Heading back into the office again?

Another Monday rolls by, only my third one in the office since March, six months ago. Working from home was quickly becoming part of the new normal, but I’m not so sure now.

Bosses are doing weird things to get people back in the officeWired UK
A private ride to work is a luxury for Cameron, who has cycled in the past but normally commutes by train. When Advent started discussions on reopening its London office, Cameron found herself in a predicament: while she craved the human interactions of the office, she was unwilling to ride public transport for fear of catching the virus. She was also wary of becoming infected in the workplace. Along with many of her colleagues, she decided it was safer to stay home.

This month, she changed her mind when the company sent an email to all 102 employees at the London office offering to cover the cost of taxis for them to attend the office for team meetings but not the regular day-to-day commute. Advent also provides fortnightly home-testing kits, and requires employees to have tested negative within the past two weeks to be eligible for entry.

The work from home backlash is upon usWealth of Common Sense
In March, many companies were forced into a work from home situation whether they wanted to or not. Considering there were no meetings, planning or upfront technology investments made leading up to that shift, it has gone better than most employees or employers could have dreamed. But there are bound to be growing pains in the months and years ahead as companies decide how to integrate what they’ve learned over the past 6 months. This transition is not going to be as smooth as many people think.

I think “growing pains” slightly undersells the issue somewhat.

Why airlines, cities, and Starbucks need remote workers back at the officeMarker
But now, suggests MIT economist David Autor in a paper last month, the office economy is under threat. The pandemic, he and his co-author, Elisabeth Reynolds, a lecturer at MIT, write, has made a permanent shift to remote work for a large part of the office workforce a near certainty. And with that, tens of thousands of workers in the office support economy — those who “feed, transport, clothe, entertain, and shelter people when they are not in their own homes” — will lose their jobs.

As we’ve seen before, it’s easier for some more than others.

Americans stayed inside even as cities and states reopenedBloomberg
In some cases, the ability to stay home was tied to income. More than 70% of households earning more than $100,000 said they were able to substitute telecommuting for some in-person work. By comparison, only 27% of households with annual incomes under $75,000 said someone in their home was able to telecommute.

And some companies seem more supportive than others.

Netflix’s Reed Hastings deems remote work ‘a pure negative’WSJ
WSJ: It’s been anticipated that many companies will shift to a work-from-home approach for many employees even after the Covid-19 crisis. What do you think? Mr. Hastings: If I had to guess, the five-day workweek will become four days in the office while one day is virtual from home. I’d bet that’s where a lot of companies end up.

WSJ: Do you have a date in mind for when your workforce returns to the office? Mr. Hastings: Twelve hours after a vaccine is approved.

Update: 22/09/2020

OK, never mind all that, as you were.

Work from home if you can, says Gove in government U-turnThe Guardian
The public in England will once again be asked to work from home if they can, Michael Gove has said, signalling a U-turn in government advice to combat the spread of coronavirus that he said could help “avert the need for more serious action in the future”. […]

The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, suggested in a speech on Tuesday that if a second lockdown was necessary it would be “a sign of government failure, not an act of God”. Saying that Boris Johnson has had “months to prepare for this, Starmer added that a new lockdown “would take an immense toll on people’s physical and mental health and on the economy”.

Back to work, or hit the beach

We’re being encouraged to return to our offices, as everything’s fine now, apparently.

‘Stay at home’ message ditched as Gove urges more people to go back to workSky News
Speaking to Sky News’ Sophy Ridge On Sunday programme, Mr Gove said: “We want to see more people back at work, on the shop floor, in the office, wherever they can be. Of course in some cases it is appropriate and convenient for people to work from home, but we want to make sure that where people can add value, where the economy can benefit from people being at work, that they are at work.

England to make masks mandatory in shopsFinancial Times
Government guidance on face coverings has been contradictory in recent days, with Cabinet Office minister Michael Gove saying on Sunday they should not become mandatory in English shops. There has also been confusion over advice to workplaces after ministers on Monday encouraged office staff to return to work where possible, although the official government guidance — which is for people to work from home if possible — has not changed.

So are you back in the office yet, or are you still dialling in from home? If the latter, this free e-book might help.

Take control of working from home temporarilyTake Control Books
We’re in a time of unprecedented uncertainty. In the middle of a global viral outbreak, you were told or asked to work from home—and you’ve never or rarely had to be productive where you live before. What to do? We’re here to take some stress out of your life with a new, free book that details how to set up a home office and balance work and home life for those not accustomed to it.

Perhaps you don’t intend to go back to the office full time.

Is the five-day office week over?The New York Times
“You should never be thinking about full time or zero time,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economics professor at Stanford whose research has identified causal links between remote work and employee performance. “I’m a firm believer in post-Covid half time in the office.”

According to a new survey by Morning Consult, 47 percent of those working remotely say that once it’s safe to return to work, their ideal arrangement would be to continue working from home one to four days a week. Forty percent would work from home every day, and just 14 percent would return to the office every day.

Or even back to the office at all.

If you can work remotely, Barbados want you to come and stay for a yearBoing Boing
The Caribbean island nation of Barbados is issuing 12-month “Barbados Welcome Stamps” as an incentive for people to come and work remotely. Prime Minister Mia Amor Mottley said people can “come and work from here overseas, digitally so, so that persons don’t need to remain in the countries in which they are.”

Sounds interesting.

Great interest in 12-month Welcome StampBarbados Government Information Service
Ms. Mottley said: “COVID-19 has presented tremendous challenges to those countries that are tourism and travel dependent and we have reached a position where we recognize that part of the challenge relates to short term travel …. So, if we can have a mechanism that allows people who want to…take advantage of being in a different part of the world, of the sun, sea and sand, and … a stable society; one that functions well, then Barbados is a perfect place for you to come.

“Rather than coming for the usual week, or three weeks or a month, why not plan out your business, given the fact that all we have gotten from COVID-19 is uncertainty. So, we can give you certainty for the next 12 months … and you can work from here.”

A calmer way of working

It seems we’re all having to get to grips with remote working now, in attempts to flatten that curve. Might these new ways of working stay with us, once all this is over? Why was I going in the office in the first place?

Could remote working be the future of work?TechRadar
Having a flexible lifestyle is clearly the most popular benefit from remote working – named by more than half of our survey – while almost four in ten say the main advantage is not having to commute. Less predictably, perhaps, more than a one third said the best thing about being a remote worker was that they actually saved money – this was a bigger deal for them than either being able to care for their family and elderly relatives, or reducing their overall stress levels.

Covid-19 could cause permanent shift towards home workingThe Guardian
“This is not how I envisioned the distributed work revolution taking hold,” said Matt Mullenweg, chief executive of WordPress and Tumblr owner Automattic. Mullenweg’s company is already “distributed”, and he predicts the changes “might also offer an opportunity for many companies to finally build a culture that allows long-overdue work flexibility. Millions of people will get the chance to experience days without long commutes, or the harsh inflexibility of not being able to stay close to home when a family member is sick… This might be a chance for a great reset in terms of how we work,” he said.

Others are less sure.

Will coronavirus spur a traffic-solving remote-work revolution? Don’t count on itThe Mercury News
But Goodwin cautioned that the notion this crisis will spur some long-lasting, traffic-solving work-from-home revolution is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s based on what is almost certainly a faulty premise: That the Bay Area we will eventually return to whenever and however this crisis subsides will look much like it did before efforts to contain the virus began significantly disrupting public life earlier this month.

Since then, thousands of people have lost their jobs or seen their work hours cut as stay-at-home orders force all but essential businesses to close. The stock market is tanking, and experts warn we’re probably headed into a recession. When the economy is good, more people are driving to jobs and traffic tends to be worse; when it’s bad, fewer people drive to work and highways are clearer.

Might it depend on how comfortable you are with the technology you’re using? Here’s a vision of the future I find quite intriguing, though perhaps not very easily implementable. Calm technology. Another attempt at digital wellness and a more tactile version of Microsoft’s pictures under glass?

Welcome to the new age of calm technologyAdobe XD Ideas
Rolston has spent his career thinking about how to bring Weiser and Brown’s idea of calm technology to life. In 2016, his team showed off a prototype for a project called “Interactive Light,” that reimagined a room as an interactive workspace. A projector cast light onto a desk while a Microsoft Kinect monitored motion. Suddenly you could use gestures to transform the objects in a room into an interface (a salt shaker might become a remote control for your speaker; the countertop could turn into your screen), and the computer would surface whatever tool you needed based on the context of where you were and what you were doing.

The concept, while just a prototype, was a playful example of the ubiquitous computing ideas coming out of PARC two decades ago. It made the interface accessible yet more or less invisible. It explored, rather literally, how once the world is overlaid with computational power that can anticipate our needs, we can finally forget the computer is there.

Desk danger!

We all do it. We all know we shouldn’t. But are we at least allowed to read about the perils of eating lunch at our desks, whilst at our desks during lunch?

Why you really shouldn’t be eating lunch at your deskWired UK
“Often meal breaks are a time where you are able to refresh your attention,” says André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at Cass Business School in London. “If you don’t take a break in which you go away from your actual place where you’re working, you’re not able to get a boost in attention. Meal breaks basically allow us a productivity refresh.” […]

“If you eat at your desk when you’re distracted through working and you’re not giving yourself a proper lunch break, then the food you eat doesn’t fill you up as much,” she says. “You don’t remember that you have eaten in the same way, and you don’t code food in the same way. You’re more likely to feel hungry in the afternoon and then eat more.”

A drop in productivity (heaven forbid!) isn’t the only worry. But help is at hand.

Oh crumbs! Hope of an end to food in keyboardsThe Times
Forget about fingerprint readers, retinal displays or edge-to-edge screens. There is one innovation that computer users have been waiting for since the first office worker decided to eat at their desk, and it could soon be here: crumb-proof keyboards.

Apple patents world’s first crumb-proof keyboardThe Independent
The filing suggests a number of ways in which the problem might be eradicated, discussing the application of gaskets, brushes, wipers and flaps to block gaps, the installation of a membrane beneath each key and even a “bellows” effect in which each key stroke forces air through the board, pushing irksome crumbs out.

Alternatively.

Eating lunch at your desk again?

Some fun videos from YouTuber omozoc, in the style of PES.

Stop motion cooking tutorials by Omozoc transform sporting goods and electronics into unconventional meals
A baseball glove becomes the bun of a strangely enticing hot dog, while a cracked-open computer mouse makes an unusual batch of scrambled eggs on the top of an open copy machine.

Keyboard crasher’s lunch

Don’t just sit there

I blogged ages ago about Colin McSwiggen’s loathing of chairs: “Not only are chairs a health hazard, they also have a problematic history that has inextricably tied them to our culture of status-obsessed individualism.”

According to Guardian, they’re going to be the death of us.

Sit less and move more to reduce risk of early death, study says
Previous research from the same team found people should move at least every 30 minutes to reduce the chance of premature death, but now the researchers say simply breaking up sedentary periods is not enough – overall time spent seated must be cut to lower the risk.

Here’s the Independent’s write-up of that previous research from 2017.

Desk jobs double the risk of premature death, finds new study
Whether you sit down all day long or prefer to put you feet up periodically, racking up prolonged inactive time increases your risk of early death, according to a study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

I like to go for a walk during my lunch break, but what about those of us tied to our desks all day? Not a problem!

I’m old, sedentary and slouch a lot – will standing up at my desk help me live longer?
The posture and physical ergonomics need fine-tuning. I have got my screen balancing on one pile of books, keyboard on another, mouse on a third. I’m going to find out who’s in charge of desks, and then I’m going to actually physically go and see them about getting one of those proper standy-uppy ones. Don’t forget that movement, remember?

But this is just about what it’s like to not sit down all day. And, you know what? It’s really not so hard. A touch of the museum/art gallery squirms creep in after two hours. But I’m finding I can shake them off by thinking of all the extra time I’ll be getting at the end.

Or you could try some of these exercises from the oddly-named Art of Manliness website.

7 simple exercises that undo the damage of sitting
These dynamic stretches and exercises are designed for loosening tight hips that come from sitting too much. I try to incorporate a few of them in my daily workout warm-ups or even sneak some in when I’m hanging out with the kids (who think their dad is pretty odd). Every now and then I also dedicate an hour on Saturdays to just hip and glute work, along with some intense foam rolling.

I don’t know what that means.

If you’re really tight, take it nice and easy. As physical therapist Kelly Starrett says, “Don’t go into the pain cave. Your animal totem won’t be there to help you.”

I don’t know what that means, either. But I like the illustrations, so why not give it a go?

dont-just-sit-there-1

Cutting out distractions

Do you get easily distracted?

Screen blocking glasses
IRL Glasses are the answer to screen overload and digital fatigue, putting people back in the driver’s seat to control when and how they interact with screens. Wearing IRL Glasses makes screens that are “on” look like they are “off.”

cutting-out-distractions-1

Or perhaps you’re looking for something for the office?

Open offices have driven Panasonic to make horse blinders for humans
At what point do we just give up and admit we’re living in exactly the dystopian nightmare speculative fiction warned us about? It probably ought to be these horse blinders for people, which look like something straight out of a Terry Gilliam movie.

cutting-out-distractions-3

Or how about something more … Halloweeny?

This vintage anti-distraction helmet looks like a creepy horror show prop
Distractions are all around us, whether it’s ambient noise or the colorful items around you, and it’s sometimes extremely difficult to concentrate on the task you need to finish. A 1920’s anti-distraction helmet, known as the Isolator, was invented to address this issue.

cutting-out-distractions-2

Typewriters to the rescue

I’m not sure it’s a scalable or long-term solution, but it’s good to see these machines being useful again.

Town dusts off typewriters after cyber-attack
Government workers in a borough of Alaska have turned to typewriters to do their jobs, after ransomware infected their computer systems. A spokeswoman for Matanuska-Susitna said the malware had encrypted its email server, internal systems and disaster recovery servers. She said staff had “resourcefully” dusted off typewriters and were writing receipts by hand.

It’s such a horrible problem though, isn’t it? According to the IT Director’s report, the most likely method of delivery was via an email with a link to an infected website. I would hate to be that person right now.

The fabulous future of work awaits

Following on from that article about what it might be like to work until we’re 100, here’s another example of over-optimistic, blue-sky, work-based astrology, this time from Liselotte Lyngsø, a futurist from the Copenhagen-based consultancy Future Navigator.

This is what work will look like in 2100
Human potential, according to Lyngsø, is not best cultivated in today’s workplace structure, and many of the changes she predicts revolve around the ongoing effort to maximize the abilities of individuals. To that end, many of today’s workplace structures, such as the 9-to-5 workday, traditional offices, rigid hierarchies, and the very concept of retirement will change dramatically.

“I don’t think we’ll have work hours like we used to. Likewise I think we’ll replace retirement with breaks where we reorient and retrain, where the borders [of work] are blurred,” she says. “It’s also about creating a sustainable lifestyle so you don’t burn out, and you can keep working for longer.”

Oh great, thanks.

Can’t stop, won’t stop

I’ve mentioned before that, when it comes to our time here, we don’t get long. But perhaps our lives — and our working lives, especially — will be longer than we think.

What if we have to work until we’re 100?
Retirement is becoming more and more expensive – and future generations may have to abandon the idea altogether. So what kinds of jobs will we do when we’re old and grey? Will we be well enough to work? And will anyone want to employ us?

PDFs will outlive us all

Here’s an interesting piece on what could be quite a dull topic. As we’ve seen before, PDFs have a habit of catching people out, so it makes sense to learn a little more about this ubiquitous file format.

I like the fact that, given that link to Manafort and Trump, the “killer app” may have been tax forms, of all things.

Why the PDF is secretly the world’s most important file format
Basically, every year just before tax season, the IRS would mail out tax forms to hundreds of millions of people around the United States. This annual mailing was, during non-Census years, the largest annual mailing that the postal service had to deal with—around 110 million individual mailings annually, according a 1991 New York Times article. And the IRS, dealing with a complicated tax code, had to manage and deal with a wide variety of exceptions and differing forms, for both businesses and individual taxpayers.

I can’t begin to estimate what their printing and mailing costs were, each year.

“In terms of employee satisfaction alone, Acrobat pays for itself,” an IRS official told Adobe. “Add to that the benefits of easier document administration and less paper storage, and it’s clear that Acrobat and Adobe PDF provide real returns to the agency and the people we serve.”

Clearly there’s some fluff in that quote, but the IRS was very much a microcosm of the business world at large. The PDF, in a very short amount of time, became one of the most important ways business users shared documents.

And you must watch this Adobe Acrobat 1.0 promotional video, from 1993, perfectly describing office life before PDFs and the net. It looks like a parody at first, but I don’t think it is – that’s just how I remember it.

Introducing Adobe Acrobat 1.0

To the stationery cupboard!

A girl named Elastika: an animated adventure in office supplies
Animated by Guillaume Blanchet, this new stop-motion short called A Girl Named Elastica tells the brief story of a girl who leaves her home to adventures around the world. Probably the most notable aspect is the ingenious use of thumbtacks and rubber bands to create the majority of the animation which takes place entirely on a small bulletin board.

I love the holey tracks the pins leave behind on the paper, footprints in the sand, form following function and so on. Interesting play on scale too.