Where does the talent lie?

talentI was working once for a pretty big organisation, who wanted to start a blog. This was about ten years ago, so for a lot of people blogging was kind of new.

Despite the fact that I was working there, and had been blogging for a while, and actually had a bit of a reputation (admittedly outside the organisation), the decision was made to pay a communications consultant to come in and set the blog up, write the posts and so on.

The money spent on this project could have been saved by getting me to do it. It also might have been done better by me. It certainly would have cheered me up to be doing something I found genuinely exciting and engaging as part of my day job.

How many times does this happen in your organisation? The problem is that nobody knows what anyone knows. People finder tools on the intranet rarely tell you what skills and interests people have. You just know their job title and which team they work in.

There are lots of ways around this problem, but here are two.

First, have a more networky way of finding people in the organisation. Get people talking about their interests and passions, and to list the stuff they are good at. That will surface talents and skills you never knew your people had.

Second, when you need help with something, ask for it. Have a way of communicating across the whole organisation to say (to use my example above) “we want to start a blog, who can help?”.

So often a new project is handed to a manager to run, who then looks for someone in their but of the org chart to deliver it, regardless of whether they have the attributes to do it well or not. Easier, surely, to broadcast a request throughout the organisation to identify the best person for the job?

Hipchat – neat group instant messaging app

Hipchat looks a neat tool for those teams with remote workers in particular.

Group chat is a fantastic tool for a distributed team because of its persistence. You keep your chat window open all the time, dropping in and out when required. It reminds you that you’re part of a team and that there are people out there you can chat to when you need to.

Hipchat seems a really nice implementation of this idea. It’s web based but also has desktop and mobile apps for all the major platforms.

Key features include a searchable archive of conversations, secure access, file sharing and the ability to spin up quick video chats when required.

What’s really nice is that is it free for teams of up to five – meaningful that for a small group, it’s perfect.

Here’s a video that explains more.

Making remote work work

SONY DSCA key part of working smarter is the idea of flexible or remote working. One neat way of describing it is that work isn’t a place you go to, it’s what you do.

There’s a lot of misunderstanding though about this concept, with it often being seen as a perk for an individual employee, say, rather than an organisational approach to work and how it should be done.

Here’s some success factors in making remote work succeed on your team.

Right location for the right work

Remote working doesn’t automatically mean home working. It means going to the right place for the particular work that is being undertaken.

Potential locations include:

  • Home
  • Cafes
  • Libraries
  • Co-working spaces
  • Other people’s offices
  • Your office

What’s more, a remote worker doesn’t just work in one of these locations but should use a range of them depending on what they are trying to achieve.

No single comms channel

Don’t pick one channel for communicating amongst remote workers. Again, as with work locations, it depends.

Some of the options include:

  • Instant messaging
  • Email
  • Group chat
  • Status updates
  • Collaborative editing
  • Video chat
  • The phone

The temptation is often to try and pick a single winner (and losers) for communications in a team. We’ll do everything through Yammer! Never use email – it sucks!

There are a range of variables that will affect which channel you might use for a particular comms task but the most important are: what are you trying to achieve; and what are your colleagues most comfortable with?

It’s always good to have a range of options available that everyone is familiar with so that no matter what the task is, you’ll have the tools to do the job to hand.

Keep communicating

In an office environment, it could be argued that over communicating is possible. Not so for a team that works remotely.

Part of the point of remote working of course is to escape the hustle and bustle of a busy office. In which case, an individual worker could just step back, switch off, and find a quiet space to concentrate in.

The rest of the time though, it ought to be possible to get hold of people individually or as part of a group. So find a way of doing group chat and encourage people to be present in it most of the time. Or ensure there is a way of privately instant messaging individuals to quickly check on the status of an action or project.

This means it’s important not to get into the habit of thinking that as someone is working outside the office, they shouldn’t be disturbed. In fact, because they aren’t physically present, disturb them more!

Meet up

Remote work really doesn’t mean never actually meeting your colleagues. What it does mean is that these get togethers become even more important to get right.

This means not meeting up for the sake of it, but ensuring you have some objectives for a get together. So, only meet when there is a need to, and not just because it hasn’t happened for a month.

Consider having a project for a meetup, with a specific deliverable to come out of it. Having everyone in the same room might not happen often, so consider whether it’s possible to run a micro project in that time.

Whole team or organisation approach – everyone adapts

Remote working only works when everyone buys into it – even (especially!) those who don’t work remotely themselves.

The important parts to remember are:

  • Remote work is not a privilege for an individual, it’s a better way of getting work done for the whole team
  • Remote work is not just home working, it’s finding the best place for an activity to happen, which could be any one of a number of locations
  • Remote work requires a shift in focus on measuring performance by qualitative outcomes and not quantitative outputs or time spent in the office

Without this wider development of working culture and acceptance of remote working and what it means for an organisation, it will always be seen as a bolt on, and many of the opportunities it presents will be missed out on.

What do you think? What are your experiences of remote working, and what helps and hinders its success?

Five for Friday – 28 March 2014

linksFive for Friday is WorkSmart’s weekly roundup of interesting stuff from the week’s reading.

  1. Your wiki is a dump
  2. Mixing the unconference format into a traditional conference
  3. Why Companies Fail To Engage Today’s Workforce: The Overwhelmed Employee
  4. The Responsive Organization
  5. Leanership: a new way of work
Did you know that WorkSmart has a Pinterest board where loads of cool stuff is shared?

We also now have a LinkyDink group which will automatically email you links to read everyday!

Fixing email : inbox zero

merlinmannSo I posed a fair few questions in my last post about email. How about some solutions?

Here’s one – inbox zero.

Inbox zero is… what? A methodology? A process? A mindset? Who knows. What we do know is that it is the brainchild of Merlin Mann, a productivity expert from the US.

Here’s the skinny:

  • Email’s just a medium
  • One place for anything
  • Process to zero
  • Convert to actions

Here’s the video from a few years ago whee Mann discussed the topic in detail.

If you don’t have time to watch that, here’s the quick version:

For every email you read, you should do one of the following things: delete it forever, archive it for reference, delegate it to someone else, respond immediately, or turn it into an action that you will execute at a later time or date.

In other words, move emails on fast. Get them out of your inbox and into the trash, in your archive, forward it on, reply, or make it an action.

People often make emails into actionable items by leaving them in their inbox, but this is bad. Instead, create a task in your todo list and then delete or archive the email. At the very least, have a folder in your email system called ‘Actions’ and drop it into there.

The keys to inbox zero are: first, that you recognise that actually you only receive a handful of emails every day that are worth more than a very cursory amount of your time. Second, your email software is good for receiving and sending email and that’s it. Third, get those worthwhile emails out of your inbox and into a more appropriate tool as quick as you can.

Have you tried inbox zero? How did you get on?

Should every member of staff do a stint in customer service?

customer-serviceI’m loving Scott Berkun‘s The Year Without Pants – an account of the time he spent in startup land working with Automattic, the company behind WordPress.com.

I’m going to do a full write up at some point, but some bits of the book are so good I can’t wait to share them.

Here’s one. Every new hire at Automattic spends time working in customer service, answering user questions and queries and solving their problems. No matter what their position in the company – everyone has to do it.

The reasons are clear. It helps that new starter understand the customer’s needs above everything else – what their pain points are, what they are trying to achieve and so on.

It is also the best way to learn about how any kind of system or process works, by hearing from those who are using it every day, and running into problems. Fixing those problems is a fantastic way to learn how something works.

So perhaps this is something other organisations could take up? Perhaps when a new chief executive takes over at a local authority, they should spend a week or two on the phones at the customer contact centre, learning directly from the people who depend on the services provided by the organisation.

What do you think?

Why email often sucks

inboxOf all the systems we use at work, we probably spend more time in our email than anything else. I’d honestly say that at least 50% of my work is spent reading and responding to email. I’d wager that for some of you that percentage is even higher.

So, we spend a lot of time emailing, and this depresses people. Reading and writing email doesn’t feel like proper work – it ought to be a tool to let us do our work!

So why does email suck so much?

1) There is too much of it

This can’t be put down to just filter failure. There is too much email. The curse of the carbon copy is part of the issue here – for a number of reasons many people feel the need to copy all and sundry in on emails – often as a way to cover their own backs.

At the same time, most people working in big organisations have tiny mailboxes available to them. Regular users of services like Google Apps, with its vast 40GB mailbox size might be surprised to learn that some people in big organisations are only able to store 10MB of email at any one time.

The constant mithering about deleting email and reducing inbox size doesn’t help and only adds to the frustration.

2) People use it to do the wrong things

Here are a few examples:

  • Sending a short note to just one person? Maybe it would be better to send an instant message.
  • Can you see the person you’re emailing? If so, why not go and talk to them instead?
  • Sending a file round to lots of people to have a look at? Maybe it would be better to use a file sharing service like Dropbox.
  • Emailing a bunch of people to arrange a meeting? Maybe a scheduler like Doodle would be more effective.
  • Keeping an email because it has an important file attached to it? Save that file somewhere accessible where you can easily find it again
  • Emailing a group to have a discussion about a topic? Why not use a system that properly threads a conversation, so it’s much easier to see who is saying what to whom?
  • Hanging onto an email to remind you to do something? Use a task manager instead


3) Email software is often a bit rubbish

Big corporate email systems often don’t work terribly well, and sometimes encourage bad email behaviour.

One of the major problems is with search – hunting down a particular email is often very difficult. How many times have you seen an email covering previously agreed ground, because the email in which the original decision chain appeared in can’t be found?

A lot of modern email applications are seriously complicated too. Outlook for example has its fans as well as detractors, but nobody could suggest it features an uncluttered interface.

Given how much time we spend in these applications, it’s a real problem that they aren’t that bit more intuitive to use.

4) Lack of context

Once you get past one or two replies to a conversation, email conversations lose their thread pretty quickly, especially when different people get added halfway through.

One of the innovations in the last few years to help tackle this problem is conversation threading, where all the messages relating to a specific thread are kept together. However this is usually implemented – as far as I can see – using the subject line as the key for the thread, which means that unrelated emails that use the same subject line get caught up in the net.

Also – how many people do you know who just hit reply to an irrelevant email to send one on another topic, without bothering to edit the subject line?

5) Vague etiquette

While nobody would ever admit to not knowing how to use email, there are some vague areas where it’s pretty hard to be sure what you should do.

How about:

  • if you are cc’d (or even bcc’d) on an email, does that mean you should reply, or are you included just for info?
  • Is top posting allowed these days, or ought every reply be inline?
  • Is it acceptable for someone replying to an email to add people to the distribution, or even take them off?
  • When should you reply all, and when not?


…there’s nothing wrong with email itself. It remains a tremendously helpful way of sending information from one place to another in a speedy way, where an instant response isn’t required.

Often it is just poorly used, and that’s probably because the right tools for the job just aren’t available. More on that in another post.

Congratulations to Sarah Hammond!

shammondWell done to Sarah Hammond, the WorkSmart member who has won our draw. Her prize, if you remember, is a copy of Scott Berkun‘s The Myths of Innovation.

Sarah works at the British Library and you can find her on Twitter as @schammond.

I will be doing my best to pester her for a review of the book once she has finished reading it!

Remember – you can still sign up for membership for the site, which gets you our email newsletter, other member only content and discounts on our upcoming events and services. More on that soon.

Congratulations again to Sarah!

Business reimagined

business-reimaginedI was chatting the other day to my pal Dave Coplin from Microsoft who told me he was deep into writing a new book. Awesome!

It made me go and look back at his previous one, Business Reimagined (free on Kindle!), that was published last year. A delightfully short read at just under a hundred pages*, it’s pretty much the WorkSmart bible, what with its subtitle of Why work isn’t working, and what you can do about it.

Dave describes  the book as

…simply a view of the potential that technology could bring the modern work environment and some recognition of the barriers that will prevent us from being successful.

It’s made up of five sections. The first explores what the problem is, and why business might be broken. Then we move into potential fixes. In chapter two, flexible working; in chapter three it’s social under the microscope; chapter four covers changes to organisation structures and culture that are needed to succeed. Then in the fifth and final chapter, Dave looks at bringing it all together and what individuals need to do to ensure their organisations adapt to the future of work.

For a fantastic summary of the arguments Dave makes, check out this RSA Animate video:

Here are some slides from a talk Dave gave around the themes of the book. They are rather good, even without the talk itself.

* don’t you find that a lot of these business books could usually be an awful lot shorter than they are? Most are just the same point being made over and over again. I commend Dave for his brevity.

Five for Friday – 21 March 2014

linksFive for Friday is WorkSmart’s weekly roundup of interesting stuff from the week’s reading.

  1. Can People Collaborate Effectively While Working Remotely?
  2. 7 Predications for the Future of Work
  3. Startup culture hacks
  4. The power of technology for learning and why creating together is better
  5. Are we finally seeing the death of “social”?
Did you know that WorkSmart has a Pinterest board where loads of cool stuff is shared?