Feb 23, 2020

I think I can work from home

As of today, I haven't been to the office in over two weeks. Thanks to the newest epidemic on the block, Linkedin Singapore had us stay away from the office. Two of the towers next to ours had employees test positive for the coronavirus, so as a precaution, we have been working from home.

Some media has described this situation as the world's biggest work from home experiment given the number of employers advising employees to stay home. It's certainly true that this is the longest work from home experiment that I have experienced. 

When I received the notification of the work from home two weeks ago, I had mixed feelings about it - while I was happy that we would be relatively safe from the coronavirus, I also had bad memories from my past work from home experiences. Surprisingly, the past two weeks have been quite pleasant! I realised that there were some key differences that I needed in my work from home experience to make it productive and desirable for myself. 

Lone remote working does not work for me
In the past, whenever I have been the only person in my company working from home, I feel rather lonely. Knowing that all my colleagues and friends are at their workplaces while I am alone at home made me feel some kind of FOMO. I didn't think I was necessarily missing out on "fun" that they were having at work, but it made me feel odd to be at home when everyone else I knew was at work. With the coronavirus situation, it's become a norm to work from home - all my colleagues were working from home too, and so were many of our customers, and many of my friends. Given that we were all going through the same experience, there was no feeling of exclusion. More so, everyone working remotely leads to more tele-communication over chat, so our Teams chat was quite active throughout the day. One of the days, I met a friend for lunch, and another day I went swimming earlier in the evening than I normally would, because I knew other people near me also working from home. 

It helps to have deadlines or targets
When one is part of a startup or running their own startup, the targets and deadlines are much looser than in corporates based on my experience. When I worked from home in the past for my own startup or other people's startups, there weren't fixed deadlines or targets I had to meet. I could afford to slack. Now that I'm at a bigger company that has a stronger culture of targets and deadlines, I can't afford to slack! So even if I'm working from home, I won't get up from my desk in the middle of the day to go do laundry or cook lunch, because I have tight deadlines I need to be at my desk for atleast 8 hours a day to meet. 

Having fewer types of tasks helps
Switching between different types of tasks is always tricky for me. I feel the pain of transitions from meetings to focussed tasks to creative tasks to writing emails and so on. There is a certain discipline required to code switch effectively, which I am able to harness better at the office. My current job scope is relatively narrow compared to my past job scopes at startups. Most of my job involves making calls, setting up meetings, and writing notes from my meetings. So there isn't too much switching involved between different types of tasks, which makes it easier for me to focus through the day. 

Time bound work day is sooo important
Much of my past work involved working with people in different time zones, so I would wake up to many emails, which I would reply to before I was even fully awake, and then I'd go eat breakfast, come back to my desk and so on. There wasn't really fixed duration that I would work and a fixed time when I could stop and go do other things. I often had night calls, which meant I would come back to my desk at some point after 8 PM. This made it extremely hard for me to work from home because I didn't always know when I should be working and when I shouldn't. With my current job, my hours are based on APAC time zones - which is largely from 7 am to 6 pm. So I would work from 8 am to 5 pm most days and then leave my desk to do other things like exercise, get dinner, read, netflix, etc. 

I was surprised to find that this work from home experience was not only bearable, but also really nice in some ways! I liked that I didn't have travel time to work, didn't have to dress up too much and could control the temperature of my work environment (I am always cold in air conditioned environments, so I really appreciated being able to keep the air conditioning off). 

Also, I am an introvert - so I need some alone time in between calls to recoup. It is much easier to get that alone time at home than when in office, as much as I enjoy interacting with my colleagues at work! The stress levels and interruptions were also lower, leaving me with more energy at the end of my work day to focus on personal things - like reading, exercising, or thinking about personal projects. 

It makes me think about how remote working is an increasing trend across the world - at times, companies provide it as a way to give employees flexibility (to working parents for example). Other times, its a way for companies to cut down costs, in which case they may hire a workforce in a different country where salaries are lower. Other times, companies are fully remote and let employees work from wherever they want (like the ones in this list). Based on my short experiences so far working remotely, I think that environments that are fully remote are far easier to work in than those that are partial. Partial work environments where only some employees work remotely are really difficult for collaboration. Not to mention that remote employees may feel left out knowing that their colleagues in the office are seeing each other everyday and grabbing lunch together. Fully remote environments on the other hand level the playing field - everyone is equally connected or disconnected and communication + collaboration channels are set up to serve a remote work environment. 

This experience working from home makes me more open to taking up remote jobs in the future and working with companies that aren't in my vicinity. It's exciting to discover that there are plausible ways that one can sustainably work from home and enjoy it, because it means I don't have to limit myself to projects and opportunities that are within a 50 mile radius, like I would have before!

Feb 16, 2020

How I learn what I learn best

Recently, I came across the 70-20-10 model of learning that organisations often follow while talking to a Linkedin Learning prospective customer. It is fairly common for organisations to want their employees to learn 70 percent from doing their job, 20 percent from interactions with other people at work, and 10 percent from formal education events.

After hearing this several times, I started to reflect on ways I learn best. It was puzzling to think of this, given the strong objection again every learner having different learning styles. Research has pointed out that we don't have individual learning styles that differ from person to person and the whole concept of different learning styles is a myth (example).

However, I find that I have some preferences that may differ from that of other people's learning preferences. I don't think this has anything to do with the way my brain is wired, but I think it has more to do with my personality traits and habits.

I found that for me, I actually prefer to learn 30 percent from formal lecture or reading, 50 percent through social interaction with friends, and 20 percent through books. This may change in the future as I discover other ways of learning, but for now, this is how I learn what I learn best:

1. Formal learning: I learn best when I receive relevant information that I can immediately apply to my job. For me, I prefer to receive this information in video lecture or reading form rather than a tip given to me in passing by a colleague, manager or mentor. The reason I prefer a formal mode of delivery is that while I am reading or viewing content, I am in absorption mode and I am actively looking to receive and retain information. Also, if I am reading or watching a lecture, I have already decided to adopt a reasonable level of trust in the person or institute delivering the information, so my barriers are lower than someone giving me a tip in passing. When a colleague or friend gives me a tip in passing, I tend to consider it first before deciding if it's relevant and appropriate for me to apply. But when I am in absorption mode and have already established trust with the source of information, I am ready to apply that information to my day to day. At times, it won't work given the nuances that come with subjectivity in everyday life, but at the very least, I will test the advice given through formal training a few times before putting it off.

2. Social learning is a great way for me to learn too. When I meet friends over the weekend, I find myself learning a lot from them! Often the type of learning is different than the kind I mentioned in (1). It's either to do with bits of information about current affairs, or opinions related to current affairs, or life hacks. But either way, this is information I really really value, for the reason that it's impossible for me to find another way to gain this type of information elsewhere. While I could subscribe to BBC alerts or read The Skimm more regularly, I find that the best way to learn what's going on in the near and further away parts of the world is to meet people who care about these types of things. I also learn from people who talk about their personal struggles - often times, I find people's personal struggles to be quite relatable but quite alien at the same time, which gives me a wider perspective and more open mind.

3. Non fiction books for non professional learning. I read autobiographies and other non fiction books to gain knowledge in other areas. I really enjoy reading these and get a great deal of satisfaction from reading books, especially if they are by people who have achieved a great deal of success in their field. There is something about reading the writing of very successful people - the difference in their attitude really comes across in their writing. Some of my favourite books by successful people are Unstoppable by Maria Sharapova, Becoming by Michelle Obama, The Last Girl by Nadia Murad and The Girl with Seven Names by Hyeonseo Lee.


Feb 8, 2020

Watching an epidemic

With the new coronovirus all over China, and partly over Singapore, I feel like I have front row seats to watching an epidemic become a pandemic.

It's been interesting and scary at the same time to watch it unfold.

2 weeks ago on Jan 23, when the first case of coronovirus surfaced in Singapore, people were scared, but not as scared as they are now, since the person who had it was someone from China, therefore implying that it hadn't really spread too much in the local population. Masks and hand santisers were sold out within hours all the same, because a few people bought many boxes. The government had to put limits on the number of masks and sanitisers one person could purchase.

At the time, Singapore felt like a country trying to fight the virus together by taking precautions that prevented spread in it's local population. There was quite some anger and irritation towards Chinese tourists who were visiting Singapore.

Personally, I was scared because I had never experienced an epidemic. It's strange to try and avoid a virus - it's something you can't really see or know if it's around you. So it leads to a perpetual fear at the back of my mind whenever I am out in public. I also felt quite annoyed that there were Chinese tourists flying in knowing that they could be infecting their co-passengers and a population that hadn't yet been touched by the Wuhan virus. But I tried to be reasonable and remind myself that those Chinese tourists aren't to blame for a virus outbreak.

A few days ago on 4 Feb, we saw some Singaporeans with no travel history to China or known contact with someone from China contract the virus. That's when people started to really panic. That meant that the person next to us in the train could have it. That's when people went from being protective about the local population, to being protective towards smaller groups, like their own family and friends.

This Sunday morning (9 Feb), after 7 new locals were announced to have the virus, I saw people bringing bags and trolleys of groceries home, in case the time comes that everyone outside is infected and we have to stay home, similar to what the Chinese are experiencing now. I hear that people were at grocery stores hoarding canned food and toilet paper as early as 7 AM. I usually order Amazon Prime, and delivery slots have been fewer lately since many folks seem to be using online delivery.

Image result for wuhan virus singapore hoarding
Grocery hoarding
Source: https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/health/5-million-masks-snapped-up-in-hours-public-urged-against-hoarding-amid-global

Having said that, the Singapore government knows how to handle these things - they went through SARS in 2003 and have clearly prepared for another epidemic since then. The airport had thermal screenings for passengers in flights from China a few hours after the first case. All the people coming from China were asked to self quarantine for two weeks, which is the incubation period of the virus. Anyone who didn't comply risked legal implications. A few days later, they stopped all flights from Wuhan, and a few days after that, they stopped all flights from China. Now, everyone coming in from any part of the world through any mode of transport is going through thermal screenings at the ports. Many office buildings have thermal screenings as well to make sure no one with a fever walks in.

What's most interesting to me is the contact tracing - apparently, that is one of the best ways to prevent an epidemic from getting worse. Once Ministry of Health identifies someone who is infected, they contact everyone that person has been in touch with so that they can prevent those people from potentially infecting others. One of the challenges of the coronavirus is that it spreads even before symptoms show. So anyone could have it and be passing it on, but it's possible they aren't showing any symptoms yet.

One of the side effects that comes with contact tracing though is fake calls - yesterday, the Ministry of Health issued a notice saying that they don't ever ask for financial details over the phone when doing contact tracing. It seems like there may be some people out there taking advantage of the fear and trying to get financial details out of people under the pretence of being the Ministry of Health doing contact tracing.

Coughing in the office is a no no. People who are mildly sick, even if it's a clear case of a common cold, aren't coming to office. When someone coughs or sneezes in the train, people step away from them without any shame.

On any other day, I would say the step away when someone sneezes type of behaviour is very unkind. But I think this type of fear in Singapore actually helps people stay a little bit safer. It's culturally inappropriate to sneeze or cough in public in times like this, so the ones who are even mildly unwell don't dare show up to work.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister's office released a video in which PM Lee assured everyone that we had enough food and toilet paper - so no need to hoard. He also said that if this gets worse, hospitals would prioritise those with health complications, since we may not have enough beds in hospitals for everyone infected. I hope it doesn't get to that stage, but I do expect it to get worse for the next few days atleast. He also encouraged the population to not blame or discriminate against the Chinese.

While I continue to go to work and go out for groceries or to gym classes, I am avoiding making social plans at coffee shops or restaurants to whatever extent I can.