Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Something's been bugging me. Community building and being alone.

There's two things in my life that I love, but that have seemed at odds with each other. It's been on my mind for a month or two and I couldn't really figure it out.

I love community building/facilitating; using social media to garner interest in things and then turning those into offline community events that hopefully people will enjoy. Good examples are the 4am Project, Birmingham Social Media Cafe, and the work I do with talk about local.

I also love being on my own. I spend more time on my own that anyone else I know. I relish it. I work well alone. That's not to say I don't work well with others, I do, but if you tell me I have to work on my own, no problem.

I like doing things on my own too. I've gone on lots of holidays solo out of choice. I'll go to a nice restaurant on my own, or the cinema. I don't avoid doing something I want to do just because it means I'll be alone.

You left the Ark where?
Photo by Nick Lockey

So, how come I love the community building/engaging side AND the solo side? That's what I've been asking myself. They don't seem to go hand in hand. 

This article from the New York Times answered that question! I am so happy to have read it and can really relate to it.

It's titled The Rise Of The New Group Think

As I was reading it I was thinking, 'Yes, I get it. The two things (community and solitude) CAN co-exist!'

It's going to be hard not to just quote the WHOLE piece here, so I will just pick out the snippets that stood out to me to the most. Please read it and let me know what you think!

It begins..

SOLITUDE is out of fashion. Our companies, our schools and our culture are in thrall to an idea I call the New Groupthink, which holds that creativity and achievement come from an oddly gregarious place. Most of us now work in teams, in offices without walls, for managers who prize people skills above all. Lone geniuses are out. Collaboration is in
It's certainly a trend I've noticed, and I think that has evolved more now we have the wonderful internet. Being so hyper connected makes it easier to collaborate. Collaboration is seen as a Good Thing. Therefore, let's collaborate, let's Groupthink, let's make something great happen! I can understand that.

And I will add that I couldn't do what I do without other people's involvement or contribution. There's few people that will achieve anything entirely on their own, without other's support, encouragement, perhaps ideas and help and facilitation or simply someone cheering them on from the sideline.

I run the 4am Project alone from behind my computer screen. I do the majority of the work behind the scenes; when there's a global 4am Project date I manage the website, flickr, facebook, twitter account, pr, emails etc. I don't really need to see another person to do that. However, the 4am Project as it is with over 50 countries taken part and 6000+ images would not have happened without the collaboration of other people (and that people love the project enough to give up sleep and take part, I am very grateful!). And when the 4am date comes around, I'll have organised an event in Birmingham and I will show up and take part and make sure everyone is having a good time.

Collaboration is in. But that's shouldn't meet that solo working should be out!

Working alone on my various things, I get a lot done. I haven't got the distraction of a husband or kids. To add to the picture you may have in mind, I also work in silence for the majority of the time. Most the the things I work on I deem important and therefore that needs my full concentration. Sometimes, in the evening, depending on what I'm doing, I'll put the radio on. What a treat! lol. When the clock hits 9 or 10 o'clock, I'll put the tv on and watch something or other and wind down before bedtime.

I have no brothers or sisters, so I guess spending time on my own is ingrained to me. It's not a scary thing at all. Beside, I have all my friends on the internet for company as and when I want! :)

The beauty of the way the internet allows us to work is that we don't have to be in a physical place. Of course, that depends on your job. I mean, I DO have to go out to do some parts of my work. But for the majority of my work, I just need to be online in between team meetings, delivering training workshops in various cities, taking photographs, attending events etc.

small Karen
Photo by Nikki Pugh

 "During the last decades, the average amount of space allotted to each employee shrank 300 square feet, from 500 square feet in the 1970s to 200 square feet in 2010."
And the article goes on to say that when experiments were done in open offices and workers were given their own cubicles, their own 'nook' to work in they were happier and their output improved.
What distinguished programmers at the top-performing companies wasn’t greater experience or better pay. It was how much privacy, personal workspace and freedom from interruption they enjoyed. 
Even working from home there are interruptions. That's why I keep my land line phone switched off (no one calls me on that anymore, they have given up lol), and the majority of the time, my mobile will be on silence (but I'll see it flashing and can decide whether to take the call or call them back later). Twitter is usually kept on so I can reach out and connect when I feel like it (though I have switched the 'chimes' off).

Whatever the interruption, whether it's the phone ringing, or a colleague coming up to you for a chat, or answering an urgent email, your brain can take about 15 minutes to shift back into the space it was in doing whatever task you were doing.

As a different New York Times article reports.
 In a recent study, a group of Microsoft workers took, on average, 15 minutes to return to serious mental tasks, like writing reports or computer code, after responding to incoming e-mail or instant messages. They strayed off to reply to other messages or browse news, sports or entertainment Web sites.
I tried a co-working space once. A very nice lady sat next to me and chatted the whole day! On that day I wanted to use the space to opt in and out of conversation, but I had no choice with this lady's chatter. I went home early. I got nothing done and was too polite to tell her not to talk to me, even though I made hints that I had a lot to do.

Apparently you can use your ear phones as a 'code':

Two earphones in = I'm busy. Do not interrupt.
1 earphone in = kinda open for chat but keep it brief
Ear phones out = Let's talk!!

If only I had known that back then. Of course, it relies on other people working there to know that code too!

This last week or two has been varied. I met up with the talk about local team in the office. Last Tuesday I went to London to help train people. Tomorrow I'm off to Liverpool to do a workshop. Today I am working alone. Each of those days has a different flow, and I adapt and enjoy that. Even though I'm used to working on my own, I'm not anti-social. I'm out going and friendly and when I do go out socially or go to an event, I have a great time.

Karen Strunks in TIMES Square, NYC
Time Square. I spent a month in NYC on my own and loved every minute, though I still checked in with my friends online and met new people in NYC. Screen shot by Sas Taylor
Solitude can even help us learn. According to research on expert performance by the psychologist Anders Ericsson, the best way to master a field is to work on the task that’s most demanding for you personally. And often the best way to do this is alone. 
 If you want to improve, you have to be the one who generates the move.
Oh the challenges I've set myself! Most recently some website stuff (which I'll mention in another blog post). I don't know that much about the back end of websites or how they work. This year I have spent 50 hours figuring out what I wanted to do and how to do it. Of course, I could reach out and ask for help, or just get someone else to do it for me - save a headache right? But I am very determined, and admittedly I don't like asking for help (maybe too independent), and in the end I worked it out and got there.

Plus, what I have learnt from figuring it out on my own is that I can do things that I intially find hard, and at the same time I will learn something. And I've never regretted learning anything, and that learning has stood me in good stead and nearly always come in useful. It's an investment in myself if you will.

By Dan Johnson Photography
I’m not suggesting that we abolish teamwork. Indeed, recent studies suggest that influential academic work is increasingly conducted by teams rather than by individuals. (Although teams whose members collaborate remotely, from separate universities, appear to be the most influential of all.) 
Remote collaboration. We can all do that very easily now! The internet provides the perfect vehicle to do that and we have some many tools at hand within it do aid the collaboration from a distance; emails, shared documents, skype conference calls, and there are many websites that are made especially to facilitate collaboration under their roof.

Birmingham Social Media Cafe, May 2011
Photo by Adam Yosef

But even if the problems are different, human nature remains the same. And most humans have two contradictory impulses: we love and need one another, yet we crave privacy and autonomy
And that statement just about sums this all up for me. That's the thing that I was puzzling over. My 'need' of wanting to do what I do with social media and community building, and my other 'need' for independence and to be able to work alone at times. And I now happily realise I don't have to choose between one or the other, or wrestle with the concept,  I can do both! :)

In what way do you work best?
Do you prefer working directly with people, or do you crave some peace and quiet to get your work done?
Is the internet a Bad Thing as it removes some of the need to meet up with people face to face?
Do you miss grabbing a coffee and having a meeting with someone? Do you still insist on this even though you could have a meeting online?

I'd love your thoughts! 

4am Project Project Brutal Birmingham Library 24th April 2011
4am Project event at Birmingham Library

Say hello on twitter! @karenstrunks


Richard Tubb said...

Karen - what a great blog post!

I agree with everything you wrote about co-working and office space. I'm so much more productive working on my own than surrounded by colleagues. That said, I enjoy getting out of the house and working out of a coffee shop or pub regularly just to enjoy having some hustle and bustle around me - albeit typically when I'm working on work that only needs bite sized segments of my concentration such as email.

I do differ with you on the working stuff out for yourself. I've always found it valuable to have a coach or mentor I regularly meet with to accelerate my learning in any given subject, and more importantly, to keep me accountable for progress. I like working with someone knowing I'll get a prompt and expert response. I guess that's what I've ended up coaching IT business owners for a living myself. :-)

Karen Strunks said...

Hey Richard, thanks for your comment. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

That's the other great thing the internet has provided us, the ability not to just work at home, but from anywhere at all.

As you probably know, I very time aware so I would see the 15-20 mins time travelling to (and then back) a coffee shop for example as 30-40 mins time I could use doing x,y,z.

Though I do think that occasionally it would be good to get out of my home office. I had some (rare!) free time on my hand the other week when I was in the city centre, so popped into a coffee shop. I didn't have a laptop with me, but grabbed a pen and paper and came up with some great ideas that I had been struggling with. A change of scene is good for the mind I think!

I actually have a mentor at the moment, albeit a temporary arrangement. I think it's my first time having a mentor in place. It's been a great experience! And through our discussions, my need for independence/not asking for help, has been addressed. The thing is, I enjoy working things out on my own, and get a great sense of accomplishment when I manage it. It's only when I get *really* stuck on something that I'll give in and ask for help, but I'll exhaust all my personal options first. And, contradictorily, I advise peeps to ask for help themselves! There may come a time when I just can't do it all on my own. I guess I'll have to cross that bridge as it comes :)

Robyn Bateman said...

Great post Karen! I need both - people around me to bounce ideas off, rant at and get stuff off my chest, or just reassurance that I'm on the right track. And I like the solitude of my own office space, no interruptions and a network of helpers or motivators just a keyboard stroke away via Twitter or email if I need them. But I work in an office and don't get much of the latter, sadly. When I'm studying on a weekend though I'm AMAZED at how quickly the time goes by and how productive I am. Love it!

As a journalist part of me wants to say you can't forge contacts and carry out interviews in quite the same way as face-to-face - body language and tone of voice gives more colour to a story than an email interview ever will. That said, we live in an internet age when everyone is busy and strives for convenience, and often email (or equivalent) offers just that and we have to roll with it as our jobs and lives and technology evolve.

I like to think a little of everything - alone time, team working, face-to-face and social networking keeps you balanced :0)

Karen Strunks said...

Hi Robyn, thanks for your comment!

Sometimes I miss the immediacy of being able to turn to someone and say 'what do you think about this?' But then I'll reach out to twitter, or call my mum lol (she's a great advisor!).

Then again, at times it makes for good practice for listening to my instincts if I am mulling something over - whether it 'feels' right or not.

With journalism/story telling I can imagine that personal element, of meeting face to face, is very important. It seems to be happening less and less at the moment, with some journalist barely leaving the office anymore and conducting interviews via phone/email.

It was the Birmingham Social Media Cafe this morning, so I was able to get my socialising 'fix', and I always enjoy meeting peeeps in person that I have previously only met online.


prestolee said...

Brill post. I used to move offices to where few people knew me to concentrate on heavy mental tasks. Like you enjoy company but need isolation too.

Good to know yourself.

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