Remote Gardening

Last Saturday’s Guardian ran a bring the garden into your office theme for its Work section. The cover story was on the phenomena of shedworking (working from your garden shed). Famous shedworkers listed included writers Philip Pulman, Roald Dahl and Henry Thoreau.

shed from Flickr (Peter Astn)

The main spread provided some great colour photos of garden ‘office’ buildings. People are increasingly running businesses and working from home and are looking for extra space in which to do it. A shed is quite often the answer. The article writer Alex Johnson, blog author of Shedworking talked about the miniaturisation of the office workplace:

A cramped outbuilding which once housed lawnmowers and pots can now comfortably be insulated from the cold, fitted with its own electrics, and link you to anywhere in the world. It’s an alternative workplace revolution.”

It is a lot greener to move words, number and ideas than it is to move people” commented Lloyd Alter, architecture expert at treehugger.com.

Another article in the section talks about how office workers can create their own office allotment by bringing the outdoors in and having some plants on their desk. Surrounding yourself with greenery can reduce tiredness and improve concentration. Enterprise Nation also opts for a Nature suggestion: “One of the joys of working from home is that you can decorate and design your home office in any way you like“.

Anyway all this talk of gardens and greenery has inspired me to share my own ‘remote gardening’ experience with you.

We have a really great garden. It’s contained, spacious and full of lovely looking plants and flowers. It also has lots of really interesting nooks and crannies. Someone must have put a lot of effort into it before we arrived. Having 3 children and jobs to do we don’t get a lot of time for gardening. Growing vegetables has always been a dream of mine but while before I didn’t have the space to do it I now don’t have the time. We have a perfect little patch at the back of the garden and until recently I spent many a minute (while hanging the washing up) looking at it and wishing I could do something with it.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a member of the Melksham Climate friendly group. While at a group meeting many moons back I mentioned my dilemma (space to grow things but no time), another member of the group then mentioned his dilemma (time to grow things but no space). Apparently there is a real shortage of allotments locally, people can end up with their name on the list for years before they get allocated a patch. Anyway a deal was done. My friend could come and tend the patch and use the green house and we would share the offerings. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall stumbled on the same idea not long after (!) and started promoting his Landshare project on his River Cottage programme.

Our little veg patch

PotsMy friend now has a key to the back gate and we see him down at the veg patch every couple of days. If I’m about, maybe having my lunch in the garden, I say hello and make him a coffee. Every now and then we have a chat about how things are coming along and I make sure he has all the things he needs. He’s quite new to gardening and is ‘trying lots of things out’ so we share ideas. We’re trying out everything. We’ve having a go at lettuce, radishes, potatoes, carrots, squash, all types of beans, rhubarb, onions, and much much more. We’ve now started on a row of pots to the side of the greenhouse and may be on the hunt for more space.

After the initial excitement the children are pretty used to him now and say how great it is that we’ve got our ‘own gardener’. My next door neighbour has even offered him some space in her garden too. It won’t be long before he’s got the whole street covered!

So I’m pretty lucky. While working I get to look out on a fantastic garden and in my breaks I can pop out to see how my magical vegetable patch is doing! It’s a hard life isn’t it!

View from my window

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Finding Free to Use Images Online

Last week I attended a Finding Free-to-Use Images Online course at JISC Digital Media (the organisation formerly known as TASI) along with Shirley Keane, our UKOLN Web editor.

jidc_digital_media

Our main main motivation for attending was to help us find more images for ourselves (and other UKOLN staff) to use for presentations, blog entries, on UKOLN Web sites etc. I’ve mentioned in the past that here at UKOLN, we are trying to use images in a more constructive way in presentations. I actually ran an internal Presentations Think Tank on this last year. We now have a good selection of resources on our Intranet and would also like to run some internal courses on image use. I guess coming from a user angle we differed slightly from the other attendees who were after images to use for training and as part of their institution’s image store. A few of the attendees were having problems with the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACs) and the Copyright Licensing Agency (CLA) who were somehow obstructing their creation of an institutional image store of internal slide images.

The training was led by Dave Kilbey and Zak Mesah and although not all of it was highly relevant to me there were some really useful pointers and lots of useful discussion.

Using General Search Engines

The session began with a exploration into the drawbacks of using general search engines (like Google image search) for finding good quality images. Having used Google image search many a time I felt myself to be already aware of its limitations. However I have to say this task almost had the reverse effect on me. I was actually quite impressed by some of the new search facilities Google has recently added. Searches can now be refined using image size, content type (news, faces, clip art etc) and colour.
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It is also even easier to remove the annoying frames that used to try to stop users from leaving Google! That said there is a severe lack of up-front copyright information and the images linked to are often of very low quality.

Using Image Search Engines

After a look at image formats, a brief overview of copyright and for some a first introduction to Creative Commons we moved onto the meat of the day: an opportunity to try out a number of search engines that exclusively operate to find free-to-use images. Some of the most user friendly were:

I’d also recommend having a look at JISC Digital media’s Advice on Still images and the Intute online tutorial.

As well as the image search engines there was also an introduction to some of the JISC Image collections such as SCRAN and AHDS visual arts collection (VADS) (which continues to be maintained despite AHDS closure in 2007). Some of the collections will require your institution to be a member.

Finding a Particular Image

I actually set myself a challenge for the day. I am co-chair of the Institutional Web Management Workshop (a 3 day event or members of institutional Web management teams in the UK’s higher and further education community). This year the event is taking place in Colchester and our drinks reception is in Colchester Moot Hall. I wanted to source an image of the outside of the building. Throughout the day every lead took me to a dead end. I just couldn’t find anything except a few images on Flickr with ‘all rights reserved’. I’d already emailed the owner of this image and had received no reply. Later in the day I eventually gave in and asked one of the University of Essex staff about it (maybe they could mosey-on-down to the hall and take a quick snap for me?) and they told me that the Moot hall was actually in the Town Hall. A quick search for ‘town hall Colchester’ using the Flickr Advanced search Creative Commons option came up trumps. The photo is now on the Institutional Web Management Workshop social page.

It seems that despite the competition Flickr is still the biggest, easiest to use image repository there is. This probably wasn’t what I was expecting.

Image Management

Just before the workshop ended we spent a little time looking at image management software. I have to admit image management was not something I’d thought about before, but it does makes a lot of sense. I take a lot of images of my family and friends, I store many of these on my PC, some on external hard drives and some on CDs. I’m increasingly using these images on my blog and in presentations. I also take quite a few pictures of work related activities. At the moment I’ve tended to upload these to Flickr. I’m a pretty organised person and use some great tools to support my working from home. So why not add some image management software in to the mix. The JISC Digital team recommended Google Picassa but there are a lot of free applications out there. A quick twitter post on this brought back quite a few Picassa supporters and a couple of other possible applications for trying out. I’ll definitely add this to my to do list and my blog post list!

To Conclude

I really enjoyed the Finding Free-to-Use Images. The trainers were helpful and more than happy to adapt their programme to take in specific areas people were looking at. Although the day didn’t provide me with one complete answer it did throw up some very helpful resources and confirm that I’d been on the right track all along.

A few more recommendations

GoToWebinar Strikes Back

I’m going to be involved in another webinar event. This time I will be using the GoToWebinar software.

My session on Creative Commons will be part of the Coping With Copyright series organised by JISC Legal and JISC Regional Support Centre South West. They are running a summer series of free online sessions focusing on specific aspects of copyright to help users consider some of the issues around copyright and provide them with advice and resources to help them do the right thing!

My event is billed as:

Wednesday 24th June 2009, online @ 2pm
Coping with Copyright – Considering Creative Commons (JISC RSC-SW)
This session is presented by Marieke Guy who is currently working as a Research Officer in the Community and Outreach Team of UKOLN. Much of her work involves exploring Web 2.0 technologies and their relevance to the communities we work with.

Creative Commons (CC) licences are a way to clarify the conditions of use of a work and avoid many of the problems current copyright laws pose. This presentation will provide a basic introduction to CC and its implications for the information professional. Participants will be introduced to the concept of the commons, shown the current CC licences available and presented with a number of creative commons case studies.

In the interactive section of the presentation they will be taken through the process of choosing a licence and given time to spend searching for CC licensed material. The final discussion section will consider the role openness and Creative Commons will play in the future.

Booking is essential for this session – to book go to RSC-SW and click on Events.

Other events

Wednesday 22nd April 2009, online @ 2pm
Coping with Copyright – Web 2.0 and the Law for e-Tutors (JISC Legal)

Further details of the event are available on the JISC Legal site.

Wednesday 6th May 2009, online @ 2pm
Coping with Copyright – Digital Copyright with Confidence (JISC Legal)
Further details of the event are available on the JISC Legal site.

Thursday 4th June 2009, online @ 2pm
Coping with Copyright – Web2Rights (JISC RSC-SW)
Booking is essential for this session – to book go to RSC-SW and click on Events.

Friday 12th June 2009, online @ 2pm
Coping with Copyright – Guilt-free Google Grabbing! (JISC RSC-SW)
Booking is essential for this session – to book go to RSC-SW and click on Events.

I’ll have a go at trying out GoToWebinar sometime soon and will post a review on the blog.

Earth Day: What will you do?

It’s Earth Day today.  Earth Day has been running since 1969 and is intended to inspire awareness and appreciation for the Earth’s environment.

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This year Earth Day marks the beginning of the Green Generation Campaign.

The Green Generation is open to everyone: people of all ages and all nationalities, consumers who are committed to buying green; community leaders who are focused on greening their communities; parents and teachers who work to provide healthy foods and green schools for their children; those who work in green jobs; academics whose research is focused on innovative products and services; scientists and engineers who develop new green technologies; and governments that seek to implement policies and support research that will build a green economy and healthy population, and the religious community who are committed to a vision of a just, sustainable, green planet.

So what will you do?

Sometimes it is pretty tricky knowing where to get started. I’ve written quite a few blog posts on the environmental impact of remote working, some of these might give you some ideas.

In honour of Earth Day TechSoup Global will be kicking off the  TeleGreen Your Work educational campaign to help nonprofits, libraries and other social benefit organisations discover ways to save money, reduce travel, and still be effective in your work. Their four topics are Virtual Meetings, Online Training, Telecommuting and Online Collaboration. Should be some useful stuff for remote workers. Have a look and see what you and your organisation can try out. Today they are offering Ten Tips to TeleGreen Your Work.

Personally having a go at reducing my own environmental impact is really important to me. I’m an active member of my local Climate Friendly Group and keen to do as much as I can, but as Kermit the frog famously said “it’s not easy being green” and I’m far from perfect. However I do believe any steps we take in the right direction can make a difference.

I don’t want to harp on about it but if there was ever a good day to start ‘going green’ then today’s it! 🙂

Life in the Pond: Moaning Middle Managers

Last week I read a great post on Rands In Repose entitled The Pond. Although it sounds like it should be about life as an amphibian it is actually about management response to remote working. (It starts off with this allegory of the pond as being the place where all your staff swim and communications being ripples across the pond. Hence when someone leaves the pond to work off-site they are missing out on the “unintentional, tweaked, quiet information that is transferred throughout the Pond and doesn’t leave the Pond“).

This initially reminded me of all the tacit/explicit knowledge stuff I did on my MSc Information Management course – you know, corporate intelligence, dispersed knowledge etc. Then I realised that the retention of tacit company information is a whole different ball game. The ripples Rands is on about is plain old communication and in my world, and in most other forward-thinking organisations the pond no longer has any edges. To put it another way…where I work we are all in the pond, whether we physically sit inside the institutional building or not.

Rands (I know this isn’t his real name but for the sake of convenience..) then goes on to write a pretty substantial piece on “how to augment the remote employee’s absence from the Pond.

It’s a really useful post, primarily because it gives us quite a bit of insight into how many a middle manager views remote workers. As Rands puts it:

My belief is that without deliberate attention, the remote employee slowly becomes irrelevant to the organization. Through no fault of their own, they can be gradually pushed to the edge of what’s important. And when you’re at the edge, you’re an organizational shudder from falling over it. Failure happens at the edges.

If I was a remote worker in that company I’d be seriously worried!

However it isn’t all bad. Rands makes the sensible suggestion that before allowing someone to become a remote worker managers ask themselves 4 questions:

1. Do they have the personality?
2. Do they have the right job?
3. Does the culture support it?
4. Do you have a remote friction detection and resolution policy?

Not everyone can work remotely and these are questions that need to be asked so I admire his honesty here. He makes some interesting observations that on the whole I agree with:

The ability to work remotely is not entirely a function of seniority; it’s also genetic. There are those who do it better solo. Their standard operating procedure is to simply get it done. Seniority can improve personal efficiency and the quality of the finished product, but I’ve discovered innate reliability at all levels of experience. There are people who simply do what they say they’re going to do.

Can’t argue with that.

Most of his conclusions centre upon the need for a remote worker to be an effective communicator. If you’ve been a remote worker for a while you’ll know it’s what makes it work. For me communication has always been at the core of what I do.

When talking about whether an organisation has the culture to support remote workers Rands doesn’t hold back. He talks about the way other workers view remote workers: “discrimination always boils down [to] a single, fundamental tension: remote creates productivity friction.” He gives the example of dealing with an ineffective remote worker which can take a lot of time, possibly more time than dealing with someone sat in the next room. As Rands points out, manyof the issues boil down to the organisation and if it can support the knowledge flow a remote worker requires. As I’ve mentioned many a time – the tools (Web 2.0 and all that) are there. The culture might not have caught up yet.

Rands concludes:

You, as the manager of people, are responsible for making the remote call regarding a person, putting them in the right job, and making sure the culture supports remote people. But the responsibility of delivering while remote is squarely on the remote employee. Yes, a remote employee answers to himself. At four in the afternoon when they run into an impossible problem, it’s almost entirely up to them to develop their plan of attack.

Working remotely isn’t a privilege; it’s work. And it’s the same work we’re all doing back at the mothership… fully clothed… in the Pond.

I’d have to guess that most remote employees know that they ultimately answer to themselves and tend to be resourceful workers as a result. Rands sounds like he’s dumping the majority of the responsibility onto a remote workers’ backs, it’s a wonder they can barely walk. I’d agree that remote working isn’t a privilege, but nor is it a punishment. It has countless benefits for the employee and the organisation alike and it’s these aspects that need to be built upon.

In the past I’ve referred to many an article that states that remote working will be the death of the middle manager or at the very least requires a serious change in management practice.

This reluctance by managers to move with the times may hold us back for now but if there is one thing the recession has shown us that businesses and people need to be adaptable and ready for change. Maybe it’s time some middle managers stopped trying to control the boundaries of their little ponds and realised that there is a whole sea of possibilities out there, of which remote working is very much part.

12 Ways Remote Workers can Prove they are Working

I recently read Scarlet Pruitt’s HR World article on 6 Ways Remote Workers Can Prove They’re Working.

Scarlet’s premise is that as a remote worker “Your life is pretty great except for one small problem: No one at the office believes that you’re actually working.”

She’s hit on the nail on the head. As a remote worker sometimes it feels like you can’t win: You’ve either got the boss constantly ringing you up to check that you haven’t secretly crawled back under the covers OR you have to deal with your own personal guilt because work trusts you enough to leave you to your own devices – so you need to prove them right. Either way it makes sense to exert your virtual presence every now and then!

Scarlet offered 6 ways you can check in with the folks at the office. I’d like to offer my own take on these and a few extra…

1. Check in frequently. You can do this using Skype, IM, email or even Facebook. Then of course there’s Twitter which seems to have single handily revitalised the water cooler moment. When you start work it’s easy to send a quick message about an interesting article you’ve read or something you’re planning to work on. Of course there are issues with who follows you on certain Social Networking tools and you need to make sure you catch the work audience rather than all your mates. There is a fuller description of possible tools in Staying Connected: Technologies Supporting Remote Workers and on the technologies page of this blog.

2. Share your schedule. Letting others know where you are and when you are working is immensely important when you don’t work in the same office. At work we use Oracle calendar, it’s a bit clunky (it integrates with Microsoft Outlook) but every one at the University can see when you are available, as long as you keep it up to date. For virtual teams something like Google Calendar or Yahoo Calendar.

3. Tout your results. Share your achievements with the right people. Do this through internal mailing lists, online project management systems (such as I did work) or an internal micro-blogging service. I share my outputs with my line manager every few hours using Yammer. It’s also good to be pro-active with dissemination of your work. Write articles, peer reviewed papers, blog posts etc.

4. Engage in discussions.
As Scarlet says “Try to participate in company conference calls and email threads to show that you’re an engaged and active member of the team. This participation will also give you a good gauge of current workplace issues and ideas.” We have a lot of email discussions at work and if I can’t come up with an answer I’ll try to come up with a question, which is just as useful a way of contributing. It’s a bit of a chicken and egg situation, the more you participate, the more you’ll understand what’s going on so the more you’ll have to offer. Obviously this can’t be at the expense of your required work but it isn’t always a wasted distraction.

5. Periodically check in with different departments. Again the more you mingle the more you’ll find out and the more on the ball you will be

6. Make time for in-person visits. This isn’t always easy to do but some one-to-one time goes a long way. At UKOLN remote workers are encouraged to make it over to Bath as much as possible. People tend to schedule a few meetings close together and even initiate a social for when they are in town, this makes the best use of their time on-site.

At UKOLN we’ve now agreed that a hot-desk wasn’t really necessary as people tend to come into the office and sit with their laptop near who ever they want to work with. Instead the systems team try to make sure that there are plug sockets and seats available for people to just turn up and use. If you can’t meet at the office try to attend conferences that co-workers will also be at.

7. Phone in for meetings. If you can’t be at a meeting then the next best thing is phoning in and participating using phone conference technology. I’ve written on the blog about how we support remote workers who phone in. Making sure that you have a representative at the meeting (on Skype or IM) who will allow you to ask questions and comment is essential.

8. Write a blog. I’m not just saying it because I do it but writing a blog is a good way to show case things you are working on. Reading and commenting on other people’s posts is another way to be a pro-active member of the community. Try keeping up to date on current posts using a feed aggregator like Bloglines, Google Reader or Feedreader.

Scheduling blog posts is also a fantastic way to make it look like you are online when you are making use of your flexible working quota! 😉

9. Keep a personal impact file. Make sure you keep any positive feedback (in whatever form it takes) and file it away for when you might need it. This information could be really useful when it comes to appraisal time.

10. Be accessible. Try to be available if needed. Provide work with a mobile number so they can contact you if you are out and about. Answer emails and IM messages fairly regularly. It’s fine to take a break but if you are going to be out for 3 hours either tell people or find a wifi hot spot.

11. Manage your manager. If your manager is constantly on your case then maybe you need to have a talk about how this is not an effective use of your time. If they’ve trusted you enough to let you work remotely then they need to trust that you will get your work done. A good working relationship with your manager is really important if you’re a remote worker as you’ll need them to tell the big bosses that you are doing what you are supposed to!

12. Be output driven. If you use your time effectively, stay organised and keep motivated then you will get your work done. Some people find it useful to track their time if they work in a more flexible way. I prefer to work the same core hours every day. When 5:30 comes round I virtually clock off. Working the same time as everyone else means that I am visual to a greater number of people too! At the end of the day if you are achieving good quality work and maintaining a healthy public profile then you are doing yourself proud.

Any other good ways you can prove you are working?

Where are those Wifi Hot Spots?

At the Remote Worker day we organised here at UKOLN a few of the remote workers who live up north decided to organise a day out in Manchester. This would be an opportunity to meet up, catch up on work and non-work related things and try out working on the move.

Adrian, one of the UKOLN remote workers, kindly shared his ideas on where to get free wifi out and about in Manchester by passing round a link to the Manchester Community Walk.

We then realised that a list of wifi hotspots wasn’t just useful to us remote workers but to anyone who has a laptop and travels.

There are a lot more free wifi hot spots these days and quite a few ways to find them. If you are in a big city then Pret a Manger, Starbucks, Wetherspoons, Walkabout, Slug & Lettuce, Coffee Republic or McDonalds are a fairly safe bet (for wifi – not necessarily for food and drink!). Most won’t have a power socket though so make sure you take a charged up laptop. Personally I’d rather find a local pub rather than a big chain. There are a fair number of wifi hot-spot locators including hotspot locations, my hot spots, WorldWIFinder, free hotspot and Jwire.

Norwich was the first UK city to have free wifi throughout and in London there is also free wifi available if you are willing to view adverts every 15 minutes. Westminster City Council has also teamed up with BT to offer a free wifi based information service to residents and visitors in the area. London hot spots are well indicated on the londonist Web site. There’s free wireless on East coast mainline trains (national express), quite a lot of hotels offer free wifi to customers and in Scotland some of the public libraries offer free wifi to users. I’ve even heard of a school bus that now does wifi for the children passengers!

If you do use a free wifi it might be worth avoiding sending any sensitive information while on them as there are some security issues.

If you’re interested in tracking where the next wifi hotspot will be then follow Wi-fi Net News.