Jonas Altman describes himself as a workologist, someone who studies work in order to help people do their best work. In this interview, April and Jonas talk about "Zoom fatigue" and how listening and having a conversation without always being on video helps the mind to concentrate in a different way. They also talk about how leaders of organizations that allow employees to work from home can help their workforce avoid burnout by creating a culture of trust and autonomy, especially as more people transition to remote work options, allowing people more choice about where and when they work.
Jonas is currently in Vancouver, and he is the founder of an award-winning design practice, Social Fabric. Jonas left his job in the music industry to work from home, and he has embraced the work-from-anywhere lifestyle and wrote a large portion of his book in a local coffee shop. The book is called Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future. Over the course of his work-from-home experience, he's created fashion brands, ran a digital agency, launched London's first lifestyle and technology incubator, and now advises on culture change to some of the world’s boldest organisations. He helps create learning experiences that transform people so they can elevate how they organise, collaborate, and innovate. He is also an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia’s Sauder School of Business and loves surfing in his spare time.
Jonas can be found at: https://www.jonasaltman.com/
Social Fabric: https://socialfabric.com/
How to do nothing - Jenny Odell https://amzn.to/3gqIeCS
His new book is called Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future, and this can be found at: https://amzn.to/3gzh90n
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April Malone 0:03
Hello, hello, my name is April Malone and I'm with Yes, I Work From home, and this is the podcast. Today I have Jonas Altman from Vancouver with us. He describes himself as a workologist, and I was intrigued, and so I brought him in today and here we are. Are you ready Jonas? What is workology?
Jonas Altman 0:19
I'm ready. Hi, April. Well people know about anthropology, and they know about sociology and lots of other words that end with a "y." There's actually a New York Times long-running column that no longer runs, and it was called the Workologist, and I didn't know that, but it was basically it is around the study of work and looking at work with an anthropological lens as a sort of experiment of how do we put humans in an office, or how do we do work that the world needs versus toil and drudgery, which is what work was once and in many ways was a first-class ticket to heaven. And since the shift to--and you know a lot about this--working from home and not having maybe healthy boundaries, it's all for the last 20-30+ years has been about productivity, focus, and outcomes, and it seems like that's somehow integral to our way of living and our sense of self, which is great except for if it's not a healthy balance.
April Malone 1:45
Get the most bang for your buck.
Jonas Altman 1:48
For sure. So I believe that the study of work is really about seeing how we can unleash the human spirit and make work more of a human endeavor versus a mechanistic sort of units-and-widgets kind of industrial model.
April Malone 2:06
Right. When you're saying that I'm thinking like the factories where they're always trying to increase that productivity and the, you know, the final outcome, where now we're working with so many creative spaces where you have to have that balance to be able to think clearly and to come up with new stuff.
Jonas Altman 2:23
April Malone 2:26
So just to address this, for those of our listeners who are watching today, I have Jonas on audio only today, and we just had a conversation about that. He said he's in a small town; his WiFi isn't great, but there's some other reasons why sometimes it's nice to just listen and talk; can you can you expand on that a little bit, Jonas?
Jonas Altman 2:44
Sure. I mean, to that point around our currency in, say, advanced economies in the Western world, is often our ideas and the mush between our ears--our brain. And so we're looking for ways to optimize or squeeze out as much as we can. And so what we have, and what everyone has been talking about for 6 or 7 months about Zoom fatigue, is spending a lot of time on a screen in addition to the regular screen time, whether it's Netflix or TV or email or their smartphone, and now instead of being in a room with people sinking to their breath and having your irises sink, you're sort of looking at a screen trying to make sense and decode what that person is doing, so when you turn off the video, whether it's for a conversation with a friend and you choose to call instead of doing a FaceTime or it's a meeting and instead of accepting the Zoom invite you say, "Hey, I'm actually going to be for a walk with my dog. Do you mind if we just do a regular call," you actually switch the energy. So imagine driving with your husband in the car, having a conversation about the kids, when your profiles--you're not looking directly at each other, but you're both looking at the road versus a long day, you come down, you plop down, and you're sitting across from each other; the energy between that conversation will be different just by the way that you're not really looking directly at each other. So my preference for many conversations as of late has been to default to either audio or audio and walking because I enjoy walking as do many other people.
April Malone 4:40
Yeah, good. Yeah and like we were just talking about like, how do people like to consume podcasts. Well I consume podcasts usually with audio only if I'm like soaking in the tub, or my husband is often listening to them as he's like cleaning the kitchen, which by the way my husband is awesome, and he usually cleans the kitchen more than I do. And I'm more likely to listen to them like if I'm going for a walk, you know; that's kind of a very productive time. Just to be safe, you can't always have video on because then, like you said, you use your brain in a different way, and then I would be more likely to be an accident or a trip or something like that. So, I actually teach English, and one of the companies that I work for, it's always video, and if the kids' video isn't working, they're not allowed to have class; like, the teacher is expected to be able to see their lips moving at all times to help them with their pronunciation, enunciation, and all that. Well when I work with adults, it's different; they actually don't even have the capability of having the camera on at all, and people are like, "How could I teach like that? I need to be able to see their lips." And I thought, "You know what, it's kind of like a conference call." You can actually listen, you know, and understand; you just have to listen in a different way with focus, and honestly, a lot of these busy adults are like cooking or taking care of kids, and it would just be distracting to me, or especially if we're in a group lesson with 6 cameras on. Like, I had a lady confess to me one time that she was driving as she was taking her class and I was like...
Jonas Altman 6:14
April Malone 6:15
..maybe that wasn't the safe choice, you know.
Jonas Altman 6:18
Well, I think there's definitely something there around the art and skill of listening and listening well, and I think, including myself, we don't really value the ability to hear people, and that's all that people are doing when they're talking. It's "hear me, see me, love me." So if you can get more power and you can have people adapt to a learning style that is focused on the breath and the word and the pause, that's beautiful. And if it's very important to see the lips and the environment is going to be much more beneficial and impactful from a learning point of view to have, you know, your your energy, whether it's on a screen or in a room, I think that that's, you know, very important. And then the other thing is, as I like close my eyes, I remember this research that talks about the brain, talks about the blink, and the studies of people in showers or in baths have their eyes or their vision encumbered and aren't really seeing as well, so they're actually very much like, say, a blind person amplifying their other faculties, which is why you get all these bolts of inspiration.
April Malone 7:39
In the shower? "Eureka!"
Jonas Altman 7:42
Exactly. So if you can approximate that in your day, whether it's through meditation or showering or just taking some time to like, you know, in between jumping into a meeting or listening to a podcast that actually does have a video, it can be beautiful, and then on the same side sometimes, you know, the beauty of voiceover protocol and live video streams is the fact that you can actually see, you know, Obama giving a speech on Instagram, and it's just amazing to sort of see how humble that is and to see like how normal it is, for someone who normally is dressed up in a White House, to see their bookshelf. So it's not either/or; it's to be open that you have a choice.
April Malone 8:33
So my husband and I have listened to this other podcast Stuff You Should Know with Josh and Chuck with howstuffworks.com, I think, and they've been around for a long time; we've been listening to them over a decade. They've got hundreds of episodes, very objective and a lot of different kinds of topics. We've loved them, but we had listened to them for probably a good 7 or 8 years before we ever saw a picture of them, and their voices didn't match. Like we almost would have thought that they would have been the other way around for some reason. I don't know, like we had it kind of mixed up, and we actually got to go see them live 2 years ago this week, I think, and it was kind of weird, like their voice is coming out of a body.
Jonas Altman 9:18
Yeah. Well, that's how it was on the radio.
April Malone 9:21
Jonas Altman 9:21
You get so accustomed to this person's voice like a deep baritone voice from a man, and then you see him, and he's like this scrawny, skimpy, dude, and you're like, "What? I was way off."
April Malone 9:34
Yep, but it kind of adds to it. I mean, it's fun.
Jonas Altman 9:37
Yeah, and sometimes you nail it. I mean, like you know, I knew what Howard Stern looks like, but if you don't know what Howard Stern looks like when you listen to his show, you might not necessarily label it; if you were given 10 cards of usual suspects that says "Choose who's the host." You know tall, scraggly, afro-y guy, you probably wouldn't pick them, but maybe you would.
April Malone 9:37
So when it comes to Zoom fatigue, because that's like, I have some friends in a book club, and we've been doing Zoom book club for the last 6 months, and the other day, they're like, "Hey, could we maybe like go to a park and like, set our chairs out really far away from each other and see each other in person?" They're like, "We're just feeling Zoom fatigue." And I was like, "Well, let's talk about that." It ended up not really happening that way. I didn't go, but I mean, some people are just getting weary, and I don't really want to get into the politics of the pandemic and everything, but like you know, my husband just found out that, well he's known for some time, that they're going to do like work from home semi-permanently through the pandemic; they're still at level zero at his company. They just emailed him and said, "You know, we're looking at offering some of this as a permanent option for certain groups of, you know, employees and then hybrid for some people, and looking at it in the long run. And I was like, "How do you feel about it?" And he's like, "Yeah, good." But they don't do video; they just have, just like we're doing with you, just their images on the screen, and they just talk. And that's all they do ever. He's never had to be in a video meeting ever in the last 6 months. How do you think, like from your studies, what is helping people do this in the long haul?
Jonas Altman 10:04
That's a good question. I mean there's, first of all, something to say about multitasking, and if your husband can do the dishes and listen to a podcast or drive and eat yogurt and have a conversation with the kids, we're not actually multitasking; we're switching between tasks really, really quickly.
April Malone 11:49
Jonas Altman 11:50
April Malone 11:51
He does a lot when he's doing the dishes, he has to keep rewinding and rewinding and rewinding and rewinding.
Jonas Altman 11:56
So there's this idea in America, and it's not really in Europe, of presenteeism or even posturing so being visible I think, and I don't spend that much time in, because I work for myself, I don't spend that much time in Zoom meetings, per se; they're often safe spaces to share. There's coaching and other things, but from what I hear and what I've learned is, people are overcompensating to be visible. So if you're on the Zoom meeting, and there's a video shining on you, even if there's 50 people on there, you are not doing the dishes; you are probably not even on your phone. You are looking at the screen, and in many ways, what that's implicitly saying is, "We don't trust you." Because you're now having to be present, when actually there's no office, and you're in your kitchen. So why not, if it's helpful, start cutting the onions and be present and mindful and enjoy--this is an argument that is maybe an opinion--enjoy conversation, actively listen, and when it comes time to contribute chime in. But if you're sitting there for 45 minutes just listening to people offload and you're kind of starting to resent it and you're realizing this is a status update meeting and you'd much rather be preparing lunch for the kids because you've got a conference call at 1. Now you've got emotional baggage that you're having to deal with on your own which is why we're seeing a big spike in mental health issues.
April Malone 13:28
So when I was training for a company that I started working with, the English teaching stuff, my baby was still breastfeeding, and we were attending trainings, and there was an option, like, they weren't required to have the camera on, thankfully, because then I could care for my baby and listen and watch and you know, eventually set the baby down and she'd you know, whatever, go play or whatever. I nursed my babies a long time. Yeah, I mean, I felt like I could actually do both because if I would have been demanded to be on camera, I wouldn't have been able to attend as many sessions as many of these optional, like, extra--I don't know what you would have called them--workshops.
Jonas Altman 14:12
Yes, that's right, and so a lot of it is like, you know, a lot of that is regarding, you know, "What's the best way to conduct this meeting," or "What's the best way to learn?" And the other one is, "We're not meant to be spending this much time looking at screens," like that's not our natural state whether it's somewhere around, you know, people have Instagram tracker, but like, one of my friends' girlfriends was like, "Oh, I've totally curbed down my Instagram; I'm at 55 minutes, so always under an hour." And I was like, "Is that good?" And she's like, "It's a lot better." And I'm like, "Okay, so that's Instagram and then lets add in your work, let's add in Netflix and web surfing," and next thing you know, you're easily at 5 plus hours a day, minimum, easy.
April Malone 15:01
I have an iPhone that's old which, by the way, reminds me I like to keep my camera--not my camera--I like to keep the the light source behind my, you know, screen here dimmed.
Jonas Altman 15:13
Dim, yes. Good call.
April Malone 15:14
So I'm not having so much of that blue light, and I did get the blue-blocker glasses; I'm not wearing them on camera, but if I did, they would be the ones that shine blue all over.
Jonas Altman 15:21
April Malone 15:22
But I did finally enable the the screentime tracker on my iPhone. I kind of knew it was there for like, a long time, and I was like, "Hmm.. I don't even want to know."
Jonas Altman 15:32
April Malone 15:33
But when the pandemic started to get really, you know, intense, and then a lot of the social justice stuff was coming out, I was literally glued to my phone most of the day, and I had things I needed to be doing.
Jonas Altman 15:48
April Malone 15:48
And I'm like, "I should probably just know," and I started to put blocks on my phone. I've learned that even if I put a passcode or if I would hide a certain app into another folder, make it more difficult, my thumb could just find its way there so easily, like it's muscle memory kind of stuff.
Jonas Altman 16:06
April Malone 16:06
And I was like, "I need to make it harder and harder and harder for myself." And sometimes I just have to leave my phone with my husband and be like, "If it rings, let me know."
Jonas Altman 16:14
Yes. I mean, this is going to be our--you know, there's a wonderful book by Jenny Odell called How To Do Nothing, and it's really--our one savior in an attention economy is training our brains and having discipline and knowing ourselves to say, "Okay, I need to indulge; I'm doing 10-15 minutes of Instagram or whatever it is, and then I'm giving my phone to my husband." Many people have that discipline, many people don't, and those are the people that we need to be worried about because, in many ways, they're going to be quietly suffering, and the toll will come in April of next year--pun intended with your name--you know, and then what will happen is, "Oh, we actually have a problem here because you're hardwired for novelty, which we all are. What do you have for me? Give me a shot of dopamine. Let's do this."
April Malone 17:11
Jonas Altman 17:11
I've watched everything I've wanted to on Netflix; I've watched My Octopus Teacher, David Attenborough; I've watched Ozark. I'm done. There's nothing on there, yet I'm mindlessly scrolling through David Letterman's interviews trying to find the Kim Kardashian one, which I don't want to watch.
April Malone 17:13
Jonas Altman 17:16
Right? I do. I'm watching it, and I'm like, "I really don't want to watch--
April Malone 17:28
Oh man, why am I?
Jonas Altman 17:34
So somehow, the algorithm and Reed Hastings have won because they know me better than I know myself. There's a window into my soul. It's my--
April Malone 17:45
Videos suggested on YouTube, they get me, or even Facebook. Sometimes I'd be like, "I literally should not...yeah." I actually installed an extension, because I do use Facebook for work purposes, you know, I have a Facebook group, and I'm always looking for similar-minded people, for instance, to interview and things. So I do use it with purpose, but I can also fall down that rabbit hole and be in it for 6 hours, and so someone told me, maybe I read about it in an email, productivity tips once upon a time, and just like the one thing that stuck with me was there's a extension on Chrome called News Feed Eradicator, and basically, it uses all of the features of Facebook; it's just the same as normal, and then it blocks your newsfeed. So you can purposefully be like, "Oh, I need to check in on my mom," and I'll type in her name, and I'll find her, and I can look at her wall. I can see my notifications; I can use Facebook with all the features except for I can't just scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll and scroll for 6 hours. It puts an inspirational quote, often about productivity in place of the newsfeed. I'd be like, "Oh, I'm on my computer; I should be working. I can't fall into this trap right now." Later, I might indulge myself for, you know, 45 minutes, let's be honest you know, while I'm whatever, watching the kids do a bike ride in the parking lot which is something that we do a lot lately. You know, I might catch up then.
Jonas Altman 19:12
Yes. No I mean, the irony there is we've gotten to a point in time where there's, you know--I've got them too--you know, blocker apps and time tracker apps and apps to help us to stop using the apps that we have that are riddled with noise, and so that's the current state of affairs. Whereas, you know, at one point I'd be like, "Well just don't have Facebook." Like that's not an option. I need it for work.
April Malone 19:39
Even if you delete the app for your phone, you can still, like I knew how to do this, my thumbs could just get me there, you know, go into my browser and type it in, and like, I don't even know how it happened, but I'm on Facebook.
Jonas Altman 19:51
Yes. Yes. I mean, most people migrated to Facebook in 2007 and 2008.
April Malone 20:02
That was me.
Jonas Altman 20:03
Yeah, me too. I actually was a little bit of a late bloomer. I remember my friend had a video, like, a video date like someone had sent him a video that he was supposed to go on a date for, and he showed it to me, and I was like, "What is this thing?" He's like, "It's Facebook, man." I'm like, "What is that?" He's like, "It's from Harvard. It's like this thing." And I was like, "Okay," and then didn't do anything about it. Then like 6 months later, I was like the last person; everyone's like, "You're basically missing the party like you're not there." Anyway, I stopped using Facebook and deactivated my account in 2014.
April Malone 20:38
Jonas Altman 20:38
And then slowly, you'd hear these things of like, they did a study on Cornell University students by sending 700,000 students more negative news to see how it affected their mood, and sure enough, it affected their mood. They had the Cambridge analytica scandal, you know, all the Russia stuff, but still there's utility in the platform. And of course, when you have Whatsapp, Facebook, and Instagram--and we don't have to totally get into this deeply--all owned by the same company sharing data allowing for beautiful, amazing things like, you know civic action and fundraising and mobilizing, also has a dark side, right? Addiction, pornography, sexting, whatever it could be. There's always going to be a double-edged sword, so it's just about mindful, conscientious use.
April Malone 21:36
Right, and I live in a state away from my family. It's a 29-hour drive to see my parents.
Jonas Altman 21:43
Where are you?
April Malone 21:44
I'm in Arizona, but I'm originally from Minnesota.
Jonas Altman 21:46
April Malone 21:47
So I understand the cold weather. You're in Vancouver, right?
Jonas Altman 21:49
April Malone 21:49
Is that wet and rainy, or do you guys get snow too?
Jonas Altman 21:51
It's wet and rainy, that's exactly what it is today.
April Malone 21:56
Most of the time, and we are sunny and hot most of the time, but we've had a little bit of a cold front; it was like down to 63 degrees, and my kids were like getting out their winter parka.
Jonas Altman 22:05
April Malone 22:08
Yeah, so to drive to see my family is a really big deal, to fly is a big deal because it's expensive, and you know my husband's family is equal distance far away and it'd be two different flights. And, you know, we get to see them maybe once a year, sometimes 6 months, sometimes 18 months or 2 years, and we've only been here for almost 5 years, I think. But we just don't see them enough, and so now my grandma who's 91 years old is on Facebook, and you know just things that happen that I wouldn't see otherwise, like, I wouldn't have been in the loop.
Jonas Altman 22:48
April Malone 22:49
I've lived in lots of different states, and so I definitely know about the utility, but I also know the dark side, and it's really hard to find a balance sometimes. There's ways you can screen things and make sure that you see the people who are positive first and, you know, snooze the people who are less positive which I've recently started to do a little bit more of.
Jonas Altman 23:07
Yeah, it sounds like you've got sort of discipline and awareness. I'm concerned about, you know, a 17-year-old who's been sort of locked down for several months, and really their whole social life is taking place on the internet.
April Malone 23:24
Right. Yeah, for sure. We have 3 kids, and we're doing online school.
Jonas Altman 23:29
April Malone 23:30
They do get to see their classmates a little bit, but even there, most of the time they only see the teacher.
Jonas Altman 23:36
April Malone 23:36
Sometimes we'll do Zoom with a friend, but I'm just thankful right now that we have 3 kids becuase right now they are each others' social lives with us. They're getting along really well. It's going pretty terrifically compared to, you know, some of the junk that we were dealing with maybe a year ago when we were too busy and some meltdowns more than we should have had. Like we're at a pretty peaceful level overall, but there's a lot to balance, and we're pretty careful about them not like getting into chat rooms, basically telling them why. Let's talk a little bit about your work. What do you do? You said you've been working from home for how long?
Jonas Altman 24:15
I was thinking about that when you sent me the invite yesterday, so I officially started working from home in 2003. I was living in London, England, and I quit my job in the music industry, and I remember I basically opened up my laptop in my bedroom on my my bedroom desk, like I had this desk in the south of London, and I was using a lot of creative software like InDesign and Photoshop and I had like 17 windows open. I had bought my first MacBook Pro, and I was like, "Okay, I can do this." And if I reflect on it, obviously I have a revisionist history, I just sat there for like ever and never left and just worked and worked and worked and worked. I had no way of turning off because now there was no office. So my first introduction to working from home was basically working when I was awake, like wake up, brush my teeth...
April Malone 25:21
Good recipe for burnout.
Jonas Altman 25:23
Yeah, oh yes, it is the recipe for burnout. So, in many ways, I look at it as like, I did it not so much as like an active choice; I just did it as like, "I'm gonna not work for this company anymore," which a year later went out of business, "I'm gonna go pave my own way." And so in many ways, it was exhilarating and exciting. I was 27 years old. And since then, I think I've, in many ways, adopted a mindset of "Work from anywhere; work in an environment that inspires you, that caters to your psychological, creative, intellectual, spiritual self; and shut the fuck up if you're complaining that you have to work at your kitchen for a couple hours." Like, that's an amazing thing to be able to even do so to be grateful. And now I just like, even today, when I'm like thinking about "When am I going to work? Where am I going to work?" I'm excited about the prospect of having the ability to design my day, design my week, and that's been a big passion of mine because I did a really, sort of, I had a rocky start. And I think I learned with getting the sort of scars and learnings of burning out, of not knowing that I needed to be with people sometimes when I was being so sort of isolated and stubborn, sometimes needing a space that's not the home and a co-working space or an office and utilizing that. So yeah, it's been a long journey if I think about it, and I was also thinking about the history of homework, like not homework, but working from home.
April Malone 27:12
Jonas Altman 27:12
And you probably know this. So the original original working from home is hunter-gatherers and going and getting food; then it's the medieval age of, you know, wood workers and casting irons and making swords; and then at some point, it becomes the pioneering sort of creative artists in New York and in Los Angeles and London that can make their art from home in their studio.
April Malone 27:38
Jonas Altman 27:40
And farmers, for sure. And then we got teleworking, which got a bad rap and sort of 80s Japan, and it was all about kind of "Do we really trust you? Like, how do we know you're doing work?" and "Do we have the network infrastructure to actually give you a phone?" I mean, one of the studies that I found when I was writing the book was mobile technology is still totally under shadow, so it's like stationary desktop and stationary phone outnumbers mobile 2:1.
April Malone 28:11
Jonas Altman 28:13
This is before the pandemic, yes.
April Malone 28:14
Jonas Altman 28:15
Yeah, so like it was basically you had to go to the office to do the work because they didn't give you the tools to do it from anywhere.
April Malone 28:22
With a secure line. I know like that was really the big deal. I used to work for Mayo Clinic in Minnesota, and everything was about, you know, patient confidentiality; we needed to have a secure line, you know, secure internet; and then, they were a little late to the game, but they finally figured it out.
Jonas Altman 28:40
April Malone 28:41
And a lot of people do work from home, but we were still restricted to our office. You had to work in the office with a router; you couldn't take a computer to another--you couldn't even go to another room in the house. You had to get permission to change your office setup from one room to another. You needed to get permission to move from one city to another city, especially if it was out of state, you'd have to get permission because of tax purposes. So we did not have like, when I would tell people that I work from home, they'd be like, "Oh, you get to set your own schedule." And I was like, "No. I'm an hourly employee; I had to get permission to take lunch." I mean, it was very controlled, and I think they're giving them a lot more autonomy now with their schedule. Like I interviewed a former coworker of mine recently, and I had to work really hard to have like a flexible lunch schedule, and now that's just automatic. Maybe they took my idea and ran with it; I don't know. I read The 4-Hour Workweek by Tim Ferriss, and I like went and I was like, "If you want me to keep working nights, these are my requests," and they you know allowed me. So you identify more as a work-from-anywhere than specifically work from home.
Jonas Altman 29:51
Yeah, like so if you think about--if a company is giving a long leash to an employee, they're basically saying, you know, "Be visible. Be present, even if you're at home or at a co-working space or a coffee shop. But if you could just..." and that we should say that the pandemic has accelerated, perhaps, the whole work from home or remote working by about five years, at least.
April Malone 30:23
Jonas Altman 30:23
So there's a beauty there. There's also all sorts of repercussions around preparedness for it and mental health issues.
April Malone 30:29
Right, or equipment.
Jonas Altman 30:31
Equipment. So prior to the pandemic, I was a member of wework. And so I would go to WeWork, and I often wouldn't work; I would socialize0--Sorry, I would work in a different way, which is business development, knowledge sharing, cultivating relationships, so it was a social thing. My motivation to go to a co-working space was to network and socialize. Then the pandemic came, and that was sort of gone. It was like there was no need to go there because first of all, no one's there, and we can go into the WeWork story or the co-working as a separate topic.
April Malone 31:09
Right, and I actually interviewed someone that did talk about this a few interviews ago.
Jonas Altman 31:13
Oh, okay. And then all of a sudden, it was like, "Okay, well, my home office is now my office-office." So I like kitted it out; I got some plants; I really made it a place that like I could go to which was upstairs and then kind of induce a sense of "It's time to work." But of course, around the corner is the laundry machine; downstairs is a fridge; next door is the neighbor who just had a baby. And all of a sudden it's like a Simpsons episode or something where I'm like working from home, but I'm delusional because I'm not actually getting the great work done.
April Malone 31:30
It's a big shift.
Jonas Altman 31:50
It's a big shift. So it was because, and I reflect on it, it was now the choice had been removed. Even if I had chosen to work from home, and WeWork was up the road, it was literally a 10-minute walk; I had actively said, "Well, I'm just gonna do 2 hours in the house, and then I'm going to go meet that person for lunch." But now I'm not even going to meet that person, so it'd been sort of invisibly stripped from me. So I started to, in many ways, I did not necessarily suffer--that's extreme--but I started to not appreciate that I also needed to move around; like our bodies are meant for moving.
April Malone 32:29
A 10-minute walk was taken away from you.
Jonas Altman 32:31
Sure, yeah, so my commute. So in effect--and now things in Vancouver have opened up a little bit more--but in effect, I now have 3 stations in my house. I have the kitchen, which I love; I have the living room; and I have the office. So those are 3 spaces that I can work from home that all have a different feel. When I get to the couch, I'm getting off the couch again, so the couch is like sort of after dinner or it's like the fun stuff...
April Malone 32:57
That's not work.
Jonas Altman 32:59
It's like researchy, work reading stuff, but the kitchen and the office are 2 places, and sometimes my brother comes over, and he knows like if I'm there he knows not to talk to me. In co-working spaces, I often had my headphones on, which is a signal, "Leave me the fuck alone."
April Malone 33:17
Jonas Altman 33:18
I have a coffee shop in Vancouver--or I don't have it but my friend owns it--called Platform 7, and I wrote half of the book there, and I did so not because I decided to; I did so subconsciously because the environment in that coffee shop was just enough white noise, it was a little bit of a distraction, to help me to focus.
April Malone 33:46
Jonas Altman 33:46
So if you look around and you see some chitchat and see some people on the computer and you're like, "Aha, right. This is why I'm here." So I could do 2 hours of uninterrupted writing, and then I would burn out.
April Malone 33:57
I can't say I have the same experience when I try to work from...I think I would hear everything; I would actually bring earplugs and stick in my ears.
Jonas Altman 34:04
Oh I bring my headphones, and I turn on some funky disco music and I just...
April Malone 34:08
Yeah I wish I could zone out like that.
Jonas Altman 34:12
Oh, yeah. And the coffee is from Portland; it's Stumptown coffee, so it's some of the best coffee, I think, in the world. And then it's modeled on Platform 7 in Gare du Nord in Paris, so it gives you this European kind of like coffee shop, Renaissance feel where everyone's, you know, kind of crazy exchanging ideas. And there's a bookstore next door, and I didn't realize this, and then when I finished the book and I was talking to the owner, I said, "You realize I probably wrote half this book in your coffee shop." He's like, "I'm aware because you were there all the time." And the pandemic kind of changed things because, you know, it wasn't safe to keep it open, so it was only takeout. And in many ways, I think the coffee shop as a model is in many ways the competition for co-working space. Like why should I spend 400 pounds or 400 bucks a month if I'm only going to do--because I'm only in the coffee shop for maybe 2, max 3 hours; 2 hours is usually my limit of like focused work.
April Malone 35:15
Your rent is paying for your snacks and your coffee.
Jonas Altman 35:18
Yeah, and you know, you saw it all over the world. You see it in Ace Hotel in New York and in London and LA. You see it in some of the hippest coffee shops, and some of the coffee shops had to say, you know, no WiFi or no laptops for more than an hour. But many places are like, "Hey, listen. Like use your judgment and etiquette and come here and spend some money and do what you need to do and bugger off." So between a co-working space, a coffee shop, and home, there is no such thing for me as a permanent office, and the last permanent office I had was in 2010 in London, and my rent was like half my income.
April Malone 36:01
Right. So I'm curious how you got from London to Vancouver? Was that a move that was because you're like a digital nomad, or was that like a permanent thing?
Jonas Altman 36:12
Well, I also read Tim Ferriss's 4-Hour Workweek, but I read it quite late; I probably read it maybe in 2015 or '16. I'm not sure when it came out, but I definitely didn't get it when it came out. And I think that there's a beauty in that concept, and there's also like a dark underbelly. We don't have to necessarily get into it, but we could.
April Malone 36:35
I have opinions; I do too. I mean, he's kind of a jerk sometimes, but you get the good stuff out of it too.
Jonas Altman 36:41
Yeah, no and you know, listen. There's a value in understanding that work doesn't have to be this thing that consumes us and doesn't have to be the centrality to our life, and that theme sort of came up as I was finishing the book, and I realized that, as someone who's obsessed with work and loves it and gets energized by it, if I was religious and I had a church or a synagogue or a mosque that I visited every day, I probably would put less emphasis on work. I'm well aware that I have used work as a place to find meaning when the question could become, "Why are you looking at work in the first place to be a place for that?" But you know, that's a whole other thing.
April Malone 37:28
The social part of it and everything.
Jonas Altman 37:30
Yeah, but to answer that question, I think when I was living in London (and I was there for 12 years), I really was in what people call the bubble or the hedonic treadmill. I would work hard, then I would decompress, and because the energy was so buzzy, I didn't really know how to stop. I love nature. I'm here on this little island, well bigger island off of Vancouver called Vancouver Island at a small town called Tofino, where the only activity here is dog walking, hiking, and surfing. So after this call, I'll go surf for a couple hours, and then I'll come back and work. So I didn't realize that was possible because I didn't give myself permission. I thought, you know, like just "Keep working, keep working, keep working, and then you'll make a lot of money, and then you can go and start, you know, doing all the things that you enjoy." So you know, the idea of the 4-Hour Workweek, in many ways, is you can retire in real time; like you could work for 4 hours a week drop shipping from Amazon and live in Thailand, like that's an option.
April Malone 38:41
Jonas Altman 38:42
I didn't really--I didn't really like say "Hey, that's the life I want." I sort of fell into it. So from 2014 to 2018, maybe 2019 even last year, I would call myself location independent flexi worker; I went all over the world. I was in Japan; I was in Bali, Thailand, South America, and I did the work-from-anywhere thing. I didn't do it that well all the time, but sometimes I did it really well, and I was like, "Aha! This is what it's all about." And you meet people who have basically adopted that way of living; they might be more Gypsy in their blood, or they might be more free spirits and just not want to be anywhere. But the pandemic has shown me and a lot of other people that the art of stillness and being local and finding ways to travel without traveling, like on a plane, is also wonderful. So I've been to lots of different places in British Columbia, which is the province where I am. I've reconnected with old friends in new ways. I've connected with the same friends in different ways. I've grown closer bonds with my family. And so my point there was--oh and I also got older--So my point is that I migrated from London to a new way of looking at the world as like a global village and, in many ways, gave myself permission to work from anywhere whereas before I thought that you had to be in London to be like in business because that's like a mega city, and that's where innovation happens. And yeah, it's true to a degree. Mega cities do have a lot of intellectual property and creative collisions and wonderful things, but you're seeing more and more people like leaving cities or going to cities for that, and then living on the fringes, especially places like New York right now; it's like if you could live in Brooklyn or in the Hamptons, of course, that's where you're going to want to be, and then you'll go into Manhattan when you need to. I mean, that's what I've been talk--when I talk to my friends there. So just saying like this whole idea that the whole world is moving to mega cities, and there's gonna be 50 mega cities by 2010, that might still be the case--
April Malone 41:10
Jonas Altman 41:12
Sorry--there'll be 50 mega cities, which is 20 million people or more, like sort of a Mexico City type, which is like a migration to the city for opportunity, but if remote work and flexible work is really taking hold, maybe that's going to slow down, or maybe there'll only be say 12 mega cities, and they'll just be huge, and the rest will sort of be like, you know, people choosing nature and choosing to live, you know, just outside.
April Malone 41:44
So a good section of my audience--I've been trying to mix it up and interview a combination of entrepreneurs, freelancers, and things as well as employees.
Jonas Altman 41:56
April Malone 41:57
So the people who are, you know, in that 9-5 job or who do, you know, work specifically for a local office where they are required to go in maybe like a half a day a week or something like that, and so a lot of people do have roots down; maybe they have joint custody with their, you know, ex or something like that with the children, so they can't just be location independent. What kind of things would you--I guess, another thing that I see--and I'm kind of getting all scattered now; you got my mind flowing in all sorts of different directions.
Jonas Altman 42:26
Good. That's what I do.
April Malone 42:29
You know, I'm just thinking about these people who are like, "Oh, if only I could..." blah, blah, blah...you know, travel the world and see all these things or who are looking for jobs right now--maybe a lot of people just got laid off and they're trying to find a work-from-home job right now. Do you have anything that you've learned along the way? Is your book about workology?
Jonas Altman 42:48
My book is about the changing nature of work, so it's how work has moved away from an industrial mode or mindset to a humanistic one, and then it looks at the most pioneering companies that were already officeless and/or high-trust cultures, such as Buffer or WordPress or Semco or ---, and there's all sorts of wonderful companies that have innovated without a pandemic having to be the catalyst. And then it looks at the future of what possibly could be a preferable future where, you know, humans are cherished as assets and not resources to be managing. And so for someone who's in a position now, and things are not pretty, and they're probably going to get a lot uglier, where work is precarious, or where they don't have autonomy or agency, there's some things that can be done. There's a whole body of research around job crafting, which is really just broken into 3 pillars. There's shitty bosses that are the destroyer of meaningfulness and the people that you work with so you have to recraft your relationships, which is really about boundary setting and doing the work on yourself so that when someone sends you a carbon copy and you go, "Holy, fucking bullshit," you actually don't have that reaction; you just laugh. So you reimagine your relationships with your colleagues and bosses, if that's a source of pain right now, and I work with a lot of people specifically around that; I'd say, 1 out of every 3 people that I work with or coach have someone in their organization who is often not a grownup; that's a grownup man child.
April Malone 44:47
Jonas Altman 44:47
Right. So they call it out, and then you're like, "Okay---"
April Malone 44:50
Or a mean girl.
Jonas Altman 44:51
Yeah, and so a lot of it's managing up and all that. So that would be relationship crafting. Task crafting is the hard one, which is like, let's say you're a project manager; that's your job, but you're really good at it, and if you are honest with yourself, you have about 20% or 30% more bandwidth to do other things, but you just haven't necessarily taken the initiative or you're really not that motivated. And so your energy should go into looking for another job or volunteering and saying, "I want to be on that committee" or "I want to set up Toastmasters" or "I want to run a podcast" and taking initiative to extract some more value or meaning from your job and you're not necessarily overworking, you're just managing your time well because you're delivering on your duties. That's called task crafting. And the final one is really the most important one which is your inner world. So how does April or Jonas look at themselves and see and experience their work. There's fundamentally something going on when you're feeling like the puzzle is aligning, so you're in the wrong industry; you're not being promoted; you're really not enjoying the day because by the end of the day you're just exhausted and you need to take a nap. A lot of that has to do with your own coding, your own experiences, and you have control over your mind, so what's going on there. So job crafting is this whole thing; sometimes it's helpful, sometimes it's actually revealing to say, "Actually, there's no way that I can turn this job into one I love; it sucks." That's a good outcome. And then for the people who just can't leave, whether it's Minnesota or Manitoba or, you know, whatever place, I don't really have, like, anything I can say is like helpful to say like, "If you really want to travel the world, then you're gonna have to make some fundamental life choices." But there's usually a way to do sort of an audit around, "What are your values," and "What are the types of companies where your values can be lived or upheld?" Because that's super important. "What are the types of skills that you have that you know have currency in the market and that you could double down on," and even if they're not necessarily the things you want to do, by in effect doing them well, you may turn them into your passion, or they might become something that lights you up, or you're actually in a position now of abundance or financial security where you can start to look to shift sideways. So a lot of that is "Find out what you're great at and do that and make that your job or your work," as opposed to being like "I want to be an opera singer." There's a lot of literature out there. I'm a kind of person who experimented with a lot of things until I landed on something, and I'm pretty aware that this is a pitstop, and I'm gonna find something else. So I'm one of those people who never decided what they wanted to be, and I just do a lot. And I was watching Rashida Jones last night on Netflix, who is Quincy Jones's daughter, and you know, she went to Harvard; she's a comedian; she's a writer; she's an actress; and she said, you know, "In my 50s, I want to become a master at something." And I thought that was quite beautiful. Like the world is cherishing right now the expert generalist; you can podcast, you can edit, you can teach English, you can mother. You can do all of these things relatively well, really well. Why not?
April Malone 48:28
People are looking to make money though, and like right now, I'm in a lot of groups of moms, working moms, moms who have like a desk job at home, you know, for corporations and things. And they just got laid off, and now they're like, "The job market is crazy competitive right now. How do I find something that's going to give me the flexibility to be the mother I want to be but, you know, also bring in the money?" And I kind of feel at a loss sometimes because the jobs that I've held are kind of like--I was a medical transcriptionist for a long time, so another story, and another one would be that I also studied music, by the way--but that job is not a job that I can just say, "Oh, yeah, come and be a medical transcriptionist" now because that job is like going extinct; you know, there are very few people that can keep that job because voice recognition technology has changed that landscape.
Jonas Altman 49:16
April Malone 49:17
And so I'm like, "Ah, well I had this good job, but I can't say that you could get it." Or you know, even like the teaching English definitely has been affected by the pandemic, my teaching hours. And so it's like do you see a lot of people shifting from, you know, 1099 or, you know, just corporate job, salaried/hourly employee stuff to more of the entrepreneurial stuff, or is that just too risky right now?
Jonas Altman 49:43
Well, it's a great question. The Upwork freelancer report before the pandemic predicted that half the American economy will have at least two employers per person in the working world by 2025, so they'll be filing on their forms, you know, like "freelancers."
April Malone 50:07
Oh, that they have changed. Okay. Yeah.
Jonas Altman 50:09
That was the prediction. Yeah so it would be like, you know, you might have a full-time job and drive Uber at night.
April Malone 50:16
Something on the side.
Jonas Altman 50:17
You might be selling stuff on Etsy, doing freelance graphic design, who knows, but you don't have one employer. So you're, in many ways, a fractional worker or a portfolio worker, whatever you want to call it.
April Malone 50:29
Jonas Altman 50:29
I thought that was really exciting, and then I read a book by Sarah Kessler called The Future of Work and the End of Jobs: Gigged. [Actual title: "Gigged: The End of the Job and the Future of Work"] And it followed a mother who ended up becoming like a guru on Amazon Mechanical Turk, and she got carpal tunnel; she could never stop working because she always could make like 7 cents by transcribing something or, you know, converting something that was being automated, like with CAPTCHA. An Uber driver who was addicted to surge pricing and just couldn't stop because he just wanted to make that little bit of extra money.
April Malone 51:01
Jonas Altman 51:02
And it followed the precarious nature of gig work, which is not the passionistas; this is not people who are like selling kombucha in Portland or, you know, the barber who's doing beard grooming and, you know, whatever. These are the people who are in precarious work, that don't have benefits, and if something goes wrong everything falls to shit.
April Malone 51:23
Month by month. Definitely, yeah.
Jonas Altman 51:25
So it got me to sort of check myself, and I was like, "Oh yeah, like I forgot. Like, I'm actually in this upper echelon of very fortunate, able to teach and coach and write and it's totally different world." So, I can't speak to some of the people like you've been saying with the moms who've lost their jobs and stuff. I can say that humans are fundamentally more adaptable than perhaps any other species, and that's why we're here; that's why we're having this conversation; that's why we're having a--What are we using, Riverside.fm?--like, we are absolutely incredible when you think about foresight and hindsight and we combine time; like these mothers can see themselves with their kids at graduation and their kids having kids. So what's needed now is creativity and innovation, and dissatisfaction is the breeding ground for creativity. So it's like, "I'm really pissed off with my employer." Okay, great. Be pissed off with them. Get your severance. Sue them. Do whatever you need to do and move on. Sort of like people who are always bitter about their ex; you know, it's like 4 years on, and they're still moaning. It's like, "You know, what if you just let it go and actually repaired that and chose love and curiosity so that you could move on?" I know that sounds quite brash, and I know I might be tone deaf for some of these people, but I would say that things like Upwork, things like online teaching, things like home care and caregiving and coaching are all industries that can be done online and are all booming because people need that support, and they don't want robots to do it. Teaching, caregiving, and coaching; I can say that those are fields that I see continuing to rise.
April Malone 51:44
How do you do caregiving online? Because when I'm thinking, I'm thinking in-person caregiving.
Jonas Altman 53:26
Oh, yes, sorry. Caregiving would be frontline workers as well as apps and technology that offers support, so there's a big app right now that's had some controversy that does psychotherapy online, and all of the psychotherapists and counselors that I know, in terms of mental health, are doing online delivery. But yes, like caregiving in a care home you can't really do it online. But that type of work, you can still get into.
April Malone 53:55
A lot of the professional services can be remote now.
Jonas Altman 53:58
Which can be remote, yeah.
April Malone 54:01
Jonas Altman 54:01
And it comes back as well, is this a gift or a curse? So if someone has been let go, and they really, really love their work, and the company is not doing well, and they've been let go, it sucks any way you cut it. But if they really didn't like their work, and they were just holding on before the pandemic, and they were just--this is an opportunity if you frame it that way.
April Malone 54:26
Mhmm. Oh, yeah. When I left my transcription job, it was basically I had something else lined up like this whole teaching from work gig was just gonna be like a little extra income to cover, you know, say extracurricular activities for my kids. Well, when Mayo Clinic was like, "We need to cut back on how many people we have in our department, and we're going to give you the option to leave if you want--a voluntary separation package kind of like severance. Who wants to volunteer?" And I was like, "Me." Because I already had something lined up, and I think it comes with the whole, "Don't put all your eggs in one basket." You know, try to diversify a little bit. It's nice to have a backup plan so, like, you're never only stuck with one thing.
Jonas Altman 55:10
Yes. I mean, you know, if we were in a conference right now or we were in a room with whoever is listening, someone could say--and I'll speak for them--"What are you guys talking about? Like get a grip. Like there's potentially going to be more unemployed workers in the world than since the Great Depression, the highest in peacetime." The debt of governments is like in the $4 trillions; it's so high that to dig ourselves out of this airlines are now looking at 2024, 2025 as being a sense of normalcy. Like the ripple effect of this is like--I'm actually getting shivers right now as I say it--and here we are having a podcast talking about like, "Should I work from a coffee shop, or should I work in my underwear?" So you gotta like look at we are really a negligible amount of people who can even talk about this, who are not in factories, who are not in industries and service industries that have a real uphill battle. One is skills training and development to be employable and not be--before it was automation; now it's just, "Is there enough jobs out there?" A universal basic income and a social safety net to help with this. Looking at work being distributed, and maybe someone says, "Well, I'll work 3 days a week now because I have some extra income, and I'll actually let my colleague have that extra day." So job sharing and distributing work in a different way and emotional labor. All the work from domestic work--I mean, the original working from home was taking care of the kids and cleaning; that's work. And so when we look at a new work ethic, and we start to value what a teacher does versus an investment banker, or at least the teacher as equal but not more impactful, then we might get to a place where this conversation has more sympathy and probably more empathy to people's precarious positions. Whereas, you know, Work From Home as your podcast title, we have to go with a grain of salt here that like, either you already are working from home, or that's something you really are planning on because you believe and you're going to be determined to create a life where you have autonomy and agency in your work.
April Malone 57:33
Who will benefit the most from your book right now?
Jonas Altman 57:38
Well, that's a loaded question, and I love it. The people that will benefit most from the book are leaders or emergent leaders in organizations who can affect change; they will see that the way that organizations have been structured was on a model that it's no longer fit for the world we live in, and the amount of impact that they will have on their colleagues, on their bosses, on stakeholders, and even on their family will be tantamount. So that would be the most. And then those who are in transition and are kind of scratching their heads right now or are getting excited and giddy about what's in store for this new world would also benefit because I chronicle a lot of people who did beautiful u-turns or 180s to turn the ship around so that work becomes something that energizes them as opposed to depletes them.
April Malone 58:36
So the people who can, especially the leaders who might be able to help part of their workforce switch to a more home-based option to to give them that longer leash, right? The more autonomy rather than like having people burning out because they're working from home.
Jonas Altman 58:57
Precisely. And when we use language like "flexible work" or "home-based", what we're really saying is giving people the autonomy to choose where, when, and how they work. So it's feeling trust and the leash kind of gets cut; hopefully, there isn't a leash anymore.
April Malone 59:14
Yeah, right. And I know that some industries are going to be a little bit more open to those than others. You know, some types of work are going to see a productivity shift in the positive direction, and some industries might not. Like I talked to someone the other day, and they said, you know, the sales team was struggling, and how they got back to the office because they needed that competition, but the creative people or the introverts who just need a quiet space were really well from home. Tell us the name of your book, where we can find it, and where we can find you for people that might need your coaching or any of the services you provide.
Jonas Altman 59:53
Sure. I would say one thing about that last point. There was a company in London called the Wellcome Trust that piloted the 4-day workweek.
April Malone 1:00:03
Jonas Altman 1:00:03
And they got very far along the way. They're like basically the same as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and they discovered that they had 2 types of workers predominantly. They had the knowledge workers that can work from home and were doing more funding and giving of the funds to charities and so forth, and then they had the people who worked in the museum and were actually, like, on the ground. The people in the museum and on the ground wanted the hours and wanted to be present, whereas the knowledge-type workers really valued the 4-day workweek. So they found it very difficult to move completely to the 4-day workweek for everyone because there were different types of workers within the same organization.
April Malone 1:00:45
So the personalities sought out the different kinds of job--
Jonas Altman 1:00:48
Correct and different nuance based on the type of work. So you know sales versus creative work, you know. But that's it. So the name of my book is "Shapers reinvent the way you work and change the future." It's designed and it's spaced out for people who have problems focusing, like my brother and myself, so it's lots of whitespace, some diagrams, and so forth. And you can go to shapers.life, and it has all the places you can buy it (Chapters, Indigo, Barnes and Noble, Amazon) if that's your thing. And for me, people can go to jonasaltman.com to find my contact info and how and who I coach. And I've been just really excited to talk to people like you, and I'm grateful for you hosting today for this conversation.
April Malone 1:01:42
This has been great, and I mean, this has kind of turning into a trend; it's supposed to be 45 minutes, and I'm like, "You know what, we're just gonna blow through an hour. It's all good."
Jonas Altman 1:01:51
I know. It's good. I didn't look at the time, and then when I did, I was like, "Wow, we can yap."
April Malone 1:01:56
And I really like to think of the people who are working from home, maybe who don't feel connected right now, listening to a podcast like this to be like, "You know what? I'm not alone."
Jonas Altman 1:02:05
April Malone 1:02:06
So I'm hoping that this is serving people like that who, you know, need that connection and to hear the stories of how people have gone through that mindset shift.
Jonas Altman 1:02:13
April Malone 1:02:14
So it's good. Yeah. Thank you.
Jonas Altman 1:02:16
April Malone 1:02:17
Well, let's wrap this up. Thank you, Jonas. I will say this is April Malone with Yes I Work From Home, and we'll see you next time.
Jonas Altman 1:02:24
April Malone 1:02:25
Take care. Bye.