Read like your career depends on it (review of Lead to Read)

You were spared and I was saved by a former business editor at the Hamilton Spectator.

I went into the newsroom back in the fall of 1999 to pitch the editor on an advice column about public relations.

The editor said what you’re thinking. No one would want to read that week after week.

What went unsaid was my complete lack of qualification to write that column.  I was just six years into my career. I’d only held two junior PR jobs. Along with embarrassing myself, writing about PR hits and misses by local leaders and employers would’ve been a definite career-limiting move.

While the PR column was DOA, the editor pointed to an overflowing bookcase and asked if I’d be interested in reviewing business books. I left with the first of what would be nearly 600 books and counting.

The authors of Read to Lead would agree that my saying yes to reading and reviews business books was a smarter career move.

“One of the best, most affordable and flexible ways you can improve yourself professionally is by reading books,” says Jeff Brown and Jesse Wisnewski. “Reading books may not appear on your resume or LinkedIn profile. But the benefits you reap from what you read will.

“Reading books will help you learn new skills, improve your decision-making abilities, and even provide you with more professional opportunities. Reading books can also help you avoid costly mistakes and reduce your learning curve.”

While the benefits are many, lots of us aren’t reading nearly enough. And some of us don’t read any books at all.  

A lack of time is a common excuse even though we average close to six hours a day starring at screens. “Don’t blame TV, social media, or the internet for your being a non-reader,” say the authors. “Instead, fight to give your attention to reading more by doing less of whatever else you’re giving your leisurely attention to. Your future self will thank you.”

So what books should you be reading? It shouldn’t be an exclusive diet of business books. Brown and Wisnewski recommend reading for personal change and personal enrichment, spiritual enrichment, professional development and wisdom. Also read books recommended by people you trust. “If a book has changed someone else’s life and they recommend it, get it. Reading a book recommended by someone you know or respect from a distance can be a game-changer.”

The authors are big fans of joining or starting a book club at work. “Encouraging your colleagues, team, or employees to join a book club is arguably one of the most cost-effective ways you can build a healthy culture, train your team and develop future leaders.”

To start a book club, get permission and financial support from your boss. Pick a moderator to lead the group discussion. Choose a book and set a date, ideally giving everyone a month to read the book. As a group, talk about the book’s big ideas and then implement what you’ve learned. The authors’ Leadbook.com website has free resources for setting up and running a book club at work, including questions to jumpstart conversations and a recommended reading list.

Whether on your own or in a club, Brown and Wisnewski say you should read like your career depends on it.

“There’s no secret to reading other than making it a priority, picking up a book, cracking it open and getting to work. If you want to read more books, then you will have to prioritize reading. There’s no way around making this decision, and you’re the only one who can make it.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

In defense of common sense at work (review of Martin Lindstrom’s The Ministry of Common Sense)

A parent emailed in a panic.

Her son, who used a wheelchair, was graduating from college. His convocation ceremony was just days away. His dream was to walk across the stage to accept his diploma. To do that, he’d need help from his mom.

But mother and son were told that couldn’t happen. There was a hard-and-fast rule against family and friends being on stage during convocation. No exceptions even in exceptional circumstances.

The mom’s plea found an empathetic ear. Her email was forwarded to the president. Common sense prevailed.

When the student got up from his wheelchair, everyone in the packed theatre got out of their seats. With help from his mom, he walked across the stage to a standing ovation, lots of cheers and more than a few tears.

So how about your organization? What hard-and-fast rules, regulations, policies, procedures and practices are driving out common sense?

Count on the number of common-sense issues to be off the charts, says Martin Lindstrom, author of The Ministry of Common Sense: How to Eliminate Bureaucratic Red Tape, Bad Excuses and Corporate Bullshit. “This pervasive lack of common sense hampers the real business of companies – that is, serving their customers better than the competition and becoming more responsive, attentive and attuned to their needs. Companies have abandoned whatever common sense they once had in favour of systems and processes that a two-week-old golden retriever would find dumb. Either businesses never had much common sense to begin with or they’re not aware it’s gone missing.”

If common sense is MIA in your organization, Lindstrom blames eroding empathy, an insular inside-out rather than outside-in perspective, corporate politics and technology that more often complicates, rather than streamlines, our lives.

So how do you help common sense make a comeback? Start with small, modest changes that’ll yield quick, easy and momentum-building wins, says Lindstrom. The people you serve will be more than happy to tell you how you frustrate them to no end. Your employees will do the same if they believe candor won’t cost them their jobs. Having senior leaders experience your organization as a customer, client or frontline employee is also highly instructive.

Once you’ve identified red tape and roadblocks, stage a three-month intervention. “This strategy involves doing things quickly, accurately and efficiently – within a 90-day time limit. A ticking clock injects a sense of urgency to the proceedings, which typically dissolves company politics. The busier and more focused that employees are on hitting a target, the more that internal politics disappears.”

Optimism will wane so celebrate your wins no matter how small. “Only rarely do organizations commemorate truly special occasions. If they do, these usually revolve around boring economic metrics, soaring stock prices or a cursory email that shows up in your inbox telling you that Barb in accounting is turning 50 next week, and asking whether you will be chipping in for cake and a hot stone massage. Designed mostly to please HR or throw a bone to employees, these sorts of celebrations are often the extent of a company’s recognition of the culture.”

To pull off these changes and make sure they stick, Lindstrom recommends establishing a CEO-endorsed Ministry of Common Sense, “devoted to overturning the frustrations, hurdles and roadblocks within corporations that most leaders and managers don’t even know are there. And by the way, the Ministry isn’t some cloying, whimsical, feel-good jurisdiction either. It’s not a Band-Aid. It’s real, and it serves as the first line of defense against the thoughtlessness, at-times-incoherent systems, processes, rules and regulations that squander resources, morale and productivity.”

As Lindstrom shows, reviving common sense in your organization will save you money, improve your culture and strengthen the customer experience.  As the pandemic forces us to rethink and reinvent how we run our organizations and do our jobs, we should also revisit all the hard-and-fast rules that are crushing common sense. Let empathy reign.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Our best hope is to give up hope of doing & having it all (review of Oliver Burkeman’s 4,000 Weeks)

Your bucket list is bottomless.

Your vacations are all about pushing yourself to physical and mental extremes, curating the highlights on Instagram and recharging your batteries for work.

You don’t have the time or patience to read a book but you listen exclusively to work and life hack podcasts while training for your next marathon.

You have side hustles instead of hobbies.

Inbox Zero is your religion.

And you genuinely believe that you’re destined to leave a permanent dent in the universe.

Oliver Burkeman would like a word. He’d warn that you’re squandering your most scarce and precious resource. It’s not just that there are only 24 hours in a day. If you’re lucky enough to make it to your 80th birthday, you’ll have clocked a little over 4,000 weeks.

So what’s the best way to use your finite amount of time in the face of infinite opportunities and demands?  Lead a limit-embracing life and acknowledge that it’s impossible to do and have it all,  says the author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals.

“The average human lifespan is absurdly, terrifyingly, insultingly short,” says Burkeman. “But that isn’t a reason for unremitting despair, or for living in an anxiety-fueled panic about making the most of your limited time. It’s a cause for relief.

“You get to give up on something that was always impossible – the quest to become the optimized, infinitely capable, emotionally invincible, fully independent person you’re officially supposed to be. Then you get to roll up your sleeves and start work on what’s gloriously possible instead.”

To find your glorious possibility, Burkeman has five existential questions for you to wrestle with.

Where in your life or your work are you currently pursuing comfort, when what’s called for is a little discomfort? “Choose uncomfortable enlargement over comfortable diminishment whenever you can,” says Burkeman.

Are you holding yourself to, and judging yourself by, standards of productivity or performance that are impossible to meet? “Let your impossible standards crash to the ground. Then pick a few meaningful tasks from the rubble and get started on them today.”

In what ways have you yet to accept the fact that you are who you are, not the person you think you ought to be?

In which areas of life are you still holding back until you feel like you know what you’re doing? That day isn’t coming anytime soon. “There is no institution, no walk of life, in which everyone isn’t just winging it, all the time. If that feeling of total authority is never going to arrive, you might as well not wait any longer to give such activities your all.”

How would you spend your days differently if you didn’t care so much about seeing your actions reach fruition? “We’re all in the position of medieval stonemasons, adding a few more bricks to a cathedral whose completion we know we’ll never see. The cathedral’s still worth building, all the same.”

Burkeman calls his book an extended argument for the empowering potential of giving up hope.  “Embracing your limits means giving up hope that with the right techniques, and a bit more effort, you’d be able to meet other people’s limitless demands, realize your every ambition, excel in every role or give every good cause or humanitarian crisis the attention it seems like it deserves. It means giving up hope of ever feeling totally in control, or certain that acutely painful experiences aren’t coming your way. And it means giving up, as far as possible, the master hope that lurks beneath all of this, the hope that somehow this isn’t really it – that this is just a dress rehearsal and that one day you’ll feel truly confident that you have what it takes.”

It’s not enough to stop spending your limited time on low to no-value distractions. You’ll also have to make tough calls on very important things. No matter how productive and efficient you become, there won’t be enough time to do everything that matters. And if you try, you won’t enjoy the moments you spend with everything and everyone who matter most.

Our world is bursting with wonder, says Burkeman “yet it’s the rare productivity guru who seems to have considered the possibility that the ultimate point of all our frenetic doing might be to experience more of that wonder.”

Fortunately for us, Burkeman is one of those gurus who can help us do justice to “the outstanding brevity and shimmering possibilities of our four thousand weeks”.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books since 1999.

Going under the hood of the world’s most voracious data-mining machine (review of An Ugly Truth)

What’s the price to be paid when you put company before country and profits over privacy?

For Facebook, it adds up to record results.

The company’s second quarter ad revenue jumped 56 per cent to $29.1 billion compared to the same quarter last year, with profits more than doubling to $10.4 billion. Facebook also reported 2.9 billion monthly active users.

But beyond the balance sheet, it’s been a brutal stretch for Facebook and all the rest of us who have to live in CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s world. Some of the company’s lowest hits include the Cambridge Analytica data breach and Russian disinformation campaigns against Western democracies to the genocide in Myanmar and Zuckerberg giving Holocaust deniers a pass by saying “I don’t think that they’re intentionally getting it wrong.”

“Throughout Facebook’s 17-year history, the social network’s massive gains have repeatedly come at the expense of consumer privacy and the integrity of democratic systems,” write New York Times journalists Cecilia Kang and Sheera Frenkel in their book An Ugly Truth: Inside Facebook’s Battle for Domination. “And yet, that’s never gotten in the way of its success.”

Kang and Frenkel spent more than 1,000 hours interviewing over 400 people, including former and current employees, executives, investors and advisors. They also drew from a trove of never-reported internal emails, memos and white papers. Zuckerberg refused repeated requests for interviews, while Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg walked back her promise of off-the-record conversations.

“The people who spoke to us, often putting their careers at risk, were crucial to our ability to write this book. Without their voices, the story of the most consequential social experiment of our times could not have been told in full. These people provide a rare look inside a company whose stated mission is to create a connected world of open expression, but whose corporate culture demands secrecy and unqualified loyalty.”

Kang and Frenkel look at the origins and consequences of Facebook’s growth-at-any-cost business strategy, which includes buying or burying competitors that stifles innovation and leaves us with fewer choices. “Many people regard Facebook as a company that lost its way: the classic Frankenstein story of a monster that broke free of its creator. We take a different point of view. From the moment Zuckerberg and Sandberg met at a Christmas party in December 2007, they sensed the potential to transform the company into the global power it is today. Through their partnership, they methodically built a business model that is unstoppable in its growth and entirely deliberate in its design.”

It’s a business model that makes Facebook’s 2.9 billion users the product that’s packaged and sold to advertisers for billions in ad revenue. The authors call Facebook the world’s most voracious data-mining machine. The more time users spend on the platform, the more money Facebook makes from advertisers. And nothing hooks users and keeps them coming back day after day quite like tribal fear and hatred fueled by a constant feed of misinformation and disinformation on everything from election results to COVID-19 vaccinations.

While Facebook and its legion of lawyers and lobbyists will tell us that big tech regulation is unnecessary and breaking up the company would be disastrous, Kang and Frenkel say it’s likely the only way to force Facebook to change for the common good. Last December, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission and nearly every state sued Facebook for harming its users and competitors.

“The algorithm that serves Facebook’s beating heart is too powerful and too lucrative. And the platform is built upon a fundamental, possibly irreconcilable dichotomy: its purported mission to advance society by connecting people while also profiting off them. It is Facebook’s dilemma and its ugly truth.”

Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, gets none of his news from Facebook and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Self-care won’t cure burnout at work (review of The Burnout Epidemic by Jennifer Moss)

Your team’s exhausted and burning out.

Because you’re a leader who cares, you’re ready to pick up the tab for lunch hour yoga classes, a mindfulness and resilience workshop and a meditation app. You’re also planning to invite everyone to skip work next Friday and spend the day at your place for a catered barbecue, pool party and an epic game of ultimate frisbee.

Hold that thought, and not just because forced fun is a slow death for introverts and co-workers should never see each other in swimwear.

Your self-care intentions are good but it won’t fix what ails your team.

“Burnout can’t be stretched out of people in yoga classes or sweated out of them at the gym,” says Jennifer Moss, journalist and author of The Burnout Epidemic.

“Burnout doesn’t care if they breathe better or deeper. And it most certainly isn’t prevented by suggesting that maybe if they just listened to the sound of rainfall for 30 seconds instead of 15. This is the psychology of leaders in denial.”

Burnout is a sign that something’s seriously wrong with your organization’s culture. Look for one or more of these six roots causes of burnout: imposed or self-inflicted chronic overwork, micromanaging with little to no autonomy, no meaningful rewards or recognition for a job well done, strained relationships with coworkers and supervisors, a real or perceived lack of fairness and a values mismatch between employees and employer.

“Burnout is a complex constellation of poor workplace practices and policies, antiquated institutional legacies, roles and personalities at higher risk, and systemic, societal issues that have been left unchanged, plaguing us for far too long,” says Moss. A focus on self-care solutions makes burnout a “me” rather than “we” problem and absolves leaders from taking responsibility to clean up poor organizational hygiene.

The real cure for burnout comes from tackling those six root causes. And how do you figure out which of these problems haunt your team? Ask them. Let them answer anonymously. Act on what you’re told  and then report back on what you’re doing to clean up your organizational hygiene.  

“Yes, we need to help our people develop the skills that support their mental health and happiness,” says Moss. “But, to battle burnout, we’re talking a different game. Though employees are ultimately responsible for their own happiness, it is our responsibility to provide the conditions that support, and not detract, from their happiness. Burnout occurs when those conditions fail.”

Pay particular attention to younger employees who are at the highest risk of burnout, says Moss. They tend to have less autonomy at work, lower seniority, greater financial pressures and deeper feelings of loneliness.

Address the root causes of burnout and you’ll earn your team’s trust and respect. They’ll know that you genuinely care. Your concern for their well-being won’t come across as lip service or a public relations exercise meant to impress the outside world and score best places to work awards and accolades.

And once you’ve cleaned up your organizational hygiene, that’s when you can revisit your well-intentioned self-care classes, workshops and apps.  Just continue holding off on that stress-inducing backyard pool party.  A Randstad USA survey found that 90 per cent of workers would rather get a bonus or extra vacation day than attend a company holiday party. A party where everyone’s wearing beachwear likely gets you to 100 per cent.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager at McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and calls Hamilton home.

How to save your reputation from the digital mob (review of Molly McPherson’s Indestructible)

You said or did something stupid.

And now you’re being called out on social media by the digital mob. Reporters, your employees and customers are watching from the sidelines.

What you do next will seal your fate. Do it wrong and you’ll get yourself cancelled. You may very well lose your job, your business and your reputation.

Now is not the time to throw yourself a pity party, run and hide or hope the mob gets bored and moves on to its next target.

“The online shunning is not random nor is it unfair,” says Molly McPherson, author of Indestructible and an expert in public relations and crisis response in the digital age.

“The people who are targeted for cancellation or the brands that find themselves in the public’s crosshairs are in that position for a reason.

“The outrage is typically not from the questionable act that took the notice of the public, but from an inadequate response to the questionable act. The blowback is caused by a collective repudiation of the response itself or the hubris behind it.”

Brace yourself for extinction-level blowback if you’re defiant, snarky, tone deaf or slow off the mark.

McPherson has a far better three-step response that can save your reputation.

Own it. Acknowledge and accept responsibility for what you’ve said or done. Be sincere, humble and show genuine remorse. “An apology is critical to rebuilding a reputation and shows respect to people impacted or victimized by an incident. Accepting responsibility may seem risky, but it’s far riskier from a reputational point of view to try and avoid it.”

Clarify it. Give background that puts what you said or did in context. Explain, but don’t try to excuse, yourself. Use your weekend words when explaining yourself. “Speak to your stakeholders in a language they understand. Speak clearly and as jargon-free as possible.”

Promise it. Put yourself on the path to redemption. Announce your plans, priorities and the changes to come. Take real steps to make amends. “It goes without saying that this is not the time for token efforts – you’ll need to show how serious you are about mending the situation if you expect your reputation to emerge intact without being cancelled.”

And if you do these three steps, you have a shot at winning it and not getting yourself cancelled.

McPherson sees the same mistake being repeated by leaders facing a digital revolt. “The most dangerous thing a leader can do the moment they hear of pushback from the public is dismissal. They dismiss the complaint. They dismiss the complainer. They dismiss the power of social media. I have never, ever worked on or have been aware of a situation in which such dismissal hasn’t hurt a business in the short or long term.”

So why are leaders so quick to dismiss and make things worse for themselves? The number one reason is fear, says McPherson. “Fear of consumers rising up against their leadership. Fear of social media. Fear of information taken out of context.”

There are also leaders who still believe everything is private unless and until they chose to release it. The game has changed, says McPherson. Not only do we want information, we expect it on demand. “Being told ‘no’ is an invitation to ask again and to ask even harder because the reluctance to share arouses suspicion.”

In a world where everything you say and do can and likely will be used against you on social media, McPherson says leaders now more than ever need to practice honesty, humility, genuineness, transparency, responsiveness, relevance and accountability “Leading with these core values will help you navigate the environment and digital landscape in ways that older, outdated paradigms will not.”

So if you find yourself being called out online, silence, denial, defiance and non-apologies are not winning strategies. McPherson will show you a far better way to avoid getting cancelled and come out of a crisis with your reputation intact.

This review ran in the July 17th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Dear leader: now’s a good time to dial down rather than ratchet up the anxiety levels at work (review of Anxiety at Work)

I worked for a leader who kept count of all the people he’d fired over the years.

It was a big number. And he’d say it out loud in front of employees.

Why he said it was a mystery. Were we supposed to be impressed? Intimidated? Grateful to still have a job? It left me feeling anxious. My anxiety ratcheted up with every email announcing the sudden departure of yet another co-worker.

And then it happened to a friend. We’d worked together for more than a decade. She’d been doing the work of three people and aced her last performance review. She’d provided outstanding support to a succession of senior executives and was proud and loyal to the organization. People in the office were stunned, sad or mad. I was all three.

No meeting was held the next morning to talk about what had happened. There was no acknowledgement that we were reeling. No reassurances were offered that our jobs were safe. When I saw the leader walk through the office with a big grin and some extra pep in his step, I knew it was time to move on. I wrote the email announcing my pursuit of other opportunities.

“While some leaders believe economic, job and competitive uncertainty and resulting stress will get their people fired up for a challenge, that’s simply not the case for a large portion of the workforce,” write Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, authors of Anxiety at Work.

“With so many employees experiencing heightened degrees of anxiety at work, leaders simply can’t afford to aggravate things further or leave team members on their own to either buck up, opt out or calm down.”

Anxiety can lead to apathy, burnout, self-doubt and imposter syndrome, workplace anger and a pile-up of sick days. We mentally and then physically check out. “Worry, stress and resulting anxiety at work can cause employees to lose focus and withdraw, working at reduced capacity and rebuffing attempts by fellow team members or managers to help.”

So what’s a leader to do? You don’t need to become a therapist, say the authors. Just convey that you genuinely care about the people you have the privilege to lead. Encourage your team to be open about their struggles, lend an ear and take small steps that will add up to less anxiety.

“Within our teams, we can go a long way to relieving tensions, providing support, inspiring enthusiasm and loyalty, and creating a safe place for people to spend their days,” say Gostick and Elton. “Having a healthy workplace is a goal we can all feel good about.”

To achieve that goal, help your team do better at dealing with uncertainty. Practice constant communication transparency so anxiety doesn’t fill your silence. Be direct. Communicate frequently and one-on-one. Make it okay not to have all the answers, loosen your grip, ensure everyone knows exactly what’s expected of them, keep people focused on what’s within their control, have a bias for action and offer constructive feedback.

Gostick and Elton also have strategies to help teams tackle work overload, avoid the anxiety-inducing trap of perfectionism, engage in healthy debate rather than conflict avoidance and build social bonds and a sense of camaraderie.

Leaders also have a key role to play as allies who help marginalized and anxious team members feel valued and accepted. “When managers create cultures where people feel comfortable being themselves, dramatic performance gains can be unlocked as everyone is able to focus all their attention on work.”

I’m fortunate to now work for a leader who’s never publicly or privately boasted about how many people she’s fired. What I hear instead is constant and genuine gratitude that matches to the magnitude of the job well done by her team. And I keep running into people she’s mentored over the years. It’s an equally big, and far more impressive, number.

This review first ran in the May 8th edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Getting out from under the social media influence (review of Gabrielle Bluestone’s Hype)

Who needs a business plan when easy money can be made with a little social media savvy and a whole lot of chutzpah.

In our post-truth and lonely world, there’s no shortage of easy marks online for scammers, grifters and fraud artists to overpromise and then shamelessly underdeliver or deliver nothing at all.

Nothing is what thousands of partygoers got when they flew to the Bahamas for the Fyre Festival back in 2017. There was no Instagram-gold weekend with supermodels and celebrities on a private island. Instead, they wound up stranded in a gravel pit with nowhere to sleep, no shelter from the sun and nothing to eat but cheese slice sandwiches. Meanwhile, Fyre Media CEO Billy McFarland was just offshore on a borrowed yacht living his best life thanks to other people’s money.

“Like most people, my first glimpse of the Fyre Festival was on Instagram,” says journalist Gabrielle Bluestone, who broke the story about the festival’s implosion in real time while working at VICE. “The slick commercial venture exploded onto America’s social media feeds in December of 2016, as hundreds of verified influencers – blue-check Instagram celebrities with tens of millions of combined followers – started posting the same ambiguous burnt sienna square, suggesting their fans #joinme by purchasing tickets to the mysterious event.

“The festival organizers who had hired the internet stars to promote the event were promising ticket buyers ‘two transformative weekends’ of fabulous luxury on a private island formerly owned by Pablo Escobar, where they’d be flown in on private jets, pampered by a dedicated wellness team and nourished with meals designed by celebrity chef Stephen Starr.”

Along with scamming thousands of ticket buyers, McFarland defrauded investors of $27.4 million. He’d eventually be charged with wire fraud and sentenced to six years in federal prison.

In her book Hype, Bluestone also takes a critical look at Insta-famous influencers like Danielle Bernstein and Caroline Calloway who fuel the hype machine.

Bernstein is a 20-something fashion influencer and founder of WeWoreWhat, an Instagram page with more than 2.5 million followers. She gets $15,000 per post to flog brands on her site.

“In a sense, she’s the version of me that I (and many other millennial women) could be if I weren’t too lazy to work out regularly, if I had an unlimited clothing budget, fashion sense and a general lack of shame around dancing in public,” says Bluestone.

“Calloway was someone who was clearly determined to become famous, but her goals didn’t appear to extend all that far beyond her follower count.” She pitched a mini-version of the Fyre Festival, inviting her 800,000-plus followers to sign up for cross-country $165 writing workshops, with the added bonus of handwritten notes in personalized journals, home-cooked salads and wildflower gardens to take home, which Bluestone says is “Influencer-speak for a bouquet of flowers in a mason jar.”

The pandemic may be making us more immune to hype and helping us remember that if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Attention-seeking celebrities and affirmation-needy influencers who lounged in their McMansions or jetted off to parties and island vacations while telling us that we’re #inthistogether have come under increasing fire for being tone-deaf and self-absorbed. Once-faithful fans and followers who’ve been laid off, let go and holed up in studio apartments are pushing back, prompting tearful sorry / not sorry apologies from misunderstood influencers who seem too sad to even get out of bed.

“If any good can even be said to come of something like this pandemic, I think it was that it stripped away a lot of our everyday artifices,” says Bluestone. “And it turned a lot of cynical forgone conclusions into open-ended questions. What do we really need to survive in this world? To thrive? What kind of legacy are we leaving behind? What truly matters when every day is an emergency? Unfortunately, the celebrities did not get the memo.”

This review first ran in the April 24 edition of the Hamilton Spectator. Jay Robb serves as communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton, Ontario and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

4 ways to send & receive far fewer emails (review of Cal Newport’s A World Without Email)

A world without email seems like an impossible, beautiful dream.

But a world with far fewer emails?

That’s doable and Cal Newport knows the way. The Georgetown University computer science professor has spent five years studying how email affects us at work.

To no one’s surprise, it’s not a pretty picture. Research shows email makes us less productive and more miserable. On average, we’re checking our inboxes every six minutes. It’s tough to get important work done when we’re constantly distracted and interrupted. Email is not a job but sending and receiving messages are eating up whatever time we have left between Zoom meetings.  

“We know email is a better way to deliver messages that the technologies it superseded: it’s universal, it’s fast, it’s essentially free,” says Newport, author of A World Without Email. “At the same time, however, we’re fed up with our inboxes, which seem to be as much a source of stress and overwork as they are a productivity boon. These dual reactions – admiration and detestation – are confusing and leave many knowledge workers in a state of frustrated resignation.”

Here are four ways to tame our inboxes and free up time to actually do our jobs.

Limit emails to five sentences or less. Stick to short questions, answers and updates. If you want a conversation, pick up the phone, go on Zoom or walk down the hall. “Always keeping emails short is a simple rule but the effect can be profound,” says Newport. “Once you no longer think of email as a general purpose tool for talking about anything at any time its stranglehold on your attention will diminish.”

Create shared email accounts for departments and projects rather than individual accounts for people. “By eliminating this connection between email and people, you will, with one grand gesture, destabilize everyone’s expectations about how communication should unfold, making it much easier for you to rebuild these expectations from scratch with a protocol that makes more sense.”

To eliminate all those “just checking in to see where we’re at” emails, hold 15-minute scrums with your team. Meet daily or every other day and have everyone answer three questions. What did I get done since our last meeting? Have I run into any obstacles? What will I do before our next scrum?

“These short meetings can significantly reduce ad hoc email or instant message interaction throughout the day, as everyone synchronizes during the regular gathering,” says Newport. “It is surprising how much overwhelming, attention-fracturing back-and-forth interaction can be compressed into a frequent schedule of very short check-ins.”

And finally, borrow from emergency rooms and introduce a tracking board. Put the board up on a wall or get an online version. Write tasks on cards, including who’s responsible for getting the job done. Then stack the cards under three columns: to do, doing and done. Hold regular meetings to review and update your tracking board. Digital task boards will let you store messages directly on the cards, eliminating the need for email.

“If you’re one of the many millions exhausted by your inbox, hopeful that there must be a better way to do good work in a culture currently obsessed by constant connectivity, then it’s time to open your eyes.” Newport shows us a world where we can curb constant digital distractions and regain the cognitive bandwidth to do important work by putting some thought into how we communicate with each other. “I’ve come to believe it’s not only possible, but actually inevitable and my goal with this book is to provide a blueprint for the coming revolution.”

Sign me up.

This review first ran in the April 10 edition of the Hamilton Spectator.

Jay Robb serves as the communications manager for McMaster University’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.

Serve up community in your post-pandemic lunch room (review of The Lonely Century)

Putting communal tables in your lunchroom may be your best post-pandemic recruitment and retention strategy.

To fill those tables, encourage everyone to break for lunch. Discourage us introverts from always eating “al desko.”  Introduce dig-in potlucks and occasionally splurge on ordering in a meal. Keep smartphones out of the lunchroom so we look up, look around and strike up conversations with our coworkers. And make cleaning the lunchroom a shared responsibility. If you’re the leader, volunteer for the first week of cleaning duty. 

“Eating together is one of the easiest ways of building a greater sense of community and team spirit in the workplace,” says Noreena Hertz, academic, thought leader and author of The Lonely Century. “So as companies seek to rebuild a sense of community and help their staff to reconnect after months of forced distancing, reinstituting a formal lunch break – ideally at a set time – and encouraging workers to eat together should form part of their strategy.”

This is especially important if you’re looking to hire and hold on to 20-somethings. Hertz says this demographic, despite all their friends and followers on social media, is among the loneliest in society and the group most craving connection and community. More than half of Gen Zs in the workforce report feeling emotionally distant from their colleagues.

The rest of us aren’t faring much better. Forty per cent of office workers worldwide say they feel lonely. In the US, nearly one in five people don’t have a single friend at work,

According to Hertz, there was a loneliness epidemic long before the pandemic hit. And there’s a good chance our social recession will continue when the pandemic’s behind us thanks to advances in technology.

Hertz isn’t optimistic the booming loneliness economy will save us. That economy includes everything from RentAFriend and increasingly lifelike social robots to mukbang – the practice of watching someone eat on-screen while you eat alone at home.

We’re also commercializing community, even though it’s something you make rather than buy or have done for you. Yet community’s increasingly packaged and sold like a product. “If you can’t pay enough, you are not invited in. There is a real danger that community becomes something increasingly accessible only to the privileged. That loneliness becomes a disease that only the wealthy have a chance to cure.”

Hertz recommends we reinvest in public spaces that bring everyone together while also rolling back taxes and offering incentives to pro-community enterprises, like neighbourhood bookstores and cafes that are getting pummeled by online retailers

We also need to reconnect capitalism with care and compassion, says Hertz. A self-obsessed and self-seeking form of hustle harder bootstrap capitalism has “normalized indifference, made a virtue out of selfishness and diminished the importance of compassion and care. Forty years of neoliberal capitalism has, at best, marginalized values such as solidarity, community, togetherness and kindness.”

So now’s a good time to add kindness to your organization’s list of core values. And during your communal lunches, take a few minutes to recognize and reward colleagues for their small, but hugely important, acts of community-building and loneliness-busting kindness.

In a post-pandemic world with rampant loneliness and isolation, it’ll be the friendly, kind and caring organizations that have a definite competitive advantage in recruiting and retaining good people.

Jay Robb serves as communications manager with McMaster’s Faculty of Science, lives in Hamilton and has reviewed business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999.