March 23rd, 2020 by matthias
Most importantly, Borek approves

Most importantly, the cat approves.

Since last Monday, I have moved my entire team to work remotely. Here’s what it’s been like.

Establishing a routine

This is what I’m told is most important when working from home, and hey, do I love a routine. I had my basic routine worked out by Monday lunchtime, and now I’m just refining. 

While my SO always works from home, for me, this is a change. Most importantly, the cat approves – however, he still wakes me up at 5.00, so I can feed him and then go to the gym. Except, I’m not going to the gym, which is the hardest adaptation so far. But, since the advice so far is that open outside spaces are not risky if you don’t turn them into a festival, I am trying to improve my running – and my PT is supplying me with training programmes. Also, I thought this is the right time to test out the free FitBit Coach week, doing guided yoga and flexibility workouts. Should we go the way of Italy or France, and my range of movement be restricted more, however, it will be interesting to see how I cope.

Do I miss my commute?

I always liked my commute, as it gives me the luxury of one hour on a reliable train each way (no changes) to learn and read the news. It’s a nice line of demarcation between the private and the professional. To escape its tendentious reporting on Brexit, at the beginning of the year, I had switched from BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme to Radio 3’s soothing classic tunes, while reading my RSS news feeds.

It turns out, I can listen to music and my podcasts while doing housework now. Now for anyone who knows me, will know that this is great news for me, since I love doing housework. For those unconvinced, I recommend A Monk’s Guide to a Clean House and Mind which helps turn cleaning into more of a meditative practice. It feels soothing and reminds of my time living at a Buddhist temple in Tokyo.

Work feels different

While my team has worked remotely on the occasional closure day, to pull the whole operation online is still a challenge. We started a morning video call with everyone on duty – just as much a social as a professional measure, making sure everyone has a chance to share their feelings and concerns while discussing work topics. I’ve also increased the cadence of meetings with my direct reports, following the idea that regular short contacts are better than structured meetings every two weeks. With MS Teams, it’s possible to share information and ideas to everyone fairly quickly, but you can’t just turn around and have a chat. Having worked in very monosyllabic environments constructing MS Access databases at Siemens, I’m fine with a quiet workplace, but ours is normally one that feeds of a buzz, which helps create the environment that our students and start-up clients enjoy. That’s my main concern – how can we carry this forward without letting the buzz die? I’m thinking regular check-ins, virtual coffee mornings, now that my beloved weekly breakfast club meetings will be off for a few months.

I thought at first that I could finally do all the things I’ve been forced to put off for so long, yet, mostly, we’re trying to simply make things work. Today was the first day on which I just wrote a longer strategy piece without the usual interruptions from the desired buzz. Having spent long time isolation during my time in Japan, I don’t mind being alone – I will always find something to do (see ‘cleaning’ above). And in comparison to my more monastic life back then, my SO and the cat are buzzing company. But I know that not everyone will feel that way, so I’m spending time to ask how they are in every meeting, whether they are within my team or not. This will be a difficult time for those who need to socialise more and who may carry more existential angst than I do – or who live in more precarious living arrangements where they don’t have as much control over their  space as I do. So I plan to introduce some of the measures I’m applying in my personal life into work: regular social updates, maybe a joint lunch over video link, or a virtual Friday office drink – and office D&D game over Roll20? One can but dream.

We feel different

The importance of the emotional bonds between fellow workers feel amplified – there is a lot of fear and uncertainty, and talking over video link is quickly becoming a life-line. I have – just this week – seen some amazing moments of people taking care of each other. When one stumbles, the other team members were quick to pick them up and encourage them.

Everything will be different

What I am convinced of, though, is that we will not return to be the same people in the same workplaces when we eventually emerge from our isolated existences. I think that flexible and remote working will become much more of a norm, now that we are showing that it not only works to hold things together, but that it could have worked all along

Looking around in higher education, this forced switch to online delivery cannot be anything but a game changer – and organisations who do it well, may well thrive. But I’ll talk about that in a later instalment of what I hope to be a weekly series.

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December 30th, 2013 by matthias

This blog started out as ‘What I’ve learnt recently … in one short paragraph’. What I tried to achieve was finding my voice on a number of issues that interest me: (higher) education (policy), the impact of technology on (work) life, work ethics and my personal opinions on these topics – but always from the perspective of what I had learnt from the experience, and not with too much effort. Call it an exercise in reflection, or an oversharing of my thoughts, 2013 was really the year I got into blogging a lot more. This is not my only blog – I run one on my personal life as a German in a small town in the UK (yeah, I’m one of those pesky EU citizens who came here taking your jobs…), and one about my decades long commitment to sci-fi role playing games (yeah, so I’m a nerd).

The themes and respective blog posts that came up this year repeatedly were indeed my experience being a foreigner – oh wait, a committed European citizen living and contributing to the UK society and economy. The recent media rhetoric about (the wrong kind of) EU citizens on this  rankled with me on a number fronts – and I summed this up in my blog post about the gift of migration. What I learnt though was a bitter lesson – that in the current climate an anti-immigration argument will always win over an economic benefit in public opinion, and the benefits that international students bring to the country are no exception.

The other sad lesson I learnt this year is that there seems to be an endless well of pessimism towards ‘young people’ in general in the UK. This manifested itself in multiple forms, wherever I turned: I learnt about this when I volunteered at a local careers fair, when I commented on articles about careers advice in schools, and when I gathered the response to the OECD skills study published this year.

I know all this sounds rather pessimistic – however in the deepest time of sadness came a glimmer of hope: I was about to embark on my biggest and most painful personal lesson this year, when I was on my way to say goodbye for the last time to one of my oldest friends – it was one of those young people who showed me that this generation is not lost; they are just in need of the occasional help and advice, but they are perfectly able to find their way – which requires them to have professional careers advice. And this lead me to re-confirm my professional commitment to doing just that: helping others fulfil their potential, which I think lies at the heart of any careers and employability related work. And that’s not necessarily always about raising standards, expectations, or competitiveness – it’s often more about a realistic self-assessment and going for what young people want, not what they should want.

And I have seen many examples of good practice, both observing and speaking at a number of events, ranging from life science careers, the Gradcore 2013 conference, to the PlaceNet 13 conference.

What will 2014 bring? For me (and pretty much the rest of our economy), it will be all about learning to interpret and understand data. That’s my prediction – and I’m looking forward to seeing whether I will look back on my pursuit of this agenda in a year’s time.

Posted in Commentary, Education & Employability, Work life Tagged with: , , , ,

December 19th, 2013 by matthias

I’m on fire – another really interesting (albeit slightly infuriating) discussion about careers advice – and I’ve posted a comment on that as well:

Hm, as for an editorial line, this is interesting – we’re confronted with very varied perspectives in the last two days: on how to advise his son about ‘serious subjects’ [NB: the link actually says ‘proper’], Rhiannon, whose writing I normally like, delivers an opinion piece right out of Michael Gove’s (!) toolbox, about how rubbish such advice is – at least as long is out of the mouths of trained professionals.

Let’s get this straight – many ‘professionals’ suck at their jobs, and don’t make good role models. We see examples of bad practice pretty much where ever we turn. So who will guarantee that those industry representatives who are supposed to go into schools give advice to young people that is impartial, well informed and confidential? And – who makes the judgement call who is an appropriate (professional) role model in the first place?

Just like teachers, professional careers advisors are there to help young people understand the world around them, and how to navigate a job market that is so complex and fast-changing that the parent generation has normally no clue what is happening ‘out there’ – at least not if it’s not directly within their own sector. [NB: I work in the field, but I am not a careers advisor]

There’s plenty of space for industry speakers, professional mentors and informal advice from parents – but pulling the direct one-to-one advice (and the funding for it), and then replacing it by online and phone ‘support’, takes away the opportunity for young people to engage with their potential in a safe and unbiased environment. It strikes me more as a cost-cutting measure than an attempt at improving young people’s chances – funnily enough, for especially vulnerable groups personal advice is still available; can’t be that bad then.

And that’s exactly what the CBI is saying on this topic: what was there as a support structure has pretty much been broken by recent policy. So even the employers that are supposed to go in and do a ‘better job’ than qualified careers advisors are asking for careers advice to be strengthened and enabled again.

As someone running a careers service in higher education, I worry about the consequences of these policies, and how they will affect the students coming our way in the next few years – and what repair job we may have to do in order with all those young people who never learnt the basics of career decision making in school. And for that job (not just checking CVs and doing silly online assessments), there are professional careers advisors.

I respect personal opinion and experience (and working in the field, my own experience has been indeed varied) – however I question what the Guardian will do to balance this opinion piece with something that is more informed and balanced.

I am however not really holding my breath, as I normally don’t see much of a rational discussion on education, young people and careers advice.

Posted in Commentary, Education & Employability Tagged with: , , , , , ,

October 22nd, 2013 by matthias

Just recently, I wrote about my personal ‘learning as I go while broadcasting about it’ strategy. I used the CASE event on public affairs in education as an example. So I talked about how I learn and cover these events, but I didn’t talk about what I learnt. So many of this will boring for the consummate PR professional – however, there were some take home points which I have … taken home:

  1. Be vigilant about sticking to a well-crafted message
    I think this is really applicable in the workplace – and is something that I’m careful about applying. Once a message has been agreed to, you’ve got to stick to it. In my current workplace, it’s ‘we need a career management system’, and we’ve stuck to that message (rightly) for four years. And, yes, it’s working – but it’s all about sticking to the consensus, and hammering home the this message. Of course it’s important to review your position regularly, and to change your policy if needed (with a message just as clear) – but inconsistencies must be avoided, as they will make things worse and may not be repaired.

  2. Disclose bad news first – on your terms
    I strongly believe that. If something’s bad, it will not get better by waiting. The earlier you are seen to deal with something, the more competent your handling of the situation will be seen – and you may get the chance to frame the terms of the debate. And then, apply the principle above. Read: ‘There’s a big issue with our company database, but rest assured, our new career management system will take care of it once and for all.’

  3. Fill the void and ‘feed the beast’
    That one was a new thought to me, but I’m down with it nonetheless: Don’t let people find holes in your coverage – because they will fill it with something negative. It’s all about finding creative ways to offer new information in the context of your message. Read in my example: ‘Just a quick update – our career management system is well on its way.’

  4. When you’re organising a high profile event, it’s about three and a half months before the event that the really high-profile people’s diaries are getting more accessible again. So people you couldn’t invite around six months in advance might suddenly become available.
    Personally, I don’t know where this one sits – but I just found it an interesting statement.

  5. Never underestimate the value of a good crisis – if there is none, find one
    Now while that one’s funny, I think there may be a lot of truth in it – and I’m sure it informs a lot of practice. Your decider – the higher the level – will not want to be confronted with a problem, or badgered with your personal hobby horse topic (see ‘career management system’ above). However, if it’s the solution to a problem you have identified, it may help you achieve your strategic goals.
    Disclaimer: I’m of course not devious enough for this one – just reporting what I’ve heard…

  6. Politicians want stories – experts want data
    Now that I found interesting – and I think it also works for non-politician deciders, but anyone whose role focuses on convincing audiences to achieve their aims. I personally think I’m a bit of a hybrid on this one, as my role often requires convincing (like a politician), but  my thorough academic grounding in my earlier life (thanks, Dad, and my mentor, the late Prof Laube): if you haven’t got evidence, you have no leg to stand with me. A story will to me only ever be anecdotal ‘evidence’, however, if the story is backed by credible data, then I’m in. I think this one comes back to knowing your audience – in retrospect a valuable lesson for me when I look back at some of my past talks.

So this is what I’ve learnt, and what I’m intending to apply.

Posted in Work life Tagged with: , , , , , ,

October 18th, 2013 by matthias

This is an experiential post – I’m writing about my learning as I learn. I guess it’ll cause some ripples in The Matrix (by reversing the polarity of reality or something similarly esoteric), but I thought as an experiment this should interesting. I’m currently sitting in a fascinating training by @case_europe on managing public affairs in higher education. Now before you go off to snooze, please hear me out: while learning about this…

… I’m also contemplating how I handle broadcasting events like this – and why I do it. As my friend @kleinrules tends to say, during events, I take over his Twitter feed, pushing message after message on what I’m learning.

Why bother?

Three reasons:

  1. I’m not good with classic note-taking. If I write something down in a list or on a piece of paper, I will forget it. Being able to browse my tweets is to me almost as useful as creating a mind-map.
  2. It enables me to share my thoughts, and open them up to scrutiny by you. And this instant feedback is then again archived, giving me a chance to record and later go back to the discussion in retrospective.
  3. And it obviously gives me an opportunity to become more visible in my field. Not only for vanity’s sake, but also because my roles require a certain level of sector-based visibility, and this enables me to do just that.

As a professional in work (as well as for any job seeker) all the above are helpful. In comparison to the days of yore (before social media) I can also:

  1. Look up (and connect to) the participants in the room. Trust me, I’ve done this today already: I’ve looked up all speakers on LinkedIn and Twitter, and have followed and interacted with a number of participants on Twitter. This creates better, and more active relationships than giving each other business cards and then losing them or forgetting to email each other afterwards.
  2. Create a write-up on my blog – this is what you’re seeing now. Again, it helps me remember better, and gives you a chance, dear reader, to perhaps learn from what I’ve learnt.

It is events like these, and the connections I’ve made in the last three years, especially using Twitter, which have made the strongest and most beneficial impact on my professional life, and I can only recommend this approach to anyone.

Posted in Social Media, Work life Tagged with: , , , ,

June 3rd, 2013 by matthias

When I recently had a chat with a (German) 15 year old, he complained that the IT instruction at school was woefully outdated – all they learnt was Java programming. How’s that going to be useful, he asked? I nodded politely, and tried not to look outdated too myself. One of the most regular statements I hear about graduates, and ‘young people’ in general, is that they don’t have the most basic professional skills – or pretty much any skills at all. Following the stereotype, they are all constantly late (if they show up at all), half-literate due to using text speak, facebooking their future away by posting insensitive comments or inappropriate selfies. Somehow their Java programming skills must disappear into the same black hole my Latin did. Now, whoever reads this blog will know that I have a much more positive view of ‘young people’ than that – and it’s backed up by the CIPD’s excellent research on the topic. Let’s take attitude aside – of course they have skills gaps (it’s probably more about app programming than Java). It’s their job to have skills gaps. The pursuit of knowledge and skill is nurtured by recognizing these, and addressing them. Not via rote learning, Michael Gove style though. I’ve always reacted very badly to this approach (here you call it ‘Victorian’, where I grew up it’s the ‘Nuremberg Funnel’), and can understand any teenager well (and let’s face it, our first years in higher education are teenagers), who tries to subvert it by playing the system, or pushing back. But again – this is not about attitude. So back to skills and knowledge: @vonprond wrote previously in his excellent blog about the fact that you need a critical mass of knowledge in order to understand a topic, and make meaningful judgements about it. I agree, but I want to make clear that classic knowledge (and I consider being proficient in at least one other language than your own one of them) doesn’t have to be taught in a classic way (see above). In learning, as in life in general IMHO, form should always follow function: the how you do something should always be governed by the what you do. Literacy for example is a lot more than just reading and writing on paper – it encapsulates the ability to produce and interpret content; and let’s face it, this will mostly be digital now. To bring it back to ‘young people’ as mentioned above: their natural medium is to use their thumbs and a keyboard to bring their ideas to the fore – let’s not limit them by making them do something they rarely will ever have to do in the workplace (like hand-writing on paper), but help them learning how to produce good content. It might not turn text speak to poetry, but it might help ensure that what is written is understandable and effective. ‘Getting the basics right’ doesn’t mean taking their tools away, and then lambasting them for failing – I think it’s more about ‘us’ (the not so young people collectively) having a gap of understanding of what counts in the future workplace (often combined with a healthy fear of technology). The texting youths we complain about are our (future) customers, they will run the place (and miraculously to the same standard as we do now), and they will also be our carers – so let’s make sure we help them understand our world, and learn with them how it is shaped by technology. And finally, let me just bust a couple of myths about attitude and professional behaviours: people in the workplace now are late for meetings (if they show up – it’s academia, you can never be sure), typos abound in emails (handwritten notes are illegible), and they play with their smart phones in meetings. But overall, we’re still doing a decent job, don’t we?


Posted in Education & Employability Tagged with: , ,

May 31st, 2013 by matthias

I always enjoy visiting the ‘North’, where @martinedmonson and his Gradcore/Graduates Yorkshire outfit roams. The Gradcore conferences are always worth taking part in, as they are a brimming with critical thinking and debate on all things employability, graduate recruitment and employment. In order to stay true to my blog’s premise of sticking to one paragraph, I’m focusing on only one unconference track (look it up – learn something new today) that I ran with the ever excellent Vanessa Gough, legendary recruiter, from IBM. From the creative chaos that is an unconference (and the contributions of … wait … actual students), emerged a theme about what makes students employable – or better a number of characteristics: employable graduates are not clones, who have been coached to answer interview questions. ‘Employable’ is basically a meaningless term to students, and they don’t collectively buy it either. For them it’s really just another word for ‘professional’, describing a graduate’s outlook, conduct and mindset (introducing the term graduateness feels dirty, so I’ll abstain). The latter is not just achieved with clever module plans and learning outcomes, but by giving students the opportunity to engage and learn about how to be professional – based on their own effort. Yes, academic and professional support can help – but the responsibility sits with the learner. One participant (who trains professionals for the NHS) summed it up brilliantly: in a hospital, when a patient is admitted, a clock turns on immediately, which counts down to the date of the patients release – and the time is filled with opportunities and measures for them to get better (double meaning intended). The healing is done by the patient – and is influenced by their ability (and sometimes willingness) to engage with the opportunities to improve their situation. The clock ticks for students as well, and by the end of their stay (their degree), the students are now sent out into a challenging post-crisis environment. Employability professionals can’t force results – and they shouldn’t try. It’s also down to their universities not to make unrealistic promises (or set pointless targets), but to nurture, foster and challenge where appropriate, as in the end they are educators. Well embedded employability in (and outside) the curriculum helps, but only if it doesn’t become just an internal measure which makes the university feel good about their ‘employability figures’ (a misnomer at the best of times). It’s about true preparation for life after university – and getting there is certainly not always pretty, but challenging, sometimes even scary – but sometimes comes with beautiful results. To exemplify this, I’d like to use one of Vanessa’s stories. It was about a graduate who had taught herself sign language to support a hard of hearing regular customer in the restaurant she was working in, making their customer experience more enjoyable. Only when she told this story in an interview did she understand how much that said about her in terms of her true professionalism – and yes, that was what made her employable in the end. I must admit, for a moment, I had a tear in my eye.

Posted in Education & Employability, Talks Tagged with: , , , ,