Friday, March 27, 2020

Teleworking - a personal perspective

Back in 2006 I wrote a post on teleworking, working from home. While the post is a little dated, I thought that it was worth re-posting now that so many people are working from home because of covid-19. The challenges now are both more complex (whole families are at home and must be managed too) and a little simpler (organisations have had to adjust willy nilly whether they like it or not). However, some of the points are still valid.  

"Sometimes I wonder why I work so often from home because, frankly, sometimes it sucks! At other times, I wonder why the rest of the world does not rush to do it. So in this article I want to share with you both the pluses and minuses of the teleworking life style, focusing especially on the things required to actually make it work.

To do this, I thought that the best approach would be to focus on some of the challenges that must be overcome if teleworking is to work.

Teleworking: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Teleworker

I have rarely heard loneliness discussed in the context of teleworking. Yet teleworking can be a lonely and isolating experience.

Think of it this way.

In the normal working life, you say goodbye to the family, leave home and go to work. At work you say hi to your co-workers. You sit down and start working. Someone comes up to ask you something. You have a break chatting to colleagues. If, like me, you are still a smoker, then you pop outside to have a smoke often with colleagues. By the end of the day when you come home, you have had hundreds of small personal interactions. Exhausted, you collapse onto the couch in front of the TV and turn into a couch potato.

Contrast this with teleworking. The family leaves. You sit down and spend the rest of day in front of your computer alone. Your only interactions are email traffic and phone calls. At the end of the day your family comes home. You are ready to talk, to interact. They want to unwind, to watch TV.

Now none of this may matter to you. But the point in this story is that if you are a person who does like personal interaction but who wants to telework, then you need to find a way to build personal interaction into your weekly round.

Teleworking: The Need for Discipline

We all require structure in our working lives. In the office this is provided by the routines of daily work. We have to present in a certain way. There are working rules that we must comply with. Often, these things are implicit rather than explicit. But they are always there. We know that they are there and comply without even thinking about it.

At home these rules are all relaxed. Want to dress casually? Do so. Want to want TV? Do so. Weed the garden? Do so. Stay in your pajamas? Do so. Now all this may sound wonderful, but if you are a naturally un-disciplined person like me then you can run into problems. So you need to actively create your own working routines.

In my case, while I normally dress in casual fashion, some days I will put on a suit and tie just to reinforce the fact that I am at work even though I am at home!

Teleworking: Separating Work and Home Life

Going to work creates a natural divide between the home and work environment, a divide lacking for those who work from home. This divide is less than it was simply because the technologies that allow effective teleworking mean that even those working in conventional structures now work increasinglyï¾ at home. But the divide is still important.

The danger for the teleworker in forgetting this divide is that personal and work time can simply blur together, adversely affecting both. When the home and the office are the same, the dividing lines blurred, then it is very easy to start worrying about work matters, about the things that you have not done, during what should be personal time.

In the conventional working environment you generally have to put these worries aside because the office is elsewhere. Somehow, the worries become greater if the office is just down the corridor because you know that you can do something about the outstanding issue just by walking a few places.

Teleworking: Managing Family Expectations

Another linked problem is the need to manage your family's unconscious expectations and reactions to your presence at home. You are there, so you are available to do things that would simply not be possible if you were working elsewhere. Would you mind hanging out the washing? Can you pick me up at such a time? And so on.

Now normally you may be happy to do these things. After all, one of the reasons for teleworking is to give you greater flexibility. But at the end of the day you still have to work so many hours to achieve your targets. And every hour taken out of your normal working day makes that more difficult.

Take my own case as an example. I have a 45 hour weekly time target. This is a real time target, not just elapsed time during the normal working day.

Because of the nature of my work I keep time sheets. When I stop work for whatever reason I log off. So when I pick the girls up from school, tidy up the house so that the cleaners can actually clean, or hang out the washing, all this is dead time from a work perspective. The result is that I find that to achieve my 45 hour target I have to work in the early morning and at at weekends. The family then thinks that I am working excessive hours, that I am always working, when the reality is that I am simply trying to catch up.

Now I am not complaining. The point is that if you want to telework, you have to lay down rules with your family so that they understand that just because you are at home does not mean that you are available for other things. Unless, of course, you wish to be.

Teleworking: Managing Unconscious Work Expectations

Now something of the same type of unconscious expectation applies to the teleworker's work colleagues.

I first came across this problem some years ago when I was working with AT&T preparing their first Australian country plan.

AT&T were in advance of their times in that they were prepared in some cases to allow flexible working arrangements. My direct client, the manager in charge of the project, had been given approval to work from home because she had a new baby. She experienced some real problems because of the unconscious expectation at work that she would in fact be available in the same way as an on-site staff member.

Just to tease this out a little. When people work together, the assumption of almost instant availability is built into the working round. I am working on a problem, an issue comes up, I pop down the corridor or even to the next desk to sort it out. Both formal and informal meetings occur frequently, often at short notice.
Now the gearing of work life to this almost instant availability can be a major problem in the normal office because it can waste a lot of time. For that reason, most time management courses include various ways of minimising the problem. However, It remains a deeply entrenched feature of office life simply because it is so easy and useful.

The off-site teleworker can suffer as a consequence. Bosses and co-workers continue to work as they always have. Because the teleworker is not there, he/she may simply be excluded from relevant meetings. Work and responsibilities flow away from the teleworker to on-site staff. The teleworker becomes isolated and alienated.

In this context, it is not surprising that one area where teleworking has spread successfully is among senior managers and partners in professional services firms because they can control the game to some extent. So long as billings and management tasks are maintained, colleagues and staff have to adjust, to learn how to work with the teleworker.

Ordinary staff do not have this type of power position. The only solution is to ensure that the individual teleworker, his/her managers and the organisation itself work through the issues in advance. As part of this, the teleworker needs to learn how to proactively manage relations with colleagues downwards, sideways and especially up.

Teleworking: When Things Go Wrong

Murphy really was an optimist.

While overseas, burglars stole my wife's new computer. Fortunately, they left the office machines simply because they are older. A few weeks later, my main office machine hit problems requiring a full day to fix. As I write, the fax machine is away being repaired.

The point of these stories is that systems fail. In the conventional organisation, quick back-up including other equipment is usually available, minimising adverse impact. The position for the of-site teleworker is more difficult in that equipment loss or failure brings work to a halt until the problem is rectified.

To avoid unnecessary loss of time, these potential problems need to be addressed up front. This includes the organisation of access to service people, arrangements for replacement equipment if required and the development of protocols in regard to security including just what information can be held on a hard disk.


There is no doubt that teleworking can be of mutual benefit to both employer and employee. However, success requires conscious action by both organisation and individual to ensure best results."

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Armidale Diaries 5 - covid-19: one damn thing after another

Exactly three months since my last Armidale diaries entry. It's been a roller coaster. After drought and fires, the rain came and then corona. In the middle of all this, the local council almost dissolved in a firefight among councillors.

Covid-19 has affected us all. It's been a roller coaster.

Many consider that autumn is the best time in this little city with warmish days and cool nights. Yesterday was a truly gorgeous day, one of those days that support the popular view. I had been caught up in trying to sort things out. Now, stir crazy from being at home, I decided to go down town. There was nothing particular that I needed to do. I just wanted a break, time to reflect, perhaps see some people.

On the way into the council parking lot, I drove past the historical society chambers. I had planned to call in, but it was shut. Memo to self: find out what is happening. I think that we should stay open for drop-ins and if we cannot, I have to find a way of accessing a key to allow me to access the resources there. The more I have to stay at home, the more I should focus on research and writing. However,  reflecting, this raised another issue in my mind.

I am a member of the DE Stevenson discussion group. The generally older members are spread across the Anglosphere, which means that discussion provides an insight into the social impact of Covid-19 in a variety of countries. The night before I had been reading about self-isolation and self-distancing, including the decision by some Los Angeles counties to quarantine the over seventies to their own homes, allowing no external visits except to see the doctor.

Apart from the loss of agency involved, this raises a very particular issue in an Armidale context. Because of city's role as an educational centre, it has a very skewed demographic biased towards the young and old with not so much in the middle. This means, among other things. that the city's social infrastructure is heavily dependent on older people including those over seventy. The middle group don't have the time and are in any case focused on social activities and infrastructure relevant to their specific life position such as school or business groups. Remove older people through rigid self-isolation and you not only increase problems of isolation and mutual support but risk the collapse of the city's social infrastructure.

I found the Cinders Lane car park almost empty, a sign of things to come. I walked down the little side alley between Tattersalls Hotel and Boobooks into an empty mall.

At Boobooks, I got my coffee and chatted. Co-owner Debra said that they were staying open, but were reducing their opening hours. I think that both Boo and Reader's Companion are setting up home delivery too.

Sitting there with my coffee, I reflected on the roller coaster events.

Only ten days ago in COVID 19 Conundrums and failures in communications - a regional perspective (March 11 2020) I provided a personal perspective on the then pattern of events.

I mentioned the way that rumours stepped into the information vacuum. On 15 March I had a reasonably dramatic illustration when a neighbour called in to see how I was. These neighbours have been just so kind to me since I arrived in Armidale. I was spooked when I was told that I needed to be especially carefully because there were eight cases at the University of New England of whom four were in hospital. UNE is just up the road.

I knew the story couldn't be true, for that size outbreak would have attracted media coverage. One of the advantages I have is that I have both connections and my own platform. I then went to Laurie Bullock, Northern Tablelands' editor for ACM to alert him. I didn't think that we should attack the rumour directly, just provide factual information on the current position.

Laurie said that they had heard similar rumours and forwarded my email to UNE who came back to me with advice that there were no cases and also provided a link to UNE's Covid-19 information page. I drafted a form of words, cleared it with UNE and then publicised it as widely as I could. I have to say since then, and I am not claiming responsibility, a lot more factual information has been made available.     

In my 11 March post I also mentioned that we were pushing ahead with the history course I was running.  Within days, we had to shutter the course as Armidale U3A closed down for the duration. Armidale U3A has 650 older members and the risks had become to great.

I am trying to use a combination of emails and Facebook to keep some momentum going. One thing that I had not properly realised here is the patchiness of internet usage. When I checked at our last session, only three internal students were actually on Facebook for example.

One of the biggest problems we all face is the degree of uncertainty.

As I sat at Boobooks, youngest and husband were in self-isolation. Their personal trainer had a client who tested  positive, so the trained was being tested. They had therefore isolated themselves waiting for the results of the test on the trainer.

At the same time, eldest was in the Dominican Republic on holidays. Even as she was flying there the borders started closing. Now the question was could she get home to Copenhagen and would they let her in if she did?

As it happened, even as I was sitting at Boobooks the test of the trainer came back negative, while eldest was able to get onto a charter flight to Denmark arrange by Tui, She is now home with partner. Obviously I am relieved!

From Boobooks I decided to have  lunch at the Bistro on Cinders. I couldn't really afford it, but thought that this might be the last time for a while.

I arrived at 12.30, the only person there. Chatting to the owner, he said that they were closing table service that day. They had set things up so that they could provide takeaway. It's a popular place, but I did wonder how all the places now providing takeaway would survive.

We talked about the new council restrictions. The council is closing library, offices etc from Monday, relying on phone and internet connections. The various cafes in the mall were apparently closing down too. I did wonder how people were going to cope. Each morning just before opening there is a queue of people waiting to enter the library to read the papers, use the computers or just sit reading. For some, this is their main social outlet.

By 1.30, the numbers in the Bistro had increased to half a dozen. I let the conversations wash over me. The new support arrangements for small business are clearly important, as are the conniptions in council.

On the way out, I met a friend that I hadn't seen since my return. Like me an ex-board member of the New England Writers' Centre, her professional role is a graphic designer at UNE. We talked about how well the Centre  was going under the leadership of Sophie Masson and about graphic design at UNE. I also plucked her brains about some of the new software that might help me. It was nice to have a conversation that had little to do with covid-19!

From the Bistro I went down to Coles just to check the shelves. Again the car park was half empty, ditto the store, but while many gaps remained on the shelves it seemed clear that supplies were improving.

In all this, spare a thought for the Asian specialty stores dependent upon imported product. Chatting to the owner of the small convenience store near me that carries a lot of lines from the Sub-continent, he said that sourcing of Indian food had become almost impossible.

I finally got home. My half hour coffee had extended into multiple hours, but I felt better for it!


At this time, this is funny. You need to start at the bottom, day one. Thanks kvd for the tip

Saturday, March 14, 2020

A Shakespearean take on content warnings

This made me giggle. I am sharing it because I thought that it might make you laugh too. we need some humour just at present.

I hadn't heard or freelance cartoonist Rob Murray. He is very good. You will find his website here, his public Facebook page here. 

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

COVID 19 Conundrums and failures in communications - a regional perspective

Vacant toilet paper supermarket shelves 
Sitting here in Armidale I have felt relatively isolated from the Corona virus scare. It's not as though I felt that Armidale would be isolated from the outbreak, although its distance from the metro centres does provide a measure of protection notwithstanding the university and boarding school, the volume of traffic in and out of the city. Rather, I simply didn't join in the panic fueled in part by media coverage and earnest politicians.

I am of an age now where I fit into the highest risk category. Despite that, I felt that the probabilities of catching the virus were still relatively low, while if I did catch it I had a 94% chance of surviving the experience. I am also fairly fatalistic. Beyond taking sensible precautions, I didn't think that there was much I had control over. I also didn't want to destroy my life style, including driving into town (at the moment, the statistical probabilities of being hurt there are higher than my risks of catching the virus) to shop or go to meetings.

Women fighting over toilet paper. Channel 9 News
Given my views, I watched the Great Australian Toilet Roll rush with a degree of bemusement. This emptied the shelves in Australia's supermarkets.

Why toilet paper? It's a product actually produced in Australia. Further, unlike long life foodstuff (another item being stripped from shelves), there are alternatives. I'm not sure that I especially want to go back to  newspaper, this was still around in some country loos when I was a young child; it's very uncomfortable, but there are other alternatives.

My attitude in all this was dinted a bit when I went into an Armidale supermarket and found the toilet paper shelves stripped. Surely, I thought. Armidale people are more sensible than this? I then suddenly realised that the local social media feeds were full of concerns and fears.

I could see the point in the discussion. At a technical medical level, the Australian response has been good. We have a world class health service and our civil institutions are still generally competent. But looking at the various comments I could see that people were concerned about inconsistent messaging, lack of information and a growing feeling of a rolling crisis that left them not knowing what to do. fearful for themselves and their families. The end result is extreme concern flowing into not very sensible responses and reactions.

At a purely local level and regional level, there is a problem too in that the coverage is very metro and state based. You can find out what is happening in Tasmania. it's a state, or in Sydney, its a metro, but Northern NSW is a blank within which rumor flourishes.

The presence of a case in Tamworth was covered before people realised that the Tamworth in question was in the UK. The presence of a case in Newcastle was covered, but only in the Newcastle Herald. The case of the Southern Cross University lecturer who reported positive was covered in the metros, but only because it forced the temporary first closure of university campuses.

As mentioned, rumour steps into this blank. Hunter New England Health has reportedly tested 2,000 people for COVID 19. Why haven't we heard anything about the results? Are they covering something up? London to a brick, the answer is no, but people worry.

Apart from inconsistent messages, the feeling of a rolling crisis is accentuated by the way that ministers keep on jumping ahead of themselves, This is a rolling staged crisis. In focusing so much on what might be done when things get worse, State and Federal Ministers (and the media) are adding to the sense of doom, placing people in the position where they are effectively making decisions on a what-if.

With the growing sense of crisis, people are rushing to get COVID 19 tests whether they need them or not. This has overloaded the health system, leading to official calls to people to exercise restraint, to suggestions that doctors should triage patients to focus on defined high risks categories.

That's fine, but an unwell friend who reported sick was told by her employer that she could not come back to work until she had done a COVID 19 test. She met none of the criteria specified for required testing beyond cold and flue symptoms, You can see the employer's point of view, and in this case working from home is a possibility, but it adds to strain on the health system.

So far there are no COVID 19 cases in Armidale or within a 250 mile radius. There is no point in being tested unless you have travelled or have met someone who has travelled in circumstances where they might have come in contact with the virus. Beyond simple sensible precautions such as hand washing, there is no need to alter your life style.

I am running a history course through U3A with 45 internal students of whom an average of 35 attend each lecture, all in the older higher risk age range. Obviously I have thought about my group, about the implications of COVID 19. If COVID 19 reaches Armidale, we will have to suspend classes. Meantime, it's full steam ahead. 


 Of the many memes going round is this response to the advice that we should avoid touching our faces:


Sunday, March 08, 2020

What is the white supremacist patriarchy?

I have been bogged down here, nose to the grindstone, shoulder to the wheel, on this introductory course on the history of Australia's New England that I am delivering. Yes, I know that this is an anatomically strange combination, but it captures how I feel.

The course itself is going okay. I have 45 internal students (around 35 come on average, which is more comfortable) plus 148 following along via Facebook.

That's not bad for what is, after all, a niche offering. However, the pressure not just of the delivery but the preparation of course ware for 18 lectures and nine discussion groups is very time consuming.

I console myself with the thought that once I am through all this I will not only have the base for future courses but also the structure of my long delayed full history of New England. Meantime, I was cleaning the house this morning preparatory to doing more writing when my attention was caught by an ABC Radio National program, the Minefield.

I may not agree, but I quite like this program because it explores ideas. It is normally presented by Waleed Alyand and Scott Stephens, but this morning it  was presented by Kaye Quek and Meagan Tyler both academics from RMIT in a special edition to mark International Women’s Day,   Program guest was Celeste Liddle, described as an Arrernte woman, feminist, opinion writer, trade unionist and public speaker as guest. The short ABC summary of the program reads:
 The corporate rebranding of International Women’s Day (IWD) couldn’t be further from the day’s revolutionary roots, or any meaningful discussion of women’s liberation. It negates any discussion of the nature of power under patriarchy, and how relations of power between women and men might be genuinely transformed.
During the discussion one of the presenters used the phrase "white supremacist patriarchy". As i listened, I wondered just what this phrase meant in general and in the context of International Women's Day. Clearly the speaker thought that the tag had meaning.

 If we take the individual words, both white and supremacist are adjectives qualifying patriarchy. Patriarchy itself can mean:
  • a system of society or government in which the father or eldest male is head of the family and descent is reckoned through the male line.
  •  a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
  • a society or community organized on patriarchal lines.
There are different elements in these meanings but the core elements from the speaker's perspective appears to be descent and power based on male gender. I suppose that as a factual statement, patriarchy rather than matriarchy  or gender equality (is there an equivalent word for that?) is still the dominant global social mode although there are many shades. The position in Denmark or Finland is different from that holding in Australia or Korea or Japan, still more different from that holding in Saudi Arabia.

White is a slippery term. At one level, it refers to skin shading. However, with the return and rise of racially based (and racist) language over the last fifteen years, "white' has become something of a pejorative racial insult. This is made clear in this case by the attachment of the word supremacist, normally interpreted in this context to mean someone who believes not just in such a thing as the "white race" but in its supremacy over others.

If we combine all this, we appear to have a presenter who appears to believe that:
  • there are patriarchal societies whose core element is that they are white and supremacist
  • and that such societies are a significant problem in the context of International Women's Day.
Subject to correction on the facts, I beg to differ.