1. Meeting chicken

    Posted January 17, 2014 in office  |  2 Comments so far

    You have a regular meeting in your calendar. It’s with just one other person. Sometimes you have things to talk to them about and sometimes you don’t. But as long as your calendar says you both have to go, you will both go.

    The day of the meeting comes round. There are lots of things that need to be done that day. You look at that meeting sitting obstinately in your calendar and think how useful it would be to get that time back.

    Inspiration strikes: why not cancel the meeting? A couple of mouse clicks, an automatic notification sent out, a joyously blank calendar. It seems so easy.

    But you can’t bring yourself to do it, to cancel a meeting at such short notice. It would make you look disorganised, unprepared. And what about the other person? They might have lots of important things to discuss with you. Maybe they’re really looking forward to the meeting; maybe they’ve worn smart clothes they otherwise wouldn’t have worn, or have regretfully cancelled other interesting meetings in order to have this one with you. How would they feel, if that was indeed the case, about you sending a cancellation out of the blue like that?

    So you get your head down and try to make the most of the productive time you have, although it’s hard to concentrate because you have one eye on the clock. The time is approaching when you’ll need to drop everything and go to this meeting. The meeting hasn’t even happened yet and it’s already wreaking havoc on your day.

    It’s now only five minutes until you need to leave. And, suddenly, your computer makes a bleeping noise or a swooshing noise or whatever noise it makes when you receive a new email. You look up from your keyboard.

    Meeting cancellation

    They blinked first

    Congratulations: you have just won a game of Meeting Chicken.

  2. How to fight back against the cunning, dastardly new techniques of spam email

    Posted January 7, 2014 in office  |  1 Comment so far

    Everyone hates spam email. Do you remember when we used to get it all the time? Depraved demands for money would clog up my inbox as fast as I could delete them. What a nightmare.

    It was lucky, then, that spam filters came along and helped us win the war against spam. For many years those disgusting missives were absent from my inbox and I almost started to forget what it was like to receive one. Everything was great. Until recently.

    In the last few months, more and more of these unwanted emails have been evading my filters and infesting my inbox once again. It feels like we’re back to the dark days of spam. And the reason? The spammers have upped their game.

    One hallmark of the new generation of spam email is mimicking the writing style of colleagues and bosses. And worse still, the spammers are somehow able to make it look like they’re coming from my colleagues and bosses. It’s astounding. Here’s an early example.

    A cunningly disguised piece of spam

    A cunningly disguised piece of spam

    See how crafty this is? It just looks so authentic and it’s a lot like how my boss writes too, a far cry from the old days when it was easy to identify spam emails with all their rude words and grammatical errors. In fact I was so convinced it was real that I was about to send over the report. Luckily I realised what was going on and sent the email to the trash instead.

    But the spammers had some more tricks up their sleeve. The next wave of emails continued to sound like my workmates, but they started referring to earlier messages – “following up on my previous requests” and so on – which gave them an added sense of realism.

    I tried setting up filters to block these messages but they were too different, too diverse in their content, so I resorted to manually deleting them which was very time-consuming. It was fortunate that work had become fairly quiet, giving me several hours a day to clear out my inbox.

    Then the spammers unveiled their next trick: they started to email large PDF files, pretending they were reports for me to review.

    They think I was born yesterday

    They must think I was born yesterday

    Imagine I’d opened this spam attachment – a 7mb PDF large enough to contain millions of trojan viruses. My computer would have been so badly infected that a trip to Dignitas would have been the only option. I pressed the Delete key without hesitation.

    The attempts to infect my laptop and drain my bank account continued in earnest. PDFs, Word documents, Excel spreadsheets – the spammers flung everything they had at me. When these didn’t work, they hijacked my boss’s email again and adopted a radical new technique: they started sending meeting requests.

    I'll admit, this one nearly had me fooled

    I’ll admit, this one nearly had me fooled

    Attending a meeting with a professional spamming gang is ill-advised at the best of times. I rejected the invite, and the many others that followed, accompanying my responses with some well-chosen words in which I told the senders in no uncertain terms where to go.

    It’s not easy to fend off such persistent and innovative spammers. If you use the tips I’ve shared in this post I’m sure you’ll be safe. But now I have to stop writing – my boss is heading towards my desk and he’s looking pretty annoyed…

  3. The modern lunchbreak: it may be pitiful, but it’s all we’ve got

    Posted August 26, 2013 in comment, office  |  No Comments so far

    Picture the scene. You’re at work, at ten to nine in the morning, staring at your overflowing to-do list in silent panic, just as a rabbit might stare at the headlights of an approaching juggernaut. How will you ever get all this stuff done?

    You switch to your calendar, hoping to find a soothing expanse of empty, productive time in which to cut that to-do list down to size. But what you actually see in Outlook resembles what might appear if you tried playing Tetris while suffering from a deep migraine.

    (This looks quite sane compared to my real calendar)

    (This looks quite sane compared to my real calendar)

    Multiple meetings, scheduled simultaneously, are squashed into thin slivers, with scant space left to show what they’re actually about. Some are short: the “scrum calls”, the “stand-ups”, the “check-ins”. Others are of epic duration, spanning many hours, giving attendees time to ponder the world’s most profound and enduring mysteries at length—and quite possibly resolve them too. What they have in common is that they will all prevent you from completing any of your tasks.

    You can’t attend them all but it’s fair to say that you won’t be seeing the outside of the meeting room before sunset. And as the fun is due to begin in ten minutes, you have just enough time to bump all those to-do list tasks from today to tomorrow.

    Just as you start doing that, a new email arrives. Actually, it’s not an email at all – it’s a meeting request! For today! As if. With a rueful shake of the head, you click “decline” and – consummate professional that you are – type out a reason for your refusal to attend, suggesting they look at your calendar before inviting you to future meetings.

    Before hitting send, however, you notice with horror that, in fact, they did look at your calendar. This you know because they chose the only half-hour section of the day not already jam-packed with meetings: they scheduled it in your lunch break.



    If things like this happen to you regularly you’ll probably agree with me that our lunchtime is under threat and that we must take steps to save it.

    I should admit that I’ve not always been the staunchest defender of the lunch break. Like many others, I was complacent during earlier assaults on this age-old workplace institution. As desk-based lunches became the norm, my increasingly rare trips beyond the nearest grim sandwich emporium started to feel cheekily transgressive, like white-collar truant.

    While I didn’t mind that, I always assumed there would be respect for what remained: that half-hour break spent furtively eating a sandwich, indulging in recreational reading while fresh crumbs speckled the keyboard. I thought this vestige of personal time in the middle of the working day would be preserved, as biologists might protect a fragile microhabitat in a mountaintop rock pool. I thought we were safe: but now we have the lunchtime meeting requests.

    This is our last stand. If we give in to this, and start accepting – or, heavens forbid, scheduling – lunchtime meetings, then our lunch breaks really will be a thing of the past. But how can we fight back? Declining a meeting invitation is a sensitive event in the world of office politics, and open arguments with meeting organisers about whether your lunch break takes priority over their scrum call or stand-up or check-in should be avoided at all costs.

    Instead, the best bet is to fight fire with fire and transform your calendar from your zone of vulnerability into your key weapon of defence by inviting yourself to 1-hour meetings in the middle of the day. This means that, when they look at your calendar, meeting organisers see a 9-hour monolith of uninterrupted appointments and decide that their stand-up or check-in just might be able to wait for another day. Even if you end up using that time to sit at your desk and clear your to-do list while eating a sandwich, you’ll be much better off for it.