Technology

Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model

The coronavirus pandemic is now shining a light on the work from home concept. Organizations large and small are sending their people home, either as a preventative measure, or while they disinfect their buildings. Working from home, once seen as a concession or as a luxury, is now coming to the fore as a leap forward. Why? For the very same reason it has been largely ignored over the past decade: trust.

For much of the past decade, the work from home model has relied on a laptop computer and and email connection. This meant that knowledge workers could do much of their work from their own kitchen table or home office, checking in on occasion, but working largely in isolation. This has not been its most greatly appealing feature. And one of the reasons for this is trust. Managers will ask, how can I trust that my employees are actually working and not watching TV? But this attitude is perfectly human, but perfectly wrong.

It’s a human thing to do because people still bank a great deal on face-time. It is assumed that if people are at work, they are actually working. Although most of us know that is not entirely true. Entire TV series, like The Office, reflect the realities of office life. A great deal of time is spent not working, sometimes out of boredom, sometimes du to the need to socialize, and sometimes due to the hard fact that the human brain and body cannot work at full production for hours on end. We zone in and out based on energy levels, sleep, hunger and the natural rhythms of the human body.

Eve the most diligent and dedicated professional, pounding out material hour after hour on the keyboard will end up with substandard work sooner or later if they don’t take a break.

Smoke breaks, coffee runs, even meetings and training days are great opportunities for people to take a vacation from work while at work, and the addictive call of social media is always just a flick away, whether hidden temporarily on a browser tab, or on an employee’s phone. No one can truly prove they have put in 8 full hours of work in an 8 hour day. It just isn’t possible.

But still, the idea of someone working from home in their jammies, just doesn’t seem like real work. So  here are five reasons why managers should relax and let at least some of their people work from home as part of ongoing management and future proofing your company.

  1. Not trusting your employees is not healthy. Leaders and managers take all types of courses and consume all kinds of books dealing with leadership and team management. To then turn around and dismiss the work from home model as being untrustworthy because people might not actually be working reveals a mistrust that will permeate an entire team. If our manager doesn’t trust people to work from home responsibly, what else might this manager have problems with? Leadership and trust go hand in hand. People need to trust their leaders and leaders need to trust their people. When this doesn’t happen, and things revert to command-and-control, the good people leave. The old expression has never been more true. People don’t quit their jobs. They quit their managers. In this age of increased career mobility, where having three or more employers on your résumé per decade is no longer a bad thing – but actually a good one – it is no longer a issue or daring an employee to quit. It’s about daring them to stay.
  1. Trusting your employees is very heathy. Whether it’s a work from home thing or something else, like delegating work, or giving people free reign to run their projects their way, a clear demonstration of trust is a powerful way to build loyalty and productivity. Most people take pride in their work. They look to their managers for opportunities to grow and develop. They want to show what they can do. Most people, when given the chance to fly free, will return to the corporate perch because that’s where the freedom comes from. Demonstrating trust in an employee is like the adrenaline for a project. Establishing a culture of trust again reverberates through the entire organization. It’s not just for the work from home people.
  2. So what if a work-from-home employee does watch some TV? Or goes and takes the dog for a midday walk? Or stops by the store to go pick something up? That’s part of life, and it’s the same type of break that employees do at their workplace already. Knowledge workers are paid for the application of their knowledge to tasks and projects. They research, they write, they plan, and they do. And unless the project at hand is a crisis event that must be resolved in an hour, a responsibly measured break within the workday actually supports high productivity by focusing it into the hours when a person’s mind and body are best attuned to it. When it comes to knowledge worker, metrics of work is not the hours spent sitting at a desk, the way sweatshop workers are assessed to this day. The metrics must revolve around quality, accuracy, promptness and relevance and these are better handled on a responsibly managed flexible schedule.
  3. Access. So, what about the meetings? The spontaneous interactions in the hallway? The office chats and feedback? These things are fundamental to team management and office life. But now they are just as available, even remotely, through applications like Slack, Zoom, Skype Microsoft Teams and Cisco Webex. Video conferencing is no longer just for formally scheduled boardroom meetings. They are available whenever and however – the perfect visual version of the intercom.
  4. Finally, the people who are able to work from home effectively are definitely the ones you want to keep on your team. They are motivated. They know how to get things done. They know how to manage their time and their technology. And in many cases, thanks to the fact there is no commute, they are able to deliver more than a day’s worth of work per day even with a lunchtime walk with the dog included. When this is rewarded with trust, you stand to retain the best of your disciplined and motivated employees simply by letting them work where and how it fits their life better.

Of course, not all employees are suite for work from home. Many like to interact with their colleagues and may find work from home to be too isolated and quiet. OK, so those people are best staying at the office. During crisis times such as the current pandemic, they will need some training on how to do it effectively.

Many managers fear that one bad apple who will sleep through the day and abuse the trust and privilege that work from home offers. Yes, those people exist, but the reality is they exist in the office as well. But they know how to hide it. It becomes a strategic management choice as to whether to forfeit the entire remote work operation and its benefits on account of such individuals.

Finally, there is the comfort level among managers and team leaders. Many people grew up professionally during a time when remote work did not exist as a viable option. So it does not seem right, or feasible that people can get work done from home. It is difficult to shake off those preconceptions. Yet when one looks at what knowledge workers actually do, their time is often spent between keyboard work, meetings and email, all of which can now be done – including the communications part from anywhere. Private, focused time is easier to get when you are in the privacy of your own home, yet direct, fluid conversation is also available in video and chat form whenever its needed.

It’s not about replicating the office experience – it’s about redefining what work is. What productivity is. Frankly professional work is about quality and output, not time served. Even if you bill hourly, your capacity for maximizing productivity and profitability comes from a balanced approach to work and life. Even those professionals who are able to bill out at hundreds of dollars an hour know that if the quality isn’t there, sooner or later the customer is going to question that bill.

Here are a couple more things to think about. According to a recent survey conducted by CareerBuilder nearly 80 percent of American workers say they’re living paycheck to paycheck. Many people in the workforce have little backing them up. Not all of these workers are knowledge workers, of course. Many belong to the service industry or manufacturing, or places where interaction with customers in a central place is essential. But for those we call knowledge workers, who can do their work equally well from anywhere, the opportunity to work from home even some of the time provides an economic benefit in the best of times, and may be a life saver on days where absence would be the only alternative. Snow days or teachers strikes for parents, or days when you are sick, even with normal colds or flu.

But in addition, it must be noted that people of all ages are becoming aware that work, as essential as it might be to life, is a different beast than it was 20 or more years ago. Professionals are growing used to life online – many have grown up with it, others have grown used to it. But the ability for work to be done anywhere at any time is far more attainable than at any other time in history, and it’s an attractive part of the entire employment decision.

As such, the decision to not only encourage working from home, but to develop it as a skill can be seen as a highly proactive and timely investment in the future of any organization. An idea whose time has truly come.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Five Benefits of the Work From Home Model. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. or search for it on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher, etc. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

How do you know what you don’t know? What does that even mean, and why is it important to your business?

For centuries, people have been trying to get other people to hire them or buy their services. That’s what commerce is. In any form of commerce, knowledge is power, and this is doubly or quadruply true today. Whether you work for a department of a large company, a small start-up, or maybe you work for yourself, what you know about your industry, your competitors and your customers is vital. But so, too is the information you don’t currently know, information that you don’t know you need to know, or maybe you don’t want to know.

Let me give you an example to make this clear.

A few years back I was giving a speech at a convention of physicians. We all need doctors of course, but it is a common understanding that part of a physician’s so-called bedside manner, that air of confidence that allows them to communicate with their patients, is based on the fact that they are supposed to know all they need to in order to make an accurate assessment and a successful prescription for recovery. No one wants to see a nervous physician.

At this particular event,  I was about to give a speech on the impact of social media on the physician-patient relationship, when one of my two hosts for the event stopped me and asked if I was planning to mention a certain website, and if so, to please refrain from doing so. The site was a FaceBook page dedicated to healthcare system horror stories in the geographic area I was speaking in.  The page – which no longer exists – clearly stated that it was not in any way a hate page against hard-working physicians, nurses or other healthcare workers, but simply a place to commiserate and share stories about wait times, hallway medicine and other discomforts of the healthcare industry.

The host who asked me to refrain from mentioning this page was keenly interested in not tainting the event with negative stories about the healthcare industry. But the other host disagreed and said we should discuss this story. How else can our audience, comprised of physicians know what they don’t know?

Knowing what you don’t know seems like such an esoteric term. But in this age of data it is both more more important than ever before and also easier. Research no longer requires physical actions like visiting a library or holding focus groups. The data – all of it – is out there, and technologies like AI and machine learning – even simple Google News Alerts help bring it right to your doorstep.

Another healthcare related story helps drive this home. I was once consulting to an association that focuses on the management of hospitals and other health care institutions. They wanted to rebuild their social media presence and asked for me to help with the RFP process for website design. During the course of the needs analysis and market research, we decided to try to find out what the general public wanted to know about their hospital system. In other words, what did the association not know about their customer base? It turned out the most common question people had about the hospitals in their region was not about specialities or even wait times. It was “how much parking cost.” That’s what people really wanted to know, and that really came out of left field for the association. They had no idea.

So how do you find out what you don’t know? And how do you find out what you don’t know you don’t know? A good example might be going to a meeting at a client or customer location. If you don’t know how to get there, you know you don’t know that, so you consult a map or you program their address into your driving GPS app. But what if this customer was also comfortable meeting by video, saving you the trip both there and back? If this is not made clear, then you don’t know the option exists, and you don’t know to ask.

You don’t know to ask. Now that’s a Vital Soft Skill

When people talk about the future of work, one of the predominant must haves is soft skills. As artificial intelligence and other technologies eat into the hard skill sets that have supported any of us over the past few decades, it’s soft skills that will turn out to be vital for a career. For example, a cybersecurity specialist in IT must learn the skills of negotiation and influence in order to be heard at the C-suite table. Employees need to understand critical thinking and prioritization to manage workloads and distinguish real messages from phishing scams. Managers must develop emotional intelligence and active listening skills to better understand a highly mobile workforce that is already attuned to the audience-of-one mindset.

Add to this list, the ability to know what you don’t know. It’s a soft skill. It’s information literacy. It’s almost a sixth sense. But it’s very easy to do. You just have to know what questions to ask.

To understand what I mean by this, think about how people try to find out stuff they don’t know. If you run a business or a store or a department, you might conduct a survey or an interview. But in many cases this type of investigation is framed by the questions you ask. And even if you keep things as open as possible, for example offering people a text box to type in their thoughts or an open, flow of conscsiousness statement, they still know that the source of the question is you, and that is going to frame and skew the outcome.

A new and better source of unknown knowledge, then, is unstructured data that comes from an external source and that is not affiliated with you. The health system horror stories example I shared earlier/above is a case in point. Ostensibly created by someone as a community discussion not aimed at any one healthcare facility in particular and certainly not initiated by one.

Twitter is a great source for this, in my opinion. Once you get past the vitriol, hatred and junk out there, there are still many worthwhile people actively talking about things going on in your industry. This is unstructured data. It’s free-flow commentary that is not guided or influenced by leading questions.

So how do you find it? Keyword searches and Google news alerts seem like the most obvious route, and indeed an ongoing practice of farming the internet for keywords is vital. But this, too, is prone to the subjectivity of the words you choose, which is why a policy of diligent social media surfing is also valuable.

If you follow a specific subject matter expert on Twitter, it’s likely this individual will provide valuable information. But look around. Read the comments made by others. Pay attention to the recommendations of others to follow. Watch the hashtags being used. These all expand your awareness  to other organizations or industries that may seem totally unrelated, but from whom valuable insight can be gained.

Here’s a third healthcare related story that illustrates this. I was once teaching a group of paramedic supervisors about team dynamics. The conversation moved to the topic of the speed of response and safe driving techniques for emergency vehicles. The flow of the conversation led me to remember a tweet I had seen about a pilot project that delivered defibrillators by drone, complete with two-way audio and  video to help someone save another person’s life even before the paramedics arrive. This discovery was something I had stumbled across while doing separate research and then mentally filed away. It was by chance, yes, but I still had the presence of mind to note that this item of news would be important to my ongoing knowledge and value as an expert.

The point is, information is available all around us, but  knowing where and how to find it requires stepping away from the traditional index or table of contents and moving towards intelligent gathering of information.

Here’s a non-healthcare related analogy: some people call it reticular activation, and others simply call it the purple Jeep syndrome.

Imagine you decide to buy a new car and the model you decide upon is a Jeep. But not just any Jeep a purple one. As you entertain that decision, you will start to notice that quite a few people are driving purple Jeeps out there. Where did they come from? Did central casting just send a bunch of people into your personal movie to throw you off your game? No. The answer is those people and those Jeeps have always been there, but now your mind has been turned on to them, you will suddenly start to notice them. That’s reticular activation.

The same goes for information gathering in the great data ocean. You can’t always know what you’re looking for exactly, but a tuned in mind is better able to identify patterns, keywords, relevant ideas and potential jewels than can a stressed and distracted one. This, again is information literacy.

The Johari Window

If you’re looking for a physical tool to help you figure out what you don’t know about your business, your customers or yourself, try using a Johari Window. This is simply a construct of four squares, laid out two by two, with each one focusing on information known or not known to yourself and known or not known to others. The top left square is easiest to fill out: things you know about yourself, and things others know about you. Then close by, you will have squares for things you know about yourself but that others do not know about you, and also things others know about you but you do not know about yourself. Then, in the lower right corner, the ultimate black hole: things you don’t know about yourself AND things that people do not know about you.

If this is confusing, check out this Johari Window that zoologist Barbara G. Evers has created using a story line we are all familiar with.

Image courtesy Barbara G Evers – from her Eclectic Muse blog series. (Click to visit)

The point is knowledge comes from reticular activation pared with passive social media discovery. It stems from a desire to know what we don’t know, and an awareness that such knowledge is out there to be found in unstructured data – paragraphs of text and tweeted commentary

A customer returns desk, the traditional dark corner of a retail store is no longer a place of shame – it becomes a goldmine for the store to learn what they don’t know about the customers who still shop with them. Similarly, scanning a person’s LinkedIn profile before meeting them in person or online, may reveal previously unknown connection points – a person, a university or a job, that gives you something in common – something to connect with.

So, in an age of information, it remains more vital than ever to know that there is more to know, but that finding it truly is more of an art than a science.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

The Calendar Crisis

What is a crisis to you? Usually when people think of the term crisis, they think of a bad event – a point where something is going to break. People can have an emotional crisis or a financial one. A city or company can have a leadership crisis. A country can have a civil crisis like a revolution or an environmental or industrial one.

In all cases, they represent points of urgency in which the boundaries that help keep normalcy normal are becoming stretched to the breaking point.

In day-to-day life, we can also face workload scheduling crises. These may not sound as significant or tragic, and of course they usually are not. But they still represent a breaking point and an urgent need of repair.

In its simplest form, a scheduling crisis takes its meaning from the world of project management. We are looking at a new, unexpected task that comes out of nowhere, must be taken care of right now, and as such imposes itself upon your already crowded calendar, forcing you to put other tasks aside until you take care of it.

This type of crisis might appear as one of the following:

  • a meeting that suddenly gets called
  • a new request from your boss or a customer
  • someone calls in sick and cannot do their part of a project that needs to be done today

None of these things sound terribly bad. This is not an issue of workplace violence or a cyberattack, but they are related. Because when an unexpected thing hits your calendar, a few things happen.

  • First, yes, you have to react. And reaction triggers a mild fight-or-flight response that tends to move people towards doing things without clearly thinking them through, just to get them out of the way
  • Second the new, urgent task forces other work to be pushed to the side, yet that work still has to get done, which causes a ripple effect across the rest of your calendar and generally spills out into personal time
  • Third, it sets a precedent of normality – an ergonomic inflation that forces you to accept that this is how things are. Just more and mor stuff to deal with, without pushback or delineations in place. This only leads to an inadvertent complacency and a willing to continue to do the same – to accept workload crises without question, and just deal with them.

That’s not ideal. It’s the reason why we accept so many emails and so many tasks. We accept the unexpected because, as humans we are hard-wired to react, and proactive planning does not come naturally to us.

But every time one of these unplanned events comes at you, it upsets everything, not just your work, but your diet, and even your sleep cycle. It’s a disruption that comes at great cost.

Let’s Take Stock

One of the things project managers do a lot of is quantify. Count. They count everything. Every task that goes into a project. How much time and how many resources they will need and for how long. It’s part of project planning. So, let’s quantify the calendar-related crises that have happened to you.

How often does a crisis happen to you? How often does an unplanned activity force its way in to your nice, organized day? Once per day? Once every couple of days? Once per week? And how, long, on average, does it take for you to handle this crisis? Remember a crisis could be anything from a network crash to an email requiring you to drop everything and do something.

Now, Let’s Plan For Them

If, for example, you recognize that every day, an unplanned event – a calendar crisis happens – something that forces you to shove everything else aside to handle it – then you what you actually have there is an expectable activity. If you can expect an unplanned activity to happen every day, then yes, you can expect it. And that gives you proactive, conscious power. Instead of dreading it, hoping against hope that it won’t happen, you can plan for it. You can even enter it on your calendar as a recurring activity: 12:00-1:00 every day: crisis of the day.

Now let’s be clear, of course no-one expects the crisis to happen exactly at 12:00 each day, but the point is, you set the time aside for it now, you budget time for it, and when the crisis actually happens, you can drag that block up or down the calendar face to where it’s needed. By creating this appointment as a real appointment, even before it happens, this helps defend your calendar from becoming overloaded, and hitting that critical path where work spills over into your evenings and weekends.

Think about how restaurants work. They can expect a lunchtime rush, so a smart restaurant manager is going to make sure there are enough staff on hand to handle the peak volume. Similarly, the kitchen staff will have enough food ingredients to satisfy the customers’ requests, and they will have pre-cooked a great deal of the foods – pastas and potatoes etc. anticipation. This is called being prepared. Even when no-one can guarantee how many people will enter the restaurant that day.

When you think of it, it’s also how private parking spaces work. Imagine who much more effective it is when you know you have your own parking space, at work, or maybe in your condo building, or better yet, at the mall. The space is put aside and everyone else must steer around it.

By planning for your crisis of the day, you reserve time in your calendar for it. You create a parking space for it. A tangible block of time. A block of time that says – to you and everyone else, “one hour of today is reserved for the unplanned event that know is coming.” This gives you enormous leverage to defer or negotiate the other activities of the day – meetings, travel, research and so on. If you do not reserve the time for this unplanned event, that time will automatically fill with other stuff, and there will be no space for the unplanned event to fall into. By blocking that time on your calendar now, you are reserving an hour of your day, which can be applied to whenever it is needed, with other tasks moving around it like a game of Tetris, even to be negotiated and deferred to tomorrow. Or later. Or never.

Having this pre-planned space means, when the crisis occurs, you will also have the mental acuity to handle it efficiently. Thinks always unfold better when you come at them with a cool, unflustered, fully fueled mind. There is an expression that says, a stranger is a friend you haven’t met yet. Well, a calendar crisis is simple an appointment you haven’t met yet. An appointment that does not yet have a name, but for which time and space has been reserved for it to pull into, as part of the expected – NOT unexpected – part of each day.

The Postmortem

The other thing about unexpected events, though, is why they are there at all. If you have to put aside something in order to handle an unexpected other thing, why does this unexpected other thing exist? What brought us to the point of having to address something unexpected.

Despite what I have described above about putting aside time for the crisis of the day, there will still be times when yes, despite the best of intentions, something comes along when you have to just drop everything and take care of it. It happens. But as the Dos Equis most interesting man in the world might say, “I don’t always say yes to unplanned requests, but when I do, I always ask for a postmortem.”

A postmortem. An after-action review. In project management, this is known as the closure phase. In short, I will say, yes, I will help you with this emergency, but once it’s over, we must discuss it. Why did it happen? How did we let it happen? What can we do to ensure it doesn’t happen again?

We can learn from our mistakes. If we forgot to proof-read a document before it went to the printer to be bound in a book, why was that? What can we do to make sure we don’t forget the proof-reading task next time? If my boss drops a report on my desk that he or she forgot to give me last week and now it’s last minute, what can I do in the future to head these types of snafu’s off at the pass. Maybe a Monday morning huddle with the boss to discuss what’s going on this week? This, by the way – this act of proactive management with the boss should never be perceived as a critique. It’s called managing up and is a crucial skill, one I will be giving time to in another episode.

Firefighters, athletes, performers – all kinds of people take the time to review their work after the fact. It’s the best way to ensure continuous improvement and to stop these types of mistakes from happening again.

Crises happen. It’s part of life. But unfortunately, we humans have been designed to be more willing to react than to pro-act. Effective management of crises is a pro-action. Schedule time for them if they are a regular part of your day and insist on follow-up and improvement if they are rare or infrequent.

As I mention many times, time management is made up of two words, the second if which is management. Management is not about coping with what IS, it’s about scripting what should be. And the more you can do that – the more you can proactively write the history of your future, the less you will get caught up in unexpected events – the calendar crises.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Calendar Crisis. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

Why is Cyberhygiene So Hard?

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Why is Cyberhygiene So Hard?

Just a couple of days ago, I received a text from my 75-year old mother. It read literally as follows: “I just received a message from Netflix saying an error had occurred during my last payment. Please verify you [sic] payment method by following this link. I followed the link, but it is asking for information regarding my credit card. Do you think this is a scam?”

She followed up with a second text where she highlighted the fact she noticed the grammatical error of “you” instead of “your.”

Of course, I texted her back immediately and told her this was a scam. “You didn’t click on anything did you?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, “but I only entered my email address and password. Was that OK?”

And so, I spent the next hour on the phone showing her how to change her Netflix password, and admonishing her once again about the danger of clicking on these types of messages.

Why does this continue to happen? Why are people still being seduced by stories of millions of dollars belonging to a Nigerian prince that needs to be parked in your bank account? Why do people click on badly written notifications of frozen bank accounts, missed courier shipments or job applications? Why is the most common password in use still PASSWORD123?

It’s because criminals are getting progressively more sophisticated while honest people generally are not.

Bad guys relentlessly focus on devising new ways to steal. That’s their primary occupation in many cases. But ordinary people have other pressing matters to attend to. Emails. Meetings. Groceries. The Kids. Phishing is a distraction crime, and people have too many things occupying their minds. It’s still easy for the phishing emails to slip through no matter how badly they are spelled.

In the case of my aged mother, there is also the notion of trust. She comes from a generation in which there was some degree of trust based on a common and more localized culture. In the 1960s and 1970s, before voice mail and robocalls, it was likely that anyone who called your home phone had a direct relationship with you. To answer it was a common courtesy. A habit that is now exploited by scammers every day.

Some of them don’t even need you to answer the phone. Do you get mysterious hang-up calls from distant countries like Albania or Chad? These calls are intended to get you to call back, curious as to who the caller might be, and as soon as you do so, an elaborate long-distance chargeback scam kicks in.

Online, the key issue is data. Hackers will do anything to get in, because once they do they have access  data of all types.

Lot of end users dismiss the threat or go blissfully unaware that a threat even exists. Let’s look at both of those for a moment.

First, dismissing the threat. “My company is too small to get hacked,” you might say. Or “I’m just a junior employee, I don’t have anything of value.” There appears to be no motivation to get strict on password management or cyberhygiene when the stakes seem so low.

But they are not low. They are incredibly high.

Every company and person is connected to every other company and person through the internet. As a criminal, I could easily pair up a common password, like Password123 with low tech approaches such researching your mother’s maiden name on Facebook to correctly answer a challenge question. Or if I was more sophisticated, I could use more brute force attacks like credential stuffing to overwhelm a company’s IT defenses. Software based attacks often take place once something has been allowed into the system, through a phishing email or an infected USB drive.

Every additional piece of data that an organization can collect from you – a home address here, a challenge question answer there, a medical record all pull together to form a stronger and stronger collection of pieces of data about you, and also about people connected to you, which is basically anyone and everyone.

Humans should never dismiss a small indiscretion as being insignificant. For example, re-using a password that you used on a different account a couple of years ago might mean nothing to your busy, distracted mind, but data is data. Someone out there is busy hammering away at your accounts with every piece of data about you they have been able to obtain, and just like inheriting a collection of unlabeled door keys, if you try every one of them, the odds are, one will connect.

Complacency. Ignorance. Optimism. These are dangerous things to have when all of your security is at stake.

Even though you personally are obviously not a hospital or a nuclear power plant, a simple infected document inadvertently sent to an HVAC contractor – a contract for some work at your house, for example, can easily infect the contactor’s own systems. If this contractor’s next job is working on the HVAC system at a nuclear power plant, the infection propagates. Yes, these large places have extensive IT and cybersecurity resources, but it’s always a cat and mouse game, as frequent data breach stories in the news will attest.

When was the last time you change the password on your home Wi-Fi router? Do you know how much your home assistant software, your phone, or your new big screen TV are listening to you? Do you know how easy it is for hackers to gain access to your new smart doorbell or nannycam – not only to steal data but to listen in and in some cases communicate with family members?

Password Manager

What brand of password manager are you using? Most people will look blankly at you when you ask them that question. To me that’s like someone saying, “What’s Ebola?” basically, as the expression goes, if you’re not part of this solution, you are part of the problem. And yes, Ebola can happen anywhere.

So, a lot of gloom and doom here? No not really. So much of this is eminently preventable. Criminals might be everywhere, but they are also very lazy. They want the easiest way to break into something, and basically, you are it.

One of the easiest ways to do this is to ensure the sanctity of your passwords by using two strong tools: a password manager and Two Factor Authentication.

A password manager is a software app like LastPass or Sticky Password, that generates passwords for you. These are long strings of characters, numbers and symbols that you could not possibly memorize and that bad actors could not possibly guess. Every time you log on to a website that requires a log on, the app will help you generate a password or replace the existing one. It will never create duplicates. Where do these passwords get stored? Not on your computer, and not on the servers at the app itself. Not even in transit on the wires of the internet. The password only reappears when you, as a logged-in user of the password go and visit a page where a password is needed. The password manager sends an encrypted message to an encrypted file on your computer, and only then will the actual password reconstitute itself from its encrypted state. It’s a little like alchemy and is more involved than the way I describe here, except to confirm that your passwords do not actually get stored anywhere. They get scrambled, like scrambled eggs and will only re-appear when your circumstances allow it.

The point here, as with much of what I write and speak about, is that the technology and techniques for effective cybersecurity exist. But it’s people that get in the way. Yes, it’s a hassle having to change your password every two weeks, but there’s a reason why that has to happen, and and app like LastPass makes it easy and effortless, and much more secure

The same applies to Two Factor Authentication or even Multi Factor Authentication. This technique is becoming just as vital as password management software since it broadens your defenses by an order of magnitude. IN short, Two Factor Authentication, called 2FA for short requires a second password sent to a second physical device that only you have. In most cases, that is your phone.

Whenever you are given the opportunity to use 2FA, take it. Yes, the few seconds of delay required waiting for the passcode to appear on your phone is worth it. It’s like putting a deadbolt on your door.

Why is Cyberhygiene so hard?

Cyberhygiene is a hard because it demands two things of you: time and comprehension. In a age of instant satisfaction, a delay of mere seconds can be enough to make an online consumer abandon a shopping cart or happily ignore the warnings and log on to public WiFi unprotected. Or click on “accept” to every Cookies warning that every website now presents. I mean have you ever read the terms of those things? Of course not.

Secondly, learning how to create secure passwords has a perceptual barrier. It appears difficult so it is passed by.

I it is easy to assume that as an individual you are too small, too insignificant to be of interest to a cybercriminal. But you would be wrong on two counts. Firstly, your personal data, including name, address, social security number and everything else, can be used by thieves open credit card accounts, buy houses, or create fake identities to be used in an infinite number of ways, and second, you, I, and everyone else is connected to everyone else in a global game of six degrees of separation, meaning we all become conduits to security breaches and crime at even the largest and highest levels.

If you want to boil it down to three simple rules, I would propose these three.

  1. Use a password manager for everything that you connect to, including home devices.
  2. Never answer the phone unless you know who it is. Phone scammers need you to answer.
  3. Never click on any link that comes to you through email, even if it looks legit. If it’s something that might be a real transaction, go to the source directly – log in to your account through the website and password you have on hand, but never through the email itself.

Cyberhygiene is both a learned physical skill and a mindset, and both are vital to your existence both on and offline. Just like stopping off to get gas for your car, it’s something you have to do in order to keep going.

If you have a comment about the show, or a question you would like answered in a future episode, please, let me know. You can drop me a line through the contact form at steveprentice.com, and you can follow me on Twitter @stevenprentice (spell out) and on LinkedIn – just search for CoolTimeLife – no spaces, just as just one word. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a review.

The theme music for the CoolTimeLife was obtained through PodCastThemes.com.

Until next time, I’m Steve Prentice. Thanks for listening.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Why is Cyberhygiene So Hard? If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Dynamic Email and Calendar Management

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Dynamic Email and Calendar Management. Dynamic Email and Calendar Management

Email is a necessary tool of day-to-day business. But its candid and immediate nature swallows up a lot of time. In this podcast I want to share with you a method for pairing your email and calendar together in a way that will make your day healthier and more productive and will not leave you having to sacrifice your evening to returning all those messages.

So, let’s start with your calendar. Most people see a calendar as something that tells them what to do. But it shouldn’t be that way. That’s backwards. Your calendar should be a menu of choices that you use to decide how to apply your time based on the priorities of the day. It is also a tool of defense against other peoples’ work requests. It’s a dynamic method of proactively managing your time.

Most of us have way too many things to do, yet we believe we can get them all done in a day. That’s a fallacy based on not being fully aware of the total inventory of your day. What do I mean by that? Well, most people only use the calendar for unique and specific events like meetings, dental appointments or a specific task. They never put in the day-to-day regular stuff like email. That never gets accounted for, because it’s a given. BUT even though it still exists, it doesn’t get put in the budget.

The budget? Yes. This is exactly the same as budgeting your take-home pay. Imagine it’s payday – you either get your direct deposit into your bank account from your employer, or you get handed a cheque or an electronic payment from your client. Whatever. Hooray! You’ve been paid. Now, is all that money yours to do what you want with? Maybe buy a guitar or pay for a vacation? No. Not immediately. You know you have payments to make. A mortgage or rent, maybe a car payment, utility bills, food. All these things. They are standard. You have to budget for these things. A whole lot of that money is already spoken for.

So let’s translate that same concept into your calendar. If you flip ahead in your day planner or online calendar to a workday that has no events planned on it, let’s say exactly one year from today, it’s probably an empty page. But you already know, if that’s a regular workday, part of that day is already spoken for, for the day-to-day activities that we take for granted, such as email. Email is something that comes into your inbox randomly and immediately demands your attention. Each one of those emails demands some of your time. So how many do you think you handle on any given day, and how long does it take you to deal with each one? I know that’s an unfair question, but that’s the point. Because it’s such a candid and varying thing, few of us stop to calculate just how much time email takes. That’s why so many of us resort to doing them in the evening because the day got full of other stuff.

So, let’s say you stop and quantify. Just like a professional project manager has to do when planning a road, a building, or a wedding – yes, wedding planners are project managers, too. Nothing is left to chance. Everything is counted, planned and added to the budget.

So, you give it some thought, and yes, ok, you basically deal with 30 emails a day. And by “deal” I mean receiving emails, reading them, replying to them and creating your own. OK? So, 30 a day. Now let’s say you average out the time each one takes based on your past experience. Don’t count the ones that ask you to do something that takes more than a few minutes, like “Please review the attached document, make changes and send back to me.” This particular type of email is actually a task and should be immediately promoted as such as an appointment on your calendar face. OK, so all of your quick emails average about 3 minutes each to handle. So, 30 emails at three minutes each is 90 minutes. 90 minutes! That represents almost 20% of an 8-hour day.

If you want to use your calendar as a proactive tool of time management rather than as a passive list of impossible obligations, my suggestion is to do the following. Schedule three recurring 30-minute blocks for email management and assign them to every day that you work. That’s easier to do on a calendar app, than a day planner, of course. Three per day, perhaps at 10:30, 1:30 and 4:00.

Here are the three reasons why doing mail in blocks like this is way more practical and efficient than just doing them candidly and reactively.

First, they serve as placeholders. Collectively they prove to you that 90 minutes of this day and every day into the future are already spoken for. This is tangible proof of your busyness and will be extremely helpful as a negotiation tool when people ask you for some of your time. You only have so much left to make available, and any time someone pressures you into saying “yes” to a meeting request, the invisible obligations tend to get forgotten. By making them visible in this way, it gives you and the requestor proof of your current obligations while allowing space to negotiate a suitable time.

The point is we are bombarded by work requests and distractions throughout the day. It’s so easy to forget the standing, recurring obligations that you have. But you know what it’s like when you forget to pay a bill, or you forget to put money aside for a scheduled payment. There’s hell to pay, and it’s the same thing here.

Your calendar is a proactive tool of prioritization and defense against attack. Three email returning periods still allow for flexibility. If your first email returning period is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. and someone, a client or your boss really needs you for a meeting at that time, well, OK, it’s not that difficult to slide that 10:30 email returning timeslot down by half an hour like a game of Tetris or Candy Crush. Things can move fluidly across your calendar face. The important thing is that they are there, on the face of the calendar. They are not invisible. Dynamic calendar management is part and parcel of effective time management. So, slide things around slightly. Just do not delete these email returning times. That’s as dangerous as deciding not to pay the phone bill this month.

Flexible, slide-able appointments also make life easier for people who may be trying to schedule meetings with you online. But I will always maintain the conviction that, a.) you should never delete these email returning appointments, and b.) you should always make sure you leave some empty spaces on your calendar for your people to choose from instead.

A big pushback I get when describing this concept is the idea of planning to return emails at these set times rather than dealing with them right away. So, I ask, “Why do you want to respond to them right away?” “Because someone’s waiting for a reply,” they say. “And why is it important that you get back to them right away?” I ask. “Because they’re waiting for a reply. They might be offended.”

So, I ask “what’s really going on here?” Do you know they’re going to be offended? And what can you do to prevent that? The answer is easy. Manage their expectations. Let your people know when and how they can expect a response from you. This is as easy as setting up an out-of-office assistant in your email, or putting it in the footer of your messages or even at the bottom of your email signature – something to the effect of:

“I return emails three times a day, mid-morning, early afternoon and late afternoon. You will receive a reply from me in a couple of hours.” You can phrase this how you like, but this is another example of the power of proactivity. By proactively informing your people of your email response schedule, you are letting them know what to expect, rather than leaving them to flap around in the breeze and form their own assumptions.

Very often, emails that are responded to too quickly simply sit in the recipient’s inbox anyway, or worse beget even more emails that themselves are unnecessary and redundant. And if you think making people wait is bad customer service, I would suggest you redefine this as giving them certainty. You are giving them something tangible to hold on to, and that is a very good thing.

Be aware also that when I schedule email returning times that doesn’t mean “not checking my email.” There’s a big difference between looking to see who just mailed you and actually working on handling those messages. If your job or personality is one that absolutely must know who emailed you the moment they arrive, then do yourself the stress-releasing favor of checking, but unless it is earth-shakingly urgent, leave the reply until your email-returning time.

Here’s another reason why email blocks are worthwhile. It has to do with how your brain works. An email is a surprise attack. Even though we know we are going to receive them, each time an email arrives, your brain and body go into a minor version of fight-or-flight reactive mode. Concentration is broken and you enter a tunnel vision state. If you then go ahead and respond to that email right away, not only will a few minutes of your time be taken up and away from the work you were actually doing, it takes another five minutes or more for you to regain the level of concentration you had prior to the interruption. Your brain and instinct basically must recover from the interruption and until it does, you will be working at a sub-level capacity. If that happens 30 times a day, you can add to those 90 minutes of distraction that those emails take, another 150 minutes – that’s two and a half hours at which you are guaranteed to be working at sub-level capacity. No wonder the day goes by so quickly and you don’t get it all done.

BY contrast, when you consciously choose to enter into an email-returning time block, you do so of your own volition, which removes the “surprise factor and does not set your body back, so there is no recovery required. This removes that 2 and a half hours per day of sub-par performance right there.

Finally, there’s the principle of Parkinson’s Law, which states, “Work expands to fill the time available.” With email, this tends to point to them taking longer than needed, because until the next fixed appointment arrives, such as maybe a meeting at 11:00, emails will simply pour themselves across your calendar like liquid until they bump into the next solid appointment.

But Parkinson’s Law can also work in your favour. If you give yourself only 30 minutes to respond to 10 emails, you will find you can do that by maybe writing shorter emails and getting to the point more quickly and using the momentum of this time period to really get on a roll. You might even find you can shorten your email returning times to 20 minutes each or less.

Email is a technology whose designers never really considered the human aspect of reacting to false urgencies. It can be a useful tool, but only when kept under control, and I think this pairing of email and dynamic calendar management is a highly proactive way of getting more done in a day.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Dynamic Email and Calendar Management. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go. It explores some long standing anachronisms such as why keyboards still use QWERTY, and why companies take two months to pay suppliers? These are antiquated processes that we hang on to in the same way that our calendar still pays homage to Roman gods.

Twice a year, most of the world manually changes its clocks, meaning that no matter when you read this, no matter when that happens to be, you are no more than six months away from having to do it again. And you will also be reminded by your local fire chief to replace the batteries in your smoke detectors. It’s ironic, really, that the time change that happens in the Fall does so now in November, a month whose name was given to us by the Romans, like all the other months, and which was originally the ninth month of the year, hence its name. Novem is Latin for nine or ninth.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how many things we hold onto despite living in a world of change. There are not many cultures in the world that still celebrate and worship the gods of Roman times. Countries now play host to a range of religions, yet we still hang on to the Roman and Norse names for months and days. Why do we stick with that? Tradition? It can’t be out of loyalty to the Roman gods. They haven’t been in favor for centuries.

Look at the keyboard of your computer or phone. It is still laid out in the QWERTY style of keys that has been around since typewriters first made their appearance in the late 1800s. This layout of keys is far from the most efficient. It was developed to prevent jamming of the letters, which used to be mounted on rods to strike an inked ribbon. The letter combinations that are most commonly used in English are spaced far apart to slow down the typists of the day. There is also an apocryphal story that points out that the word “typewriter” can be typed out using just the top row of keys, meaning that the typewriter salesmen of the day did not have to learn how to type to show off the product to customers. This fact, if true, has a direct echo in the world of commerce today, in the area of electric cars. Stories abound of old-school car salespeople burying their new battery-powered models far back on the lot, unwashed and unloved because they themselves cannot understand them and do not know how to sell them.

In all these cases – the continued use of Roman names, the continued use of the QWERTY keyboard and the reluctance to embrace green vehicles, these all point to that reluctance that is at the heart of change management, as well as to the fact that despite all the progress we have made, there are still some things we want to keep old school.

Look at the other item I mentioned earlier – the thing you’re supposed to attend to each time you change your clocks: the smoke and CO alarm. Most people still use the old-school smoke alarms – those white plastic pucks that say DO NOT PAINT in white on white letters that are impossible to read, and whose batteries always start to fail at 2:30 in the morning, depriving people everywhere of sleep thanks to their incessant chirping.

I did some research on why they tend to fail in the dead of night rather than at a more convenient time during the day. It has to do with the drop in air temperature that often happens in houses during the night, either because of the relative cool of a summer night, or the thermostat being programmed to drop a degree or two when everyone’s tucked in their beds. Whatever the cause, a quick drop of a degree or two is enough to trigger a smoke alarm whose detector has become faulty due to the failing electric current of expired batteries.

Anyhow, the point of that explanation was to say that this need no longer be the case. Smart detectors, connected by the Internet of Things, are now much better able to alert a homeowner and family members of a problem using a clear human voice, messaging to smartphones, and the intelligence of machine learning to distinguish between the heat variations that might happen during the cooking of a meal, versus a real problem. In other words, we might soon be coming to the end of an era where we no longer need a fire chief to remind us to change the batteries twice a year when the device can do it for us.

Time marches on, and innovation marches alongside. It might be viable to play devil’s advocate and state that not everyone in the world can afford an intelligent Internet of Things enabled detector for their homes. That might be true. But the same might have been said about cellphones and smartphones once. Yet imagery from the most desperately poor parts of the world, including African deserts and refugee camps, show people carrying smartphones. They have indeed become universal.

Can We Break Away from QWERTY?

So, did I write all this just to talk about smoke detectors? Not entirely. They represent the types of changes that could and should happen in the world but for some reason do not. Look once again at that QWERTY keyboard. Why do we still have it laid out like that? You don’t even need physical keys anymore. Keyboards could be entirely based on clear glass or on laser projections on a surface. Some already are. And these could be configured to arrange the letters in any way you want. Alphabetic order, vowels on the left, consonants on the right, your favorite letters grouped closely together.

And the argument that you need consistency so that all computers operate the same and that everyone can use them will not be an issue when I can download my personal preferred keyboard layout from the cloud and drop it into any device for as long as I want.

There is another argument that it would take too long to train people to change the way they type but given how quickly humans have learned how to use Facebook without any prior computer programming or data processing education, such a theory stands on shaky ground.

There are just some things that people cannot let go of due to comfort with the past that pushes stubbornly into the future.

Flex time, for example. How can you trust your employees to do work when they’re at home? Well, I for one, look at end results and the nature of the back and forth communication and I balance that against the reality that no one ever puts in a solid eight hours of work, even when they’re in the office. It’s not possible. If an employee must put the laundry in, or go to the gym, or go and pick up the kids from school, so be it. It’s the quality of the work that counts and by and large happier employees are more motivated to make that happen.

Lifelong learning is a similar challenge. It’s difficult for the powers that be to let go of the idea that the only good education is classroom style, when in fact, more can be gained from smaller courses delivered more frequently and delivered in accordance with the individual’s own learning style. And I say that as someone who has delivered classes for years. I welcome its demise, quite frankly.

Why Can’t Clocks Change Themselves?

Back to the clocks for a second. How many clocks do you have in your home, including your car, that you had to manually adjust when the clocks changed? You’ll have to do them all again in a few months, except, for those on your smartphone, computer, or connected to your smart devices. They will have changed themselves through their connection to the Internet of Things.

Now, imagine a world where every timepiece, not just domestic, but industrial, medical, you name it. Anywhere that we keep time – imagine the day when they are all connected to the Internet of Things. You say to me, “Are you suggesting that all these clocks will change themselves?”

Yes, and no. I am not suggesting all these clocks would simultaneously leap forward or backward an hour at the appointed date. That would be simply automating an antiquated process, the digital equivalent of putting lipstick on a pig. No! I want to see the day when all clocks adopt a timekeeping system that eliminates the need for the one-hour leap entirely. If it can be proven that we need to adjust the clock at all – something I am still not entirely convinced of, since its reasoning seems to be solely one of economic convenience – if we still have to do it, then why not have all clocks adjust by one second per hour, or 20 seconds per day in some sort of leap second format? I know some devices rely on microsecond timing to keep machinery and medical equipment running perfectly – it might not be as easy as I make out, and surely someone has already thought of this and disposed of the idea. But I cannot believe that a global manual resetting of clocks is in any way more practical.

Imagine if things were the other way around. Imagine if there was no clock adjustment at all, we just lived with the seasons as they are, and someone came along and suggested that every home, factory, and hospital in the world should manually re-set every clock twice a year? It would not fly.

Net-60 Invoice Payment Needs to Die

And this brings me to a final idea connected to these earlier ones by time and tradition. The concept called Net 60. Anyone in small business soon discovers that if you want to do work with large companies, you will have to come face to face with the accounting department, and they do not always move comfortably into changing times.

You will discover that work done today, and invoiced at the end of the month, will then be processed over a 60-day period from the time of receipt of the invoice – a process that in total, from the time of work performed to the time of payment could be three months – longer if your own bank holds the cheque. This places the onus on the small business owner to hold onto enough money to live for three months before payment arrives.

Terms like net-30 or net-60 or even net-90 were put in place to protect the cash flow of large companies, helping them be sure they could cover their own costs and recoup their own receivables before paying off the help.  And to be sure, according to the Golden Rule, which reads “he who has the gold makes the rules,” such a policy has been the way of business for decades and it’s unlikely that any accounting department would be willing to change that up and expose their company to shorter-term financial risk any time soon.

Except for the following, maybe.

In this age, there is now a new alternative. Point of sale and remote payment systems like Square and PayPal mean that suppliers can get paid by customers immediately, securely, and directly without relying on clearing systems like banks or AP departments.

The giants may scoff at this, but what it means in terms of supply and demand, is that the best suppliers, with the best quality and the best price, will go to the best customers, being the ones who pay promptly, as in, within minutes, not months.

This, by extension, means that companies who stick with an antiquated cash flow system may find themselves committed to hiring and using secondary or lower quality suppliers. The best and brightest will have already paired up with equally-minded entrepreneurial companies.

It is said that people always drive into the future with their eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror. We hold on to traditions and procedures because that’s how it was back in the day. But next time you shop online, pay online, call for an Uber or connect to a Skype conference, think about what you’re doing and why you’re not doing it old-school.

Sometimes it makes sense to move forward into the future, and that means more than just adjusting your clock by 60 minutes in the Spring.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Daylight Saving Time and Net 60 – Both Must Go. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Go Back to Freelancing? I’m not Feeling the Burn

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Go Back To Freelancing? I’m Not Feeling the Burn. It discusses the gig economy and the future of work, of which freelancing will play an even larger role. People who mock it have a surprise coming. It is the future of work, and it’s one of the most secure career paths you can choose.

Let me start with an insult. I remember reading a comment someone made online about – well you know I can’t even remember what the comment was about. But I remember the burn. Some troll disagreed with the writer’s comment and wrote in reply, “go back to freelancing.” I remember being initially confused by this remark. What was wrong with freelancing? What did he mean by that? I have been essentially freelancing my entire career, and I feel I’ve done pretty well. What was the stigma that this troll was trying to push? That freelancing isn’t real work? That you only freelance if you can’t find a proper job?

I questioned the troll’s comments from three perspectives. The first was my own experience: two and a half decades of adventure, meeting new customers, devising new products and solutions, setting my own calendar and career path. Exhilarating and rewarding. Never dull or repetitive. What could be better than that?

Then I thought of the other freelancers I know. They, too, never stop improving their product. They are masters at finding work. They might change customers from month to month, but the work never stops for those who know how to find it. It’s job security anchored by your own talents and motivations, not those of an HR department.

Thirdly, I thought of the people I had met during one of my long-term contracts, where I taught groups of recently fired executives how to cope with the depression of job loss and the resulting loss of their identity. These people were truly at sea, with no compass and no hope. This is what happens when people get buried in their salaried jobs and allow no time for the entrepreneurial networking that is at the heart of freelancing. They don’t know who they are, and they don’t know where to go, because they never built the safety net that every freelancer owns. That’s why I wrote my third book, which is entitled, “Is This the Day I Get Fired?”

Go back to freelancing. Did that comment reveal a deep-seated fear held by the writer, who like most other bullies, projects his insecurities on those he tries to intimidate?

Well, I have news for that bully as well as everyone else, including worried parents, who fear that freelancing is not as secure as a career job or a unionized job. Not only is it more secure, since the power of mobility and self sufficiency rests with the individual rather than their employer, it is also the future of work. I remember a comment that a guest speaker once said at a networking session I was hosting: He said, “the chief difference between a salaried employer and a contractor is that a contractor knows when his or her last day is, and can do something about it.

We are in an age of profound transformation. Technology continues to change jobs and indeed make many of them redundant. It balances this out by creating new jobs in their place, as well as making it possible for networking and freelancing to flourish. But to anyone who grew up watching Dad and/or Mom leave the house every day at 7:00 a.m. and return home at suppertime year in and year out it becomes difficult to envision any other lifestyle, regardless how secure it ultimately is.

The Future of Work: The Gig Economy

Heavy hitters like RBC and McKinsey have publicly declared the following facts, for the benefit of employers and experts who are carefully watching the changing world of work:

McKinsey and Co. has stated:

  • 60% of all occupations have at least 30% of activities that are technically automatable.
  • Automation could affect 50% of the world economy

Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) envisions:

  • 4 million Canadian job openings in the next three years, of which
  • 50% will undergo a skills overhaul.

The skills that will be required include soft skills such as critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, communication, empathy and social perceptiveness. The ways in which these will be learned will be more about lifelong learning in place of traditional linear education.

But to take this even further, consider these three rather stunning facts delivered recently at the World Economic Forum.

1.) Less than a decade from now, by 2027, the majority of the U.S. workforce will be freelance.

2.) Artificial Intelligence and robotics will create more jobs, not mass unemployment as long as we responsibly guide innovation.

3.) Cities will compete against each other to attract top talent, as they see economic ecosystems grow and flourish.

Image courtesy of UpWork

These comments were made by Stephane Kasriel, who is CEO of UpWork, one of the largest and most successful freelancing websites around. It would be easy to assume he has a vested interest in saying such things, being the boss of a company directly dependent on the fulfilment of this vision.

But it is important to recognize that freelancing is not a cottage industry. Large multinational companies like Pfizer and Samsung are part of this rising breed of enterprises that have turned online to find freelancers.

And there are others out there, looking for highly specialized talent and paying well for it. One of these is Innocentive, a company that “enables organizations to put their unsolved problems and unmet needs, which are framed as ‘Challenges’, out to the crowd to address.” In other words, it is seeking innovation through crowdsourcing; putting the bounty on a solution. Maybe it’s an industrial challenge, like how to get toothpaste into a differently designed tube, or how to economically prevent oil from freezing when stored in cold climates. You would think large companies would have all the engineering brilliance it needs to solve these problems from the inside, but sometimes they just don’t.

Very often I win writing or project management contracts from companies who have all the right people already in-house. The problem is the backlog. It might take six months to appear on these peoples’ radar, and the client needs something done now.

Similarly, it’s those experts on the outside, the ones who must stay constantly ahead of the knowledge curve, who are the ones who come with the solution, more quickly and more cost effectively.

It’s the As-A-Service Economy

Let me draw a parallel distinction. Companies the world over have, over the past few years, become familiar with cloud, and with it, related technologies such as artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things. What are these innovations doing for them? Far more than simply storing your data. The accessibility and data flow that these technologies have enabled has given rise to the as-a-service industry.  Where once companies shipped boxes of their products to their customers, they now see the value in many cases of actually giving the basic physical product for free, and then monetizing the services needed to support it, along with the data that becomes collectible.

Individual consumers see this daily when they use their computers. Products like Microsoft Office used to arrive in a box and required individual installation from disks. But now, Microsoft, and all other software applications are subscription based.  Sometimes even free. The manufacturers are responsible for testing and upgrading and they do so remotely via your internet connection.

The same principle applies to every other as-a-service enterprise, which is what makes cloud storage and security so attractive and practical in the first place. The supplier stays responsible for the upkeep of quality. It need no longer remain in house, where it might be prone to delays and budget cuts.

So, back to the workforce. I can speak from direct experience, when I teach new topics to a group of employees, they admit that they spend so much time closeted away, working on the internal problems of the moment, they never get the chance to look up and around at what the outside world is doing.

This becomes one of the key value propositions of the as-a-service freelancer. Just like cloud providers and software manufacturers, the freelancer is responsible for maintaining the skills and knowledge that a company needs. And now, with direct and immediate communication and the capacity for working remotely, there is no reason for them to ever physically visit the company’s brick and mortar operations if need be.

None of this is truly new. There have been freelancers for centuries. The very word freelance denotes a mercenary fighter whose weapons, including their lance, were available to whoever wanted to hire them. They weren’t free from a price perspective, but they were free from fealty to any specific lord, king, or country.

Companies have long outsourced work to other countries – call centers and tech support, for example – and even the notion of as-a-service machinery has its roots in leasing and rental programs.

But it’s more now. We have passed a tipping point. As-a-service is more than just leasing. It is about servicing, maintenance and aftermarket opportunities that go well beyond any physical machine. And freelancing is far more than hiring warm bodies to cover peak periods.

Freelancing is a new type of work, fueled by communications and data technologies that help bring customer and supplier together more efficiently. According to a study commissioned by Upwork, half of the millennial generation is already freelancing.

There is an inherent security in the freelancing business, reinforced by the ever-present reminder that you are personally responsible for your future. This might strike many as the opposite of security. After all, how can that compare to the permanence of a salaried position, especially when it comes to qualifying for a mortgage? But ask any salaried employee what their biggest fear is: it’s losing their job. And that is not a healthy way to live.

So, back to the insult that started this monologue. “Go back to freelancing.” Many people reveal their own fears in the insults and swear words they use against others. As I tell my audiences, I have been looking for work for 25 years now. And I keep finding it. It’s always interesting, it always adds something to my skillset, and it always keeps me in demand. It called, colloquially, the gig economy, and it is the future of work.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Go Back to Freelancing? I’m not Feeling the Burn. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: The Rising Bar of Expectation

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Rising Bar of Expectation. It explores the relationship between us and time, especially when it comes to our expectations, and managing the expectations of others.

Boy it’s annoying when things don’t load at the speed you want them to, isn’t it? I mean when we have to wait around for Microsoft Word to fire up, or for your browser to configure its updates, or for an app to download to your phone. And this is a serious problem. People have a tolerance of mere seconds before they give up and move on to something else. E-commerce people know this, which is why they place such high priority on solving shopping cart abandonment issues. Music companies know this too, which is why artists are asked to write tunes that deliver the hook sooner. Consumers know they have a choice and they will move on quickly.

Texting Your BFF in the 1700s

Imagine what it must have been like 300 years ago. Imagine, for example, you walk four hours into town, maybe two hours if you’re rich enough to own a horse, and as luck would have it, a ship has just arrived carrying – among other things – mail from the old country. It includes a letter from your BFF, your sweetie, your betrothed, who writes, basically, “we need to talk.”

You re-read the letter several times, your heart is pounding as you see your happy future dissolving before your eyes. You run to the local apothecary, borrow a quill pen and a bottle of ink, and frantically write back a heartfelt plea to save your relationship. You proofread your letter, dab the ink dry, seal it inside an envelope. You dash down to the dock, leaping over barrels and boxes, you dash up the gangplank and hand your letter to the first officer you see.

Two weeks later, the ship leaves the harbor to start on its two-month voyage back across the Atlantic, where your frantic letter might stand a chance of getting into the hands of your betrothed another month after that. If, this was all happening to you in New Holland (Australia), just multiply all of these travel times by ten. Back then, you had to have a lot of patience when it came to sending and receiving information.

Rearranging the Text Messages on the Titanic

Did you know, by the way, that one of the contributing factors to the loss of life during the sinking of the Titanic had to do with the fact that the radio operators of the time were employees of the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company – subcontractors, essentially, not crew – and as such, their primary responsibility was managing messages between passengers and their families and friends in Europe or in New York. These radio operators had no time or motivation to pay attention to the frantic calls of “Icebergs ahead” from the lookouts.

Over the century since the Titanic’s sinking, our communications technologies have increased in speed and reach, and so have our desires to stay ahead of them. Nothing seems ever fast enough. We humans thrive on communication. Today, for example, if someone does not answer your email within five minutes, you consider it within your rights to send another email that asks whether they received your first email.

Texting at 90 Feet per Second

So, what’s wrong with that, you ask? Well, nothing really, so long as you stay in control of the messaging. But most of the time we find ourselves not in control. For example, it is very difficult to resist the temptation to reply to a text while you’re driving your car. The compelling need to know what an incoming message says, and to then respond, overrules the logic of maintaining control of the vehicle. Evidence continues to mount that shows that even talking hands free, whether you’re chatting on the phone or dictating a text, is still an impairment. It takes a great deal of concentration to drive a vehicle, and that gets quickly eclipsed by the moment-by-moment activities of speaking and listening.

OK, you say, so why isn’t it the same when you have someone in the car with you?

Well, having a conversation with someone in a car can be distracting, especially if things get heated like in an argument, but when someone is in the car with you, they can see what you see, and are more likely to put the conversation on hold if there is a potentially dangerous situation unfolding up ahead. When a vehicle is travelling at 90 feet per second, that’s a lot of ground that can be covered during a moment of distraction. They can see that. But the person you’re talking to through your phone cannot.

The main reason why I am pursuing this line of thought though has to do with the bar of expectation, which continues to rise along with that increasing speed of communication. This rising bar does not just apply to messaging. It also applies to our own expectations of ourselves, and this anticipation of increased productivity sometimes exceeds our abilities. Let me give you an example.

Super Time Management Spray!

When I talk to my audiences about techniques for improving productivity, I deliver this offer paired with a challenge. My offer is this: I say to them, “I have, in the trunk of my car, a supply of time management spray. You spray it all over you and it will help you do everything faster. In fact, one spray of this patented elixir, and you will get at least four more hours’ worth of stuff done. Would you like some of this?”

Nobody actually believes I have this spray in the trunk, of course, but they play along, nodding their heads. After all, the truth is, there are few people who would pass up on the chance of being able to get a few more hours of productivity in a day.

“But wait!” I then say, like an old-time sales barker, “If you were to purchase this spray from me, even at this giveaway price of just nine dollars and ninety-nine cents a can, and you were to spray it all over you and you found yourself working at super speed, my question becomes, what will you do with this time you have found? Will you use it to answer more emails or attend more meetings? If so, my friends, you have won back nothing. You will call me back two weeks from now and you will be asking me for the extra strength spray.

This is the problem with best practices generally. They are not able to stick to the surface of a fast-moving culture in a way that ensures ongoing achievement. Instead they become part of the new normal. So, where you were once able to do five things in a day, now you can do ten. The bar of your expectations rises with this achievement and soon your expectation is that you can and should be able to do 15 things. And once you discover you are able to do 15, you start to expect to be able to do 20 things in a day and you start to make promises accordingly.

However, your body and mind have a hard time keeping up. Our instinctive desire to evolve and continue to make life better and safer for ourselves enthusiastically grabs this idea of doing more with less time, but our physical and mental selves really cannot do that.

So, you say yes to more and more emails, meetings, requests and tasks.

Or more precisely, you don’t actually say “yes,” but you don’t know how to say “no.”

The Smallest Word Is Also the Hardest to Pronounce

“No” is one of the smallest words in any spoken language, but one of the hardest to pronounce. Most of us have a profound fear of confrontation, or of offending or angering the person we are communicating with. After all, if you say no to your boss or your customer, you might lose your livelihood.

But the fact is, without that capacity to say “no” appropriately, the work simply piles up, but time does not expand to accommodate. And added speed is not enough. The extra strength spray just does not work.

The Future of Work: Cut Me Some Slack

That’s why, when it comes to looking at the future of work, many experts point to soft skills as the key. Skills like prioritization, delegation, and negotiation will become even more critical as timelines continue to shorten and the bar of expectation continues to rise.

I’ll give you an immediate example: Slack.

Now I love Slack. I am a devotee of online collaborative environments and I use them every time I am managing a multi-person project, which is all the time. There are other brands as well, of course, and Microsoft Teams will likely be the one most people encounter first, given the preponderance of Microsoft products in most workplaces.

Long story short, collaborative conversations grouped into channels are more efficient than email. There is an informality and immediacy to the communication that removes much of the mental overload and delay that email has been proven to cause.

But the pushback I get from people when they see a collaborative environment for the first time is, “how is this any different from email? What’s the difference between having a pile of unread emails in your inbox and a pile of unread messages in your Slack channels?”

It’s true. Even though I still think the collaborative messages can be handled more easily and more quickly over all, there is still an expectation that people be ready and available to respond to messages of any sort the moment they come in. The bar continues to rise.

But that’s where the soft skills come in. There is an ever-increasing need for people to be able to push back and say “no” in the most practical ways possible. “No” does not mean “go away, I never want to see you again,” it means, “let’s negotiate.” It’s a way of saying, let’s find a suitable alternative to the immediate.

So, whether you choose a collaborative environment like Microsoft Teams or Slack, or even if you choose to stay with email, it is up to you to let people know when and where you will be available. If you’re busy right now, or you plan to be traveling, then you’re not available to reply. This means you need to let people know this. You have to counter the rising bar of people’s expectations.

Get proactive and send out updates to those who are most likely to want to talk to you. Let them know the times that you will be available and when you will not be available. Give them access to your online calendar. Make sure to mark your busy times as busy, and your available times as available. If you use a collaborative environment, then update your status, and train your people to observe your status and availability notifications. This is a skill. It’s part of the skillset called influence, in which you get people to act in ways you would like, using positive emotion and positive reward.

A related and equally vital skill is that of following up. If you promise to be available at a certain time, then you need to ensure you are available. If you promise to return all emails and calls by the end of day, then you need to ensure you make the time to do that. People will believe in you and will accept these alternatives if they know they will be looked after within a reasonable amount of time. But if you break that promise, then the trust relationship will be broken.

The power is within you to manage the ever-rising bar of expectations – those you have of yourself with regard to workload, and those others have of you. It all depends on your ability to hone those soft skills of influence, planning, delegation, negotiation and prioritization.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled The Rising Bar of Expectations. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

CoolTimeLife Podcast: Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here

This blog comprises show notes for my CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. It explores the relationship between the way today’s tunes are written, produced and marketed, and the way in which we think and react as human connected to our phones.

 

I was watching a YouTube video the other day which talked about everything that is wrong with modern music. The host of the video, who goes by the name of Thoughty2, wasn’t even old. Probably around 23. It wasn’t like one of those 70-something prog rock old timers telling us what’s wrong with today’s music, but instead, he presented some interesting facts about how music is produced and marketed in this era, and I think there are some direct tie ins to at work productivity and workplace skills.

The video is available here. It’s about 20 minutes long.

Thoughty2 goes through a number of mechanical reasons about how modern hits by people like Taylor Swift are written by a very small group of people, and how a recurring musical note sequence called the Millennial Whoop echoes through dozens of modern hits, as this compilation video shows.

Now, as a musician myself, I can agree with much of what Thoughty2 was saying, but I could also picture his grandfather standing in front of a camera in 1963, slagging the long haired, gyrating freakishness of the Beatles, or Elvis, and lamenting the disappearance of quality music by Sinatra or the Big Band era. Go back even further and is great-great grandfather would have been complaining about Gershwin tearing the classics apart. Even Mozart and Beethoven were criticized for changing music too radically.

So is this change in music a change management issue? Every generation deserves its own musical heroes, after all, if only to distance themselves from their parents or older siblings.

But here’s the part of Thoughty2’s presentation that really resonated with me. He pointed out the effect that free downloadable music has had on its creation and quality. Back in the days of vinyl LPs and packaged CDs, you, as a music consumer had to head on down to the music store and plonk out some hard-earned money to purchase a collection of songs by your favorite artist. There’s a lot of work involved in that, and it wasn’t cheap. In 1975, an LP would have cost between $4.99 and $7.99. I remember wishing I could get the compilation triple album by KISS, which was retailing for an astounding $10.99 at the time. That might not seem like a lot now, but back in 1975, minimum wage in the U.S. was around $2.00 per hour.

Access to recorded music was expensive. But concerts, were cheap, compared to today, because they were the loss-leaders designed to get you to buy the merchandise and albums. Now, as David Bowie so accurately predicted back in 1980, music is free, which is why artists and their employers – the record companies – must recoup their costs through live performances at hundreds of dollars per seat.

So, is free instantly available music the culprit? Because it’s free or mere pennies, and because it is available for instant download, no time is needed to think through the process, to debate whether the tunes are worth buying, or to spend time afterwards listening over and over to the tunes if only to justify the cost of the purchase.

Instant access means that tunes must offer a combination of universal appeal and familiarity. To be too different entails too much risk. Tunes must have an instant hook – no long-extended introductions – and in many cases these play as a mere backdrop to the video.

Still, there’s nothing inherently wrong in that, in my opinion. Art must always strike a balance between innovation and comfort of it is to make money.

But it’s the speed issue that I’m looking at here. As attention spans shorten and instant access to information dominates, skills such as critical thinking tend to atrophy, and this poses great danger to businesses and productivity.

Thinking is a process that requires a type of mental massaging. I tell my audiences that two of the best ways to think are, 1. To take a walk – just walk around the block and think about nothing. Do not check your email. Just let your mind relax, and let the thoughts come. Number 2 is to write things out. This is particularly productive because firstly it lets your thinking mind let go of preliminary thoughts and place them on a tangible surface – paper or a dry-erase board. Without this step you will simply be stuck holding on to an initial idea or worry. You can only move past this by depositing it somewhere and giving your brain permission to move on. Also, hand-writing has a correlation to the pace of clear thought processing. The speed at which you write things out buys time for creative processing to happen. These two actions together help “real thinking” really happen.

Much of the challenges people have concerning time management and prioritization has to do with the speed of reaction overtaking the quality of thought. We respond instantly to any incoming stimulus out of the fear and pressure of high-speed messaging. We have lost the ability for example, to exert influence over others, to manage expectations and buy time for ourselves. Why? Because influence requires careful thought and time to implement.

Look at ransomware for example. How often does cybercrime like this happen not because of any sophistication on the part of the hackers, but because they send one of those phishing emails that fool people into thinking their bank account has been frozen? People read them, and they react without thinking. They click on the link and the malware is allowed in. Phishing is a crime of distraction that exploits the busy-ness of its victims.

Similarly, much of the polarization happening in politics, especially in the U.S. also has to do with the fact that people no longer need to think through issues or talk with other people to come to a considered opinion. It is easier now to simply find an organization or news site that already sides with your beliefs or fears and wrap yourself inside. You will no longer hear a person of one political stripe say to someone with the opposing belief, “yes you have a good point there.” Instead disagreements are started and ended with a fast demographic smear: “you’re a liberal” or “you’re a dem” or you’re a republican. An “us versus them” mentality has taken over politics and has extinguished reasoned argument.

Critical thinking is a skill. It is the type of skill that needs to be taught to school age kids as well as to adults. It’s like street-proofing. You must give people an awareness of the importance of stopping and thinking before acting, otherwise their lives or careers will be in jeopardy.

Now in case you think I’m playing the old man here, dissing the younger generation for acting too quickly with their mobile phones and their autotuned musical heroes, I’m not. Music reflects its culture and our current culture is high-speed and ubiquitous. But there’s one thing that is not evolving as fast as technology, and that is the human brain and body together.

Reaction is reflex. It is not thought. Consequently, people lose the capacity to prioritize or frame a discussion when they exist solely in a reactionary state. Building a strong relationship with your manager, managing up, as the term goes, is impossible when neither of you have the time to do it. The same goes for delivering feedback to an employee or engaging in active listening. So many valuable activities and resources go out the window when people do not give themselves the time to fully use their thought processing skills.

A recent article in Quartz at Work outlined the concept of the silent meeting, being used by groundbreaking companies like Amazon, in which the first 30 minutes of an in-person meeting are spent in silence as the meeting attendees read the meeting material and reflect upon it before speaking.

This strongly echoes the original philosophy of Apple when they were the ones changing the world, whose campuses included lots of space and time for employees to meet, chat and cross-pollenate their ideas. This is where human brilliance and synergy some from.

One last example: how many careers, political campaigns or brands have gone quickly south due to a single ill-advised tweet? A moment of passion which flies around the world and eradicates years of carefully built trust and reputation?

There seems to be no time allowed any more to sleep on idea. To see how you feel about it tomorrow. There’s a lot to that idea, because twelve or fourteen hours from now you will be a different person: chemically, emotionally, refreshed and re-set after a night’s sleep. You will be a different person tomorrow.

What I am saying here is that critical thinking and taking time to think things through before acting will become a competitive advantage to companies that actively support it. Because far from me, or Mr. Thoughty2 being the old man in this scenario, the truth is, we are all old, female, male, of any age, we share a physiology that is not evolving as fast as our machines. We all use the same type of brain matter and autonomic reflexes to keep us alive. I honestly think the future rests with those who can use the best of their physical and mental makeup, and that has more to do with time than with speed.

This is the transcript of the CoolTimeLife podcast entitled Modern Music and Critical Thinking – There’s a Problem Here. If you would like to listen to it, you can check it out at our podcast site here. If you would like to review other podcasts in this series, visit my podcast page at stevenprentice.com/podcast.html

If you feel you derived value from this blog or the adjoining podcast, please consider supporting our work by sending a small donation of $1.00, $2.00 or $5.00. It helps us give more time to research and prepare the episodes. The secure PayPal link is available on the podcast page at steveprentice.com/podcast.html.

The Law of Sharp Edges – Maximize Synergy by Framing a Conversation

There are many times when communicating via text or email is insufficient. The dynamics of human creativity are not one-dimensional. Thoughts and ideas must be echoed and bounced off one another so that we may experience and interpret the patterns that reverberate around us. Think, for example, how much more productive it is to “talk it out” with someone, rather than merely texting back and forth. Think also about how damaging it can be to keep feelings bottled up inside, or the complications that can arise from someone misinterpreting the tone of a text message. Creative thought thrives on the positive interference patterns that happen when two creative forces intersect. It falls away when given only a unidirectional track upon which to work.

Live conversation is essential for situations where there is something that needs to be created, agreed upon, resolved, or worked through. There is no real substitute.

When people contemplate getting together, whether face-to-face or over the phone, the thing that often puts them off is the fear of getting trapped in a conversation filled with small talk and irrelevancies. But it need not be that way. I use what I like to call The Law of Sharp Edges, which states that if you give someone a clear delineation – a guideline as to where things start and end rather than just a vague idea, they will be more likely to accommodate your request or behave as you would like them to.

Here’s a bad example: “Can I call you tomorrow?”

Here’s an excellent example: “Can I call you tomorrow at 2:00 for a 10-minute chat about the ABC project?”

The bad example puts people “on the hook for the entire day.” It’s like being on call. You know the event might

happen, but you don’t know when or for how long. This has a profound impact on your entire internal self-preservation system. Your instinct fears the unknown, and it’s not an overstatement to point out that something as simple as a vague phone call commitment is indeed an unknown. As such your body reflexively tenses itself for the interaction to come.

The excellent example removes the unknown and delivers three essential knowns – when it will be, how long it will last and what it will be about. It makes it a far more appealing thing to commit to since there are sharp edges surrounding the event. It is constrained and finite.

Such simple techniques will make a huge difference in productivity and process, by merely allowing the dynamic creativity of live conversation to flourish without fear. The many tools we have to facilitate live discussions, from meeting rooms to phones, video-conferences, online collaborative chat apps, even virtual presence devices like the Double (pictured) or Beam, still need to win someone’s attention through the most basic of concerns: “how will this hurt me and how will I benefit?” Once you can get such instinctive self-preservation needs out of the way, your conversation is free to do what it does best: make progress.