Personal reflections on how I prefer to work

I’ve seen a number of people posting ‘This is how I work…’ blog posts recently and in a recent conversation someone mentioned that it was helpful to understand how colleagues prefer to consume information and get their work done. That’s made me wonder whether it might be something that would be useful for us to do across the HackIT team to help us understand one another’s working preferences, especially as we are still a relatively new team in our current form.

This is my attempt at that, reflecting on the way I work and trying to see whether I can draw out some themes.

Where and when I do my work

One of the aspects of Hackney that I really appreciate is the Council’s progressive approach to work / life balance. We’re still expected to work hard and help the Council deliver its priorities for our residents, but it does mean that the organisation is supportive of people’s different needs and has policies that back that up.

In practice for me this means that I usually start early and leave at a reasonable time (usually c 5.30pm) which fits well with my family life. I can also organise the start and end of my day to do my share of school drops / pickups without feeling awkward about that. Having easy access to my work stuff from anywhere, any device, any time also really helps me as I can finish things off while I’m travelling, making it easier to switch off when I get home.

Early in my career I would often find that I ended up getting work done over the weekends and in the evening, but I’m much more careful about that now. Apart from emergencies / on call duty I try to make sure that I switch off when I get home and be part of normal family life. There are still times when I will pick something up at odd hours such as late in the evening or very early in the morning if that helps me get it off my list of things to do. It’s important, however, that I’m clear that me having sent an email late at night does not mean that I expect a reply until the normal working day. Convenience for me mustn’t become an obligation on others.

Being available, but also finding time for me

I think that an important part of my role is to make myself accessible to colleagues who want to check out some thinking with me or ask for a quick decision so that they can press on with their work. *

The downside of this is that it has the effect of making my normal daily routine very ‘bitty’ as I switch between meetings and conversations to check in with colleagues. I also find that I have to work quite hard to focus on doing just one thing, which can leave me feeling that I’ve made frustratingly little progress on the things I want to prioritise.

To help with this I work from home once a week, which gives me more time to try to focus on substantive things that I need to do. I’m quite protective of this and try to make sure that the ease of connecting over video meetings etc doesn’t mean that my working from home day ends up becoming just another day in the office.

* I much prefer it when these actually are quick check ins / decisions though. I need to get better at asking colleagues who want to talk through more complex things to find a time when we can discuss those properly. I’m learning that using Show & Tells and working in the open through regular weeknotes can help with this too.

How I like to get work done

I enjoy having to think through issues and find ways forward, and I’m happy getting into details of policy, data and technology as part of that. But I also always try to make sure that I’m keeping myself clear about the bigger picture context too. I’m learning to be quicker at spotting when a conversation is at risk of getting lost in the weeds of detail and bring things back on track.

It’s obviously important to make sure that there are clear objectives set out in advance for meetings so that time is used productively, and this is something that we’ve been working on getting better at as a team this year. But I also think it’s important to make sure that meetings are inclusive and to make space for people to express their views and to explore thoughts that might not have been obvious initially. This can be a bit of a balancing act and it’s something that I don’t always get right, but I don’t want to be too dogmatic about agendas at the expense of creativity and encouraging team participation.

To help keep things focused I like to have topics for discussion set out clearly (especially recommendations for decisions and financial data). I find it frustrating when issues are presented without being clearly thought through first or where recommendations aren’t clear. I firmly believe in the importance of everyone taking time to do this ahead of meetings so that we are using our time together well, not wasting it doing work that should be done in advance.

Finally, I don’t like having to broker issues between people when they could easily (and more quickly) have figured it out together themselves. I’m always happy to make time to talk through issues and to help make choices when it’s not been possible to find a clear decision between different options. But my proviso for this is that people have to have at least tried to sort it together first. It’s amazing how often ‘tricky’ issues can be resolved without needing escalation if people put their minds to it. The guiding principle here is that in our team ‘we only win when we all win together’. That doesn’t mean that everyone needs to like a decision, but it must be the one which best fits with Hackney’s values and priorities and the principles that we’ve agreed to work to in our team.

Thinking about how we communicate

I’m finding that the approach we agreed earlier this year for communication in our divisional management team is working well for me. That’s based on:

  • Instant messages (usually Hangouts) for things that are urgent or for quick check-ins / decisions.
  • Sharing less urgent stuff which might be of interest through an online space like a Google+ community or Slack where they can be read though at people’s convenience and follow up can take place as a threaded discussion, not messy ‘reply all’ emails.
  • Keeping email for things which require a less time critical response or where things are being more ‘officially’ handed over between people (don’t ask me to define that too tightly though!).
  • Working on shared documents, rather than passing suggestions and edits back and forth is also a huge win in terms of productivity and mental effort.

I prefer a face to face chat where there’s a more complicated matter to work through (ideally with a simple written summary setting out the discussion points shared in advance where possible). I much prefer a focused 30 minute conversation to a succession of emails.

The stuff I prefer to work with

I use a range of different tools to get my work done and after at least seven years of trying I’ve concluded that looking for the one device to rule them all is a fool’s errand. I also realise that the technology people prefer to use is often a very personal thing, so my list isn’t going to work for everyone.

We hot desk in our office and I find that works very well for me. I was originally allocated a dedicated office, but I actually prefer being closer to the team and think that setting the space up for workshops etc is a much better use of the room. So that’s what we’ve done.

  • I spend lots of my time in meetings and I find that an iPad is the ideal device for most of my work. I prefer the smaller size for its lightness and portability (I have tried the larger format iPad Pro but it was too big for me).
  • I really like using the Apple Pencil together with an app called Paper to sketch out my thoughts (the Pencil is so much better than the many styli I’ve tried previously). I find that people treat ideas that I set out in sketches as ‘thinking aloud’ which can help to facilitate better quality conversations. My observation is that if ideas are written up too neatly in a document or slides it can lead others to assume it’s a done deal, with the result that conversations end up being less creative.
  • When I’m working at a desk in the office I find that a Chromebox is perfect and I try to stick to web based applications wherever possible. The Chromeboxes work really well and are incredibly quick to start up and shut down, which means that even five or ten minute gaps between meetings can be used effectively.
  • At home I use my own MacBook, usually on a stand with a separate keyboard and mouse to try to help improve my posture when seated. I love working on my Mac, but again that’s a personal preference and I know that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea.
  • And I use my (personal) iPhone for lots of my work while I’m out and about. Now that we have easy access to documents etc using smartphone apps I can get a remarkable amount of my work done on the phone, which I find incredibly useful.

I feel quite militant about using modern software that lets me work together with colleagues on shared information, not flinging documents back and forth between one another. That can be a shared document, spreadsheet, Trello board, chat in Slack, a shared task list in Todoist (my favourite by far of the many task list apps I’ve tried) etc, but the important thing is that we work together on something that’s ‘ours’.