Life in a Notspot

On Tuesday the BBC released information on the ‘hotspots’ and ‘notspots’ of broadband access around the UK. Their research put pay to the theory that it’s always those who live in rural areas that struggle as many of the worst areas were in commuter belts. Villages practically next door to each other can have varying levels of connectivity.

mapThe Samknows map took postcodes from across the UK in areas with known slow connections, or zero broadband availability, and plotted them on a map. On the map the red dots represent postcodes with ADSL broadband speeds of less than 512Kbps and the blue dots represent postcodes with ADSL broadband speeds of less than 2Mbps, while black dots represent areas where no broadband is available – under 1% of homes in the UK cannot get any broadband at all.

All this information is a little worrying given that the government has pledged to provide all homes in the UK with speeds of at least 2Mbps by 2012.

Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones has also been carrying out a timed download test in locations round the UK. The BBC allows you to test your own broadband speed using it’s connection tester and then add a comment on its broadband map.

I thought I’d have a go at this. My speed varied between 0.8 and 1.3 Mbps (depending on when I took the test and which browser I used – IE seemed to be slower). It took me almost 50 seconds to download a 10Mb quick time file. I am officially a notspot (though Thinkbroadband, a site where you can report broadband problems, would classify me as a slowspot). It’s quite possible that the test isn’t accurate, though a quick check on broadbandspeedtest did come up with similar results.

A “not-spot” is an area where you can’t get broadband services (at all, or at a reasonable cost)

A “slow-spot” is an area where you can only get a broadband service with a speed of below 2 Mbps (downstream)

On a day to day basis I don’t have any problems using the connection and can do all I need to (including uploading video), though there are moments when I might need to do a bit of reading while I wait for a large file to arrive. I don’t do a lot of work with high quality images or videos and manage to watched streamed video fairly OK. I live in a pretty old house so my problems might be to do with the state of the wiring or something related.

I don’t really feel disadvantaged in anyway but maybe if my job did entail working on big files I might feel differently. It seems the decision over whether an individual can be a remote worker isn’t just dependant on whether their organisation will allow it or how responsible they are as an individual. It also depends on where they live.

I also noticed that on the ‘Have your say’ section someone had commented “How long is it going to be before people who want a fast connection ask estate agents, “How fast is the internet connection at that address?” – this is an interesting one. My post on the House of the Future speculated that in the future setting your house up for home working would be a real bonus. Perhaps now that geographic connectivity is being openly charted broadband connection will be one of the searches that solicitors look into? Something along the lines of “...Are you on a flood plain? Are you in a broadband notspot?

If that’s the case maybe I do need to shout louder and have Mr Government pop round and fix our local fibres!

Time Zone Trouble

I recently received an email asking for a bit of advice on time zone trouble. The email went along the lines of:

I’m working for a company where we have an office in the UK, and an office in California. These have an 8 hour time difference. The team in the UK is a small team that works semi-autonomously, but it requires better communication with the US head office than we currently have. I’m looking for help with strategies on getting people communicating better with a large time difference. Any advice, gratefully received.

This is a tricky one. On this blog and in the articles I’ve written I’ve mentioned lots of synchronous forms of communication (telephony, VOIP, virtual meetings, chat, Twitter etc.) but all of these rely on people being around at the same time to be effective. An 8 hour lag makes for a fairly stilted conversation…

However globalisation of work is happening more and more and small amounts of time difference can be over come as Amanda Hill’s explained in her recent guest blog post.

The time difference between the UK and Eastern Canada can occasionally be problematic. It works fine for me, as I am part-time on Names and usually work on that in the morning, when UK folk are putting in their afternoon’s work. Then I can work on the Dundee module (or my garden) in my afternoon. I find that Twitter really helps in keeping connected with my various professional communities.

timezonePhoto by wijkerslooth. One possibility is to use the time zones to an organisation’s advantage. This would mean ones work place enabling staff to work around the clock (i.e. making sure the office is open and accessible late at night). Teams could also look at the order of certain tasks – tasks that require the other team’s input are carried out later in the day. Maybe some tasks or chats could even be carried out in employees homes. Staff could work later from home one day and come into the office later the next day. Flexible working means that there could be some time zone overlap (make sure you pay your team back though for their extra hours!) As long as the schedules are rotated and workers don’t always have to work out-of-hours this shouldn’t be too much of a problem. The key is that everyone is clear on what the situation is, knows what time it is in the other office and who it is OK to call. Otherwise there might be some very cross employees taking part in conference calls in the pyjamas! One idea might be to schedule a call every day at the end of the UK day and the beginning of the US day.

Without being online at the same time teams will be restricted to asynchronous communication. This means that quite a lot of work must be carried out early to allow the other team enough time to reflect on it/use it. What you don’t want to do is waste precious time in a difficult to schedule meeting with everyone catching up on documentation.

Technology wise a few ideas might be:

  • Use a time zone software like timeanddate.com.
  • Use something that allows conversation threads (like the Facebook threads) as well as email.
  • If you want to use Twitter make sure you agree on an appropriate hashtag for filtering so you can pick up tweets later on.
  • Try a project blog so everyone is kept up to date with the current status of work. Shared project management tools can also help and Wikis for collaboration on documents.
  • Let the team to have mobile email devices.
  • Use an organisational Intranet.
  • Try making short videos to send over. This will allow the teams to get to know each other better and clarify things that can’t be explained in an email.
  • Use meeting planner software like Whenisgood Meetingmade, – more ideas in this Web Work Daily article entitled How to Plan Virtual Meetings With a Global Teleworking Team.

Thanks to Twitter people for help with some of these ideas. Any more suggestions?

Why Video?

While Rembering the value of face to face I mentioned the use of video as possible option, for virtual meetings etc.

These days video recording devices are generally more accessible (cheaper and easier to use) and video is increasingly being created and used by ‘lay people’. Just about anyone with access to some recording equipment can create a short video, from the comfort of their own desk or while out and about at a conference or meeting. Video has great potential for us remote workers and I wanted to have a think out loud about why we should and how we could use video more.

Anyway here is an actual bit of footage for you to see! It’s me talking about ‘why video?’. I created it using my Logitech quickcam Webcam. It took me about 5 minutes to make and 10 minutes to upload to Vimeo.

Just in case you can’t watch the video the key points I make for ‘why video’ are:

Amplifying a Conference
Recording a talk or videoing a presentation can allow the content to be amplified. Amplified conference is a term coined by Lorcan Dempsey (former director of UKOLN) in a blog post in 2008. The idea is that the conference outputs (including ppts and video and audio recordings of speakers) can be amplified in order to extend the reach of the conference using networked technologies. This amplification takes place across time and space.

Reaching a Wider Audience
As video resources can stretch across time and space people who can’t be at a particular event can now still engage with it. This is particularly useful for remote workers and those who live geographically a long way away from where events are taking place. No need for time travel, people can now be in two places at once! We video staff seminars here at UKOLN and people who are out on the day they take place can also enjoy them.

Giving People a Visual Perspective
Most of us like to “see” something as well us just “read” it. Some people also learn more from visual content. In marketing speak video can be used to “enhance the consumer experience”. It gives a different dimension to blogs and Web sites and it gives you, the creator, a voice and face. It can also help you connect better with your audience. A short video can potentially be worth a thousand words or ppt slides. Why not try interviewing people, making a short documentary, demonstrating how to do something online, creating a response piece, have a go, experiment!

Video Conferencing
If people can’t be somewhere then video is the next best thing. It can be used in virtual meetings and conferences, it saves money on travel and is of course much more environmentally friendly. I hope to be looking at video conferencing more in the future (thanks to Owen Stephens for the suggestions).

If you are going to create video then think about allowing people to reuse your video. Share it. Put it on YouTube, Vimeo, Facebook, etc. Put a creative commons licences on it. But also be wise to copyright – if you’re going to use a pop song for your soundtrack there may be issues!

I found the See3 guide to online video really useful – it has some easy to follow tips for getting started.

At UKOLN we are trying to create and use video more. We have recently purchased a new compact digital camera, a digital video camera with microphone, a Flip camera and a digital sound recorder. More on those soon…

Home Working Survey

The Telework Association is currently running a survey collecting data about the productivity of people who work at home for some or all of their working time. This is the first of what will be an annual survey and they are comparing home working productivity with productivity of conventional working.

Please have a go at completing the survey. There are just 10 questions so it shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes.

If you know of any other people who work from home, however occasionally, then please pass this on.

They are also running a webinar entitled Flexible Working – Good for Everyone? on 15th June 2009 : 2pm – 4.30pm. The webinar is being delivered by Wisework Ltd and will include a panel of experts, to whom participants will be able to pose questions.

Remembering the Value of Face to Face

To date I’ve remained true to the primary focus of this blog and have avoided areas like e-learning and distance/remote learning (mainly because they are big topics and I don’t know where to start!)

However on reading the Higher Education in a Web 2.0 World report written by the Committee of Inquiry into the Changing Learner Experience (CLEX) I couldn’t help but consider some of the overlaps.

The report provides a “coherent and accessible account of the potential for Web 2.0 technologies in higher education” and makes for a very good read.

One incite that struck me was something that Andy Powell also pointed out in his blog post. When discussing whether there is still a role for universities in a Web 2.0 world Andy concludes that luckily for universities “there are strong hints in the report that aspects of the traditional university, face to face tutor time for example, are well liked by their customers“.

Learners

The report repeatedly makes the observation that “face to face contact with staff – the personal element in study – matters to students“. When considering student expectations before enrolment, face to face teaching was found to be preferable to that via technology. This is to some extent directed by the influence of the school model where face to face teaching is the norm. Not only this but personal teaching is something fee paying students expect as part of their ‘purchase’.

However physicality isn’t always possible (or desired). When talking about ongoing drivers to change the CLEX report talks about diversity in the learner population and makes the observation that:

e-Learning incorporating Web 2.0 offers the sense of being a contributing member of a learning community, which is one of the hallmarks of higher education. For learners unable to participate in an actual community for some, or even all, of the time – notably part-time, distance and, increasingly, work-based – Web 2.0 may be a reasonable proxy.

Of course for most learners the use of ICT and Web technologies will go hand in hand with personal contact, which is the ideal solution.

Remote Workers

The need for that personal contact resonates strongly with many remote workers. A quick look at the guest posts will confirm. Although remote working is for many a lifestyle choice it is also quite often a necessity. Despite the advantages it brings most who have tried it will acknowledge that sometimes nothing compares with meeting with people in the flesh. For many of us much work can be carried out in front of a PC, some work can be carried out using social networking tools but for other tasks (notably those that require quick interaction -like a meeting) the preferred option is face to face.

The extinction of face to face meetings has been predicted many-a-time (along with the paperless office and a world without books). Back in 2005 Alan R. Winger wrote an article for Business Horizons entitled Face-to-face communication: Is it really necessary in a digitizing world? in which he argued that despite changing technologies it was still the best way to communicate for two main reasons:

First, being physically close brings into play in a robust way all of the senses: sight, sound, smell and touch. There are more than a few differing types of contact. Messages can be expressed vocally, the content of which can be the outcome of rational thought. Vocally, the content can express feelings both in terms of what is said and how it is said. Perhaps even more important is the ability to see another when face-to-face, which brings nonverbal cues such as body gestures and facial expressions into the fray. Many consider these to be critically important in business communication. Being near also permits touching and smelling, both of which can provide important clues in some discussions.

Second is the matter of speed. Information communicated in a face-to-face setting is instantaneously received, as is any resulting response. In this sense, speed is argued to contribute significantly in situations where the problems to be dealt with are best addressed with knowledge contained in the minds of those working to find solutions, i.e., tacit knowledge.

So now we remote workers are in a predicament. Face to face is preferable for some tasks but often not possible. Luckily the CLEX report concludes that if face to face is not possible “ICT (can be) accepted as an adjunct if managed well“.

My previous Ariadne articles have offered suggestions (such as virtual meetings) and I hope in the near future to write more about the use of video, which is one possible approach.

I suppose as remote workers with limited time and limited organisational budget for travel the trick is identifying which face to face activities hit the biggest score productivity wise.

For now I’d argue those that:

  • include problems that need people to use tacit knowledge to find solutions
  • pack the most into the shortest time (conferences)
  • include the most opportunities for networking
  • can’t be well replicated using video or audio
  • are mission critical to a project

should be first on the list.

Any thoughts?

Also any thoughts on the connections between remote and e-learning and remote working. How about remote research? I’d be happy to broaden my scope if people are OK with it.

A week of Remote Working

logo-smlAre you working from home as you read this? Work Wise UK, a not-for-profit initiative which aims to make the UK one of the most progressive economies in the world by encouraging the widespread adoption of smarter working practices, have been running their annual Work Wise Week and today is National Work from Home Day.

The week runs from Tuesday, May 12, until Monday, May 18. This skewed ‘week’ is to emphasise the need for flexible working practices. There are a number of themed days:

Mobile Office Day (Tuesday, May 12) - encouraging people to work while on the move, instead of travelling to a central office.

Remote Office Day (Wednesday, May 13) – encouraging people to use remote offices instead of travelling to a central office. These would include serviced office space, touch down centres or even hot spots such as coffee shops.

Virtual Meeting Day (Thursday, May 14) – encouraging people to conduct meetings by audio or video conferencing or go online instead of travelling to meetings. BT.com have been offering organisations the opportunity to take part with a free trial of its WebEx virtual meeting service.

National Work from Home Day (Friday, May 15) – this will be the fourth time this day has been run. It will encourage people to work from home instead of commuting to their usual place of work.

Smarter Travel Day (Monday, May 18) – the concluding day of the week will encourage people to travel outside peak times. Coming into work an hour early, and then leaving an hour early at the end of the day, or going an hour later, and leaving an hour later. This will reduce the peak rush hour, and make the commuting experience far more bearable for many.

Slipped the Net Here at UKOLN

Somehow the Work Wise Week details had managed to avoid my daily trawl for remote working information. I have a feeling that last year the National Work from Home Day was bigger business, maybe the recession has had some effect on enthusiasm to try out new things. Or maybe it’s just me that’s missed it? We haven’t managed to organise anything here at UKOLN but it might be a bit like preaching to the converted as UKOLN already supports flexible and remote working. It’s some of the bigger ‘more conservative’ businesses who could do with a bit of gentle persuasion that remote working is good for business.

Has your organisation or company been doing anything special for Work Wise Week?

Remoter Remote Working

A discussion on Twitter about whether it would be problematic (or even possible) to be a remote worker if based in a different country from your employer led to me asking Amanda Hill to write a guest blog post for us. Amanda is an archival consultant based in Ontario, Canada but works on a number of UK projects. Amanda is fervent Twitterer and her Web site provides links to all her current activities.

**********************
Amanda HillWhen Marieke first suggested that I write a post on long-distance remote working, my initial response was to think “But it’s no different from remote working in the UK!“. Many of the issues described on Marieke’s blog apply to me as they do to the more usual variety of remote worker. I identify with a lot of them, for example those around time management, environmental concerns, technologies for remote working (and working in a freezing cold office!). Although I must admit to having been horrified by Marieke’s post about rarely having a proper lunch, which made me lie awake at night, fretting, until I’d come up with a week’s worth of healthy lunches to suggest for her.

Internet connectivity is obviously essential for a remote worker, wherever you are. We had been blithely informed by the telecoms company that we would be able to get high-speed internet in our rural corner of Ontario. This turned out to be a whopping lie, leaving us relying on dial-up for the first month or two of our new life. We’ve now got a satellite internet connection, which is wonderful compared to dial-up, but fairly slow (and very expensive) in relation to the broadband we’d got used to in the UK. The connection is fairly good, although very bad weather tends to knock it out, so a big snowstorm or thunderstorm (both of which are quite common here) might leave us unconnected for a while.

I have two UK roles. One is as a tutor on a distance-learning module called ‘Ethics and International Perspectives’, part of the University of Dundee’s MLitt in Archives and Records Management. I’d been doing this from Manchester for three years before leaving the UK, so had always been a remote worker in that context and really noticed very little change on continuing it here in Canada. Except that now I truly did have an international perspective!

The other role is as the project manager for the Names project. This was a new role and has been more of a challenge, if only because people don’t really expect a project manager for a UK project to be based overseas. I’ve been in the embarrassing situation of having had conference calls timed to suit me (with West-coast Americans having to get up ridiculously early) by people who thought I was still in Manchester. The work on the project itself has been going fine, although a huge amount of the credit for that must go to the project team members in the UK. There have been meetings that I really should have gone to that have been attended by others, simply because there are limits to the number of times I feel able to cross the Atlantic in a year. When I do visit the UK, I tend to cram in meetings galore to make the most of my trips. And at least one decent curry – as this area is sadly lacking in Indian restaurants.

The time difference between the UK and Eastern Canada can occasionally be problematic. It works fine for me, as I am part-time on Names and usually work on that in the morning, when UK folk are putting in their afternoon’s work. Then I can work on the Dundee module (or my garden) in my afternoon. I find that Twitter really helps in keeping connected with my various professional communities. It is like being in a big open plan office with all those people (but without ever having to make them cups of tea).

One area that might be a problem for long-distance remote workers is integration with their local community. I think that if I had only worked on UK projects here, I might have found it difficult to meet people beyond our immediate neighbours. Shortly after emigrating, I took on another part-time job as an archivist in a nearby town (Deseronto), where I work one day a week. This has given me a local role, too, which has been invaluable in helping me to settle into Canadian life.

Deseronto Post Office,

Deseronto Post Office, taken from the Deseronto archives Flickr Collection.

So overall, I don’t think that remoter remote working is all that different than the regular type. Except that the phrase ‘time management’ becomes even more significant when there’s a five-hour gap between you and your employer!