Category Archives: Management & OD

Working from home : it’s intense!

It’s been a bit full on work-wise this week. To be honest, I’m a bit knackered, which wouldn’t be so bad, but I had a day off on Monday! I’m beginning to think (eight weeks into the social experiment that is lockdown and working from home) that there must be an intensity factor that comes with home working as opposed to being in the office. In some ways this is not a bad thing. There’s no doubt that I am more productive in the time that I spend working now than I was before this enforced move. There are far fewer distractions and interruptions, and even though the time that I spend in virtual meetings with individuals and the team has probably increased slightly (for good reasons while we all support one another through the transition), I’m definitely getting more done.

However, it’s also the case that I am completely done in most days by about 4.30pm, even though I’m taking a proper break at lunchtime most days, and I don’t have the added burden of the daily commute to and from Bristol. The idea of work intensity (and its impact on emotional exhaustion and wellbeing) has been the subject of some academic research, but the literature is not extensive. In their 2017 paper, Boekhurst et al find a direct relationship between work intensity, emotional exhaustion and an inability to separate work from other aspects of life (psychological detachment). In simple terms, working intensely for an extended period leads to emotional exhaustion that in turn makes it much more difficult to switch off from work and impacts on non-work aspects of life.

The challenge for employers contemplating a move to more home-working will be to ensure that employees do not fall into a downward spiral of working too hard and too long, and being unable to disconnect and recharge the batteries. The risk is that failing to adequately manage this will lead to staff burnout, and a reduction in the efficiency that is an otherwise oft-heralded result of working from home.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’m now off to crack open a bottle of red, kick back, and forget about the job for at least the next 48 hours!

Have a lovely weekend, everyone!

Imagining life after covid

“Creativity is born of chaos, even if it is somewhat difficult to glimpse the possibilities in the midst of the confusion.” – Charles Handy

Yesterday’s post attempted to identify the rationale behind the change in the messaging around coronavirus in England. I suggested that a return to a strategy of herd immunity was one possible explanation for the move away from Stay Home towards something a little less directive, and a lot more ambiguous. The post focused on the possible short term implications of the change and the danger that the relaxation in the approach to restrictions would lead to a second spike in cases in the short term. That danger remains, but I wanted to be a bit more upbeat today, by focusing not on the short term dangers that still exist, but rather thinking about how our way of life might change in the longer term as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

It seems pretty clear that work for those of us employed in administrative and management roles in the service sector (defined in its widest sense), work will never be the same again. Many organisations in the public and private sectors who had previously been wholly dismissive of the idea that mass home working could be a good thing, have had their world view turned on its head. The genie is out of the bottle and conversations are already turning towards ways in which we can turn current office spaces into collaborative workplaces where homeworkers come together for one or two days a week to discuss projects and new initiatives. The banks of nondescript desks (or worse, divided cubicles) are likely to be significantly reduced in number, and organisations will be looking at ways to reduce their footprint in expensive rented office blocks in city centres and commercial districts. But as well as the place of work changing, it’s likely that we will also see a new approach to the way that work is managed. Management by outcomes will necessarily replace the presenteeism (monitoring staff by hours at the workplace rather than productivity or getting the job done); and there will be a change in the approach to working hours, with much greater flexibility to fit the working day around caring responsibilities, for example.+

And the shift to home working on a regular basis as a matter of course is likely to have other knock-on effects to our way of life. It seems inevitable that there will be a reduction in congestion and commuter-stress as less people routinely travel to and for work. More meetings will be conducted virtually through e-conferencing and shared working will exploit the functionality in on-line collaborative tools like Microsoft Teams and equivalent Google products. This should have a major positive impact on work:life balance as people spend less time getting to and from work and are less tired and anxious as a result. The shift away from city centres and commercial districts as business hubs could be bad news for the retail and hospitality businesses that depend on employees for much of their weekday trade. However, many of these have necessarily already changed their business models to cope with the last seven weeks of lockdown restrictions. It’s likely that decentralisation of businesses away from urban centres to suburban areas will be coupled with a continued expansion of home delivery services. It may even by the case that new businesses will spring up close to suburban and residential areas to cater for the needs of home workers who are looking for local workspaces outside their homes. A kind of cyber café but catering not just for nerdy teens, but also for home workers who need to spend some time in a more social space, or simply get away from the house for a while. It’s a kind of Costa Plus or Starbucks Extra offering – a decent working space and secure, high-speed internet connection and good quality coffee and carrot cake available to order!

More people spending more time at home could well lead to other changes too. Local shopping districts will benefit from greater footfall. People will have more time available for preparing and cooking food, and will have more disposable income as commuting costs are halved or more with the shift to mainly home working. Those local producers who have already introduced home delivery services for everything from fresh fruit and veg to meat, cakes, cheese, and beverages will be in a strong position to capitalise on this new market in the longer term. Deliveries will become more and more efficient as people are at home much more and available to receive products at the first time of trying.

The wider impact on communities could be truly revolutionary. As investment in high speed broadband is rolled out across the length and breadth of the UK, places that have historically been dormitories for workers travelling into regional urban centres could be transformed. Rural and former industrial areas that have become used to a daily morning migration to work in the nearest city will see more people spending time local to their homes and with income to spend. More than that, though, people who spend more time in their home communities are more likely to feel socially connected to that community and to take a more active interest in what is happening there. Parents working flexibly for at least some part of each week will have more time to support school activities; libraries (often already equipped with excellent internet connections) could become local support centres for home workers; sports clubs and leisure centres will have the opportunity to expand services to meet an increased demand from people who have more free time during weekdays and early evenings. Community pubs and local restaurants will become the places where people will go to meet and chat and fill the need for social engagement that was previously met in the office kitchen or around the apocryphal water-cooler.

It’s a vision of the future that has huge potential. Re-positioning work as part of a healthy approach to life that is centred in communities but virtually connected to the organisation and the wider world. The last seven weeks has given us a glimpse of what that vision could feel like in reality. I started this post with a quote from Charles Handy, and it is fitting that I should finish with one :

“We are all prisoners of our past. It is hard to think of things except in the way we have always thought of them. But that solves no problems and seldom changes anything.

Getting to grips with the ‘new normal’

It’s been obvious for a little while now, but hearing the Deputy Chief Medical Officer for England explaining today that covid-19 will be with us for some time to come, really brings home the fact that things will never quite be as they were before all this began. The ‘new normal’ is no longer a theoretical label about how things might be – rather it is a shorthand for how things inevitably must be. And that new reality will take some getting used to.

Office meetings may never look like this again

The Chief Executive of Barclays is quoted today as saying that large offices filled with white collar workers may well be a thing of the past. The genie is out of the bottle when it comes to working from home. Organisations and companies the length and breadth of the UK have quickly shifted to remote working with staff using any number of digital tools to carry on their jobs – often more effectively than they would have been in the office. File sharing, video conferencing, instant messaging – if we didn’t know much about these tools five weeks’ ago, we certainly do now.

There are obvious advantages to working from home : no more expensive and unpleasant commuting (good for the environment and the individual bank balance); flexibility to combine work with caring responsibilities; potential to design your workspace around your individual preferences, and to work in different spaces to achieve different tasks. Organisationally too, there has been a shift away from ‘presenteeism’ (the cultural belief that work is done in long hours in the office) to managing by outcomes – as long as the work gets done, individuals are allowed freedom and control over how they organise their time and tasks.

Working from home – part of the ‘new normal’?

On the debit side, working from home is only possible if your home space can accommodate the demand for somewhere to set up a laptop and screen, a keyboard, and the headset that’s a necessity for video-conferencing if you have anybody else in the home with you. At the same time, whilst many of us have adapted reasonably well to home working, we are using kitchen chairs and dining tables, or sofas and coffee tables, and ergonomically that is storing up all sorts of problems for us in terms of backache, repetitive strain injuries and so on. There is also a social cost. Video-conference calls to colleagues and virtual coffee morning sessions are all well and good, but they don’t really replace the occasional, serendipitous collisions that happen in any office from day to day – the so-called water-cooler encounters.

There may well also be a wider economic cost to the shift from office to home working. High streets and urban centres are already struggling to survive, and a lot of their business derives from office workers popping out from central business districts for lunch, or calling in to shops on their way home of an evening. Significantly reducing that footfall is sure to have an impact on those businesses (even while it may see a resurgence in the vitality of suburban shopping streets).

Dress code for a ‘new normal’ day in the home office?

So the ‘new normal’ will be a very different country to what we had become used to. There will be advantages and disadvantages, and it may take a while before we know whether – on balance – things are better overall. But they will certainly be different.

Strategic Planning (through the medium of poetry!)

Today saw the first of our Strategic Planning meetings in work. Our planning process starts in September each year and usually concludes with the final sign off of a plan and budget for the following academic year in March or April. It’s generally a helpful process and at least requires us to think about where we need to focus our time and effort to ensure that we deliver excellent teaching and cutting edge research. There’s no doubt though, that strategic planning also draws very heavily on game theory (in its broadest sense), where (in our case) the Faculty seeks to anticipate the expectations of the University and respond in a way that addresses those expectations, whilst limiting to the fullest extent possible any impact on our freedom to do what we would really like to do. Thus we negotiate and agree to generate a surplus of income over expenditure that meets our commitments to contribute to the core costs on the institution, within an overall budget that also allows us to invest in new posts, initiatives or facilities at a Faculty level without needing to go cap in hand to the University. Similarly, we adapt and translate institutional priorities and objectives into action plans that address what’s important to us in a way that satisfies the wider goal.

Hundreds of thousands (and possibly even millions) of words have been devoted to learned tomes and treatises on what constitutes the ideal approach to strategic planning. In my experience though, it’s possible to distil the whole thing down into eighteen lines of Haiku. You read it here first!

Strategic planning :
Work-based creative writing
With limited plot

SMART objectives and
Measurable KPIs
Risk missing the point

Budget projections :
Creating the illusion
Of fiscal control

Detailed data sets
Summarise past performance -
Focus on what's been

Future projections :
How do you rationalise
A chaotic world?

When it's all over
Plus ca change, plus c'est pareil :
It was ever thus.

Analysis of a week in the life of an operations manager

A loss of power
Gives voice to the powerless:
Vindicates concerns;

Denying the truth
Works well as a strategy
Until the cracks show.

Waiting long enough
Creates space for those who know
To cry : Told you so!

Lack of investment
Creates the compelling need
For radical change.

When two distinct melodies
Join in harmony.

Jose Mourinho – ‘the special one’ and hero-leaders

Jose Mourinho has made a spectacular return to football management in the English Premiership. In the early hours of Wednesday morning, Mourinho is announced to the world as the new manager of Tottenham Hotspur football club. Mourinho is a big character : his spells as manager of Chelsea (twice), Real Madrid, Porto, Inter Milan and Manchester United have been characterised by great successes, spectacular lows, and occasional controversy. What has been unstinting has been his belief in his own ability and his sense that he is somehow set apart from other managers : ‘special’.

In his paper on Hero-Leaders in business and cinema* Olivier Fournout summarises the qualities displayed by hero-leaders in a matrix of six features that are held in seemingly competing pairs. In the first place, hero-leaders take on roles. “[They] play at being someone different from who they really are… They may wear masks. They make the show.” At the same time, the hero-leader “has depth – deep emotions and sensations… [and] they exaggerate how strongly they are connected to their sensations, thoughts and emotions”. Mourinho has often been the very embodiment of this tension between the role-player (playing up to the crowd on the touchlines, and acting out the ‘special one’ persona in press conferences) and somebody who displays a profound interiority (reacting instantly and emotionally to incidents on the pitch, or to perceived slights from interviewers).

Hero-leaders are on a mission – striving to achieve “some practical results”. For Mourinho this is winning football matches, bringing trophies to his club. Whilst this is standard for all managers, what marks out the hero-leader is the tension that they create between the desire to win, and the way that they achieve this “through creative or unorthodox moves, by being divergent.” This can lead to the achievement of success despite the odds being against the endeavour (Chelsea’s Premier league success was often achieved through a defensive approach that flew in the face of the broader direction of travel in coaching and tactics at the time). But divergence can have other implications. Hero-leaders bring change, and with it, relative chaos and improvisation.” There is a case for saying that Mourinho’s attempts to impose his vision on Manchester United – to change and improvise at a club with a long and deeply ingrained culture and ethos – was always going to be a tough ask.

Finally, hero-leaders seek to reconcile the tension between acting as negotiators (“opening the door to win/win [outcomes], compromise and shared leadership”) and as ‘special ones’ – holding super-powers that lead them to act “in sudden bursts of all-powerful authority” and “with a sense of omnipotence”.

Fournout contends that managers at all levels will display hero-leader behaviours at various stages in their careers and in response to particular circumstances at particular times. However, he also identifies a particular aspect of the hero-leader that seems to resonate particularly with Mourinho’s managerial career to date : “With time, it seems the features of the hero-leader are pushed forward, intensified, exaggerated, and become more and more spectacular… Not only does this shed light on why it is not easy to be a manager today, but it may also help understand how burnout situations can arise among… top managers who – up to the point where they break – do their job quite successfully”.

There is no doubt in my mind that Mourinho fits Fournout’s hero-manager mould perfectly (and the same is probably true for Guardiola and Klopp, although they seem better able to hold the tensions in creative balance). I genuinely hope that Mourinho is successful at Tottenham. I have a deep affection for Spurs – a club that always tries to play the game the right way. It will be interesting to see whether Mourinho 2019 is a little wiser, a little cooler and a little more able to hold his hero-leader qualities in check. If not, it will at least be fun while it lasts!

* “The Hero-Leader Matrix in Business and Cinema : Fournout O. : Journal of Business Ethics (2017) Vol. 141 pp.27-46

Can’t blog now, I’m in a meeting!

Roy Lilley is a management consultant who specialises in health policy. His Twitter feed is ascerbic, humorous and insightful in equal measure, and he pulls nom punches when it comes to unnecessary bureaucracy in the NHS and elsewhere. The poem above is taken from Lilley’s website and will – I suspect – resonate with anybody who has had the dubious pleasure of working in any large organisation. The curse of meetings is certainly not restricted to the public sector!

Earlier this week, the BBC reported on research conducted on the University of Malmo in Sweden that workplace meetings are now best understood as a form of employee therapy. They are places where people go to have their status reinforced or to voice frustrations and resentments. Whilst there are now generally more meetings in workplaces than ever, few decisions are made in them. Professor Patrik Hall, who led the research observes that meetings “are becoming increasingly frequent – as more managerial and ‘strategy’ jobs generate more meetings.” Organisations have seen the ratio of ‘doing’ jobs decline in proportion to “‘meetings-intense’ roles such as strategists, advisers, consultants and managers.”

However, it’s not just that there has been a proliferation of strategy-focused roles. To make matters worse, the new roles are “often not very well defined… [m]any managers don’t know what to do… and when they are ‘unsure of their role’, they respond by generating more meetings.” This can lead to negativity towards meetings, but this can be partly explained by the fact that the purpose of the meeting is rarely understood. If seen as a means of legitimising the role and authority of attendees and helping to assert a sense of organisational belonging, then it matters less whether the meeting is productive in its own right.

It’s an interesting perspective and one that I’m not sure that I completely go along with. I do though recognise the phenomenon of an increase in ‘directors’, ‘project managers’, ‘programme managers’, and the like leading to a growth in meetings, and demands on operational managers to provide data, information, and other inputs to ‘feed the machine’. The correlation between ‘meetings-intense’ role proliferation and stress levels amongst operational staff is an area that is ripe for further research.

In the meantime, I have to go now – I’ve got a meeting in five minutes!

Not in the right frame of mind for this one – yet

Day 6 : “When you feel you can’t do something, add the word ‘yet'”.

An admission. This challenge is really meant for day 7, but I’ve skipped day 6 for now and will return to it when I’ve got a bit more time at the weekend. Spoiler alert : it involves cooking!

So – returning to today’s challenge. I have a problem with this one. It sounds a little bit like one of those motivational posters that are so beloved of office-based television sitcoms. You know the sort of thing : “There’s no i in team”; or “The only way to guarantee failure is never to try”; or “Don’t just wish it, work for it”. Now these may work for some people, and if that’s you, then all the best to you. My problem with them is that all too often they are a really poor substitute for actually creating the sort of workplace where people want to collaborate in teams, are encouraged and supported to try and occasionally fail, and go the extra mile to make things happen. There seems to be a growing trend in organisations to overlook the basics in favour of gimmicks and trendy fads that create the impression of change or progress, but which fail to address the fundamentals. Worse than that, we now have universities seeking some form of credit for addressing the inequities and injustices that are inherent in casual and precarious contracts for academic and administrative staff; or the BBC seeking plaudits for addressing the appalling discrimination evidenced by the gender pay gap that existed (and continues to some extent) for broadcast talent. When staff in these organisations continue to campaign for fair pensions, or better pay and conditions for all staff, management seems almost to feel aggrieved that their efforts to address key structural inequalities haven’t been placidly accepted by a grateful workforce. In reality of course, fair pay, secure contracts, decent terms and conditions – these are all hygiene factors in workforce relations terms. They do not motivate in themselves because they are the basic expectation of employees in any reasonable organisation. Their absence will lead to anger and demoralisation but don’t expect gratitude for getting the basics right. I may stop feeling so frustrated by this sort of stuff soon – but not yet!

Thoughts from my virtual notice board

improve the silence

It’s been two days of back-to-back meetings. Most of them have been productive and interesting, but not all. Some decisions have been taken, lots of information has been shared. Data has been pored over and questions raised. Projects have progressed – not always to the extent hoped, but they’ve moved on a little. I’m not one for talking a lot in meetings unless I have something worthwhile to contribute to the subject under discussion. In general, if I have nothing to add, I’m very happy to add nothing. It’s a function of my introverted thinking style and preference – I don’t need to think out loud and generally I’m not comfortable externalizing my thought processes. The Borges quote sits very comfortably with me, although I acknowledge that it infuriates those extroverts who work (and live!) with me. I do try to adapt my style sometimes, but I’m very happy with the silence.

achieve great thingsThe university that I work for is in the midst of a lot of change. Having spent much of the last two years working out where we want to be in the next five years, the pressure is now on to do the things that will get us there. There are some very large projects under way. A £300m plus new campus in the city centre; a £90m new library and learning commons building in the existing Clifton Campus; and new information systems to better manage student and financial data across the institution. Beneath these, there is a host of smaller initiatives running : new teaching programmes; small-scale improvements to existing buildings and facilities; process improvements to improve the service to students and academic staff.

All of this generates a significant additional workload for many of us alongside the ‘business as usual’ day job (which has to be done in addition to the sexy, project stuff). There are often days and weeks where there are simply not enough hours to get it all done, and this is where the Italian proverb comes in handy. It’s always worth remembering that a good plan well executed is always more effective than a perfect plan that never gets off the shelf. Implementation done well enough is always preferable to perfect intentions.

dalai lamaAnd finally, there’s this quote from the Dalai Lama. It’s a timely and necessary reminder that however busy things get, you must always make the time to live. When busy-ness gets in the way of life, then it’s time to review what really matters and to re-focus on what’s important.



Working from home : an informal guide

In common with many people, I occasionally choose to work from home rather than going into the office. Admittedly, the distinction between home and work had become more blurred for me in the past 15 months. ‘Home’ during the week has been a University hall of residence less than 15 minutes walk from the office. Nevertheless, I do occasionally still choose to stay in my apartment and work there, and this raises some interesting questions that may have a wider resonance with the reader of this blog.

What to wear?

There is a whole world of advice available to the modern man on what to wear in the office. But there is very little on what is appropriate attire for working from home. Historically, this would not have been a problem. However, we now have Skype (other video-conferencing services are available). This is a nightmare for the home-worker. Whereas I’d prefer to be sitting there in pyjama bottoms and a T shirt, there is the outside chance that my boss will call me up on screen at any moment. It’s a kind of sartorial Russian roulette – smart casual or full-on slob?


It is beyond debate that productivity soars for those working at home compared to those working in the office. I’ve conducted extensive research with all of the people who I know who work from home occasionally, and we all agree that : “Gosh! I get so much more done when I don’t have all the – you know – interruptions of the office.” So there’s no doubt that my employer gets their full value from each hour that I spend slaving at my dining table. In fact, because my work intensity goes up, I need to take longer breaks to avoid burn-out. This presents a major headache : is it best to time your break to coincide with Homes Under the Hammer, or should you wait until Bargain Hunt? (Non-UK readers may need to substitute alternative daytime TV shows here, but I promise that the dilemma will be the same). I have now adopted a contingency approach. Thanks to the frequency with which daytime television programmes are repeated, it’s possible to take a micro-break at the start of HUTH, and then convert it into a full break if it’s one  haven’t seen before.


I’ll confess that this blog post was prompted by a tweet from a colleague who is herself working from home today. She wrote simply : “How many mince pies is acceptable when working from home? #askingforafriend”. Amongst a stream of replies from people who were ‘working’ in the office at the time (I’ve taken all their names for future reference) was my personal favourite : “They come in boxes of six for a reason”. Nothing more needs to be said. Working at high intensity all day burns enormous amounts of calories that only cake, sweets and fizzy drinks can ever hope to replenish.


In addition to the perils of Skype, home workers must also balance the demands that will be placed on them by all manner of other communications devices and routes when working from home. Instant messenger software, e-mail, landline telephone and mobile phone will all be used by resentful colleagues as a means to try to ‘catch you out’. Fortunately, the rapid expansion of free, high quality wifi in most major coffee shop chains means that – with judicious selection of your seat – it’s possible to replicate the home ambience whilst enjoying a cappuccino and slice of carrot cake (which must be kept out of view of the video camera at all costs!). Whatever you do, make sure you select the same seat each time you visit though. Trying to explain away the regular changes in your living room wallpaper will raise the suspicion that your ‘work’ from home is actually interior design!

I hope that these few words of advice will prove helpful for both novice and more experienced home-workers. And if you’re reading this while ‘working from home’, then you have my utmost respect.