to the effort of changing out of my work clothes into my non-work clothes. Whilst this is a physical activity, it is also a mental activity, by changing my clothes I am finishing my working day and moving into my non-working time.

I’m trying to enact a feeling, telling myself that work has finished for the day. This change of clothes partitions my day, I am stopping doing one thing and starting to do something else.

Wearing work cloths means that I am at work

Whilst changing moves me from one mode to another, wearing the WFH uniform reinforces my sense of being at work. Distraction is a challenge when you work from home, the work clothes reinforce my concentration during work time. Again, I’m trying to enact a feeling, the feeling of being at work.

Give a workwear uniform a try, you might actually like it 😊

Addendum: I also have a different aftershave for the weekend and holidays. It provides another mental signal that differentiates work time and non-work time.

Header Image: Looking towards Nicky Nook – a wonderfully names local hill. It’s beautiful around here and the lush greens at this time of the year are stunning

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tip #1 – Routine is your friend

When I worked in an office I was unaware of the routines that were being subconsciously marked into my psyche, even before I’d left my home I’d entered into a daily rhythm unawares. When you work in an office the routine starts soon after you awake and continues until after you are home.

One of the joys of working from home is having the flexibility to slot things into your day, you no longer need to follow those structures, this is also one of the greatest dangers of working from home. Let me explain a little more.

Tip #1: Routine is good for us and you should seek to establish a daily routine.

While flexibility is sometimes good for us, the reality is that it is comes with a cognitive burden. Routine tasks do not require us to think, that is one of their characteristics. Have you even noticed how it can be difficult to get ready for the day when you are staying in a hotel. That’s not a difficulty you have at home. You know the morning routine where you live. Most people don’t have to think about the location of their toothbrush, they just brush their teeth. In a hotel, however, it’s something that you have to give thought to, you also have to think about what you do with your toothbrush once you’ve finished brushing. The pathways for you morning ablutions is built into your brain as a stored sequence of tasks that are simply followed.

You only have so much cognitive energy to give in a day, you want to use it wisely, and preferably doing things that add value to the role that you are undertaking. Having a set of routines, that don’t require us to think, frees up our brains for those activities where it’s really needed.

While we don’t have to follow the office routines when we work from home, I suggest that you do.

I’ve got tips for some of the specific routines, which I’ll cover later, but for now, some routines for you to consider:

  • Going to work
  • Leaving work
  • Lunchtime
  • Clothes and getting dressed
  • Start of the day
  • End of the day
  • Focus time
  • Refreshments
  • Breaks
  • Day plan
  • Research and learning
  • Administration
  • Social conversations

You may, or may not, be in control of each of these routines, but I can guarantee that you are in control of some of them. Now imagine that you have to think through each one of these activities as a unique activity each day – exhausting. Routine takes that need to think away from us, and let’s be honest, most of the time, there is no value in each of these activities being different every day.

While I’m here I suppose I ought to talk a bit about how to establish new routines. The simple answer, for me, is to repeatedly do the same thing and eventually it will become the habit. Remember, there is no set number of times you need to do something for it to become a habit, we are all different in that respect. Sometimes we’ll just slot into a habit, at other times we’ll need to work through phases of discomfort before it fits. The point of a routine is to reduce your cognitive load, not to increase it, so there’s no point in stressing over a habit we find difficult, that’s just defeating the purpose of the exercise.

Until next time 😊

Header Image: Local evening light. This is a field close to where I live, somewhere I regularly visit on my routine morning walks.

New to Graham’s WFH Tips? Here’s a handy list to help you catch up.

Graham’s WFH Tips – Some Advice for a Changed World

I’ve worked in a hybrid way for many years. Some days I would be in the office, at others I would do work from home or another location.

My work is now, almost exclusively, done from an upstairs room at the back of my house. I work from home, I don’t “work from home (with a knowing nod and a wink)”, work is the place where I do work.

There are certain things that I do to maintain my productivity and retain my sanity. I figured that it was about time I shared some of that advice, and thus a new series of posts was born.

There’s a huge debate going on at present about the value of working from home, most of this is mired in ignorance and mistrust, although some of it is raising genuine concerns. I’m not aiming to get into all of that because my hope if that it will work out, in time, as people find ways of working that are right for them and their organisation. I’m writing these posts from the perspective that people are going to be working from home, that change has already happened, it’s not a new thing. What they want is to be the best at working from home that they can be. If I can give some tips that help some people along that journey then I will count that as a success.

All of these tips, I’m sure, will have been covered by someone else in a far more erudite way somewhere, I’m not claiming any ownership of them. I will try and link to other more detailed material, but I can’t guarantee that I know where the advice came from.

It might help you to know what kind of work I do, from home, and the type of challenges that I face. Some of the tips are particularly relevant to my context, so may not be as relevant to yours.

I’m an IT Architect which means that I take business needs and translate them into designs that other people build. My current, extended, team is international with members in every continent apart from Antarctica, we are resident in over ten different time zones. I’m regularly in conversation with people at +12 hours and -8 hours from my UK location. Adjusting for daylight saving time, summer time, can be interesting as some people go one way and others go in the opposite direction, on different dates. All of the people in my management chain are in a different time zone to myself. There are many things that I can do without meetings, but I spend a significant amount of my week in meetings.

That’s probably enough for now, I’m sure more will come out as we work our way through the tips.

As we start off on this journey I’m reminded of a quote:

Advice is like snow – the softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon, and the deeper it sinks into the mind.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

As I put this advice out there, I leave its landing to you.

Header Image: This is Crummock Water, it’s a swimming favourite. It’s not quite local, but is local enough that we can go as part of a day trip.

I’m reading…”Prisoners of Geography – Ten Maps That Tell You Everything You Need to Know About Global Politics” by Tim Marshall

This book was first published in 2015. It’s first chapter is a commentary on the geographic position of Russia. This chapter concludes that war between Ukraine and Russia is almost inevitable. Why? The geography.

Here we sit in 2022 and Russia has invaded Ukraine, having previously annexed Crimea.

We rarely see geography mentioned as an aspect of global politics. What Prisoners of Geography does is to take us around the globe pointing out some of the key geographical features and their impact.

In the case of Russia and Ukraine the challenge is access to the oceans. While Russia is a vast country, it’s northern position means that all its ports are inaccessible throughout the winter, that’s not a good thing for a world power.

Other chapters take us around the globe from China to the USA, from Western Europe to Africa, from The Middle East to India to Pakistan. Eight different global areas. The book concludes with a chapter on the Arctic.

I’d never considered, before, how geography has enabled countries and regions to become wealthy and powerful, like the navigable rivers of Western Europe and the USA. While, on the other hand, the lack of navigable rivers has impacted much of Africa and South America and their ability to trade.

There’s China, the growing global superpower, and the geographic impact of the oceans around them. So many good travelling around the world passing through a web of waters belonging to other nations and strategic assets controlled by other powers. Some of them close, like the Straits of Malacca, others further afield, imagine the potential impact of the Suez and Panama canals to a global trading superpower.

Then over to the west there’s another growing power, India, and between them and China is a huge geographic feature, the Himalayas. In our age of flight and the global internet we forget what a huge barrier this is. While we are in the region, there’s Tibet. When I was a teenager, I remember there being lots of discussion about this vast region, I even remember looking it up on the map, but couldn’t see any significance in it. For some reason I never considered it from the Chinese perspective.

Why all the fuss over the Arctic? One of the reasons we miss the significance of this is that our maps are all wrong. In the UK we predominantly see the world through the Mercator projection which nicely shows our small island right in the middle of the action. What this map also does is to massively stretch the geography at the top and the bottom of the globe – Africa is wider than Russia, by a long way. If you look at a projection of the globe with the arctic at the centre things look very different. The recent discussions about Sweden and Finland joining NATO look more significant from this angle. The desires of Russia to extend its control and secure access to valuable minerals make more sense. The mythical North West Passage makes more sense.

I’m not sure that this book quite lives up to its subtitle of telling me everything I need to know about global politics, but it definitely highlighted a dimension that I’d previously overlooked.

Header Image: This is Devoke Water and it’s time for a swim.

Office Speak: “Next Slide, Please”

Near to the start of my full-time employment I joined a department that was responsible for IT Training and also to look after certain technologies. This was an engineering organisation and the engineering departments had their own IT functions, we were the people who did everything else. This was at the end of the age of 8″ floppy disks and the beginning of the 5″ floppy disks short reign, in those days training included a half day course on how to use a mouse. We measured everything in kilobytes.

This was a time before video projectors were commonplace. One room did have a video projector in it, but it was very expensive, low quality and about the size of a washing machine. Most of the training rooms, however, made use of a technology that had then been around for over 100 years – the over-head-projector (OHP).

Each training course came with its own set of slides for the OHP. For those of you who have no comprehension of what I am talking about, slides for an OHP can best be imagined as A4 sized pieces of thick cellophane with a cardboard boarder. The cardboard border had a cut-out in one corner, this was essential to the safe operation of the slides. Slides could be put on to the OHP in eight different orientations, but only worked in one. Knowing which orientation was a skill and required organisation and preparation. The administration of the slides was a tightly controlled activity and anyone who didn’t put the slides back in the right order, in the right orientation, would be castigated. Animation was a physical activity with extra pieces of the cellophane taped onto a slide adding content as they were flipped into place.

There were other rooms where a slide projector was used. If you don’t know what a slide projector is, then I’m sorry for this lacking in your education, you’ve missed out. Most families, in those days, had an uncle, rarely and aunt, who would insist on treating their family to a Saturday night picture show of their latest exotic holiday adventure. Skegness projected onto a woodchip wall is a sight to behold. Anyway, I digress.

There were times when I would sit in on someone delivering training, on these occasions I may well be asked to operate the slides. I became skilled in the operation of both an OHP and a slide projector. The trainer would stand at the front and deliver the material, stopping occasionally to instruct me – “next slide, please.” It was an obvious thing to ask in a day when that was the nearest we got to remote control.

Technology changes were standing just outside the door though and we were about to make a significant change.

Up until this point the slides that went on top of the OHP had been created in one of two ways – they were hand drawn, or they were produced by a professional printer. My job was to start printing transparencies on a desktop LaserJet printer via an application on a PC, something I embraced with relish. This wasn’t a cheap option in those days, but it was the forefront of technology. Desktop LaserJet printers were a few thousand pounds, the PC and software gobbling up a few more thousand, even the specialist transparencies that would work in the LaserJet printer came at a premium and were closely guarded by my manager.

More change was on the way, it was only a small step to replace the LaserJet printer with another new technology – the video projector. Even then, though, I would sit at the computer in the training room and accept the instructions for “next slide, please.” Even then, only certain rooms would have such lavish equipment fitted.

We now regard access to a screen as standard for every meeting room. It would be very unusual indeed for us to walk into a room and for there to be no audio-video set-up. Latterly, the projector has been replaced by television screens in all but the largest room. Some of these being delivered as part of a video conferencing set-up including cameras and microphones.

In recent years, though, the desire to show slides has increasingly moved online, with screen sharing being part of millions of remote meetings every day. But what about those slides? We don’t seem to be able to live without them, even though very few of them will ever see an actual physical slide.

The other day I was sat in an online meeting, one of those all-hands type affairs. There were several people presenting and again came the refrain “next slide, please.” It seems that the material we were looking at was being operated by one person and that person had the role of human remote control for everyone else.

All this took me back to an age when creating slides was a job and “next slide, please” required significantly more skill than pressing a page-down key.

Header Image: This is one from a little trundle up Crinkle Crags in the Lake District.

Walking and the Anxiety of Interactions

I tend to be a solitary walker; I like it that way. I like to be with my thoughts and the inspiration of a good audiobook.

I don’t dislike walking with other people, I quite like people, but while I’m out solitary walking I find that interactions with other people, strangers in particular, can cause all sorts of anxiety.

For me, each interaction is loaded with choices and moral dilemmas.

Let me explain by giving you some examples.

The other day I was out walking and ahead of me was a couple who were walking slower than me, that’s normal. They had a dog and people with dogs always walk slower. Where they were was not too far from a path that I was wanting to take.

This is what is going on in my head: Do I speed up, zip around them (as much as anyone walking ‘zips’) and head up the path? Do I slow down and let them pass the junction so that I can continue my route without disturbing them? If I go slower, how much slower do I need to go to leave them enough room so that it isn’t obvious that I’m waiting for them to get out of the way? How do I do that without looking weird? What happens if I go slower and they slop altogether, what do I do then? If I catch them up, I will need to interact with them, what does that look like? What kind of interactions would be appropriate?

As it was, I decided to move a bit slower and let them pass the fork, then I could be on my way. Unfortunately, my pondering had missed another option, what would happen if they also decided to take the junction? Which they did.

I was getting close to them when this happened, and an awkward interaction was now inevitable. I was either going to have to stay behind them all the way up the forked path, which was narrower than the main path. This would look awkward as they knew I’d already caught them up, or I was going to have to ask them to let me past. That’s what I thought anyway. As it was the couple stopped just a few steps up the fork and let me past, giving me a smile as I went.

Is this just me?

Another study case.

Over a week ago I was heading along a wide path when I noticed a man walking towards me on the same side of the path. As he was a little way off, I crossed over to the other side so that we didn’t crash into each other. It seemed like the polite thing to do and walking down the extreme of a path is a COVID thing that persists around here. As the man approached me, I recognised him and I’m quite sure that we’d previously smiled and said “hello.” This time he completely blanked me. In that split second, I recognised that he was from a different racial heritage to myself. Again, my brain goes into super-drive: what if he’d seen me crossing over and interpreted it as a racially motivated act? Deliberately crossing to the other side of a street to avoid someone can be an immensely powerful statement. Was I a bit overenthusiastic in my movements? What will happen the next time I see him?

A few days later I saw the same man, this time we were already walking down opposite sides of the path. He looked up, smiled, and said “hi.” I returned the niceties.

Interactions with single women are especially burdened with dilemmas. I know that I am safe, but no woman out there knows that. I can see how an approaching man on his own, without a dog, is a potential threat and needs to be treated with suspicion.

I’m not a dog owner, but I have noticed how men walking dogs are regarded as somehow safer than men on their own. With a dog is OK, without a dog is somehow strange? Perhaps it’s that the presence of a dog indicates the person with it cares about it at least enough to take it out for a walk.

Anyway, getting back to the subject – approaching women.

I go through all sorts of anxious mental gymnastics when approaching women walking on their own. The worst scenario for this is when I am out walking down a narrow path and approach a woman from behind. In most cases I am going faster and will need, at some point, to make a choice between staying back and overtaking.

This is a bit like the first scenario, but worse. Again, my brain goes into a spin: I don’t want to catch up quickly that would feel especially threatening, but slowing down and following is especially strange? It’s a narrow path there really is no way of overtaking without interacting and how do I do that without being threatening? How much eye contact is polite, too much eye contact makes me a threat? Do I say “Hi”, or not? What about a smile? If I stay back, will I be noticed, or not? If I am noticed, how will they respond? Is there anywhere wide enough to overtake? How do I indicate that I would like to come past? It’s a minefield of dilemma.

On a narrow path a woman walking towards me has a distinct set of anxieties: When is the right time to step to one side? Is there somewhere obvious to get out of the way? If there isn’t it feels very weird to only make a narrow space to pass, but it would be strange to climb over a fence just to make space? What is the best way to interact? When is the right time to interact?

There are no clear rules here anymore. I’ve wondered about reintroducing the tradition of doffing. What do you think, would that just make me look eccentric, or strange?

We aren’t particularly good at discerning the feelings of others and many of my anxieties are predicated on how the other person views the interaction. I’m sure that most of my worries are unfounded and that the other person isn’t thinking what I think they are. I suspect that most of the time they’re not anxious about my presence at all. That knowledge doesn’t, however, stop me processing each interaction.

Please tell me that I’m not the only one who has these thoughts?

Header Image: Sunrise from my morning walk a few weeks ago.

I’m reading… “Utopia for Realists: and How We Can Get There” by Rutger Bregman

Do you live in “utopia”? Looking back on the last two years of pandemic I can’t imagine that there are many of us leaping to a positive answer to that one.

Now imagine you are living 200 years ago and picture a time in the future when:

“billions of us are suddenly rich, well nourished, clean, safe, healthy and occasionally even beautiful. Where 84% of the world’s population still lived in poverty in 1820, by 1981 that percentage had dropped to 44%, and now, just a few decades later, it is under 10%.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

Is this “utopia”?

Numbers, despite the meaning behind them, rarely communicate the full story. Bregman describes where we are now not as “utopia” but as the “Land of Plenty”:

“According to Oscar Wilde, upon reaching the Land of Plenty, we should once more fix our gaze on the farthest horizon and rehost the sails. “Progress is the realization of Utopias,” he wrote. But the farthest horizon remains blank. The Land of Plenty is shrouded in fog. Precisely when we should be shouldering the historic task of investing in the rich, safe, and healthy existence with meaning, we’ve buried utopia instead. There’s no dream to replace it because we can’t imagine a better world than the one we’ve got.”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

In Utopia for Realists Bregman seeks to paint that “better world than the one we’ve got” to sail to – not as some kind of mythical unachievable state, but by outlining a set of ideas that are just there on that far horizon.

What are these grand ideas? That would be giving too much away, but they are very interesting.

The ideas that are there on that far horizon have all been widely tested, some have even been implemented in some countries, and yet all of them would be regarded as counterintuitive, even counter-logical by most people. (I’m continuing my run of books that tell me I’m wrong.)

In the UK, where I live, welfare is a constant political battleground. Just this week the deficiencies in the existing system have been brought into stark relief by stories of an elderly woman riding the bus to stay warm at a time of escalating living costs. Yet others argue that we can’t afford to do any more. Bregman has a big idea for that. Bregman’s approach to this problem is certainly radical.

We live in a time when work is going through a massive upheaval. Many people have spent the last two years working from home and now the bosses are seeking a return to “normal” office life. Vast numbers of people are dreading the idea of returning to a place which sapped them of energy and required them to sit in long queues on motorways for no apparent reason. Personally, I’m getting a bit tired of seeing people saying “working from home”, while putting the “working” in air-quotes, as if somehow the many hours that people have been putting in aren’t real work. Bregman has a radical, yet tested, idea for that, and no it’s not better hybrid working.

(hybrid working is another term I dislike, it maintains the suggestion that working in an office is somehow better than working from home when for many roles the office is the least productive place for people.)

You might recognise the “Land of Plenty” but there are hundreds of millions of people who wouldn’t. They are still living on less than a dollar a day. The global community has spent billions of dollars trying to overcome this problem, Bregman puts the figure at $11.2 billion a month, or $5 trillion over the last 50 years. Yet poverty is still a massive problem and, according to Bregman, no-one really knows whether this development money has made a difference. Again, Bregman has an idea for this problem, and it’s probably not what you were expecting it to be. Another idea that is very timely and massively counter-cultural to many global governments, to the current British government certainly.

This book is titled “Utopia for Realists: and how we can get there”, having the ideas is only a small part of the challenge. Implementing the ideas is the greater part.

In the epilogue to the book Bregman writes:

“For the last time, then: how do we make utopia real? How do we take these ideas and implement them?

The path from the ideal to the real is one that never ceases to fascinate me”

Rutger Bregman, Utopia for Realists

He concludes with some advice to the realists and an encouragement that “more people are hungry for change”. I hope so.

This book is, in many ways, a prequal to I’m reading…”Human kind” by Rutger Bregman which uses many of the same ideas but focussed more on the personal aspects of change. We need both personal and political change if we are going to move towards that “far horizon”.

Header Image: This is Loughrigg Tarn, it’s within driving distance of my home and is a fabulous place for a swim. In the background are the Langdale fells.

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