Drinking with the Invisible Man & Woman

4 Aug

I feel old this week!  Three incidents in the last six days have really made me realise which side of the technological generation gap I’m on!


The first was a conversation with a twenty-something member of the team at one of our strategic partners – about ‘sociable robots’ of all things!  (That’s not as random as it sounds; we’re working on a programme on the subject).  I can see the potential for robots which can become carers or companions for the most vulnerable people in our society; but I also agree with Sherry Turkle at MIT, that we shouldn’t lose sight of their limitations.  One of the most important of those, in my view, is that machines can only be programmed to act out human capacities like empathy.  They can’t actually experience them.  My young colleague said he thought a convincing performance could be good enough.  I don’t– but that’s the point of making the programme.  There are strong views on both sides and it’s a question which needs debating.


The next day, I was in another associate’s studio.  I was working with a producer who is of a similar age to me, as well as a young woman not long out of college.  She took an active part in the session – although through most of it, she had her phone in her hand and was constantly interacting with absent friends.


The third incident is the one that gives this post its title.  It’s a  news story – or rather, the reaction to it.


Steve Tyler is Landlord of the Gin Tub, in Hove, East Sussex.  He’s so fed up with customers talking to invisible friends via social media, rather than the people they’re physically drinking with, he’s installed a Faraday cage to stop mobile signals.  He’s done it, he says, because he wants to give people a break from being connected – and he wants to stop all the atmosphere in the bar being drained away into remote locations.


Now, all this sounds perfectly reasonable to me.  In my quaint, old-fashioned world, the whole reason for going out for a drink is to catch up with the friends you’re out with.  When 5 Live covered the story, though, a straw poll of drinkers in Salford made me feel like a lone voice in the wilderness!


One man admitted to clutching his phone and feeling quite ‘twitchy’ because he knew he couldn’t look at it during the interview (which would have lasted no more than a few minutes).  .  Others made comments like:


‘But I might get notifications!  People might be trying to message me!’


‘How would you play Pokemon Go?!’ and (most depressing for me)


‘I reckon he’ll go out of business pretty soon’.


I really hope the last contributor is proved wrong.  Yes, some customers might leave, but there’s a massive marketing opportunity here – a chance to attract a whole new clientele; people who still appreciate the chance for a face-to-face chat, without the constant threat of being interrupted by a phone – their own or anyone else’s!  There are parallels here with the smoking ban.  Yes, I know a lot of people abandoned their local; but others who previously avoided the pub etc were drawn in by the promise of being able to have a drink without a compulsory secondhand smoke chaser.


Steve isn’t advocating being completely cut off from the 21st century.  There’s an area outside the bar where people can use their phones as much as they like (described on the radio as similar to the provision pubs make for smokers); and there’s a landline inside, for emergencies.  All he’s saying, as I understand it, is that as much as we might love our technology, it’s good to have a break sometimes.  One of the reasons I love studio work is that the phone either has to go off or stay outside – so no-one can get to me in there!


It’s too simplistic, of course, to say this is just a generational issue – that all young people are unconditionally pro tech and all older ones are anti.  I have friends who buck the trend on both sides of the divide; but a divide certainly does exist.  When it comes to technology, that will always be the case.


The late Douglas Adams summed that up brilliantly in a programme for Radio 4 in 1999.  I don’t have the exact quote to hand, but he said something like:


The technology that’s around when we’re born is just a normal part of life.  Anything invented before we’re thirty-five is interesting – even exciting; but anything that comes along after that is ‘the devil’s work!’


That’s obviously not a hard and fast rule, but it’s not a bad guideline.


As time goes on, increasingly sophisticated tech is bound to become even more deeply interwoven into everyday life.  That will open up some amazing opportunities for all of us – as it already has; but my message, as always, is that to get the best out of those new opportunities, we need to keep hold of some traditional human skills.  We have to  maintain a balance between the physical and the virtual.  To do that, we need to keep talking – in every sense of the word.


We’ll go on with the theme of talking in the next post; specifically, the words we use to label one another.  In the meantime, if you have any:



Comments or



come and talk to me – maybe over a drink at the Gin Tub?!  All the details (for me – not the bar!) are on the website.


Anyone for Phone Tennis?

13 Jul

Over the weekend, I almost changed my mind about the subject of this post, after watching Andy Murray win his second Wimbledon Singles title.  Aside from the fact that his joy and relief radiated off my TV screen, for me, it was a reminder of the role of sport as the positive power of tribalism (most of the time anyway!).  When it goes well, it cuts across so many other divisions – including politics.  No, let’s not get into examples of when a mix of sport and politics becomes doubly devisive – that’s another post, for another time! !


Last night, I nearly changed my mind again, after watching a brilliant TED talk; but I’m about to invite the speaker to be part of Programme 5 of the current series.  If he can do it, I’ll tell you all about him then.  If not, I’ll find an opportunity to talk about him anyway!


So I’m sticking with my original topic, mentioned at the end of the last post – phone manners – particularly two trends I’ve spotted, which appear to be moving in opposite directions.  The first operates on a one-to-one level and the second on a many-to-one basis.


Once upon a time, not so very long ago, it was perfectly normal to pick up the phone spontaneously, to call a friend or colleague.  In fact, making an appointment to chat would have seemed pretty weird!  Of course, before email, it would have been a lot harder, wouldn’t it?


Now, increasingly, I find myfriends and I email to ask:


‘When would be a good time to give you a call?’


Yes, there are exceptions – but that’s the point: they used to be the rule.


This ties back to our growing reluctance to interrupt – and be interrupted – which all flows back to how we meet the challenge of attention overload.


One person’s ‘reluctance’ is, of course, another’s ‘consideration’.  Whichever it is for you, it only seems to apply to voice calls.  We text and email each other at all hours of the day and night!  Last week, I was woken at 4:20AM, by a text thanking me for a bank transfer.  Now, don’t get me wrong, I was glad to know the money had gone through ok – but I wasn’t lying awake worrying about it – at least not til the phone whistled at me when the text came in!


The sender assumed my phone would be off and I’d pick up the message when I switched on; but I, like many of us, use my phone as my alarm – and my new model has no standby option.  So if you happen to have my mobile number, PLEASE don’t send me anything between 11pm and 6AM – you WILL wake me up – and although you won’t hear me growling, rest assured, I will growl something I can’t write here!


Going back to voice calls, most of us now have some sort of voicemail facility and caller ID, especially on the mobile.  So the vast majority of us should, in theory, have no fear of gate-crashing into someone else’s day – or having them gate-crash into ours.  The trouble is that years of conditioning mean that when the phone calls, we feel compelled to leap on it, regardless of what we happen to be doing at the time.  For instance, it’s becoming perfectly normal to drop a face-to-face conversation mid-sentence to turn our attention to a remote caller – whoever they might be.  That said, we’re just as easily distracted from a distant conversation – even one which has been carefully pre-arranged – by something happening in our immediate physical environment.  That’s why lots of people find voice-only phone meetings so difficult to focus on (I teach a technique to help with that, but still, nothing beats a face-to-face – provided it isn’t constantly interrupted by the phone!).


This Pavlovian response is what drives the other trend I mentioned – cold calls, from businesses, charities – and criminals.  While you and I are worrying about (or, if you prefer, putting some thought into) whether we should ring so-and-so now, or whether he or she might be too busy, all kinds of organisations, legal and otherwise, feel free to bombard us with calls at all sorts of odd times – a lot of them not even from a human being in real time!  I know people who hate pre-recorded cold calls even more than the live variety, but they do have one clear advantage: you can swear at them without worrying about abusing a real person!  Last weekend alone, I had one at 9PM on Saturday evening and another at 8AM Sunday morning – both equally welcome …!  If I tell you how welcome, I’ll have to put an obscenity warning on this post!  No, I didn’t take either call – I let the voicemail take them.


That brings us back to where we started.  I don’t know about you, but I’d choose a good game of phone tennis any day (the swapping of voicemail until we make contact properly) over fear of intruding – or irritation that I just let you intrude (it’s worth remembering that if an unexpected call feels like an interruption – you chose to pick up!).  Some people are very good, but most of us need to get a lot better at  call screening – and returning.  One reason we jump on the phone the moment it rings, I’m guessing, is because we know we’ll forget to check our messages later!  Like this year’s Men’s Singles at Wimbledon, every game of phone tennis is won by the best returner.


And there’s another huge benefit of voicemail, which very few of us really exploit: If we all made more effective use of it, just think: we’d never have to deal with any more cold calls – and if no-one answered them they would eventually die out!


Perhaps we’d all be inspired if phone tennis had its own championships … How about it as a new Olympic sport.  We’re too late for Rio, but …


Back on a sensible note, there’s another aspect of this which I want to pick up next week – how well phone manners travel – or don’t, as the case may be.  In the meantime, if you have any:



Comments or



come and talk to me!  All the details are on the website – but right now, got to run – the phone’s ringing!  You think I’m kidding, don’t you ……?!

‘Excuse us! Where are our manners?!’ – why we still need to make time for niceties

7 Jul

Back in 2014, Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency talked about being ‘disappeared’ by people who carry on remote conversations while completely ignoring someone physically close by. Just recently, I’ve had two experiences which have convinced me that particular brand of ignorance isn’t limited to strangers on trains.


A couple of months ago, I was deep in conversation with a colleague in another company, when one of their associates walked in. I’d never met this person, although I knew them by their reputation for impeccable manners. So I thought I might be introduced before they both either excused themselves or drew me into their conversation. What they actually did was talk over my head. I was left feeling invisible – and very disappointed.


Fast-forward to a fortnight ago. I was at the head office of a large national company, involved in a very animated discussion with one of their technical people about (ironically!) improving and enhancing an aspect of their customer communications. Suddenly, a hand came on my shoulder. It was a friend I hadn’t seen for at least a year. We started chatting, although I kept looking for an opportunity to break off and introduce her to my new associate. Unfortunately, the chance didn’t come – until it was too late. The lady I’d been talking to before my friend appeared obviously felt frozen out. By the time I got a chance to do the introductions, she’d given up and gone to speak to someone else. I felt TERRIBLE!!! I’d just dished out exactly the same thoughtless treatment which had made me so cross when I’d been on the receiving end – and I was even more disappointed with myself than I’d been with those who had done it to me!


It got me thinking though, about two questions:


First, where does that kind of behaviour come from?


Until that second incident, I’d have liked to believe it was something which ‘other people’ were guilty of; the anonymous ‘they’, who have lost their manners, perhaps because of changing parenting styles, too much time online etc. Now I have to face the fact that I’m ‘one of them’ – and I’ve got to tell you, I don’t like it! So why do ‘we’ behave like that?


Well, speaking for myself, I can’t blame my upbringing – my parents were very old school when it came to manners. As a kid, I was convinced that if Mum and Dad could have made rudeness a crime, the punishment would have been a fate only slightly better than death! Nor can I blame my internet habits. Yes, I drop on to the web several times a day – and yes, I’m involved in social media; but it only represents a fraction of the time I spend interacting with people generally. The key, maybe, was in that last sentence; specifically, in one word in that sentence: ‘Time’.


In our time-poor culture, a belief seems to be developing that there’s no time for ‘niceties’. The less time we have (or, sometimes, think we have), the more we want to control our limited supply. One of the main ways we achieve that control is by switching our attention between several narrow fields of focus. We tend to prioritise according to what’s immediately in front of us, physically and virtually.


A couple of weeks ago, I talked about the inattentional tunnel vision drivers experience when they’re distracted. Well, we all experience something similar in our mind’s eye when we’re overloaded. If an event (like a message) isn’t front and centre, we can’t see it – and if we can’t see it, it can’t be important. Those of us who would like to see ourselves as polite and considerate start by feeling bad about missing that email or phone message; but eventually, we overcome the guilt and start telling ourselves it’s ok – even normal. We tell ourselves a similar story about dropping one contact to pick up another. What choice to we have? – and anyway, everybody does it, right? Both those arguments are reinforced every time our behaviour has no consequences – which happens more and more, as those we ignore come to accept, and then to expect it.


That brings me to the second question – does it matter?


The concept of ‘good manners’ evolves over time, along with language – and every other aspect of human culture. If it didn’t, we’d still be stuck in caves! At this point, the word itself, ‘manners’, sounds a bit quaint, doesn’t it? So shouldn’t we just accept that the juggling of interactions is ‘ok’, even ‘normal’, in the twenty-first century? Yes – but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t still be normal to excuse ourselves when we need to switch focus, and apologise when we don’t treat somebody as we’d like to be treated. That at least acknowledges that my ‘nicety’ might be your ‘necessity’ – and it could well make the difference between ‘later’ and ‘too late’.


A few years ago, I was doing a weekly radio show about enterprise. One of my guests was Gerry Chandler, a dispute resolution specialist. Off-air, he said something which has stayed with me – I’m pretty sure I’ve quoted it here before, but it’s always worth repeating: ‘If time is money, then time spent on conversation is an investment’. Well, now I’m going to expand that – to say: If time is money, time spent on treating people decently is an investment – whatever name we give it.


In case you’re wondering, yes, I have put my money where my mouth is. I sent my apologies to the lady I felt I was rude to two weeks ago. No response as yet …


Next time, I want to home in on a specific aspect of this – phone manners. In the meantime, if you have any:

  • Questions
  • Comments or
  • Communication issues to chat through come and talk to me! All the details are on the website.

‘Speak up! There’s a good girl!’ – the enduring female contradiction between ‘successful’ and ‘acceptable’

30 Jun

Last week, I said that despite the complexities of the ‘in or out?’ question, the UK’s EU referendum would come down to something much more basic – tribalism. As I write, so many tribes are in a state of flux, from the main political parties to our nations themselves.


The label ‘United Kingdom’ sounds like a contradiction in terms at the moment. I don’t want to dwell on that this week because things are changing all the time – and whatever I say now may well be out of date by the time I post it!


So instead, let’s talk about another contradiction in terms – one which has been around for generations. Although to be honest with you, I really thought it was disappearing. That was until a friend sent me a couple of links to articles on the BBC website, looking at why so many women don’t speak up for themselves, especially in a professional context.


I have a lot of childhood memories (from the 1970s and 80s) of passive-aggressive women, silently radiating rage through gritted teeth. They’d never dream of actually expressing those feelings overtly, because they’d been brought up to be ‘good girls’ – and ‘good girls’ don’t make trouble. They just aim to fit in by trying to please – even if that means pushing their true thoughts and feelings to the back of a very long queue!


That idea was reinforced at the all-girls grammar school where I spent nearly five years. (I still think of 29th June – my leaving date in 1984 – as ‘liberation day!’!) All that said, I thought my later reluctance to push myself forward in the workplace was a generational thing. Ok, a multi-generational thing, but something which was now dying out. Even when this issue came up in 2014, during my conversation with Ann Moir of Brain Sex Matters, I assumed it applied mainly to women of my own age or older.


I was really surprised – I’d go as far as to say shocked! – to read about how young women in the second decade of the 21st century are still struggling with the conflict summed up by my favourite set of mixed-up Mummisms: ‘If you don’t ask, you don’t get – and if you don’t ask, you don’t want!’ but ‘Good girls don’t ask!’ In fact, it’s quite possible that girls growing up today face an even bigger challenge than any of their predecessors. The assumption is that they’re all supremely confident and comfortable in their own skin. Some are, of course; but for those who aren’t, the gap between expectation and reality is wider than it’s ever been.


In ‘Too many girls held back by inner criticHelen Fraser (Head of the Girls’ Day School Trust) says she has ‘worried away’ at why, so often, girls who are confident and successful at school don’t go on to reflect that in their professional careers. She believes it’s due, in part at least, to what happens during their education: ‘Schools should encourage girls to be adventurous risk-takers, rather than “quiet, neat, good girls”’, she says. She also talks about the 21st century pressure to be ‘perfect’ – at everything from academia to friendship.


My research tells me that’s boosted by the ability to appear perfect online. My experience tells me that pressure started building over three decades ago – an impression borne out by some of the contributions to: ‘Tips for success: Eleven ways to silence your inner critic’. No-one judges a woman more harshly than another woman – and the harshest of them all is the other woman who lives in her head! As Helen Fraser points out: ‘We need to persuade girls to challenge that inner critic that judges you, tells you you’re not good enough, that your ideas aren’t worth hearing’.


Those of us who are employers or potential employers can play our part in that, by establishing a collaborative, rather than a competitive culture. The business case for this approach is clear: The pressure of constant competition, of always having to fight your way through the crush and shout to be heard, has a negative impact on a range of people.


Earlier this week, I watched a TED talk by Brian Little, about the joys (and otherwise!) of being an introvert. For the perspective of an introverted woman, check out Susan Cain’s TED talk. Then there are those who go beyond introversion, to painful shyness. We can draw all these and other diverse individuals, from different tribes, into a single tribe. We do it by creating a workplace environment where everyone, male or female, introvert or extrovert, confident or shy, feels safe to express themselves – because they know they’ll be listened to. That gives us the opportunity to tap into the full breadth and depth of ideas and talent at our disposal – and the full depth and breadth of our potential customer/client base – all of which translates into a healthier bottom line.


If you want scientific evidence, have a look at: ‘Moral Markets’ By Paul Zak et al. Yes, there are lots of aspects to creating that kind of culture, from the physical to the virtual; but the good news is that it’s really easy to get started.


We just have to forget Brexit long enough to agree on one thing: ‘Vive la difference!’ The next step is just as simple – we need to take a break from trying to be heard and start listening. I’ve just got off the phone with the boss of a large national public body. After years of struggling with that concept they are, at last, taking it on board – and if they can do it, believe me, you and I certainly can!


In that spirit, if you have any:

  • Questions
  • Comments or
  • Communication issues to discuss


come and talk to me! All the details are, as ever, on the website.

In two minds? – reason versus emotion in decision-making

22 Jun

Here in the UK, the day is almost upon us when we have to answer one of the most important questions to face us in decades. I am, of course, talking about the EU referendum – should we stay, or should we go?


A recent poll suggested that 46% would vote ‘leave’; 41% would vote ‘remain’; and 11% were still undecided. (Presumably, the other 2% weren’t going to vote at all?). Those numbers surprised me slightly – especially the 11% still sitting on the fence – because almost everyone I’ve spoken to about this has said something like: ‘I still have no idea which way to go!’ I have to say, I’m on that fence with them.


Over the last month or so, although I’ve read, listened to and watched a lot of the campaigning by both sides, I’m still no closer to knowing where my pen will land! To be really honest with you, I probably change my mind at least once a day!


A decision of this magnitude should be based on hard facts. The trouble is that in among all the propaganda and personalities, real, hard facts are very difficult to come by – simply because, whatever the result, no-one really knows what happens next. If you’re planning to vote and you consider yourself politically engaged, you’d probably like to think your choice will be based on a firm foundation, such as economics. I know I would – although I suspect that for many of us, it’ll come down to a question of personality – who we trust – and who we don’t trust.


In the past week alone, I’ve spoken to one person who said ‘I’m voting to leave – because David Cameron wants to stay!’, and someone else who said, ‘There’s no way I’m voting the same way as Boris Johnson!’ This takes us back to the fundamentally tribal nature of human life – even 21st century human life in the Western world! This sort of decision is based – much more than most of us would like to admit – on who we consider to be ‘one of us’ and ‘one of them’ – which tribe we belong to, or want to belong to.


Two books touch on this issue, from two very different angles. In ‘The Moral MoleculePaul Zak takes us through his research into Oxytosin (mentioned by Graham Music in Part 3 of Programme 2) Professor Zak has shown consistently that this humble little hormone can have quite profound effects on our levels of trust and trustworthiness.


In ‘Thinking Fast and SlowDaniel Kahneman focuses on risk assessment and decision-making. This is quite a challenging read, because it forces us to rethink the balance we believe we strike, between reason and intuition. For instance, it seems that even the most sophisticated of us are inclined to prefer plausibility to probability; and when presented with a difficult question, such as: ‘Which of two investments should I make? We’re very likely to substitute an easier one, along the lines of: ‘Which option do I like best?’ And you thought it was only politicians who answered the question they wish they’d been asked? – me too!


If you’re involved in sales and marketing at any level, of course, you’ll appreciate the importance of emotion in decision-making. The most memorable demonstration of that power I’ve ever seen was in a TV show: ‘The Brain, with David Eagleman’. In one episode, we met a woman who had suffered a brain injury. She was still a bright, articulate lady, but the connections within her brain which had allowed rationality and emotion to communicate were broken. As a result, she struggled with even the most mundane decision – such as which cleaning product to buy at the supermarket. When faced with an array of basically the same thing under several different brand labels, she dissolved into tears because – ‘there’s just too much choice!’ Without the emotional cues the rest of us rely on (often without knowing it), the task of having to pick one was overwhelming!


Getting back to the upcoming referendum(as everything in the UK has tended to do for months!), it’s been suggested that if I really don’t know which way to vote, I should abstain; but that feels like cheating. Mind you, it does mean that if the ultimate decision turns out to be wrong, I can always say: ‘I knew it!’ Our ability to redesign past beliefs to fit around present knowledge is something else Daniel Kahneman looks at in his book – and it’s something we’ll look at in the next programme, on memory.


On that subject: the contributor I was hoping to secure was David Eagleman (mentioned earlier). Unfortunately, he just doesn’t have the time. Ironically, the topic I wanted him to contribute to was time perception … Perhaps equally ironically, we might be able to indulge in a little digital time travel to get him on the show after all – more of which when I’m sure.


In the meantime, as always, if you have any:

  • Questions
  • Comments or
  • Communication issues to chat through come and talk to me!


All the details are on the website.

Driving with the Invisible Man or Woman – the risks of conversations with unseen passengers

16 Jun

First, a quick update on the next show. I’m trying to secure one more new contributor. I can’t tell you who he is at the moment, but if I get him, I think it’ll be worth the delay. If I can’t get him for the show, I still hope to get an interview with him at some stage – to go into our new audio library, which we’re currently busy creating in preparation for a nice shiny new website. I’ll keep you posted on both as we make progress. So to this week’s topic – which actually takes us back to the last programme.


In Part 1, with the help of my guests I looked at the ‘multi-tasking myth’; in Part 2, I took the investigation into the specific area of ‘inattentional blindness’; and in Part 5, I outlined the concept of ‘visual listening’ – using our visual imaginations to enhance and enrich conversations with people we can’t physically see.


Last week, the results of a study carried out at The University of Sussex backed up the conclusions reached in that show – that listening visually is a powerful tool. As with everything in life, though, there’s a time and a place for it. Researchers found that when a conversation sparks a driver’s visual imagination – which can happen in response to a question as apparently banal as ‘Where did you leave the blue file?’ – talking on a hands-free phone is as distracting as using a hand-held mobile.


In the last show, Michael Proulx of the University of Bath pointed out that ‘we have a finite amount of attention’ and visualising as we listen takes some of those limited resources away from what’s happening immediately in front of us. In a safe, static setting, like the office, shifting focus from, say, the computer screen to the person on the phone is a very positive thing.


On the road, the positive can easily become a negative, because it sets up a conflict between two demanding tasks – watching the traffic and picturing the expressions etc of an unseen person. So what about conversations with visible people – others in the car? Well, the difference there is that generally, an adult passenger can see what the driver is seeing and respond quickly. I can tell you from personal experience that even if you can’t see the road ahead very clearly, you can still pick up on cues inside the car, from changes in the driver’s focus to the movement of the car itself.


Someone who is sitting comfortably somewhere – or possibly dealing with distractions in their own immediate environment – can’t see what’s happening and (unless they are themselves highly skilled in visual listening) may well not pick up on other subtle clues. Distracted drivers tend to experience a kind of inattentional tunnel vision.


The Sussex researchers found that those engaged in conversations with invisible people were inclined to focus their eyes on a small central field ahead of them, so missing hazards their peripheral vision should have picked up. The press release quotes one of the researchers, Dr Graham Hole, as saying: ‘Conversations are more visual than we might expect, leading drivers to ignore parts of the outside world in favour of their inner “visual world” – with concerning implications for road safety.’ I’d suggest those implications go beyond the car – and even beyond conversations.


People on foot pose similar issues to ‘podestrians’ (described in the last programme by Julian Treasure of The Sound Agency); and as Daniel Kahneman illustrates in his book: ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’ even completely internal mental effort on an unrelated problem can impair performance of a cognitively demanding task (like dealing with road or pavement hazards).


All this reinforces my own conviction that ‘intelligent communication’ is about so much more than the intellectual content of our conversations. At least as important is our level of understanding of our natural resources and our ability to allocate them intelligently. That includes appreciating that the twenty-first century ‘anywhere, any time’ approach to interaction has its place – but in the wrong place, at the wrong time, it creates costs rather than benefits.


We’ll come back to this when we start talking about the next show properly. In the meantime, as always, if you have any:

  • Questions
  • Comments or
  • Communication issues you’d like to chat through


come and talk to me! All the details are on the website

‘Does Home Working Work for You?’ – re National Work from Home Day, Friday 20th May 2016

25 May

Where were you last Friday – 20th May? No, I’m not trying to get too personal! I’m just wondering whether you took part in National Work From Home Day?


To mark the occasion, the TUC released a piece of analysis showing that home working is on the increase. 241,000 more people regularly worked from home in 2015 than in 2005. That’s a rise of 19%. Around 4,000,000 more would like to follow suit, but their employers haven’t caught up with the trend. The TUC press release outlines the benefits, including:

  • Costs and time saved on the commute
  • Greater control over working hours, and
  • More flexibility to fit around caring responsibilities.


As I sit here in my home office, I can’t argue with any of those. My commute along the landing this morning took less than ten seconds and cost me absolutely nothing! I’m at my best early in the morning, so I generally start around 7AM. That also enables me to take breaks during the day, to look after my Mum, who’s eighty-nine and disabled.


On that last point, though, I think it’s worth sounding a few notes of caution. For those of us with children, aging parents or other dependents, the idea of home working has obvious attractions. Sometimes, it’s the only way even to have a hope of balancing all our conflicting responsibilities; but that doesn’t mean it’s always the easy option. I discovered that, to my cost, in my first year in business, back in 2004. I soon realised that setting my own hours and sticking to them was much easier said than done. Friends and family got the idea that because I was working at home, I was always available – they could pick up the phone or drop in whenever they liked and I could down tools and put the kettle on.


After my sister moved to Wales, later that year, she could never quite grasp why I couldn’t drop everything and head up there for a visit every few weeks or so! No, I’m not blaming everyone else – I was quite often guilty of, shall we say, too much flexibility? – allowing a ‘quick phone-call’ to last an hour, or stopping for a ‘quick coffee’ with an unexpected visitor – who was still there two hours later! The truth is that if you’re home alone, it can get pretty lonely – and if other people are around, there are inevitable distractions. Yes, there are distractions in an office etc, but it’s a work environment, so most interruptions are likely to be work-related – and those which aren’t just provide a bit of light relief. At home, the opposite is true.


Last time, I was talking about Luke Johnson’s discussion of the work/life balance (or juggling act!) in his ‘Animal Spirits’ column in The Sunday Times. He was looking at the issue of bringing work – especially workplace attitudes – home. I can tell you from experience, that’s an even bigger challenge when your workplace is your home.


On my home working days, I often have to switch between professional and personal modes very quickly. One minute I’m focused on competing for a new job – and the next, I have to push that aside and become a patient, empathic carer. Then the phone rings – and I somehow have to get out of the kid gloves and into the professional hat as I answer it! No, I don’t always manage a smooth transition.


As I’ve said before, people don’t come with on/off switches – and nor are we fitted with easily adjustable settings! These days, I do have a system; a routine; and when it works, everything flows along quite nicely – but when it doesn’t, it’s all too easy to become overwhelmed – for the already blurred lines between work and personal life to merge completely.


I have learnt a few tricks over the last twelve years, though. For instance: I make sure I don’t work at home every day – I need the buzz of the office sometimes. When I’m at home, I dress for work – silly as it may sound, I’m a lot less productive in my pyjamas! and I’ve replaced the commute with exercise. Speaking of which, must run – I’ve got a cross-trainer to catch!


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