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SUZE: The UK went into lockdown in March 2020. Many people found themselves working from home, thereby spending more time at home and less time commuting. We were surrounded by messages like the ones you see here. People were saying things like "when you go for a job in the future, employers are going to ask how you spent lockdown, and you need to have a good answer that involves learning and personal development". "You have more free time than ever before." "You have no excuse not to learn that new skill or finish those projects, or get fit." Now, this wasn't helpful because there were millions of people it didn't apply to. Some people were struggling because they had less time, or the lockdown actually affected their mental health and motivation.
My name's Suze Shardlow, and I'm here to tell you what I discovered about the power of co-working through running co-working sessions during all three UK lockdowns. You can find me at suze.dev or on Twitter @SuzeShardlow. Please do tweet at me. I would love to hear from you. So, a little bit about me. Like Joe said, I'm a software engineer, coding instructor, event MC, and technical writer. I'm also a chapter lead at Ladies of Code, London, where I originated the co-working sessions I'll be telling you about today. I love making things that people enjoy and use. I think this is what drew me to coding, and, during lockdown, I took up a number of hobbies, crafting hobbies, so I could make some original stuff that nobody else has got. Here's a photo of me on my 13th birthday using the computer I learnt to code on. Joe was not exaggerating when he said I learnt to code a long time ago. I don't know if any of you recognise that machine there, but clue: it was built in the 1980s! You can see that I loved co-working right back in the 1990s before we went online.
So there is a report cited by the UK mental health charity, MIND, and the UK National Health Service. The report's by the New Economics Foundation. And they reviewed more than 400 research papers to identify the five steps we can take to improve our wellbeing. Co-working can help us incorporate several of these steps into our lives. So it allows us to form connections with people, to feel like we are part of something, and to get and give moral and practical support. This is something which the Covid situation has taken away from many of us. In terms of being active, it doesn't help us to be active in and of itself, but the co-working activity could be something physical, for example, you could go for a run with somebody, or be on a call with someone while you run separately.
It can also help you gain more self-awareness in terms of how you can better organise your time or projects. It might enable you to take more notice of what you're doing, and what you could be doing. In terms of keeping learning, it's an opportunity to spend time learning new things, and in an environment where other people are trying to get things done too, especially if you've hit a motivation barrier. And if you organise the sessions, it's a way of giving something back to people. If you're attending a session, you might find there is somebody there who needs your help, and you can give to them that way.
OK, so now we've looked at how co-working could be part of your wellbeing toolkit. But we've also said that we don't necessarily have time to prioritise the projects that are gathering dust. So here is a little technique that could help you figure this out. You may already have a packed schedule. You may believe there is zero slack in that schedule or there's nothing you can sacrifice. The only way you can know this for sure is to write down exactly what you do as you're doing it. Looking back through your diary or calendar retrospectively isn't going to give you an accurate picture, because I don't think you're writing down in your diary how much time you spent on YouTube, or how much time you spent on your phone. It will only show you the meetings and the appointments that you had booked in. So you need to do an audit. You want to be able to see what kinds of things you're spending your time on, and whether that is the right spread for you.
So make a table like this one. Jot down all the days and split the time up into two-hour blocks, and make a note from when you wake up. Two-hour blocks is fine. You don't want to spend all your time recording what you did, but you do need to be honest with yourself. Then look back and see how you're spending your time. Now, I am not saying anything in the example here is a waste of time, and it's very important not to judge yourself, so, you know, it says in there that you browsed LinkedIn and Twitter. Everybody does that. That can be productive. And everybody falls down the rabbit hole of YouTube. There is nothing to be ashamed of. The point is here to be aware of where you're spending your time. Once you're aware of that, you can decide whether that is how you need to spend your time to achieve your goals. So, once you've jotted down how you spent your time for a week, look at where you could reduce, or remove activities to increase the amount of time you can dedicate to your highest priorities, so I'm not saying you need to stop doing things completely, but if you jot down everything you've done in a week, then it will show you how much time you're spending on each activity, and whether you could reduce that if you don't want to remove it.
Like I said, I'm Chapter Lead at Ladies Of Code, London. And in March, there was a big shift to remote work and that's when we had to take all our events online. We previously had companies hosting us in person, and all of those companies shut their offices down. So we had a choice of taking all our events online or just not running any events at all. My entry into co-working came about because my friend wanted me to help her build her personal website and blog because that's what I do. I said, "OK, so why not make this another one of our online events and open a Zoom call and just see who comes, see who's got something they want to work on?". I remembered all the messaging about productivity that we looked at earlier on in my talk, and I thought there must be other people trying to get things done, there must be other people reading these headlines thinking, "you know what, there is loads of stuff I want to do, but I just can't do it".
In April 2020, we ran a co-working session and we called it "Get On With It". And this is my warped sense of humour a little bit, because all of the online events that we ran had a theme of "Get", so we had a public speaking workshop series called "Get Heard" and we had a series of interviews with folks in different roles in tech and we called that "Get Into"... Get Into Web Development, Get Into Product Management, things like that. So we called this one Get On With It and the name kind of stuck and that's still what it's called today. 18 people turned up to the first Get On With It, and the activities ranged from building the website I talked about - the blog site and personal portfolio - to sorting out Lego bricks and painting some walls. It was very much a case of people thinking you know what, I really need to get this stuff done. It wasn't all about coding, and learning to code, and trying to get a job, it was just that everyday stuff that people had been putting off. So because of the success of that, we decided to run them on a regular basis. And since then, I've run 40 of those sessions for a total of 127 hours, and we've co-worked with 85 people so far. Generally, we run them every Sunday afternoon for three hours, and the way it works is this. We open the Zoom call, and we give everybody the opportunity to say what they're working on, so you just come on there, and you say, "right, I've got a bunch of Lego I need to sort out. That's it. That's what I'm working on today". Then other folks might say, "right, I've got a freeCodeCamp course I need to work through", or, "I need to apply for some jobs", or, "I need to polish my CV". Absolutely no judgment as to what folks need to do. Everybody's different and everybody's got different priorities.
After we've shared, and again there is no pressure to share, but anyone that does want to share definitely gets some benefit out of it, we then go and work independently for about an hour. During that hour, if you want to chat or collaborate, or get or give help, we use Slack or one-to-one video conferencing, so any of that doesn't really take place in the group over one-to-one video. We do that on Slack generally, but if people feel that they can give help one-to-one, we set up some video-conferencing rooms for that. We also build in a tea break. Breaks are very important, as any of you good folks know who have been coding a lot, you need to take a break to figure stuff out sometimes. And then we follow that by a midpoint check-in. Again, that is optional, so, people like that because it gives them an extra break from what they're doing, and if they've achieved something, it can be really good to share it and celebrate that. Again, there's no pressure to share anything. People just come and listen and watch, and get some motivation from other folks' progress in that midpoint check-in.
We encourage people to join in with the check-ins because it makes them feel part of the community, and there is very much a rising tide lifting all boats in those check-ins as well. What we found is, the timing we've landed on, so we started the first one at 11 o'clock on a Saturday morning, we've now landed on a Sunday afternoon which works really well for folks across the world, I want to say across the world, but mostly to be honest it's people more to the west of us. The poor folks in Australia would be up quite late if they wanted to join us. It works really well from, say, the Pacific coast onwards, and we do have folks that join us regularly from there, and those folks have taken this concept and replicated that where they live locally. They love it so much, they wanted to bring it to their local communities.
What has been interesting is that some people who come are not actually in Ladies Of Code, London. Some of them aren't even coders. They went on meetup.com, where we advertise our events, and they just searched for "quiet Zoom productivity" or "quiet Zoom co-working" and they came across our group and joined. And that's been really cool because it's been really interesting to find out what things they've been working on, so somebody was doing some research into psychology, and things like that, so, yes, it's been good to get different perspectives. So here is some of the feedback that we received after the first couple of sessions, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that some people have managed to finish tasks that they had literally been putting off for two years. Again, there is no shame in that. I'm sure we can all think of things we'd really love to get done and we first had the idea some years ago and never did it, but that is the reality of the situation. People do come along, and they finish stuff that they had been literally putting off for years. So, as we already discussed, co-working can help you take some of the five steps to wellbeing that we looked at earlier.
I've asked Ladies Of Code members to tell me about the benefits they've received from coming to the sessions and what they learned and how they've been able to use co-working as a productivity tool. And this is what they said.
"It is easier with someone who doesn't understand what you're doing." And that might seem a bit counterintuitive. But people were finding that all they really needed was somebody metaphorically next to them keeping them on track. They said that the person didn't need to know what the task was, only that they needed to get it done. All they needed was someone sitting there saying, "How are you getting on with it?" They actually said that it helped if the other person knew less than them, because it meant there was less pressure, and they wouldn't get criticised for the way they were doing it, because they were finding maybe when they were working with folks who had higher expectations of their knowledge, that they would jump in and say, "Why are you doing it this way? That's all wrong." We do keep it a judgment-free zone, so it kind of helps you if you feel like you're the expert, and if you're working with somebody who doesn't know or understand what you're doing, sometimes they can see things you can't, and they might be able to see ways that you can break things down, or other approaches you could take. And, as we all know, having to explain something to somebody else helps you to improve your understanding, and solve your own problems. How many times have you had a coding problem if you're a coder, and you've tried to explain the problem to somebody else, and then immediately the answer has come to you, purely because you have had to articulate that problem?
So, "co-working combines self-motivation with motivation from the group". This is a piece of feedback I got from one of the good folks who decided they wanted to replicate this idea and use it in their own community. There always needs to be an element of motivation from within to get anything done. You can't really get all your motivation from somebody else. There always needs to be something within you that wants to do it. What co-working gives you is a support network and some external influence over your momentum, so, I think most of us have struggled with self-motivation at some point, and it does help if somebody else can help you along a little bit, just to get that little spark of whatever self-motivation you do have, and kind of kindle that a bit. You share your own work and you receive feedback, and you see other people's projects and progress.
If you're in an environment where everyone is trying to get things done, it helps you to get into the productivity zone, and I definitely found this just in a separate example when I learnt to code, I actually went on a coding bootcamp to do that. I say "when I learnt to code", I was coding a long time ago, but, obviously, you can't really use that now. When I decided to become a web developer professionally, I went on a bootcamp, and I left my working environment for three months, and I did that, and what I found on the bootcamp was that everybody was like-minded, everybody had the same goal, and I just felt so much more motivated being in this environment where everyone wanted to improve themselves. It was a far cry from the workplace situation that I was previously in where everybody was feeling low, everyone was facing redundancy, et cetera. So, it really helps to be in a good, positive environment to really give you a motivation boost. I cannot underestimate that.
So, I have been a perfectionist forever, and I'm trying to recover. Some perfectionism can be good. I highly recommend some perfectionism, but for me it really morphs into procrastination sometimes. And I've started using the mantra "progress, not perfection". The co-working sessions can help curb perfectionism, because if you only have three hours to write something or make a video, you're more likely to get it done. This is something that somebody on our co-working sessions actually said, otherwise, they said if you didn't timebox it like this, it would probably take weeks. If you had all the time in the world, you would take all the time in the world. The work expands to fill the time. So if I'm giving you three hours on a Sunday afternoon, you're going to take three hours. And, like I said, someone in the group had been putting off a project like this for a couple of years.
Getting feedback from the group actually helps with this. If you get your project ready to 80% of what you consider perfect, and the group is blown away, you can use this as a confidence boost to think "OK, that's good enough, I'm going to ship it". Maybe you can come back to it later and do the other 20%. Maybe you'll never come back to it later. But, either way, you've produced more than you would have if you had waited to get it perfect. So just get it to - it helps you to get things just to 80%, which for a perfectionist like me does make me feel a little bit itchy, I have to admit. But that's definitely a lot more than you would have achieved had you been sitting there agonising about how to make it perfect and not actually do anything to get started.
Co-working also keeps you honest. We talked about the checking-in parts of the co-working session, and a lot of people use the co-working sessions for accountability. So, like I said, there's never any pressure to speak, but I always do encourage people to say what they're working on. People like this, because when they say the goal out loud, it makes it more real. It's out there in the world now. You can't unsay it. You can't take it back. People know that that's what you want to work on. Now, for some people, that really works. When they know other people know, it makes them feel more committed to it. And also the reaction you get sometimes to the project, so, if you say, you know, "I'm working on an app to do this," and people say, "Wow, that's really good, I'd use that," you think "Oh! Actually, this has got a purpose, maybe I need to get it done".
It also stops the false equivalence that some of us do, and I don't know whether or not any of you want to admit this to yourselves: if you've got five items on your list to do, and one of those items is boil the kettle, are you going and boil the kettle first and then tell yourself that you've done 20% of the items on your to-do list? That's a kind of false equivalent, isn't it? Sometimes, you just need someone to say to you, "look, maybe write the paragraphs first and then boil the kettle". Or you might fall down the rabbit hole of YouTube videos and somebody asks what you're up to, and you tell them that, you know, "OK, I've digressed, I've gone onto YouTube". Maybe they'll suggest you watch the videos together after you've both finished your task because building in a reward definitely helps with motivation.
So this one, I debated whether or not to leave this one in, but I thought I would leave it in. I know that a lot of folks really miss their colleagues, and they really miss going to work in an office. But there are some people in my group who are founders and co-founders, or they're freelance, and they were actually using actual co-working spaces, so they were going in to rented office space back before Covid when we could mix, and now they can't do that, so for them, these co-working sessions gives that back to them. It gives them the feeling of the office dynamic without having to go into the office, and because they don't have colleagues as such, or a team as such, the co-working sessions have provided them with opportunities to bounce ideas off people and force them to put some structure around their time.
This is another thing as well. I think especially with new coders, there is a lot of pressure, and, if you follow Twitter, you know, it feels like everybody is coding all the time, and everybody knows all about the new tech, and to get a job, you need to be doing it in your spare time, and every waking hour, and everything like that, and what we've found in Get On With It, is that we've had all sorts of projects, so I mentioned people painting walls, and things like that. And people - especially people that are new to coding - have learnt that people don't spend all of their time coding. Also, attendees like the fact that we don't limit the sessions just to tech tasks. There's a good variety. Just bring whatever you want. They also like the fact that even though they might be a coder, they like the fact that they can change things up. So one week, they might be working on learning some materials for some certification - for some tech certification - and then the next week, they want to go for a run. My favourite example is somebody that wanted to put up a shelf, and she put up a shelf, and showed us after she'd done it. They like the fact they can change up what they're doing. Even if they are a coder, they don't feel obliged to be coding all the time, and I think that's really important.
So, it's really hard to be your own cheerleader, and I think at some point we've all been guilty of negative self-talk, and, you know, conference speakers get this a lot. They go - they're about to do their talk, and they're saying, "I can't do this, I'm not prepared, I don't want to do it any more". We've all been guilty of talking to ourselves in a negative way. I get this a lot, for example, when I'm thinking of writing a blog post. I wonder who is going to want to read it, or whether I know enough about the topic to write about it. It is a lot easier to see the positive or the helpful stuff in someone else's situation than it is to see it in your own. If somebody told me they were putting off writing a blog post for the same reasons, I would probably give them reassurance, and point out the logic in the situation. We are often much kinder to other people than we are to ourselves.
We shouldn't rely solely on external validation, but if you're finding that you're only telling yourself negative things, it can give you a boost to hear a positive comment from someone else. This can also apply when you think your project is too simple and not worth bothering with, like I said earlier. So you speak your goal out to the group and see what feedback you get back. Telling people what you're working on, and realising they would have to do a lot of hard thinking to solve the problems can help you realise that not everybody can do what you can do. I think that is something we often forget. Many people come to co-working and leave with a confidence boost.
Lastly, it's a myth that everybody else is more motivated or fulfilled. And, you know, I sort of mentioned Twitter earlier. You spend too much time on there, sometimes you can just go into a spiral. A good proportion of the Get On With It attendees are more productive when they come to our sessions, and there's a reason why they come, so it can't be true that everyone is more motivated or fulfilled otherwise we wouldn't have anyone coming to join us. It's easy to feel that your low productivity is the result of laziness, but that's often not the case. Deep down, many people have the same issues with getting things done, or feeling like they need to achieve more, or that they can't get started. 85 people have attended Get On With It - some of them for most of the 40 sessions - and not all of them would have achieved the same levels of productivity on their own. Sometimes, we just need a bit of company.
Like I said, these sessions have been replicated by meetup groups in the USA and I've got a blog post with the full methodology which I will give you the link to, but here are the ingredients for a successful co-working session.
Allocate the time. I have shown you how to find, or try to find little pockets of time in your schedule. See if you can make this up to a chunk of time that you can spend.
Find some like-minded people. They don't have to be working on the same stuff you want to work on, but just somebody that needs to get something done. Just start with one person. You don't need to feel the pressure to find a whole group, just find one person that needs to get something done.
Go for progress over perfection, because if you're anything like me, perfection is going to stop you getting started. So, if you go for progress, then just do the first thing, and then you're further forward than you were before you began.
And my favourite bit, and I think the most important part, is the checking-in bit because that's the bit that gives you the community, it gives you the encouragement, it gives you the opportunity to give back. You know, in the five ways to wellbeing, giving is one of them. It gives you the opportunity to give back to other folks and really help to lift them up as well if they need a boost. Again, there's no pressure for people to check in, but those who do do it, really found it valuable.
Build in the breaks. The breaks are really important to keep your motivation up. There's nothing worse than trying to go from zero to doing a whole hour of something at a time. There's no point trying to do that. Just build it up slowly. I can understand why, once you've found some motivation, you're really impatient to get it done, but don't overdo it. It might be counterproductive.
Provide communication channels for people to check in if they want to. They might have had a breakthrough five minutes into the session that they want to share and celebrate. So give them some form of communication, some asynchronous comms for them to do that so they can get cheerled on.
And that leads onto celebrating. Make sure you do a check-in at the very end. Find out what people have done. It might be that some folks didn't get as much done as they wanted, but as long as they're further forward than they were when they joined you, then it's all good.
Thank you for listening to my talk. My name is Suze Shardlow, and I hope that I've encouraged you to consider co-working as a productivity tool. Here's the link to my blog post that I mentioned outlining the full methodology for Get On With It. I've also put a link there to my meetup group in case you'd like to join us one Sunday afternoon. The next one is tomorrow. Everybody is welcome. Don't be put off by the name Ladies Of Code London. We welcome everybody. Enjoy the rest of the conference.
Do you have a pile of projects that's gathering dust? Or a portfolio you know you need to build up, but can't seem to find the motivation? Are you feeling the pressure because everyone around you is saying you have loads of time now you have no commute? Let's look at how to allocate time and use co-working as a productivity tool, or even set up and run your own co-working sessions using a framework I developed in London during lockdown and has since been adopted in the USA.
Suze Shardlow wrote her first line of code in 1982 and started making websites in 1996. The UK education system didn't know what to do with girls interested in tech, so after a 20-year career in management, communications and strategy with organisations including the Canadian Government and Metropolitan Police, Suze pivoted her career. Suze now creates and delivers coding courses. She is also a technical writer and event host, specialising in live tech meetups. She is Chapter Lead at Ladies of Code London.
Suze has delivered 50+ online meetups during COVID-19, including 90+ hours of facilitated tech co-working sessions which supported more than 60 people through lockdown. She designed and delivered more than 15 hours of public speaking workshops for women, then hosted an online showcase event for the 'graduates'. Suze's tech community event methodologies have been replicated by tech groups in Silicon Valley, California.