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Archive for the ‘The Monday Musings Column’ Category

on working from home


For me the current passion for working from home worries me and I have enough experience of it, going back as far as the early 1980s, to think that I might have a point.

My first experience of working from home as an employee of a large corporation was back in 1982. I worked in London which was a three hour round trip commute away, and, for six weeks, was assigned to work with a supplier based on stop up the railway line from home. Because of issues of commercial confidentiality the supplier did not want me on site more that necessary and so I worked from home.

It was a nightmare in many ways. My wife felt that my presence meant that she could just talk to me whenever a thought entered her head and the inevitable list of garden and household jobs was right there under my nose; “I’ll just take a break and mow the lawn” type of thing. Yes, I did get all of the work that I was being paid for done, but, in general, I hated it and the one lesson that I did learn was that I could use the opportunity to time shift, that is to take an hour off for some DIY during the day and make time up in the evening for example.

Of course that was pre-internet and mobile ‘phones. Im did have a portable typewriter that I used for some reports, but a lot of my written work was done longhand and forwarded to the typing pool (remember them anyone?) at the office.

Later I became an early adopter for working from home when office space was at a premium and I was working all over the UK. By then I was on my second marriage, there were no children at home and I had a wife who understood that there were times when I needed to be left alone. Again I often did personal stuff during the day and work at night, but y then I was a fully equipped road carrier with cell ‘phone and GPRS equipped laptop.

Around the mid 1990s some of the implications of remote working were coming to the fore as it became more common and a working party was set up to look at the pros and cons as well as to try and draft some good practice notes along with a company policy. One of the key issues that came out of that was the employer’s liability. There is a duty of care and whilst we had all of the necessary workstation and VDU stuff in place for employees in the workplace, how did you cope with people working, unsupervised, from home off the dining table or with the laptop on their lap as they sprawl on the sofa? You can moan all you like about jobsworth H&S people, and I do, but the law is the law and their are people queuing up for big scalps.

The other big issue about working from home, for the employee and employer, is the lack of dynamics that you get when people are collected in one place. There is a lot to be gained from teams being together and the interchanges with others in those water cooler moments. Scatter the buggers all around the country and you have lost that. I don’t know how you measure it, but, over time, you will miss it. As a team leader you get a lot from seeing your people in action, it speaks volumes and helps to pick the real stars from the poseurs. Yes, you can judge on results alone, but, if you do, you will promote the wrong people too often.

Looking at working from home from the customer perspective it is already apparent to me that there are times when it is just not working well enough. This may just be due to policies and procedures combined with technology issues, but it has been a lot harder to get problems solved since lockdown started. Take one of my clients who has three times had the wrong item picked and shipped. Every time the supplier has made exactly the same mistake, but each time customer service have been called the person responding has been working from home and unable to do anything other than to tell my client how to return the item for a credit. At no time have either of us been able to speak to anyone who is actually there to try and resolve the problem. In the end we bought the item direct from the US and they got it right first time.

For some sectors there is no excuse for continuing to allow working from home now. The Civil Service being one; that large chunks of them are apparently working from home still is a scandal. Remote working in various forms is a viable tool in this day and age for the right jobs, sales teams being a classic example, but for much of what used to go on in the office we need to see people back and their desks. Working in a mask is a pain, but I do it as do many others.

We are in a time of great change and need to adapt. It may be that some businesses will feel that they can allow more people to work from home and will come up with policies and practices that work for them. If they can make it work then fine, but I think that, for now, we need to see a lot more bums on their original office seats.

PS: If you are working from home have a search through the old posts here for my top tips for home workers.

on control


There is a lot of talk about loss of freedom at the moment. We are, globally, living in a time when there have to be restrictions and, for many people, we are just not used to that. There is a perception that we have lost control of our own destiny because we are being told what we can and can’t do.

I will keep my remarks here about life in the UK for no other reason than that, for obvious reasons, I have not been anywhere else since life changed back in March 2019. We have it pretty good here which is why so many people from other countries want to come here, and talking to a colleague from one of the former Soviet Bloc countries I was told how they had needed a permit to go from the side of town where they lived to the one that they worked in. Just imagine how that would have gone down here. Yet the Covid regulations (for want of a better term) have, in some ways, not been that far removed and there has been acceptance from some and howls of protest from others.

Over eighteen months we have had to have levels of control imposed and there has been a level of fear across us too. This is a silent and invisible killer, the stuff of science fiction. To all intents and purposes we are at war and it grinds you down. Mental health was an emergent problem in any case, but has become more of an issue as we face up to this modern day plague.

Something that I learned in my business life was that I needed to focus my attention on certain areas as a time management issue more than anything. To get the best out of the 60-70 hours I was putting in each week I had to focus on what I could deal with and one of the tools that I would use is the Eisenhower Matrix. I won’t go Ito that here, just run it through your search engine of choice if you are not familiar with it, but the basic principle is in prioritising tasks.

One of the benefits of this type of technique is that you get things done. I used to say that there were times when I couldn’t get my head out of the trench for long enough to see which way the bullets were coming from. Life could be like that and whilst that style of firefighting management can be good fun at times it is not a recipe for long term success: I needed to get things under control and, once I had, I found that I had time to think about preventing fires rather than having to keep putting them out. Life got easier.

Getting to that point took a lot of the stress out of work and I have tried to apply the same type of thinking too life under lockdown. There are lots of things that I cannot control right now, but if I focus on what I can control and take charge of those then it gives me some comfort, certainly more than I would get if I just sat in a heap complaining. Finding the things that I can manage myself might see me mired in trivia; often the things that a straight application of the Eisenhower Matrix would see me discard, but they are things that I can do without recourse to anyone else; I have control and it helps to keep me sane.

Control the things that you can. If nothing else you will be practising a good discipline that will help you in your career in the longer term.

on ambition


A few weeks ago a professional journal for one of the sectors that I work in talked about attracting young people into the trade. It got me thinking about the young people that I currently work with and then my own career.

Asking around amongst some of the under-thirties I know there seemed to be a balance between probably sticking with their current sector, if not with the same employer, and those who would just see what came up. Of the former only one thought that they would definitely want to stay in the sector.

The general opinion was that things change and that there was no guarantee that the right opportunities would be there for them when they needed them. That got me thinking about how my working life had panned out.

In my later school years I looked at what would have been a long term career, but although there was a chance to go for it, there was a need for parental commitment that was not forthcoming. It left me with a desire to become a manager, but with no idea of what.

An opportunity to achieve that ambition came as I left school, but was screwed up when we moved elsewhere a few months later. Another long term opportunity sailed away with redundancy and I then spent the next six years or so drifting along with four distinct changes of sector before settling into a major corporation with which I was to stay with for over thirty years.

However, even there I did not settle into any specific discipline. I worked for them in retail, finance, IT, policy, procurement, logistics, sales and marketing, training and facilities management working all around the UK. If I had any ambition it was to move up the ladder, but around half of my moves were because of reorganisation rather than me actively seeking them.

In the end I did achieve that rather vague ambition to be a manager. I worked my way up from the bottom to the board room and have served as both executive and non-executive director, but I cannot claim to have been focused on a career. More that I just took my chances and played whatever hand I got dealt as best as I could.

Following that example is perhaps the best advice that I could give.

on food on the road


I say on the road, but mean food whilst travelling in general, regardless of mode of transport. My first experiences of having to find food whilst out and about came back in the mid 1970s when I was a salesman flogging lorry parts and hydraulic fittings around London’s East End and the North bank of the Thames. It was there that I learned my first and second important lessons in finding decent, affordable food; firstly, ask the locals and secondly, learn who to trust for advice.

There were some dreadful “greasy spoons” about, but there we also some gems, all of which I would have driven past if I had not been told to stop. It was around that time that I was introduced to salt beef bagels for example and these are something that I will still look for one the rare occasions I get the chance. Pub grub was not a big thing back then, but the Waterman’s Arms on the Isle of Dogs, whilst a little more expensive than I might usually want to got to, became a regular spot for a treat when I was having a good week.

Jobs changed and I found myself working in offices with canteens (sorry, staff restaurants) for a few years before heading out and about again some ten years later. Motorways were the quick way to get around, but their service areas by then were pretty awful places and to be avoided so I began to search out other options. One of my early successes was to find garden centres not too far off the motorway. They often had a cafe and, in those days of mostly independent operations, you got good, home cooked, food. There were also some good pubs around where lunch, or even breakfast on days with early starts, could be found.

My aim was usually to try and eat more healthy food than the convenient locations offered and the sorts of places that I sought out often offered seasonal food. One favourite stop for lunch in the Spring was a country town cafe where I could get a poached egg on top of a crumpet with local asparagus; much nicer, and better for me, than a Big Mac and fries. I have no problem with the big chains and do use them even now, but trying something different is important for me even if it does cost a little more.

After a time travelling the UK I started to get the odd trip overseas and there even more opportunities to move away from regular fare arise. On a holiday there is an tendency to get trapped in the tourist fare that is on offer, but if you are working then talking to colleagues from the area will almost always find you something interesting. I have experienced dive bars on the waterfront in China, a home cooked meal in Libya and been taken to eateries in many places that I found never have found had one of the locals not guided me. In Thailand the ladies in the office would offer me fruit and curries and, for the ones that I liked, write out the names of them, or similar dishes, so that I could buy them in the street market behind my hotel for my evening meals.

My waistline did suffer over the dirty odd years that I travelled regularly and I have lost 20 or so Kg over the lockdown period. My main business travelling days are now over, but I have many happy memories of places that I have been fed at, from dive bars to Michelin stars they all have given me pleasure.

on market research and advertising


Over my years of working I have worked in sales several times and, in my own businesses, I have had to rely on my own abilities in that area. Knowing what will sell and how to get it in front of those who will buy varies according to what it is you are selling, but the basic principles are the same whether you are standing at your stall in the market or pitching a multi-million pound deal in the boardroom. If you don’t grasp them you will not last long.

This is not about the mechanics of selling though, it’s about some of the stuff that goes on around it. Specifically understanding who will buy what, why and how to get their attention.

Starting with the back end of that, advertising, it has struck me how things have changed. Visual advertising, mainly in the form of TV commercials, but also including billboards and the like, used to have an element of wit and style, but these days they seem to have dumbed down to a point where many are just puerile. If they are intended to make me want to buy the product, they don’t, but worse, they put me off using the company altogether. I vote with my wallet and there are some places where I will no longer take my cash based on their advertising.

Perhaps these companies have researched and tested these adverts; they almost certainly have because the Berkshire Belle amuses herself by taking part in market research and will often warn me that her tablet is about to “make a noise”. Some of the questions that she will then be asked are so off the wall as to be worrying, for example she will often be asked to say what sort of person the advertiser is, and various other oblique questions that are almost impossible to answer with any credibility.

Not only is someone paying shed loads of money for this research, but they will also go on to spend much more on commissioning the commercial and getting it out there. But if the questions are ones that it is not possible to answer with any genuine accuracy then the results will be flawed so what is the point?

As stupid as it sounds people are using this stuff. Perhaps it is because they have paid a lot for it that they choose to believe it; I don’t know for sure, but I have certainly been on the inside of teams who have been using data from this sort of market research and cannot ever recall it being challenged by those making the decision.

I am not saying that all market research is wasted. You do need to know, but be careful with what you get back because people lie in at least some of their answers. Use such data as a guide rather than an absolute and do look carefully at the results that you get when you go to market.

Maybe my criticism of advertising is, in part, due to flaws in the research. I don’t know the answer to that either, but I suspect that, whilst it contributes, the biggest problem is a general dumbing down of society. Our expectations have been lowered so much that we get what we deserve. For me it means that, just as I will not buy from a cold call, I will buy very little that I see advertised on TV.

on fake news


I am not one for conspiracy theories and am fully aware that news media are not, in this day and age, unbiased so I treat anything that I read or hear from them with as open a mind as I can. If something interests me enough then I try to triangulate and get bearing from other directions and try to form my opinions accordingly. I was, at least, taught at school to try and think critically and that side of my education was refreshed as I worked my way up the greasy pole of management through three decades.

An example of something that is puzzling me at the moment, and it is an area in which I have a professional interest, is a claim that I saw recently that we have lost over 100,000 lorry drivers from the UK job market.

Now I know that some drivers from EU countries have left due to the UK leaving the EU, but 100,000? This just does not gel with what I see and hear around me. There are not loads of trucks parked up with no drivers and when I talk to immigrant drivers they will admit that some of their compatriots have gone home, but not in any great numbers.

There are issues in terms of recruiting and retaining drivers within the industry; poor pay, nowhere to park for statutory breaks, poor facilities and, for those not directly employed, the costs of retaining their licence. Even getting a licence now is a problem because of a ridiculous EU regulation that we have not struck from the statute that prevents someone going directing to an articulated truck licence (you have to take a rigid truck test first and then move up to an artic) effectively pretty much doubling the cost of a licence.

But the media channels are reporting a shortage of drivers as a problem of us having left the EU and so that is what the person in the street believes when they see an empty shelf at their local store.

I will refrain from banging on too much about these things; there are plenty of other examples and you may well have favourites of your own. It seems that the media are either trying to make a political point or are just looking for ways to sex up a story and think that we are all too stupid to challenge them, or maybe it is also just the echo chamber effect; to give their readers news biased to the way that they want to hear it.

Sad really, but the truth has become what you want it to be and that is dangerous. Orwell’s 1984 might have come late, but I think that it has, perhaps, caught up with us.

on freedom of speech part two


I dashed off a rant the other day on this topic. Naughty because I try not to do that sort of thing, but I was incensed and that is an especially bad time to launch into print. I will try to be a bit more considered here.

The issue with Piers Morgan worries me considerably in terms of our society because it seems that there is a view that one person can give a TV interview and say what they like, but another person commenting on that issue gets shouted down. Why is one allowed to speak freely and another not? That has to be wrong.

Over the last few days there has been a move by the Left to persuade advertisers to shun the new UK TV news channel because it styles itself as right of centre. Personally I had not intended to watch it of a regular basis, but I am temped to watch it daily now and to shun any company that pulls its advertising. Censorship is not acceptable to me.

I have moved around to political spectrum over the years. I leaned a bit left in my younger days before drifting into the centre. Yes, I have some views that will seem extreme and used to joke about being turned down by a South American Junta for being too right wing, but, for example, I did not support the abolition of capital punishment back in the 1960s and am still opposed to those that support its exclusion from the options available to our courts. If that makes me a right wing extremist in your eyes then so be it. I am entitled to a view.

One of the things that we did not have in my youth was social media and so to express a view you needed an audience in person. One of my delights was Speaker’s Corner in Hyde Park where there were all sorts that you could listen to. Not all were good orators, but some, like Donald Soper, were very good and, even if I did not agree with the views that they were expressing, there was a joy in listening and an opportunity to consider what they said. To think critically about what was said, weigh up the various points and form my own opinion was a big part of my teenage education.

Heckling was part of public speaking and a good heckler versus a good speaker was another part of the free entertainment as was the ability of a good speaker to deal with a moronic heckler. Indeed many of the crowds would turn on the latter, something that you rarely see in the social media echo chambers of today. In any case heckling is a dead art now as political events and conferences eject anyone not espousing the common view. Another loss of the freedom to speak.

We are in danger of becoming intellectually sterile and that is not good for society. There should be open debate and an acceptance that, through constructive argument, alternative views can be weighed. Freedom of speech is also about the freedom to think, but it is also about freedom itself. Let us not lose it.

on taking a knee


I do not care whether the England football team take a knee before their games or not and nor do I care whether people applaud them or boo. I understood that I grew up in a country in which freedom of speech was a given and so my feeling is that if they want to do it then it is up to them.

Having read the logic behind their action and heard their manager explain it I think that they are being incredibly naïve to say that it has nothing to do with the BLM movement. The swastika is a symbol of good fortune in many parts of Asia, but it was appropriated by the Nazis and is still vilified in most of the countries that fought that regime and so if I were to plaster my car with that symbol how far do you think that I would get with the argument that I was not promoting Nazism?

Perhaps their stand (no pun intended) will at least keep some debate going on the subject of racism, but I fear that all it will do is to create further polarisation. Sadly that is a cause and consequence of the Woke generation. The whole concept is to polarise; you are with us or against us with no middle ground, no attempt at informed debate, just “We’re right and if you don’t agree, you’re wrong.”

For professional footballers I think that they are missing a very fundamental point. Football, like most sport, is about tribalism. You support your tribe (team) and hurl abuse at the other lot. It wasn’t always like that; there was a time when it was all a lot more relaxed, but money has swept through the game and there are fortunes to be made from tribalism; selling apparel, kit and memorabilia well to the fore. Hurling insults at the opposition is part and parcel of the game and if you can get under the skin of a player on the opposing side and put them off then so much the better.

We are talking about human nature here, even if it is a side that we would rather suppress. I remember my first encounters with professional wrestling back in the 1960s when middle aged women, including my mother, a God-fearing Christian, would be whipped into partisan frenzy. Civilisation is a thin veneer at times and yes, latching on to a physical characteristic; heigh, weight, hair or skin colour included, is a way of targeting your abuse. Yes, that is bullying, or one form of it, but it is encouraged in sports because there are some who are making shedloads of cash from it and that includes the players.

I don’t doubt that the players are sincere, but if racial abuse is a form of bullying so is the premise that everyone else should back them. It is very unlikely that I will be at any of the England games in the foreseeable future, but if I was I would neither boo nor applaud them taking a knee. I don’t agree with them, but it is their choice and they are entitled to make it. I will make mine too and I hope that they are man enough to respect that too.

Just because I don’t support their way of going about it does not mean that I do not agree with their aim, so do not alienate my support simply because I choose a different path to the same end.

on discrimination


Discrimination is a word appearing a lot at the moment, not least in reference to the, for some, dreaded Vaccination Passport. Much has been done in the last thirty or forty years to try and eliminate discrimination, but I will argue here that it is another example of trying to suppress a basic human emotion.

We all discriminate: If there is something that you choose not to like you are discriminating about it. It could be a food (hands up all who hate Marmite), a sporting team, a TV programme, a band or singer, anything at all. Discrimination is simply a choice and to be discriminating is, still, a compliment for it implies a level off sophistication.

The argument against discrimination is about how we apply it and I have no argument with the principle of equality here. However, there are inconsistencies. For example my doctor’s surgery will offer ladies the opportunity to see a lady doctor or, if seeing a male doctor, to have a chaperone. The Berkshire Belle takes the latter option and takes me with her. Not because of any caution, she is an ex-nurse, but because she knows that I will listen carefully and be a better sounding board on what was actually said.The option is there though and I have no problem with it, but when I make an appointment I have, son far, not been offered the choice to see a make doctor. A clear case of discrimination, but not one that I am making a fuss about, simply making the observation.

The safety of females is another issue that has been high lately and it seems ironic to me that, in the general sweeping away of things to level the male:female playing field, one thing that we have lost is the Ladies Waiting Room at stations and Ladies Only compartments on trains. Whilst we still have separate changing rooms and toilets the distinction there is becoming a little blurred though. I have become used to having females coming into the male toilet at venues where there are queues for there own facilities and their need is too great for them to wait in line. It does not especially bother me, but the Berkshire Belle is very unhappy about the prospects of males coming into the female facilities whilst she is using them; it makes her feel unsafe.

Protecting minorities is all very well, but what about majorities? Democracy is about the will of the latter and as a society we have to have a sense of proportion. There is so much noise being made around the edges where, by definition things are extreme, that the moderate voice cannot be heard. Indeed, the minority tactic is to shout down any voice of reason.

I do not see any reason why a group of like minded people cannot decide who they want in their number. If I go to a bar and there is a large group in one corner enjoying their mutual company can I just gate crash and join in? In all probability I will unwelcome. Try looking in on social media at any of the echo chambers that exist for a particular point of view. When you find one try chucking in something of a contrary viewpoint and see what happens. Inclusive? I don’t think so. I can remember the days when football crowds were not segregated and it was possible to mingle with opposition fans and not go home via the local ER facility, but I would not try it now. In any case I would not be allowed to; dissemination? Yes, but there is no outcry.

There is a lot of hypocrisy around discrimination. It is something that is as much a part of human existence as is breathing and we need to accept that, even embrace it. What we do not want is unreasonable discrimination. There is a difference.

on a new normal


Change is constant, at least in that things change all of the time. We all get older for one thing, speeding towards death at sixty minutes in every hour. The only thing that changes about change, if you see what I mean, is the pace of change.

The last eighteen months have seen an accelerated change that the world in general has probably not seen since World War 2, although localised areas have had conflicts that have had severe impact. It is that impact, rather than the pace, that we probably notice more and beneficial changes probably sneak through with less notice.

Take the mobile device revolution. The speed at which mobile communications took hold was stupendous, changing business and personal lives at a stroke. It has had a huge effect on society and mostly good, but it has also opened doors for criminals and terrorists that we could have done without. Einstein’s cause and effect principles apply here.

A pandemic on the scale of Covid-19 and its variants has been able to spread so rapidly because of advances in travel and the way that the world works these days. Forty years ago it would have been different, but the changes that have happened over that time made such a devastating spread more possible. Perhaps Bubonic plague is the nearest equivalent in human history and that, too, spread mainly through commerce and isolation principles helped defeat it, or at least to slow the spread.

Terrorism changed global travel in the early 2000s and Covid will change it further. The freedoms that we enjoyed at one time in jetting off around the world allowed those with nefarious intent the opportunity to exploit them and so we had them curtailed. There are those who have allowed selfish interests to spread Covid and their actions have seen freedoms removed, if temporarily, but to what extent will we get them back?

Working patterns have changed too and the future is again unclear. Much office work depended on workforces that commuted and on jam packed public transport. Will such circumstances come back? As always, business, the capitalist system, has risen to the challenge and found new ways to sell to us as we have embraced new ways of buying.

Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, as they say, and whilst sometimes we yearn for simpler times of the past, we would not really want to go back. This time may be different, but the past is gone and the future is up to us. Will mask wearing become a common sight as it is in many Asian cities? I know that I am going to find it strange not wearing a mask in public places and credit having worn one, along with a greater hand hygiene regime, with the fact that I have not had so much as a common cold through the last two Winters. Fringe benefits maybe, but it will be interesting to see how things are this time twelve months hence.

I hope that you and I are still here to see the new normal.