How to work from home

Next week I’ll be joining my fellow redundantees in celebrating our six monthiversary of being out of our local authority jobs. Some are working, some are looking, some are retraining and some are self-employed like me.

So it’s time to reflect on what I’ve learnt. You can’t teach an old dog new tricks they say but I have so that must mean I’m not either a) old (but if you read that Guardian interview you will know this is sadly not true or b) not a … well, how very dare you for suggesting it.

I’ll start with working from home. My previous employers called it working at home, the idea being that it was an occasional occurrence and that you would be called at least once from the office to check you weren’t slumped in front of Homes Under the Hammer or in the changing rooms at New Look.  And it was only ever for one day.

But now I work mostly from home and this is what I’ve learnt:

1)      Work where you like. We are lucky enough to have an office in our house. This is mostly occupied by Mr R and his collection of guitars, amps and other music gadgets but it also has nice bright windows and plenty of shelving. So do I work in there? Do I heck. I’m happiest at the kitchen table. It’s near the kettle, a room away from the living room and telly and near the front door for the many callers we have. I recommend the kitchen able also because you have to keep mess to a minimum. My stuff is neatly tidied into one box and one pile of stuff which, when it gets too large, is transferred into the box. See? Gotta have a system, as Harry Hill used to day.

2)      It’s a whole new world out there.  We’re lucky enough to have really friendly neighbours and now that I’m around more during the day I bump into them more often. It makes for a much more friendly place. And for those of you out there who believe that London is one big scary city with muggers lurking on every corner, come and visit us. We’re nice really. Our postman is adorable and stops for a chat on his round and keeps an eye on the place when you’re away. The letterbox barely stays shut as we get a huge amount of junk mail hitting it. We average eight to ten pieces of junk on a good day but it can be up to twenty. It’s Friday today so there will be a flood of menus later today. My sister in law was staying a while ago and was in the house when we were both at work. When I got home I found her a glassy-eyed wreck. ‘It hasn’t stopped,’ she said pointing to the letterbox. She jumped out of her skin every time something came crashing through so had not had a restful time. She lives by a lemon grove half way up a mountain in Italy so I guess she doesn’t get many kebab menus and tarmac -your -drive flyers on an average day.  We also get a lot of charity works coming round for my money, church members asking me if I know Jesus and people trying to flog electricity/ gas/ double glazing/ life eternal.  I’m always polite but firm. I have certain charities that I give money too, I’m happy with my gas/ electricity/ supplier, my windows are fine and yes I think I saw him in Budgens buying Sugar Puffs. Today was an offer for loft insulation.

3)      Kids. I live near a secondary school and when I was working I never saw the students. Rather like an episode of CSI Streatham, however, it was possible to piece together the evidence that they were there: used cotton buds in the morning on the way to school; chip papers and cigarette butts at lunchtime and drink cans, crisp and sweet wrappers at home time. Nowadays I actually spot them scuffing down the middle of the road in herds, hoods up, heads down.  Once the grunting and loud dubstep has lurched by and I’ve held my breath as they swing their school bags past the wing mirrors of my car I pop out and collect the debris for recycling. I don’t mind them too much and let’s face it, they and their school ensure that house prices remain stable in our road and that’s no bad thing in these times.

4)      It’s good to talk. It’s important to talk to other colleagues if you’re working from home. Several home-workers had already told me this so I’ve made an effort to catch up with friends and ex-colleagues. I’m not usually a fan of the café culture mainly because I don’t (whisper it) drink coffee. It’s a matter of taste rather than for health reasons. I’d love to sip an espresso at a bar, order a macchiato at diner and enjoy a cappuccino at breakfast (which of course is the only time of day you should ever order a cappuccino) and I’ve tried but to no avail. I drink tea- wimpy green tea or Lady/Earl Grey without milk or sugar. Which is basically a tea bag in a mug of hot water and I can easily make that at home. Cheaply.  So until now the whole coffee shop experience has rather passed me by. I now, however, meet friends in cafés  and enjoy it. My favourite local is Earl Grey and Rose for a cup of the proverbial and they do the most delicious smoked salmon and cream cheese bagels.

5)      Eat when you’re hungry. In an office people tend to stare if you have lunch at 11 0’clock and roll their eyes in sympathy if you eat at 3pm. There was nowhere in the office to eat your own food save at your desk so it was never a relaxing experience . I get very grouchy if I don’t eat on a regular basis so when at home I nip to the fridge at make something to eat. Contrary to what you might think I eat less now than in the office (far fewer biscuits around) and I’m a much nicer person because I’m not hungry. If you come to visit you may wish to bring Jaffa cakes. Just in case.

Tea at mine. Note the homemade baked cheesecake.Yum.

6)      What to wear? I asked a self- employed friend if she got up early and dressed properly before sitting down to work. I had fears that I myself might be skulking around in pyjamas at four in the afternoon watching Jeremy Kyle repeats and eating cakes. My friend assured me that she not only gets dressed, she does her hair nicely and puts on makeup before firing up her laptop. I found that it makes me feel more professional to get up in time to spend a few minutes with Mr R before he goes to work, perform my ablutions and then get dressed. It’s strange putting on casual stuff rather than smart clothes and heels and I now look forward to dressing up on the occasions that require it. Of course there’s no really need to put on make up to work at home but I usually at least smear on a bit of mascara for fear of scaring the lovely postman (see point 1).

7)      Household chores. I was also worried that instead of working I’d be rushing around cleaning the house. I do notice that the floor needs vacuuming and the window sills need dusting but I’m at work ok? Proper work is much more compelling than cleaning anyway. Mr R has decreed that I can at least keep an eye on the milk level and buy milk when needed. Unfortunately I’m rubbish at this and only remember seconds before he arrives home ready for a coffee. Don’t get excited, I don’t make him that either. Not being a coffee drinker (see point 4) I make terrible coffee. I usually end up rushing to the shop, which is luckily only at the end of the road, with seconds to spare and acting all nonchalant and efficient when he arrives.

So that’s how to work at home part one. If I think of any more points there will be a part two. Meanwhile, feel free to add your own observations below.

….Today’s post was brought to you by elementary typing, much hitting of back space and mild swearing…. 

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Type for your life!

I have a confession to make: I don’t touch type.  I have a rather idiosyncratic style that I’ve developed which involves my pinkies stick out in the air like I’m taking tea with the queen while my hands cross the keyboard as though I’m playing a particularly complex piece of Chopin. Which is not always accurate but it’s quick. I’ve used this style all my working life. I’ve written lesson plans, end of year reports, letters and articles using it. Hell, I’ve even written a book or two using it.

Before.

So why can’t type properly?

At my all girl secondary school we had the option of taking a subject called ‘Office Practice’ which consisted of pecking at giant typewriters in an asbestos-lined portable classroom  while the teacher marched up and down barking orders.

I escaped this dystopian nightmare by taking Latin instead. In a manner that would have Mr Gove jumping for joy, my mother decided that her daughter would have none of this practical nonsense so I spent two years reading the joy that is De Bello Gallico and learning how to translate sentences like ‘the Carthaginians were once again routed.’ Which of course has proved far more useful in my daily life than that practical nonsense.

Latin was such a popular option in my school that just five of us took it (their mums made them do it too) and was timetabled for a triple lesson once a week. The teacher taught us for the first period, rushed away to teach French somewhere else in the middle period and came back for the final session. Except she usually forgot to come back.  In effectively one lesson a week I learnt very little Latin and got a D but a friend brought in her guitar most weeks and I did learn how to play Stairway to Heaven which apparently impresses teenage boys so it wasn’t a complete waste of time.

At uni I had a Saturday job in a local newspaper office as receptionist. My boss, the head of advertising, naturally left the crappiest jobs for the Saturday girl. These jobs usually involved typing pages and pages of classified ads and the week’s sales figures. Not a Latin declension in sight.

And that’s how I developed my quirky style. Hung over, munching a toffee Crisp and desperately trying to see through swollen sleep-deprived eyes. Four years of that every Saturday and I was quick and accurate-ish and I’ve never really had the time to undo the damage.

But I’m now bored with the restrictions. I make the same mistakes constantly (‘citizenship’ gets me every time) and I have to peer intently at the keyboard as I type which makes copying anything really time consuming.

After. I hope.

This weekend I started learning touch typing using an internet programme (hurrah for the internet!) Perhaps one of the positives of being self-employed is that although the business is picking up, I still have time to practice. I’ve learnt all the letters and the commonly used punctuation. My little fingers are not at all happy at being employed and often refuse to work and I find myself hitting the spacebar with my index finger instead of my recalcitrant thumb but I’m getting there slowly.

I have written this post without looking at the keyboard and all I can say is thank goodness for spellcheck. My speed is about 18 wpm and my accuracy probably about 70% but it’s a start.

Do you remember when you learnt to touch type and how long did it take you? Is there hope for me?

Crime and punishment

Now that the riots of earlier in the week seem to have fizzled out there has been endless talk about what now. Most of this rhetoric has been about who to blame and how to punish the offenders. Callers to radio talk shows are keen to string em all up or at least ship em out to Afghanistan with nothing but their hoodies and stolen trainers.

The prime minister has declared it to be the fault of the police and the police blame cuts. Parents have come under fire for not being able to discipline their little darlings and the rest of us tut about society break down and the youth of today.

In today’s Guardian G2 Alexander Chancellor declares that teachers should shoulder the responsibility and that parents should, ‘somehow be coerced into siding with schools.’ Good luck with that and don’t forget to tune into Thursday evening’s #ukedchat on Twitter to see what real teachers think.

My local Co-op. Business as usual.

So who is to blame? I think we all need to take some responsibility here. Much as I’d like to blame everything on the government (and believe my teeth are gritted as I write that sentence ), as I wrote in my previous post before everything had really kicked off across the country, many factors have come into play. We all need to take responsibility be we parents, educators, politicians or ordinary folk about our daily business.

I also think we need to think carefully about the punishments the guilty receive. Custodial punishment needs to coupled with proper rehabilitation and restorative justice. Lock em up and throw away the key is really not going to work in the long run. I’d like to see those involved in looting working activitely. This might be cleaning up, working at the youth centre, shopping for old folk or digging flower beds. I’d also like to see them listening to those affected by what‘s happened. I think there is a view that stealing is a victimless crime but it’s important to understand how many lives have been turned upside down as people have lost their hard-won business (and all business that are still standing after the recession are hard-won) or their homes. I’d like to see looters listening to old folk who are scared to go out of their homes, families that are moving out of their homes because their afraid for their own safety and business owners and workers who are now unemployed and struggling. I’d also like to see the looters and arsonists come face to face with the guy who watched his family furniture shop that had stuff for five generations first burn and then be demolished. 

So let’s stop pointing the finger at each other and accept responsibility. It’s up to all of us to make sure this doesn’t happen again.  Are you listening Mr. Cameron?

 

 

 

Watching the people get lairy

Sometimes I think I’ve fallen asleep and woken up in the eighties. Teens sport leggings and batwing sleeves and the only money to be found is in The City. The Tory government are off on their hols and there are riots in Tottenham and Brixton.

Choose Life! The eighties are back.

2011 will be remembered as the year of the riot. The Middle East started us off with their desperate call for a voice. We’re lucky enough in the UK to be able to be able to express our views freely and to criticise the government as much as we like but peaceful demonstrations have had a habit recently of turning into violence. Students started us off at the end of last year when their demonstrations against university fees turned into a free for all. On March 26th we marched peacefully against cuts while others broke into shops, set fire to stuff and chucked things at the police.

The most recent riots started out after a peaceful demonstration from the family and friends of Mark Duggan, the man shot by police in Tottenham. What followed seems to me to indicate a general malaise. This time it wasn’t the public school-educated sons of rock stars throwing bottles at police, it was the ordinary London kids.

I’ve read several articles about the inevitability of the violence of the last couple of nights but I don’t believe a riot is ever inevitable, it’s a choice. In this case I believe it’s a series of factors that came together: long summer evenings along with the feeling that the police are against you. And surely the constant drip feed of service cuts and lack of jobs for young people are part of it. The country’s decision-makers and law-enforcers don’t care about you, your community or your future. And what the hell, you’re bored and fed up and others are out there looting nice stuff and attacking the police so you may as well join in.

My neighbour Brixton has taken a balanced view of things. The high street and tube station are closed to prevent groups gathering and local councillors, MPs and community leaders are meeting to discuss what happens now. Which is more than be said for the prime minster and the mayor of London who are away on holiday (but not together. Wouldn’t that be an interesting scenario? They could reminisce about their elite educations) and really don’t want to be interrupted by nasty things like common people protesting.

Tottenham's burning

I have no doubt however that when the communities clear things up and get those youngsters back in front of the telly where they belong, that both Cameron and Johnson will be claiming responsibility for sorting things out. Or am I being cynical?

Meanwhile I’ll be putting on a Bananarama record and slipping into Choose Life t-shirt. Because we’re living in the eighties, right?

 

How to network like an old pro

We don’t network much in the public sector. Our clients come to us. But now I’m I private business, I’m learning the art of the network and it’s really quite fun.

I discovered the Ladies Who Latte networks via the Internet. Local groups of fabulous business women meet monthly over coffee (did you guess?) and have a natter. There is then an opportunity to tell the whole group what you’re up to and swap business cards. Sometimes there are speakers: This month’s Tooting Ladies Who Latte chapter (the similarity to the Hell’s Angels ends there. Honest) had a speaker from City Business Library based in the Guildhall complex. If you’re London based or just visiting, do go and visit, it’s an amazing place. There are daily seminars on all aspects of business and, unbelievably in these austere times, are free. I’ve already been to my first and plan on making them a regular feature of my life.

At Streatham Ladies Who Latte I bumped in local businesswoman Edna Agbarha from this season’s The Apprentice and was invited to another networking event, the launch of Well-Connect in a cocktail bar in Soho with yet more fabulous and energetic business people there.  From there I was invited to the Holborn chapter of the BNI network, a more formal networking event over breakfast. The BNI model is an international one and works incredibly well: members make referrals and the business done between members is followed up and measured in financial terms.

All have been very different events but what have I learned about networking?

1)      Take a lot of business cards. I failed at the first hurdle at Tooting Ladies Who Latte thinking no one would be interested. By the time it came to the next event I was laden with business cards and handing them out with gay abandon. I bought my cards from Moo. They do amazing cards, mini cards and postcards. I chose inspirational quotations for the back of my cards to give people something to remember.

2)      People are generally incredibly friendly and helpful. So many people I’ve spoken to in the last few weeks have had ideas, suggestions and helpful words for me. Once I get on my feet I hope I’ll be as generous.

3)      People don’t mind if you cut to the chase. Wouldn’t all relationships be better for a bit of this? It’s ok at networking events to ask someone what they do and what they hope to get out of the event. This can seem rather direct but I like it. No messing about talking about the weather. As I’m married into a family of plain-speaking Yorkshire folk I’m fairly used to being spoken to in a forthright manner. It can be terrifying but least you know where you stand.

4)      I’m pretty shy but as Morrissey once warbled to some gladioli,

‘Shyness is nice and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.’

My default position on finding a room full of strangers is to press myself tightly against the wall in the hope that no one will notice me. It often works.  At a networking event it’s important to enter the room with a smile and an approachable manner. Take a deep breath, stick your hand out and say ‘Hi, I’m Citizen R and I’m an education consultant. What’s your line of business?’ Still scary but getting easier.

5)      Be polite. Luckily for me my mother drilled me in the sort of British manners that have me apologising profusely to inanimate objects and insects. People like manners. It’s that simple.

6)      Follow up. It’s great meeting people and chatting to them but you need to follow up any good contacts. That inner voice says to me, ‘they’ve forgotten you already and they’re not interested,’ but when I’ve dropped people an email, again they’re been happy to mail back.

7)      Brush on your social media. It’s easy to dismiss Linked-in and Twitter as a bit of fun but I’ve now got Twitter friends and Linked-in connections with people I’ve met.  Perhaps they won’t come to anything but who knows? If nothing else, it doesn’t hurt to have people to chat with.  NB Don’t get obsessive over it though. Read this article by Filip Matous from Enviable Workplace and weigh up the pros and cons.

So those are my thoughts as a complete novice. What are your top tips for networking?

Classroom Secrets: it’s all work, work, work

BBC1 programme Classroom Secrets is a clever idea: stick some cameras in a Year Four (eight and nine year olds) classroom and invite the parents to watch the results. Maybe we should do this for every child. It was interesting how one set of parents thought their moppet would be quiet and diligent in class. He wasn’t. And how another believed their daughter was probably being led astray by other children. She wasn’t.

I can’t count the number of times in the past when I’ve said I was deputy head of a primary school and had the response, ‘Oh how sweet! That must be fun. Not like working with teenagers.’

No, not like teaching teenagers (I’ve done both) but different. In the past, along with other colleagues, I’ve taught small children who have bitten, screamed, sulked, ran off, hidden and kicked and it’s not always easy to get the parents to support their children.

One aspect of behaviour that emerged in the programme was that fact that children came into school tired on a Monday morning and not able to concentrate. We’re then shown a child eating a croissant slathered in Nutella for breakfast in front of the TV. That’s an awful lot of quick release sugar for a child’s breakfast resulting in a peak of energy followed by a dip and lack of concentration in class.

Too much sugar for a child's schools day breakfast!

But these are issues that every school has to deal with. It’s important to engage parents and children in learning about healthier lifestyles. This includes the importance of a good balanced breakfast based on the eat-well plate and why sleep is so important (the NHS recommend ten hours a night for a nine year old child.) It’s also important for schools to support parents in how to manage their child’s behaviour. Parents can’t be expected to know all the answers. Unless children are well rested, healthy and safe they will always struggle with their Latin. Are you listening Mr. Gove?

And the outcome? The parents were able to see exactly what their children were like at school and they and the teachers began to understand each other better.  The teacher changed her behaviour management style in class and the parents put their kids to bed earlier. Result all round.

Ps I’m not commenting further on the teaching and behaviour management of  that schools as I’m sure there will be enough comments elsewhere…but please stop going on about work, work, work.

What do we want? Pensions! When do we want them? Before we’re too old to enjoy them.

When I was a little girl and went to play at my friend’s house we would bandage her teddies and give them pretend medicine but when it was her turn to visit me, we would line up our toys and pretended to be teachers. Many years later she grew up to be a doctor and I grew up to be… well I think you can guess.

When I was that little girl I didn’t think about pensions or the public sector I just wanted to be a teacher when I grew up. And even when I went to university, in between lots of practice snogging boys and drinking too much alcohol, I worked hard to learn my profession. I can’t remember rubbing my hands together in glee and planning to work in the public sector because of the pensions or because it was an easy option. Nascently political, I wanted to teach in state schools so I did.

But teacher pensions are a perk in a job where you get yelled at by parents on a daily basis, abused occasionally by the kids you try to teach and slagged off regularly by the media and politicians. So I’m behind the strikes on Thursday. Michael Gove has already got his knickers in a twist at the thought of striking and calling it a ‘massive inconvenience.’ It will be, especially to some working parents who, as Guardian journalist Suzanne Moore points out, use schools as a child-minding service. It’s frustrating and annoying when train drivers or airport staff go on strike but it’s a last resort and it lets the world know how fed up people are.

The ATL (Association of Teachers and lecturers) is striking for the first time in its 127 year history.

Gove (circled) on strike: teachers will lose respect of they strike .

Perhaps you should start listening to the teachers, Mr Gove. Because of course you’d never go on strike yourself, would you?

For more on this debate read the excellent page in The Guardian. I appear at 1.40pm.

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