Work and isolation

On the same day that I saw a journalist in London seeking to speak with people about workplace isolation, a friend in California noted that she wanted to have a little social but found that her real world community was either virtual or non-existent.

My friend in California chalked her lack of community down to her being an entrepreneur, where long hours of work mean one’s options to socialise are mainly people who are employees or customers, both of which can be awkward.

When I mentioned workplace isolation to friends in senior corporate jobs, one quipped that this isolation malarkey was all down to people opting to work in the gig economy. Another noted, with a sigh, that the more senior one became in a large corporation, the more isolated one became, with fewer and fewer people seeing one as human, and fewer still willing to speak truths to power, so to speak. Indeed the story of António Horta Osório, the CEO of Lloyds Bank in the UK, and his spiralling into depression that led to a breakdown is well-known and one of the few honest stories of the impact of isolation to come out in public.

Without even reflecting over my own career of over 20 years, I know instinctively that the gig economy did not create workplace isolation. It is an existential condition of human beings to seek both camaraderie and company, and solitude: the former perhaps to generate ideas and to rejuvenate the self, the latter to reflect, create, and indeed, rejuvenate.

My experience of isolation in corporate life came from many sources. One  of them was being a gender minority. I even wrote a piece about my experience in Cosmopolitan magazine’s India edition around 1996-97. While my male colleagues were good people, it was tricky to socialise with them weekend after weekend. The city I lived in, Delhi, did not then have public transport so it was expensive, unreliable, unsafe, or all of the above to go across town to attend book readings or see films etc.  My solution was to start learning German on the weekends, which earned me much mockery but also a career break into Europe to open a new country office.

That unfortunately brought its own flavour of isolation. This time I was in Switzerland’s German speaking region, as a gender, ethnicity, and apparently age minority in the IT industry. My coping was hugely eased by my friendship with two others in a similar boat, both foreign to the German speaking regions in their own ways.

I then transitioned to a role in the UK where my team was spread across time zones. That was splendid isolation indeed as I began work at home at about 4.30am to catch my Asia-based team members as they began the day and the work day rolled on all the way to California. Going into the office was an option but I needed a few hours in the day unplugged. This is the bit of my experience now cited in this FT article the journalist mentioned earlier was writing.

You see, there are many ways the structure of corporate work and workplaces can be isolating.

My life as an independent consultant and advisor, an entrepreneur if you will, after the corporate stint, has been a solitary experience, save for meeting clients at lunch and sometimes friends for coffee. This fits the cliched image of the gig economy that I mentioned earlier.

Yet somehow we cope. And many of us continue to thrive.

My sense is that women cope better. Most women are socialised to seek and build communities, “to tend and befriend” not just in times of great stress. The web is helping break geographical barriers and enhance some sense of community. MumsNet is a well-known example of such a community. Several closed and secret groups of women founders and leaders thrive on Facebook. Some such as Blooming Founders and NOI Club have physical world components too. With the burdensome expectations of performance of masculine behaviour, men suffer silently — and alone — in their loneliness. This does not help workplaces or society.

Institutionalised solutions are emerging too. The gig economy worker, the entrepreneur and the small-corporate worker alike now have options. WeWork provides co-working spaces, designed to foster serendipitous and organic networking. The company has diversified into providing co-living in a few cities around the world too and it is branded WeLive.

Some criticise WeLive as an extension of dormitory or student halls living but really now! In the face of all this evidence of loneliness and isolation, that is the best criticism you can come up with?

As I said to Emma in that FT article, loneliness can have an existential quality. It forces us to examine the meaning of life in ways being surrounded by people all the time does not make feasible. From that isolation emerge creativity and ingenuity. But it can also foster mental health and addiction problems for many.

The real solution for us all lies perhaps in Goldilocks’s perfect porridge — not too much isolation, not too much cacophony of human company. Each person’s “perfect” however will differ.

What does all this mean for the design of work and workplaces? And indeed for our lives and societies?

As I see it, we may need a complete rethink of our shared and personal spaces. For workplaces, it could mean the provisioning of both open spaces to socialise and banter, and closed, quieter spaces to think and do actual work, sometimes energised by that interaction. Our living spaces need similar possibilities, if not within our own homes, then within the larger context of our neighbourhoods and cities we live in.

Politically and socially, we seem to be in an upheaval worldwide. Many are selling us the nostalgia of a glorious past, which, some argue, keep us from imagining better futures.

In this churn, could we hope to create a new order of things that are actually designed to serve the humans that use or inhabit them? Much like the Arts & Crafts movement’s thinking on spaces, a hundred years on?

I need to reflect on this. Alone. Perhaps you do too. Let’s convene later!

Losing and finding your mojo as a founder

This article is the fourteenth in the Startup Series on FirstPost’s Tech2 section and first appeared on April the 21st, 2017.

The journey of a founder can be exhausting. Those in solid founder teams too don’t just have a collective experience; they also have their own, personal experiences of the founding journey. It is not always easy to be in sync with others on the team, or their level of focus or motivation. Decisions are not always easy to make or consensual. Role cleavage is not simple or trivial, and yet without it, things may start to slow down. Given all this, it shouldn’t surprise us to know that founders often lose their mojo.

An entrepreneur I advise has had several such phases through the years. Helping him work through them has been a lesson in human resilience and the purposiveness that drives founders. Crucially, he has come out of each such phase with renewed vigour and focus. That should give hope to other founders in the same situation.

Building a venture is hard work but also strangely exhilarating. Even the tiredness is satisfying because you know you are building your dream and you cannot wait for the morning to come so another day could dawn and you get on with it. Intrinsically rewarding activities can be quite motivating for founders and others.

But what when you start finding all that work fills you with negative feelings instead of the exhilaration you expect? It is time to ask tough questions, to answer them honestly and to take appropriate action.

One of the more business-related, less soul-searching type, questions to ask is about founder-product or founder-market fit, which is more crucial than product-market fit to the success of a startup, especially for first time founders. This fit could come from the founder’s or founders’ core values, or their commitment to a cause, or their deep interest in the product category. Is it a lack of this fit that is dragging on you? If so, what can you do to change that?

It is also worth thinking about the specific things about your work that take the wind out of your sails and the things that energise you. The founder I mentioned earlier found the CEO responsibilities difficult to balance with the creative aspect of the work he wanted to do. There were also other activities that needed developing and executing but neither did he enjoy doing those nor were they the best use of his time or skills. With some introspection, he identified the need to expand his team to bring in skills that he did not have, and the skills that could be hired in and scaled without needing him to be involved in managing. He also realised he had to get really good at planning and time management so he could fulfill both the roles he wanted to.

Crucially, it is worth delving deeper. If the venture does not really excite you as much as you anticipated at the very beginning, why are you still here, working your socks off? Is it your ego at work? Do you feel beholden to commitments made to others? Do you fear failure? Is it a sense of deontology at work? Are you indulging in sunk cost fallacy? Something else? The founder I mentioned earlier has an overarching commitment to practising and defending certain values with vigour. When he has bad days, we talk over the issues separating the operational niggles from the strategic challenges. The exercise helps him not be overwhelmed and instead focus back with renewed vigour on what matters most to him and the startup.

Last but not the least, building a startup venture is like any long term relationship. There will be good days and there will be bad days. Good days are easy, uplifting, energising. However if you cannot hack the bad days, the relationship will feel toxic and draining. But if the bad days are too numerous and frequent, and overwhelm the good days, it may be advisable to consider quitting altogether.

What happens next?

Most people who quit a really bad relationship don’t “fall in love again” without a shed load of hard work either by themselves or in therapy. Founders who quit because the bad overwhelms the good may need some time with themselves to understand how to avoid the same fate the next time around. Knowing what sort of person you are is a good and essential first step.

Trust in the Internet god, but…

The definition of “essential” is essentially transitory.

When I was growing up in a medium-sized city in India, ours was one of the few homes with a personal telephone connection. Neighbours used to come and receive urgent phone calls in our house. Sometimes we would receive messages to pass them on to people. Neither of this was always pleasant because invariably the phone did ring just as we sat down to dinner. But somehow not many thought of the phone as essential.

Now all of us have mobile phones. Telling somebody our minute by minute progress, as we stand in the vestibule on a crowded train, is now essential, I suppose, as is filling every moment of our time with activity and productivity. Ubiquitous access to the web and all our work files, photos and the like are also deemed essential now.

So what do we do? We back-up everything. Online. On a server owned by someone else, who gives us a login and a password to access our own stuff, but we believe it is to keep our stuff safe from prying eyes.

Besides the presumption of web access, the real “essential” here is trust. The kind of trust one places in a bank before one hands over all of one’s jewellery to them in a safe-box. This was a common practice in India, during my childhood, although I couldn’t say what happens nowadays even as Indians continue to have amongst them a few Fort Knoxes worth of gold.

What happens when that trust is broken? When the company goes bust overnight? When they suddenly ask you to sign up with changed terms and conditions, and a fee, holding your files and photos to ransom in the meanwhile, as Poonam found out? Or when their service is poor, their sense of responsibility abysmal and you find that despite paying up in the beta, you cannot retrieve your own files and photo, as Jason found out?

The essential truth here is that the web cannot be ubiquitous until trustworthiness of web service providers is ubiquitous.

And until such a miracle happens, please trust in the Internet god, but please also take backups on a portable, removable hard disk that you have in your possession.

Related reading:

Putting Things Off – the laid back productivity blog

How to procrastinate

Do you have a backup?

Learning from the woes of third world web workers

Do Wii agree?

I learnt this morning, via Paul Kedrosky, of Om Malik having suffered a heart attack. Om is 43, and a leading Silicon Valley technology journalist, commentator and writer, whose influential commentary is widely read. It sounds dreadful and sobering that a 43 year old should have a heart attack.

Om is also of Indian origin. For Indians, the prognosis for health issues especially those associated with weight gain and lifestyle changes, many catalysed by the economic boom and shift in work patterns, is not good.

With a young workforce, health is not a high priority on most agendas. For instance, while not statistically significant or conclusive, it is worth pointing out that there are only 13 articles (as on 4th January 2008) on health on the most widely read, eponymous blog on the Indian Economy. Of these, 4 articles were written by me.

At some level, we all know that it is not advisable to wait for an ‘event’ or ‘doctor’s orders‘ to make lifestyle changes which may affect our health positively. Even small changes would make a difference for many, whose lives are mostly sedentary.

Confusion caused by disagreement between experts is often cited as a reason by people not making a change, because they do not know what advice to follow. This disagreement can be seen not just in dietary advice but also in exercise related advice. If you were one of the fortunate few, who got a Nintendo Wii in their Christmas stocking, you may be interested in the Wii’s relative health impact on otherwise sedentary lives. You can read the whole post titled ‘Do Wii agree?over on my Obesity blog.