Ending 2019

This blog achieved multiple minor but personally enjoyable milestones in 2019:

  • It was read by people in 143 counties, the highest in a single year since 2008 (when I started blogging)
  • It was the second busiest year by traffic (after 2015)
  • It was the year with the highest post engagement (as ‘likes’ on WordPress and shares/comments on Twitter and Facebook)
  • It crossed both 1,000 and 1,100 published posts
  • The number of subscribers breached the 5,600 mark
  • 2019 was my third most productive year by total number of posts (169) and average post length (793 words)

Some notes

1. In 2019, most of what I learnt about writing had to do with straddling the thin line between populist and heterodox writing. Where populism dictates giving the people what they want, and progressively enclosing them deeper within echo chambers, the heterodoxy here refers to giving your readers something they don’t know they want but consume once they discover it. This is harder than it sounds largely because interestingness is a vague goal. Lots of things are interesting, and most people interested in interesting things aren’t interested in all topics. So if I’ve been as productive as I have this year, it’s because I think I got better at identifying what kind of heterodox content Root Privileges‘s readers like and which I also like.

2. I hit multiple rough patches in my personal as well as professional lives this year, and experienced at least three extended periods of writers’ block brought on by an overwhelming sensation of irrelevance on one occasion, of disgust and world-weariness on the second, and a protracted period of mental illness on the third. While I resent the occurrence of these episodes, I’m also grateful and delighted for having found a way on all of them to get back to the writing habit, one way or another. So if in future I find myself stuck in a similar rut, I will have one more way to motivate myself beyond discovering the specific antidote to the circumstances: to simply tell myself I did it before so I should be able to do it again.

On that note, I hope you have a great, happier, more productive and more gainful year in 2020!

The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash

‘Work from home’ is about culture, not economics

Working from home (WFH) is not for everyone or for every company. It works mostly when individual employees of an organisation don’t need to work together often, or are embedded in workflows where tasks move quickly from one stage to the next. On a personal level, WFH isn’t feasible if you lack self-discipline and/or need the presence of your colleagues people around you to keep you from feeling isolated from company matters or simply, and more distressingly, lonely.

I’ve been employed with The Wire for 38 months now, and have worked from home for 34 of those. As a higher-up editor in the organisation who almost never works with a local team of reporters, I’m constantly looking for productivity paradigms, and hacks, that will keep me going as well as at the top of my game despite being removed from decision-making at HQ. In this context, I recently stumbled upon a seemingly influential study published in 2014 about how WFH can improve employee productivity by leaps and bounds.

I’ve heard a few arguments over the years from various proponents of WFH who cite studies like this to make their point: that there is empirical evidence from the ‘wild’ to show that WFH doesn’t just work but in fact improves employee performance and company prospects. As much as I want WFH to be a thing among organisations with larger workforces (50+ people) and with HQs located in metropolitan cities or megalopolises, I’ve noted with disappointment that most people eager to forward this paradigm often forget cultural impediments to implementing it.

IMO, a decision about allowing regular WFH options is predominantly cultural, particularly in ways that econometric or parametric tests in general can’t capture. For example, many organisations allow people to work from home in exceptional circumstances not because their management is old school but because it needs to be: a large fraction of the urban Indian workforce is not used to being able to work that way.

One big reason this is the case is that “going to office” is part of the traditional mindset of middle-class and lower-upper-class workers. Outside of entrepreneurial centres like Bangalore and smaller pockets of other Indian tier I cities, it’s hard to find people who even want to do this. For example, in my own home, my folks took over 18 months to believe my job was important for The Wire and that WFH was a legitimate way of doing it. The practice is certainly becoming more common but it’s not that common yet in the country.

(A subset reason is that many, if not most, offices in India are better equipped than their employees’ homes are. It’s sort of like the midday meal scheme but in a corporate context. On a related note, you’ll notice that most stock photos depicting a WFH environment show Macbooks on a clean, white table. Where’s the dust da?)

Second, the participants of the influential study cited above were all call-centre employees. This is important because call centres typically have a unique type of office (if it can be called an ‘office’ at all). Its personnel all work individually, not collaboratively, and prize – as the study’s paper notes – a quieter working environment. So the touted “9.2% minutes more per shift” and the “13% performance increase” are both results of employees moving from louder to quieter environments and so answer phone calls better, faster.

To me, this is not a characteristic feature of working from home at all. The study is simply about the effects of the removal of an impediment for employees of an idiosyncratic sector of employment. I suspect the experiment’s effects can be recreated without instituting WFH and simply making their Shanghai office quieter. As Jerry Useem wrote in The Atlantic:

Don’t send call-center workers home, … encourage them to spend more time together in the break room, where they can swap tricks of the trade.

Of course, one could argue that another factor working in WFH’s favour is that the employees are saved the commute – especially in larger cities where the business/commercial district is located in the centre, where costs of living are absolutely prohibitive, and the more affordable residential district is to be found the farther you move away from that centre. Delhi is an obvious example: The Wire HQ is located five minutes from Connaught Place whereas the bulk of its employees are housed in Mayur Vihar or beyond in the east and Lajpat Nagar or beyond in the south – both areas at least 12 km away.

This would be legit except I personally won’t buy into it because I think it’s a failure of urban planning that people have to commute so much, drawing worse lines between their professional and personal lives as well as segregating their daily lives into distinct, monotonous units with only the pursuit of higher efficiency at its soul. I say “worse” instead of “starker” because the line is disappearing in some places where it shouldn’t, such as in the form of carrying a fragment of your workplace on your smartphone, wherever you go, leading employers to assume employees are always available and employees to assume they ought to be always available.

The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash
The glamourisation of productivity is everywhere. Credit: Carl Heyerdahl/ Unsplash

The attitude of Silicon Valley technology towards free time has been tendentiously wolfish, so much that self-discipline has become one of the greater and rarer virtues of our time. Where workplace laws won’t go, “work anywhere” has almost always been interpreted to mean “work everywhere”. So for a WFH policy to be meaningful, you need people in the office ready to understand the difference instead of gleefully rearing for the leap. This is why I think Slack should shutter its mobile apps or, if not, equip them with features that will allow employees to truly disconnect, beyond the recurring question of self-discipline.

(Remember Fiverr’s ‘do more or die trying’ ad campaign extolling the gig economy?)

Moreover, modern cities are almost exclusively designed to be economic engines constantly looking for solutions to problems instead of being oriented towards fostering healthy communities and communitarian aspirations. By going for the urban sprawl and, as Fouad Khan calls it, the consequential suburban alienation, the modern city organically gives rise to gender bias and class discrimination. From Khan’s essay (for Nautilus):

Like the physical boundaries it draws between commercial and residential zones, sprawl enforces the boundaries set by our roles in society. Specific times must be dedicated to specific activities such as picking up kids from school or doing groceries. The organic social interaction that a city is supposed to facilitate goes missing. Even when time is allocated for socialization as a dedicated activity, it takes the character of a chore like everything else on the calendar. When activities are spatially segregated we find our identities splitting among our various roles, never quite able to bring all of ourselves to anything. Alienation rises. Just as physical access is more restricted for women in these cities than men, the role imposition is also stricter.

(And before you know it, ‘meet spaces’ are going to become commoditised: “For $50 an hour, meet random people in a quiet, safe environment at Watr Coolr. Coffee and biscuits extra.”)

Finally, WFH is most effective when the tools necessary to ensure employees lose as little as possible as they shift out of the office and into their personal workspace are efficacious. And such efficacy is a product of excellent UI/UX, lower communication latency, affordability, access to high-quality supporting infrastructure, etc. But most important is the willingness of those within the office to use the same tools to help keep you, and others like you, in the loop.

For example, a supervisor might be okay with Skyping a WFH employee or two WFH employees might be okay with running things on WhatsApp between each other. But that’s not to say other colleagues will. I wouldn’t if I didn’t have to because using Skype is not the same thing as booting Skype. There’s a cognitive cost to booting Skype: you have to stop thinking about whatever you’re thinking about, think about Skype and then decide to use Skype. This cost only escalates the more such tasks you perform.

This is why I imagine few others would use tech when they don’t have to, thus making it harder for communication-that’s-not-about-work to survive, in effect preserving the misguided prioritisation of gainful productivity above all else. On the other hand, as Useem writes,

The power of presence has no simple explanation. It might be a manifestation of the “mere-exposure effect”: We tend to gravitate toward what’s familiar; we like people whose faces we see, even just in passing. Or maybe it’s the specific geometry of such encounters. The cost of getting someone’s attention at the coffee machine is low—you know they’re available, because they’re getting coffee—and if, mid-conversation, you see that the other person has no idea what you’re talking about, you automatically adjust.

So yeah, WFH works for some people. But it’s not a good idea to expect a company to make a decision about standardising WFH options for all employees based on empirical analyses.

Featured image credit: Ashim D’Silva/Unsplash.

Money for science

Spending money on science has been tied to evaluating the value of spin-offs, assessing the link between technological advancement and GDP, and dissecting the metrics of productivity, but the debate won’t ever settle no matter how convincingly each time it is resolved.

For a piece titled The Telescope of the 2030s, Dennis Overbye writes in The New York Times,

I used to think $10 billion was a lot of money before TARP, the Troubled Asset Relief Program, the $700 billion bailout that saved the banks in 2008 and apparently has brought happy days back to Wall Street. Compared with this, the science budget is chump change, lunch money at a place like Goldman Sachs. But if you think this is not a bargain, you need look only as far as your pocket. Companies like Google and Apple have leveraged modest investments in computer science in the 1960s into trillions of dollars of economic activity. Not even Arthur C. Clarke, the vaunted author and space-age prophet, saw that coming.

Which is to say that all that NASA money — whether for planetary probes or space station trips — is spent on Earth, on things that we like to say we want more of: high technology, education, a more skilled work force, jobs, pride in American and human innovation, not to mention greater cosmic awareness, a dose of perspective on our situation here among the stars.

And this is a letter from Todd Huffman, a particle physicist at Oxford, to The Guardian:

Simon Jenkins parrots a cry that I have heard a few times during my career as a research scientist in high-energy physics (Pluto trumps prisons when we spend public money, 17 July). He is unimaginatively concerned that the £34m a year spent by the UK at Cern (and a similar amount per year would have been spent on the New Horizons probe to Pluto) is not actually money well spent.

Yet I read his article online using the world wide web, which was developed initially by and for particle physicists. I did this using devices with integrated circuits partly perfected for the aerospace industry. The web caused the longest non-wartime economic boom in recorded history, during the 90s. The industries spawned by integrated circuits are simply too numerous to count and would have been impossible to predict when that first transistor was made in the 50s. It is a failure of society that funnels such economic largesse towards hedge-fund managers and not towards solving the social ills Mr Jenkins rightly exposes.

Conflict of interest? Not really. Science is being cornered from all sides and if anyone’s going to defend its practice, it’s going to be scientists. But we’re often so ready to confuse participation for investment, and at the first hint of any allegation of conflict, don’t wait to verify matters for ourselves.

I’m sure Yuri Milner’s investment of $100 million today to help the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence will be questioned, too, despite Stephen Hawking’s moving endorsement of it:

Somewhere in the cosmos, perhaps, intelligent life may be watching these lights of ours, aware of what they mean. Or do our lights wander a lifeless cosmos — unseen beacons, announcing that here, on one rock, the Universe discovered its existence. Either way, there is no bigger question. It’s time to commit to finding the answer – to search for life beyond Earth. We are alive. We are intelligent. We must know.

Pursuits like exploring the natural world around us are, I think, what we’re meant to do as humans, what we must do when we can, and what we must ultimately aspire to.