The New Normal

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The “new normal” is weird.

It’s 150 days since I had a face to face conversation with any colleague.

On Friday I had virtual meetings to farewell colleagues.

On Monday I interviewed a new colleague, via video call. That’s not so unusual, but she will not meet any of us at any point in her recruitment or her on-boarding.

I have left this city twice since March – I would normally commute daily.

Every meal I have eaten in that 150 day period, I have eaten alone. For the first 90 days or so every meal was home cooked, but I’ve relaxed a little and now order meals online.

Every night I’ve slept alone, not just alone in my bed, but alone in my apartment.

It’s very easy for a week to go by in which my only face-to-face interaction is with service staff at supermarkets and the one cafe I trust.

And when I leave my home, I wear a mask.

The “New Normal” is very weird.

For many people that term is stress inducing, it’s easy to mock, and lends itself to irony. I might be alone in finding it helpful in accepting that these are the things I have to do now.

So are there any positives?

End of open plan office space

We may never go back to open plan offices.  The negative impact of open plan on productivity is something I’ve thought a lot about, in the most densely populated office I wore sound cancelling headphones in order to concentrate – and wondered why that was the solution to a shortage of working space in a highly profitable company. I’ve found it so much easier to concentrate on my work, and I am happier about being flexible with my hours – talking to Asia at 8am and America at 7pm doesn’t seem so bad when there isn’t a commute each side of that.

Museum visits

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Museums are slowly re-opening, but they are limiting visitor numbers and in some cases limiting the number of people in a room. This makes visits a delight. Those two trips to Amsterdam included visits to the Rijksmuseum. The image to the right shows the room control on the threshold of each door at the Mauritshuis.

These two positives don’t make up for all that has changed and all the suffering of those who got this wretched disease.

The new normal is indeed, weird.

Header image by Omni Matryx from Pixabay
Museum image by me.

Entertain Me! (But from way over there)

The Dutch government has put strict isolation measures in place to control the spread of COVID19. As of last week all events with more than 100 people were closed – so no sports, no museums, no movies, no nightclubs. Even smaller venues started to cancel and close events as a precautionary measure. As of last Sunday night all restaurants and cafes were closed. For now I can leave the house, but we’re being asked to stay home as much as possible. I’m lucky, I can work from home, I have supplies in the house, and there are supermarkets nearby. My issues are isolation and boredom especially at the weekend – hence this list.

I’m going to focus on cultural entertainment because that’s the stuff I am missing most.

Books

My number one favourite thing to do is curl up somewhere comfortable with a great book. Right now that’s providing me with a healthy measure of escapism. As it happens I have about 15 unread books on a shelf and 44 unread on my Kindle, so I’m good to about October.

First big tip – check your local library, the one near me is promoting ebook lending to help people entertain themselves. As a billboard near here says “luckily we can still read books”.

In the unlikely event that I do run out of books I will look at the Kindle deals – right now they’ve got David Balducci and Joanne Harris for 99 cents each.

And then I will check Gutenberg, for those that don’t know Gutenberg publishes books that have entered the public domain, meaning they are no longer under copyright, and lets you download them for free. they have several formats including pdf and kindle. It’s a great way to meet and read classic authors, it’s how I read most of Trollope one winter. (Caveat: Gutenberg is blocked in Germany).

UPDATE Scribd has a 30 day free offer for e-books.

There are also some authors reading books for children, this gets a bit tricky with timezones, but it could be a great way to distract kids who are home from school/day care while you need to work.

Museums

I love visiting museums and galleries when I go to another country, and now I don’t know when I will be able to leave my own city. But some museums have made virtual tours, which are fun to explore and might keep me going for now. Google has a partnership with loads of museums and is highlighting content we can’t get to see right now.

Anne Frank Museum has a range of online resources, including a sophisticated virtual experience, it’s a bit of a “count your blessing” reminderBe.

Berlin Museum Island has virtual tour and great video experiences.

The British Museum has a virtual World Museum, where you can move through artefacts from any era. It took me while to get good at the navigation, but once you pull an artefact there’s all the information about the source and history of the item. It’s like a treasure hunt!

The Rijsksmuseum goes one better – providing you with rights free access to use their works in your own creation, check out Rijksstudio.

Music

If you’re into classical music have a look for #SongsOfComfort on Facebook, I believe it was started by Yo Yo Ma and he is playing a piece each day, and including a short dedication or uplifting message. Others have joined in, and it’s a wonderful sharing of music to sooth the soul.

Need more classical music? The Berlin Philharmonic has opened their digital platform for 30 days, the archive has everything from Daniel Barenboim Conducts the 1997 European Concert from Versailles to the March 12 concert that the orchestra played to an empty concert hall as the COVID19 curtain came down on large gatherings.

More a modern type? Follow Amanda Palmer, she’s performing live from wherever she can and linking to other artists who are streaming. Check her Insta to get the latest info.

Opera Buff? The Met is screening one opera per day for the duration of their close down. Their productions are arguably the best in the world, the singers, the costumes, the musicians, the production is lush. Even if you’re not an opera fan this is a visual and aural feast.

Check you local/national performing venues, I know that the ones here are working on ways to share their work, with at least one ballet troupe working on “training at home” sessions.

Bravo to all the musicians, performers and artists sharing their work. We’ll be back to support you live as soon as we can leave our houses.

Learn Something

There are online courses for all sorts of subjects, and some organisations are opening up free options to help us get through this.

If there’s a specific skill you want to learn check YouTube, I taught myself basic crochet in the Christmas break based on videos.

If you’re into Quizzes, you can spend days on Sporcle learning to name all 197 countries of the world.

If it’s a language you’re interested in download the DuoLingo app, and have fun learning how to say “stay home” in a dozen languages. Babbel has language courses and an insta account to please all language geeks.

We need art.

Lots of venues have had to close stuff, if you had ticket to an event that has been cancelled please – if you can afford it – don’t ask for a refund. We need art, and artists need to eat.

Lots of artists are finding new ways to share their art online, enjoy their work – but look for their patreon, donation or support pages, and support them as much as you can. We need art, and artists need to eat.

Image by annca from Pixabay

So We’re Working from Home Now.

With the COVID19 virus pandemic many companies have moved to more of their teams working from home. My company was encouraging it last week, then we got a message to take laptops home every night, and this morning it’s official; work from home.

This is in line with the Dutch government’s new policy of restricting almost all meetings of more than 100 people, which means all the museums, theatres and fun stuff is cancelled. My friends in the UK, Norway and Denmark report similar measures. So this is it for March, at least.

Productivity

Set up your workspace, not all of us have home offices that we can use, and with schools closing as well in some areas you might be sharing your workspace with kids, partners, and pets. Try to set up a work space in a quiet corner. Ideally somewhere where you don’t have to pack up everything at night and unpack it the next morning.

Get the gear, we’ll be doing more virtual meetings, make sure you’ve got the connections for virtual meetings and get a good headset. I just upgraded from the work issued option and now everyone seems so LOUD – kidding – I know where the volume button is. It’s also a set that is over both ears and reduces distractions from outside noise. My colleague is getting an extra screen to make working at home easier – we’re in this for the long haul.

If you don’t already know about the tools for working online now’s the time. Spend time learning the tools for online meetings and online collaboration. Look for innovative ways to engage people online, and think about the group dynamics if you are running meetings, so that everyone is active in a meeting. 

Set your hours start work and end work at your usual time, or at an adjusted schedule that suits you. Stick to it. Publish it on your work profile. You’ll be back at your desk tomorrow to start all over again.

Comfort

Make your workspace as comfortable as possible, think about light and temperature. Think about the chair you use. I’ve got a simple desk in a corner that has a window but doesn’t get too much direct light, being able to raise my head and look out is good for my eyes and my mood.

Make sure your desk is set up as ergonomically as possible, that will increase your comfort level. This could last some weeks – no need to injure myself!

Put all your tools within reach, I’ve put an old fashioned tray on the windowsill which holds scrap paper, pens, my headset when not in use, screen cleaner and charger cables. It’s all on hand.

Something to look at, if you’ve got a dedicated workspace add something to look at. A plant, a photo from a holiday, something inspiring. I’ve got a piece of artwork done by a friend and a small plant.

Sanity

Work is social, so chat to your colleagues. Use IMs, WhatsApp, Slack, Teams whatever tool your company is good with and keep in touch with your colleagues. Try having a virtual lunch break or virtual coffee break. This goes double for managers – check in with your team daily.

Shut down at the end of the day. I work later hours to fit in with my colleagues in the US and there is a temptation to keep working on their time zone. I’m lucky to have a dedicated space to work in so I don’t have to pack everything away, but it’s important to shut down my work computer, close the office and step away from my desk. If your work table is also the dining table put everything away and out of sight to make a psychological separation from work.

Move, ideally by going outside but that might not be possible in all places. Close the curtains, turn up the music and dance. Find yoga videos on YouTube. Pull that Wii out of the attic and set it up again. Whatever it takes, moving will improve your mood.

Make Jokes, it seems really ridiculous but it’s really important. This semi-quarantine situation is stressful and people can feel afraid or isolated. Maintaining a sense of humour about it is a way to relieve some of that stress. Added bonus, the jokes don’t even have to be good. 

If setting this up seems like a lot of work, all I can say is we could be doing this for a while, and we spend a lot of our awake time at work so we should make the experience as good as possible.

Image by StartupStockPhotos from Pixabay

Twitter Knows What You Did Last Summer

Twitter knows everything about you. Sort of. If twitter knows as much about you as it does about me it’s very likely got a few things right, and a bunch of things wrong.

Twitter thinks I’m interested in Ava DuVernay (I’m a fan), books and literature, which matches some of my personal interests. And then Big Data, Brands, Digital, Leadership, Travel, Books, Technology, so far so good!

But Twitter also got a lot wrong – it thinks I’m also interested in Automotive news (I’ve never owned a car), Baseball and MLB – um no, Soccer, Coca-cola, Fashion (barely), Office 365 and Uber. Also a whole bunch of presumably famous people that I would have to look up to find out why I am interested in them, I’m a bit hopeless on famous people. The whole thing is a bit like reading your horoscope, 25% me going “oh yes, that’s me” and 75% me going “so much no”.

You can check what twitter knows about you by going to “Settings and privacy” > “Your Twitter data” > “Interest and ads data.”

I’ve turned off the option to share my interests with partners because I’m a bit paranoid about data sharing and Twitter already annoys me with their notifications. But it doesn’t seem to go well, Vox reporter Emily Stewart shows the interests that came up for her, including family status, salary estimate and gender.

How does Twitter figure out these interests – I think mainly via tracking cookies that are picking up on my search terms, I admit I may have searched a few football/soccer related articles.

What does twitter do with them? Apparently throws that data into an algorithm to deduce the demographics to create those groups that interest advertisers. If that freaks you out, you can opt out of it.

The big platforms, including Twitter, tell us that more relevant ads will be Good For Us, in fact they’re good for the advertisers in the sense that sales rise. Harvard researchers found that when the viewer was aware of the techniques used to increased the relevancy of those ads, and judged the methods as “creepy” ad effectiveness declined. It’s a reaction I’ve noted in myself, and probably what led me to stop following brands on Facebook and to turn off the ad customisation options on Twitter in the first place.

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay

2019 – What a Year!

I’m going to skip, like a merry water beetle, past the absolute shit show of the global politics, and focus on the positive and the personal.

3 things I learned about working at home

1 Make an office space that works

I need something I can walk away from, I don’t have a separate home office, but there’s a corner of the living space – the foot of the ‘L’ shape of the room – that I use. At the end of the work day I can switch off the light and walk away.

2 Make the timezone work for me

Most of my work is with colleagues in the US, so my work day ends at 7pm, I either start later or I take a coffee break and get some fresh air and daylight. I really value the ability to have a walk outside since it’s dark by 4.30pm. My work day is all meetings from about 2pm, but meeting-free in the mornings so although I finish late the work life balance is actually working out well. 

3 Found my coffee home

I’ve found a cafe with fantastic coffee, free wifi and lovely people. I can go there to work or just to take that coffee break.

3 things I’m grateful for in 2019

1 Home

I moved at the end of last year and it’s been fun discovering my new home town and enjoying all it has to offer – having the beach just 15 minute cycle ride away is wonderful and I need to take advantage of that more often. Bring on spring!

2 Friends

When you’re having a tough time there’s nothing better, and the friends who have supported me, cared for me and made me laugh. Well, you know who you, thank you.

3 A good boss makes a big difference

I have a boss who backs me up, looks for me to lead, believes in my expertise, finds resources and removes boundaries. She also thanks me for specific activities from time to time. It’s a huge help when navigating all this change. 

3 things I will change in 2020

1 Push myself at work

Need to be clearer on results and focus on the significant things, rather than getting lost in detail. 

2 Be a better friend

I’ve let people down in the last year, I will slowly but surely rebuild what I have lost. 

3 Write

I haven’t been as creative or as productive on the writing front as I want to be, I will get back on it next year. I did start a series on creativity, and I will continue it in the new year, it does stimulate me to look out of my work mindset. I’ve also been more creative outside of work and that will continue. 

Image:pixabay

Techlash

Techlash is a portmanteau word from technology and backlash, the FT gives a definition: The growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents.

I’ve heard it in a few podcasts and seen it in a few articles recently, usually in reference to Facebook or twitter, often in connection to privacy issues or political fallout. But it’s older than I expected. Google trends indicates it was first in use in June 2006. Searches on the term peaked in November 2018, when Facebook was under fire for privacy breaches and for selling data to advertisers.

(This data from google is indexed with the date with the most interest being scored at 100, so it’s hard to know what this interest means. I compared the interest to other search terms and all I can say is – it’s not a very interesting term).

There are genuine concerns about “big tech” that all get rolled up into techlash;

For users this has been the decade where the internet went from being a playground to a marketplace, it’s the decade the internet lost its joy. Many consumers started to question where their data was going, the EU and California passed privacy legislation that impacted the online world. 18 months after Europe’s GDPR legislation went into effect I still occasionally find a site that has chosen not to adapt their site and blocks me – it’s not a surprise, the penalties are huge, 20M euro or 4% of global turnover whichever is greater.

So what’s the argument against change? That limiting tech companies will reduce innovation.
But these companies are no longer the innovators, Facebook buys innovators, and for a new platform to emerge against Facebook’s 2.4 billion user base seems close to impossible. Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google are the establishment now, we can stop treating them as the new kids on the block that need the special treatment to get started.

So what happens next? I expect regulation to protect users and workers (in the case of Uber et al), I expect some attempts to break up the biggest companies – which will fail, and some legislation around competition which might succeed if the EU and the US can find a way to pass similar legislation. I expect Chinese tech entrepreneurs to ignore as much of the legislation as they possibly can get away with.

I expect I will not by an AI virtual assistant in the coming year.

Window of Opportunity

“What’s the window of opportunity on that?”

Also known as a ‘critical window’ Wiki gives a pretty good definition: “A window of opportunity (also called a margin of opportunity or critical window) is a period of time during which some action can be taken that will achieve a desired outcome. Once this period is over, or the “window is closed”, the specified outcome is no longer possible”.

It’s a term I’ve known and used for many years, usually I’ve used it in a rather flippant way to encourage a person to make up their mind because I have shit to get done. Turns out it’s a real thing, a serious term used in science and medicine. For example the time a person can survive after breathing has stopped is a “critical window” in which emergency treatment can be delivered.

Think of a farmer, if she hasn’t planted her crop before the rains come there is no harvest, that’s perhaps the clearest example.

I’ve been working on a project where the window – the time to ask for executive sponsorship and budget – was closing as we were preparing the business case. We ended up missing it, and using a more minimal technology. Realistically that window for change would not come around for two budget cycles, ie; two years.

Occasionally you’ll see the idea of a closing window of opportunity used in marketing to create a sense of urgency, number of shopping days to Christmas is a timely example. Black Friday shopping deals and limited time offers are all false windows. Try not buying whatever item is being advertised – you’ll be fine.

Know the context, if you’re a farmer, know the seasons, the crops, the market. If you’re a project manager know the budget cycle and the budget influencers – they can open those windows for you when you’re ready.

Image via pixabay 

Creativity at Play #9

One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more creative and one way I’m doing that is picking creativity exercises from the brilliant book Caffeine for the Creative Mind: 250 exercises to wake up your brain.

Here’s last month’s challenge:

How Big is a Bread Basket?

Recognising relative size or distance is an underrated skill. The late Chick Hearn, long-time play-by-play broadcaster for Los Angeles Lakers, was the king at being able to identify, from a country mile away, how far any shot attempt was from the basket. Your task today is to find he Chick Hearn in you. Grab a digital camera and take one picture of an object that satisfies specific size criteria:

1 is bigger than a coffee cup, but smaller than a dinner plate

I chose to think of this in terms of the diameter of the seed head – if you include the petals I think this would be bigger than most dinner plates!

2 is smaller than a cat but bigger than a kitten

An adult sized ceramic clog – in wonderful Delft blue

3 is bigger than a baseball but smaller than a football

A sculpture of a child’s head from the Allard Pearson Museum.
(Just how big is a football?)

4 is smaller than a car, but bigger than a bicycle

A boat! This image fools the eye because the perspective makes the bike look bigger than the boat and the boat look bigger than the car.

5 is bigger than a letter but smaller than a folio

A bar of Chocolate. It’s a slight cheat – it’s bigger than a letter, we’ll be taste-testing this today.

Did this exercise break out the creativity?

Sort of – I started out with specific things in mind to look for, and dipped into my image library for a couple of them. The last one was actually the first that I took. This could easily be adapted as a break out exercise for a longer workshop, and allowing the use of existing image libraries could make it work for a virtual audience. Maybe you could use your company’s products for the size limits. It was fun to do but not super creative for me.

The Danger of False Positives

The danger of false positives as text with positive and neutral symbols on left of text

The security IT teams where I work are intent on protecting the company from emails that might cause damage to the company, so they’ve been working on new Spam filters, and they’ve decided to put a notification at the top of each email that comes from outside the company. However we use a lot of third party online tools and now notifications from these tools – which I need to see – are flagged as being from outside the company.

Technically it’s true, these are emails from outside the company. However they’re from companies we partner with and I do need to see these emails. From a user perspective these are being flagged when they don’t need to be: it’s a false positive and it occurs because IT have defined the work environment as only what exists on the company’s own servers.

There is a limit to the accuracy of any test, and some of that limit is around false negatives and false positives, so what do those terms mean?
Think of a pregnancy test:
– A false positive would mean the test confirmed a pregnancy that does not exist.
– A false negative would mean the tested showed no pregnancy when one does exist.

One challenge of creating an algorithms that use some external data as input is evaluating the risk of false positives and false negatives. In law there’s an axiom that it’s better that ten guilty people go free rather than one innocent person be imprisoned. So the legal systems work to protect the innocent with rules of evidence and putting the burden of proof on the prosecution, knowing that in some cases guilty people will go free. In drawing the line far on side of false negatives (the guilty person is not convicted) the law acknowledges that it is, at least in theory, really important to avoid false positives (an innocent person is convicted).

In my email example above the line has been drawn, if it’s not a company email – easily identifiable by the email address – then it’s external and the notification is used. But our work environment online is no longer the walled garden we once had. Almost all of the systems I use are from external companies, companies that have gone through significant technical and risk assessment before being allowed to connect to the network. They are systems where I work, but from a strict IT perspective they are outside the company.

I understand the IT perspective on this, but the volume of notifications has taught me to ignore them. It’s a bit like the boy who cried wolf – the ultimate false positive.

Just Stop It – Don’t talk to me in a funny language

Just Stop it

Last Month YouTube updated their terms of service, and users in the EU and Switzerland had to agree to new terms so I got this notification.


So I clicked on it, and got a document of more than 4,000 words in Dutch.

I can read Dutch, but it’s much slower for me than reading English. I know YouTube must have this document in English because Ireland and the UK are (at date of writing) part of the EU and YouTube is an American entity so it’s highly likely that they created the document in English. So I’m sure they have the right content – and a quick search revealed they do.

I use the internet in English at least 90% of the time, my language settings are all for UK English, my browser is in English, my YouTube account specifies UK English.

But it seems that YouTube have chosen to use my IP address to determine which language I get my terms and conditions in. This is a Bad Idea, it’s a very poor data point to predict language.

  • Internet access can be routed through another country, my work computer can go via UK, Netherlands, Singapore or the US depending on which data centre I route it through.
  • People travel, within a 2 hour flight I could be in a country where people speak French, English, Irish, Danish, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, German, Czech, or Polish.
  • In some countries there are multiple languages spoken, what did YouTube do to the Belgians?

Websites can pick up the language of the browser, that’s a better guess at which language to deliver content. And in this case I was logged in. I TOLD YouTube what language I wanted.

American companies are really bad at this, they need to hire more Europeans to their UX teams. Hire some Belgians, YouTube.