The end of the road for remote working?

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An interesting piece in the news today about Yahoo stopping its staff from working remotely.   They are initiating a drive to bring their staff back into the office to aid collaboration and the sharing of ideas.

Having worked in an office environment  for 20 years, then spent the last year working for myself from home, there are pros and cons of both home and office working.  The advent of broadband and mobile computing have made remote working plausible from a technical perspective, but this is only part of the story.

Certainly it is true in some organisations that there is a “presence” culture, which is at odds with flexible working, even though the business may be well aware of the benefits and potential cost savings.   We are very ingrained in this culture, and I have often heard criticism levelled at remote workers who are supposedly not pulling their weight compared to their office-based colleagues   At times of crisis, there is certainly a perception that you are in control of a situation if you are present – even if everything you are doing to address matters could be done from any location.

I have also found working alone at home can be isolating and not productive at times.  Some of the old clichés hold true when working from home – as well as being isolated there are too many other domestic distractions to take your mind off work.  I have found that  working in a cafe where there are other people about (and yes – I am sitting in one as I write this!)  creates enough of a buzz and removes distractions to make me more productive.

Of course there are the many pros to remote working, many in the flexibility it gives.  Many of these are mundane – being able to wait in for the gas man, or take your children to school – but life is made easer for not having to make alternative arrangements.

As is often the case, I suspect the best approach is to be found somewhere in the middle ground.  Giving staff the flexibility to work away from the office can do wonders for morale, loyalty and engagement.  However working in isolation from colleagues and peers can impair the flow of ideas and the building of working relationships in teams.  Yahoo may be trying to stimulate creativity and ideas, but it would be a shame if this came at the expense of ignoring the technological innovations that no longer tie us to the office every day.

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Blurring the boundaries between business and personal social media

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I recently attended a presentation by the research organisation Ovum where they presented  ten “super themes” for IT for the coming year.   I was particularly struck by the interplay between some of these – namely the rise of the “bring your own device” (BYOD) consumerisation of IT, the use of social media in business and the associated risks around information ownership and security.

One area where these themes interlink is in the challenges around using social media for business and personal use.

We are increasingly blurring the boundaries between our personal and business lives in our use of social media platforms.

In the past the distinctions were clearer – we had a LinkedIn account for our business life, and a Facebook account for our personal life.  People would tend to show their business relationships and activities on LinkedIn, but may have a very different network on Facebook and would not necessarily talk about work matters.

The rise in popularity of Twitter as a social media platform that encompasses both the business and personal worlds has blurred these distinctions.  Facebook has matured as an established medium, and increasingly commercial organisations have a Facebook presence.  Virtually every television commercial has a “like us on Facebook” call to action.  LinkedIn now lets you show more personal aspects – such as which books you are currently reading or would recommend.

This blurring has generated debate about whether or not you should have separate “business” and “personal” social media identities, and how you should conduct yourself when using these platforms.

Presenting a combined identity allows you to present a more rounded “human” image of an organisation, which can help in developing better business relationships and help generate business opportunities on the back of being more open.

There are, however, challenges and risks that can arise with combining personal and business identities.  These include:

  • Ensuring a style of language consistent with the business brand is used
  • Guidelines for employees as to how to behave on social media sites
  • Ensuring confidential organisation and client data is not disclosed
  • What knowledge do you allow to be disclosed to showcase your expertise?
  • What happens to social media data when someone leaves an organisation?
  • Who owns what (data, followers, content) and how are these separated?
  • How does the advent of BYOD affect things – if the individual owns their own device steps need to be taken to remove business owned data from their devices and restrict future access when they leave

There have been cases in the news recently which have highlighted disagreements between individuals and organisations over the use of social media, and in particular over ownership and content that has been made public.

Keeping business and personal accounts separate, and at times even blocking access to social media in the workplace is an obvious way to guard against these problems, and is an approach which many businesses have chosen to date.  However with younger generations entering the workplace who have grown up using these platforms, combined with a drive towards single devices of their own choosing, their expectation is to have a single identity for both their work and personal lives.

It is possible for businesses to support and encourage the single identity model.

Rules, guidance and training need to be put in place to ensure that any potential issues about the use of social media platforms are headed off in advance.

It is crucial the organisations and employees understand and appreciate the challenges and risks associated.  This knowledge needs to be supported by good guidelines and training in organisations, so that employees understand the rules they need to follow when talking about their employing organisation on social media platforms.    IT leaders need to collaborate with their colleagues in HR and other management functions to help them understand the risks around using social media platforms.

My view is that it is better to have a single account that conveys a rounded picture of the individual.  I have found in my own experience it helps when meeting people for the first time face-to-face I feel that I know a little about them which helps break the ice and develop a good relationship, and that this works both ways.  I have been pleasantly surprised when first meeting someone as to some of the good things they say about my tweets!

The use of guidelines and training should ensure that employees can feel encouraged to use social media to enhance their business communications, and organisations are fully aware of the risks and have appropriate procedures in place to mitigate them.

Changing how IT is taught in schools

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The British Government has announced it intends to change the way that IT is taught in schools (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-16493929).   They want to change the emphasis away from teaching children how to use software packages, and to include elements of programming and software development.

This made me think back to the way IT was taught when I was in school and later at university.  Bear with me – this was back in the late ’80s when IT was still a new subject.  I can’t speak about the current IT provision in schools, but looking back at my own education and experience in the world of work I can see some important themes that I think need to be included in any change in the way IT is taught.

Open to all – when I was at school, IT was only on offer to those who were in the top set for mathematics.  Whilst I can see the thinking behind this, there’s a danger that some pupils with an aptitude for IT who aren’t so strong at maths may be left out.  I know access to IT in schools is much greater now than 20-odd years ago, but it  needs to not be seen as a niche subject.

Quality of teaching – possibly the most important element.  I remember my first lesson of my Computer Studies “A” Level (where I was the only student).  My teacher starting with “well you’ve not learnt this, and I’ve never taught it” didn’t fill me with much confidence.  Good, knowledgeable, enthusiastic teachers are invaluable in any subject, and very much so here if pupils are to not only learn but develop an enthusiasm for the subject.  There’s also the challenge of keeping the subject matter up-to-date, but a lot of the basics haven’t changed.

Teamwork – one of the best parts of my Software Engineering degree was a team project.  We had to work in a team of four to develop different aspects of a “Windows” type operating system.  This taught us not only about working as a team, but also about the importance of writing modular software that could interface with other software systems written by others.

I think broadly the announcement is good news.  There’s little mileage in just teaching kids how to use PowerPoint or Excel (although there’s no denying these are useful skills).  I think pupils should be challenged and taught to develop software in a collaborative way – this can only benefit both them and the business they will go on to create or work for in the future.