All posts by Rick Cole

About Rick Cole

Rick is a Social Media Strategist and Senior Consultant at Smith. Contact the author directly

Living at Work

The new working from home.

Missing the old normal

Home is where the heart is. These days it’s also where the job, the school, the gym and everything else is. COVID-19 and our emergency response forced many of us to “work from home” whether we wanted to or not. Unfortunately, “fifteen days to flatten the curve” has transmuted into seemingly endless shutdowns, school closures and social distancing from everyone except our kids.  

We wake, work, eat, play and sleep in an overly familiar environment, with overly familiar people. How many of us will never complain about a 45-minute commute again? All alone for 45 blessed minutes, cosseted in a personally adjusted, lumbar supported faux leather chair with climate control, listening to your favorite podcast or playlist. Did I mention all alone? Both ways? 

The good old days.

In our minds today, our offices, places we often dreaded, feel like a sanctuary spa. Ergonomically situated workstations, bubbly spring water machines, lunch breaks with menus, the gentle hum of adult (ones we aren’t married to) conversation—Nirvana. 

All of that goodness—commuting, cubicles and chit-chat—is gone and we don’t know when, or if, it’s ever coming back. Working from home has become living at work. 

The Farmer’s Life 

People in agricultural America, before the car, seldom travelled more than eight miles from home in their entire lifetimes. Sound familiar?

We’re all farmers now. Up with the sun to milk cows, do chores, sow crops, move livestock and mend fences. All day, then down with the sun we fall in a heap. Tomorrow, it starts all over again. Do farmers even have Fridays? They definitely don’t have TGIF.

Farmers are renowned for their amazing work ethic. It’s not that they want to be heroes. It’s because their work never stops and neither do they. But their work isn’t really like our work. It’s integrated into their lives in ways ours is not, and cannot be. They can live at work and work can be their lives, because it doesn’t place demands on them that they can’t control. 

Our work comes at us from many directions and countless agendas. Each day we get emails and calls from coworkers and clients presenting new and pressing problems. A farmer doesn’t get emails from the cornfield telling her to drop everything and come running. The farmer knows the corn’s timetable well in advance and integrates it into her workflow. 

Corn answers to her.

Sure, some of the animals can create a little chaos. But that’s why farmers build fences around pastures and sheep pens. Chaos is our work world. Hair-on-fire, Friday afternoon client calls don’t usually happen inside a sheep pen. Unfortunately, we can’t fence in our clients. The way we work is pressurized and demanding. It’s been designed for us to give a total commitment for a limited duration of time. We call it a grind, a rat race, a salt mine. We never call it a dairy farm or a field of kale.  

But now we are living at work. We have brought a rat race into our family room. We might need to make some adjustments. Like farmers, we probably need to build some fences to keep the good in and the bad out.

When Work Never Stops

Did you know that people tend to work more when they live at work (oops, I meant work from home)? It turns out, quite a bit more.  

We work more because there is often no natural stopping point. There simply is no end to work. It’s like the cows that need milking every day. On the day you retire, or fall dead on a Zoom call, you are gently slid away from your desk, a few kind words are solemnly spoken, and then your role and responsibilities are shifted to someone else. The work must go on.

Likewise, when you are at home, there is no natural end to the workday. To me this is the key understanding necessary to healthily and successfully working in this space. Seeing coworkers head for the door is no longer the signal that we’ve reached the end of the workday. I must create my own signals for starting, doing and ending work. I have to recreate boundaries that the workplace used to provide.

Attention, Time, Space and Thought

I need to build fences around what I pay attention to and when. There is a time to talk to my children and a time to take a call. I have to work to make certain neither one tramples on the other.   

I need fences around my time. Work engagement demands a good deal of my time. But so does my family. And so does my personal mental, emotional, spiritual and physical health. These time demands need accounting, budgeting and management from me.  

One of the best ways to create healthy work boundaries is to create a separate workspace within your home. This has been a real challenge for many people because they were sent home without prior planning. Adding children to the space has only made it more difficult. Smith has had a remote workforce since our founding (check out the article below).

Maybe the most important fence is one for our minds. It’s the reason I wrote this article. We need to think about the “live at work” situation we find ourselves in. We need to own it and be intentional about making it work for our families and our jobs. This probably won’t happen naturally. 

We’ll have to find ways to push back against endless work, setting boundaries for when we think about work and when we don’t. Just as important, we’ll need to create mental space to give our work the undivided attention it needs. 

Living at work is not the best alternative for most people. But working from home can be very freeing, rewarding and productive. My wife and I both enjoy working from home. My hope is that this temporary situation will help us sort out long-term work arrangements for ourselves, and our organizations. That we’ll end up with a more flexible and accommodating work environment for everyone when this is over. 

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Ban TikTok?

Should employers be concerned about data security?

Is TikTok an amazingly popular (especially with teens) video-sharing app? Or is TikTok a serious threat to personal, corporate and national security? The answer appears to be “Yes!” 

TikTok Boom

TikTok’s growth has been explosive. It’s been the most downloaded app in Apple’s App Store since 2018. TikTok is reported to have been downloaded over two billion times (175 million in the U.S.), and to have 800 million monthly active users, from over 150 countries. Users are young, with more than 65% being 34 or younger. And they spend a lot of time on the app, averaging 52 minutes a day on TikTok, with teens spending 80 minutes. This activity has reportedly produced $3 billion in profits last year. This app is no slouch. It’s fun. It’s growing. And its user demographics are a marketer’s nirvana.

TikTok Bust

Despite profound success, TikTok’s future is in serious question. TikTok’s growth story is being overshadowed by controversy. Concerns over user data security and international espionage are at the heart of a snowballing crisis for the Chinese-owned app. Unlike with other outcries over social media/technology privacy issues, these controversies aren’t merely rumors. They’re very serious allegations with matching consequences.

The types of actions governments and corporations have taken against TikTok are really unprecedented. Here’s a sample:

  • 2019: Federal Trade Commission fines ByteDance (TikTok’s parent company) for violating online child protection laws.
  • 2019: United Kingdom opens an investigation into TikTok data protection for children.
  • 2019: India places provisional ban on TikTok for issues around pornography and child protections.
  • 2019: A large class-action law suit was filed in California, claiming TikTok illegally transferred personal data of U.S. citizens to China.
  • 2020: India permanently bans TikTok, citing security concerns around Chinese government spying. 
  • 2020: The United States Military bans TikTok from all government-issued phones.
  • 2020: Amazon accidentally releases an internal employee memo asking all employees to delete TikTok from company phones.
  • 2020: Wells Fargo directs employees to remove TikTok from company phones.

So, what is the problem with TikTok? Why are these, and other organizations, so concerned about the app’s access to data. There seem to be two primary areas of concern. The first is personal privacy and illegal consumer data collection. The second is corporate and national espionage—spying done through TikTok on behalf of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Data Syphoning

It’s widely understood that mobile devices collect immense amounts of data from user actions. They track your web browsing, app usage, driving, spending, steps, sleeping, etc.  That TikTok tracks user data isn’t controversial. The problem is what data the app tracks, how it tracks it, and what it does with the data.

Not everything is publicly known about TikTok and what it’s doing. However, it is important to recognize that TikTok is a rebranded version of the Chinese app Douyin. Because it operates behind the Chinese Firewall, Douyin was developed using a very different set of priorities, ethics and protections than apps developed in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. The Chinese people are restricted and censored in ways that are illegal here. Supposedly, TikTok runs on a separate set of servers than Douyin to enable these differences. Yet, many believe the app retains most of Douyin’s “China-market” capabilities.

There are many ways a downloaded app, like TikTok, could surreptitiously collect sensitive data from a phone without users being aware. For example, Apple flagged TikTok for copying data from user’s clipboards. Also, an app developer recently reversed engineered TikTok and found that the app has the ability to intercept and open zip files and perform other functions that should not be part of a mobile app. TikTok might also be able to collect very sensitive data, like fingerprint markers. TikTok just raises a lot of red flags for consumers.

“There’s a reason governments are banning it. Don’t use the app. Don’t let your children use it. Tell your friends to stop using it. It offers you nothing but a quick source of entertainment that you can get elsewhere without handing your data over to the Chinese government. You are directly putting yourself and those on your network (work and home) at risk.” 

Bangoral

A Trojan Horse

It’s not only user data that’s at risk. Large corporations and governments are concerned with CCP corporate and military espionage. TikTok is only one example of a concerted international curtailment of Chinese technology companies. Earlier this month, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo stated that the U.S. is considering a ban on TikTok. Australia, Japan and other nations have suggested that they also might join India in banning TikTok.

This is part of a greater effort against Chinese technology. Companies like Huawei are already excluded from the U.S., United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Taiwan. The core issue is that many, if not all, Chinese tech companies are controlled to some degree by the Chinese military.  

Considering prior action and the strained relationship between the U.S and the CCP, it should not come as a surprise if the U.S. bans TikTok in the coming weeks and months. 

Protect Your Data

In my opinion, when there’s this much smoke, there’s fire. My response to what’s happening with TikTok is to err on the side of caution. I recommend removing TikTok from your personal phone, or any connected device that also has access to any important data. I recommend parents make this decision for their children. I also recommend any employer whose employees access any company data have employees remove TikTok from that device. 

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Signal and Noise

Blackout Tuesday taught us something about Instagram.

During the BlackLivesMatter “Blackout Tuesday” protests last week, many of us saw the following admonition in our various social feeds and in the comment section of Instagram posts:

Unintended Consequences

Why did these most earnest of social justice warriors want us to stop using #blacklivesmatter in our posts? Wasn’t solidarity and the spread of a movement the whole idea? 

The Signal

When these concerned organizers saw their own feeds become clogged with one blacked-out image after another, they realized that their messaging was lost in a sea of black. Organizers, who ironically tried to police Blackout Tuesday, were being frustrated by both the nature of social participation and how Instagram works. 

Instead of letting the protest form organically, these organizers wanted to disseminate specific messages and information using Instagram. To them, the critical thing was the signal. By focusing on their messaging, they missed the beauty of the noise. They began tamping down the participation they had encouraged. The “don’t use #blacklivesmatter” scolds started trending and became one of the predominate messages of the day. I think the simple blacked-out screen shot was more artful and positively impactful.

Blackout Tuesday

The Noise 

What the organizers perceived as noise was, in fact, the most important thing—participation. Blackout Tuesday was a success because it got millions of people to express themselves on behalf of an issue when they  might otherwise have stayed silent.  

When we participle in any social media campaign, we incrementally move from being spectators to stakeholders. This shift is gold to companies who spend millions on influencer marketing, interactive media and direct response advertising. Converting a passive consumer to a co-creator for any brand is a major step in creating lasting brand loyalty. 

No individual post listing real injustices, “important” Netflix docs, or local meet-up times is as important to the success of the movement as having millions of people do something, even something as seemingly insignificant as posting a black screenshot. Each of those little blacked-out posts represents buy in from a fellow citizen and voter. Marketing gold.   

The Platform 

Why wasn’t Instagram effective for disseminating information in the way conceived by Blackout Tuesday organizers? The easy answer is always the algorithm; that mysterious artificial intelligence that determines who, what, when and where a post is displayed on Instagram or any social media platform.

The algorithm is easy to blame, but hard to understand. Actually, it’s impossible to understand because it’s always changing. First, the algorithm’s output is always changing due to exigent conditions on the platform—like millions of black screen shots using #blacklivesmatter. And secondly, social media platforms are constantly tweaking their algorithms to make the user experience better and to increase ad revenue.

Probably the easiest way to understand why the algorithm is a necessary evil is to consider your own social media feed. First, look at the size of the feed space. Depending on your device (Instagram is a mobile phone app), you’ll see one or two posts at once. Interaction is limited to that space and by how much time you spend scrolling and interacting with each post. 

Let’s say you follow 500 people, brands and hashtags. If half of those post every day, it will take some time to get through all of those posts and stories, especially when you factor in the fact that the rate of ads in your feed might be 1:3 in prime viewing times. So, how many of those 250 posts do you actually interact with every day? 

You may think your posts reach all of your followers. They don’t. If you don’t interact much with your followers, the algorithm pushes your post down the queue, behind that follower’s more relevant interactions and behind paid content. And as time goes by, your post becomes less relevant. Even when you make it into your follower’s feed, if they don’t look at your post in a timely manner, it slips further and further down their feed. 

Consider the millions of users and companies vying for space in your feed and you’ll get a picture of how ineffective Instagram is at timely messaging. Instagram is better for branding and low-touch interaction with user-generated content. Other platforms, like Facebook and Twitter, can be more effective dissemination tools due to certain affordances like groups, direct messaging and content structure. But they also are limited by algorithmic control over the vast torrent of content generated each second. 

Complementary Media

Many try to use social media as a broadcast medium without recognizing how the media shapes the message. Consider the following simple diagram explaining user relationships to the messages via different media. For the user, social media is not like watching a single television channel, or connecting to a website. It’s like having 500 channels streaming in all at once. 

Social Media overloads the user.

Social media is a complementary media. The most effective strategy for social media–based information dissemination is to use social media to draw users to an information rich website. There, users can engage with your messages and information and action strategies. They can also up their commitment by signing up for future email, texts and other vital updates from your organization. 

As in all communication, the media matters. Understanding the limits of social media will help you determine how it fits into your quiver of options. While I can help with ways to think about and use social media, I can’t help turn it into something it’s not. For that, you’ll need to sign up for my $5,000 a month newsletter. LOL

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Together We Remember

Considering Common Memory Spaces

Memorial Day 2020

Usually Memorial Day unofficially kicks off of summer with picnics, beaches and parades. Covid-19 restrictions will likely make this Memorial Day a bit more muted and reflective. That might be a good thing. Taking time to remember together is healthy for a culture.

Reflectively, Memorial Day is our most sober National Holiday. We set it aside to honor and recognize the men and women who’ve died in military service to protect our freedom. Such great sacrifice is worthy of a national day of remembrance and honor. 

On Memorial Day, we look backward on fallen heroes to express our shared gratitude, values and vision. Memorial Day isn’t only for those families who’ve lost loved ones. It’s a common memory space, a day when we remember the cost of freedom together. Common memory spaces are valuable because they unite us, reinforce our values and give us direction as we face new challenges. 

Common memory spaces aren’t only for nations. They are for any group—friends, families, religions and companies. Recognizing and positively cultivating our common memory spaces can also help infuse an organization’s communication and culture with those specific touch points that make the organization unique. 

Memory and the Organization

Organizational memory is like an individual’s memory. It happens organically; it must also be created and nurtured to be useful. Left to its own devices, shared memory will shape the organization in unintended and often undesirable ways. 

Organizational memory is also unlike an individual’s memory. It’s shared collectively (though not universally) by the organization. Organizational memory is formed through experiences, but those experiences aren’t equally distributed. What helps one person may hurt another. And many people weren’t even part of the organization when the memory was formed. 

This is most visible when new people enter an organization. We’ve all experienced coworkers who wax nostalgically for “the way things use to be (before you arrived).” New arrivals may stumble across taboo subjects, or off-limit ideas and initiatives, based on lingering memories of past failures. It isn’t all negative. Best practices are often memories that have been transformed into effective actions. And the new business that a company pursues is driven by a collective memory of what has worked up to this point.

Organizational memory is potent. These collective memories are sticky and they direct our actions. They’re always shaping our experience, even if we aren’t always aware of it.

Short-Term Memory 

Short-term memory gets a lot of attention in most organizations. It’s almost invisible, yet critical to day-to-day functions. If our short-term memory were to malfunction so would we, and our organizations would cease working. Much of our business technology (from sticky notes, to file cabinets, to the cloud) is there to augment short-term memory. We tend a lot to short-term memory, sometimes neglecting the lessons that it is providing. 

There is a trap in short-term memory. It’s critical to the moment, but not much more. Beyond addressing the immediate need, short-term memory can’t decide what’s most important. It can help us achieve, but not prioritize. To be predictive and proactive, we must know where we’ve been and what happened. That is a more complicated calculation than simply accessing the data. It involves reconciling data to long term outcomes and goals. 

Backward-Looking Memory

Looking backward can seem like a waste of time. Consider these bits of well-worn wisdom against spending time in the past:

  • Don’t dwell on the past.
  • It’s water under a bridge.
  • You can’t go back and change things.
  • Don’t look back; you’ll miss what’s in front of you. 

Naturally surfacing, backward-looking memory can take on the dark hues of rumination and nostalgia. This makes sense. The strongest memories often result from trauma. Trauma is a great teacher; one seldom touches fire twice. Focusing on some past pain point can create fear and paralysis. 

The past teaches, but the best lesson isn’t always the one that’s learned. Left uninterpreted, organizational memory can often be tainted by bad events and difficult times. Failed restructuring, mergers that led to drastic layoffs, and other traumas can linger in the collective memory. These can negatively affect employees. Actions and attitudes, with no basis in the present or the future, can weigh an organization down.

Unfortunately, the sticky residue of bad memories is often unrecognized. Therefore, it is difficult to root out and address them. A better option is to be strategic about creating memory spaces that are inherently positive and proactive. 

Strategic Memory

American culture in general, and business in particular, prefers to be forward thinking. Many call that optimism, though there is a distinction between boundless positivity and optimistic realism. An effective optimist doesn’t just look forward. She also reexamines the past to cull the good from the bad. She conducts a reckoning to move forward unencumbered by the past and hopeful about the future. 

Looking only forward actually creates a blind spot leading to bad expectations, decisions and unease among those who’ve been burned before. What we need is a plan to remember and frame what’s important—bring the best of the past to the present as a window on the future. 

Positive, proactive memory is strategic. It requires thought and work. A group of individuals don’t automatically become of one mind. Ideas must be articulated to win collective agreement. It takes leadership and communication to introduce and maintain a good memory space. 

It also takes an honest evaluation of where the organization has been, the good and the bad, to be believed about the future. If an organization attempted a new venture and failed, owning that mistake is critical to sharing the important lessons learned. Simply changing leadership and brushing the mistake under the rug doesn’t instill confidence for the future. 

Strategic leadership builds common memory spaces that can contain the organization’s ups and downs. “We are bold and innovative, and sometimes we get it wrong.” “We are competitive survivors; that means we had to restructure.” The past isn’t ignored. The past is reconciled to an organization’s values system—one that includes successes, failures and commitment to forward vision. I see this at work in Memorial Day. 

A Healing Memory Space

Memorial Day is a strategically created common memory space. It was not formally a National Holiday until 1971. When it was created, it merged separate traditions in the North and the South that emerged after the Civil War—now honoring all those who died in service from the Civil War forward. 

In 1971, the painful memories of the Civil War were significantly past, and the divisive trauma of Vietnam was an open wound. Remember, soldiers returning home from Vietnam were often castigated and reviled publically. Memorial Day helped bridge those two massive chasms, creating a way for all of us to honor those who sacrificed, even when we may be greatly divided politically. It’s worth noting that in the wars fought after creating Memorial Day, including the unpopular Iraq War, soldiers have been honored and treated with the care and respect deserved.

Memorial Day reconciles the past to the present, but also it paves the way forward by reminding us of our shared values, shared sacrifice and shared vision—many died to preserve American freedom. What then should we do?

Together we remember.
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