Beyond Work
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Beyond Work

I Focus on the Things I Actually Have an Influence on and Get to Work on That

Tech entrepreneur Niklas Hall on how we can take the learnings from this pandemic and implement real change

This is the seventeenth interview in the Beyond Work series looking at how founders and innovators work from home during the global pandemic of Coronavirus. In this interview, we head from London to Copenhagen in Denmark speak to entrepreneur Niklas Hall.

Niklas Hall spent most of his career in different facets of the corporate world before becoming founder and CEO of Acumex — a startup which uses artificial intelligence technology to allow businesses to better trade, collaborate and procure from one another.

April 2020. Copenhagen, Denmark

What does a “typical” day look like for you now?

A typical day would look something like this:

5.45am: Day begins

5.45–6.10: Shower / getting dressed / making coffee / drinking a ginger shot

6.10–7.30: Reviewing news / social media / listening to podcasts / breakfast

7.30–7.45: Short exercise routine to maintain core muscle strength and raise the pulse

7.45–11.00: Work time: writing media posts, customer calls, online meetings

11.00–11.45: Walk in the neighbourhood, which can take me to the sea, the open land or simply checking out life in my city

11.45–12.15: Lunch break

12.15–15.00: Work time: can be an extension of the morning tasks, but may also be more specific tasks (such as writing a funding application or preparing the annual report)

15.00–16.30: Learning break: time to read and get some new inspiration

16.30–18.30: Practical time: housekeeping, shopping, preparing dinner

18.30–20.30: Leisure time: usually films or series on Netflix or from my own collection

20.30–22.00: Work time: planning calls, social media posts and other activities. Work housekeeping: updating to do lists, cleaning up files and keeping tools ready for execution.

Also, some more serendipitous exploration of new tools, new developments in science or tech, checking the twittersphere for what’s going on.

22.00–22.45: Short reading time and end of day.

How has Coronavirus impacted your life/work?

I have been working from home for more than five years and my company was already digital and decentralized also when corona hit and the lockdowns were implemented so we were essentially ready to continue our business. But obviously it was not business as usual. Most of our sales activity happens with personal meetings and this came to an abrupt end. While we are used to online meetings, most of our potential clients were not, so there has been a period of adaptation for all. The biggest impact has actually come from the shift in focus at the client end. When people are worried about their health and jobs, there is more focus on protecting the existing than investing in the future. This slows down our business significantly.

On a personal level, I don’t get worried very easily. I focus on the things I actually have an influence on and get to work on that. I care very much about the startup community and I feel a need to offer support where I can, and it gives me strength to feel that we are in this together.

My teenage children also need a different kind of attention. They are also at home attending school online, but not seeing their friends and doing social activities with them in real life is painful for them. So, I get to do more activities with them and talk about the activities they are engaged in and what is on their minds. Somehow, that is a silver lining.

What productivity tips have you found useful whilst working from home?

Working from home automatically breaks down the natural boundaries between work time and personal time. It is so individual how people deal with this. I find it useful to get away from the idea of eight hours continuous work time. Both the brain and the body need breaks so if I have been sitting down working for two hours, I take a break where I hoover the apartment or take out the garbage. Takes care of the chores and gives the body and mind something different to do. These microbreaks deal with the mental to-do list and boost productivity for the next work stretch. Also, make sure you actually have personal, non-work time. Make sure you call your family and your friends. Do something fun. Learn something new online. Participate in online events and communities.

In my company, we have Slack as a backbone tool for communication and online meetings, but other online meeting tools like Teams, Skype and Jitsi are also in the toolbox. Messages have become much more important during the lockdown. They are a quick, non-intrusive way to stay in touch, both personally and for business. Simple SMS-messages are still popular, but of course other tools like Messenger or WhatsApp are also on. The kids are on Discord or Snapchat, but I leave that universe to them. Finally, never underestimate the value of a good old-fashioned phone call.

I make simple to-do lists and write notes in the standard Mac applications (Reminders and Notes respectively), but actually most of my planning, thinking and note-taking is on paper and Post-It notes. The slowness of handwriting and the possibility to make quick sketches helps my thinking tremendously. It is also so much more satisfying to cross out a completed task on a paper list and throw it away than deleting a task online.

When you work from home, your computer and your phone are your most important tools to be connected with the outside world. Treat them well. I use CleanMyMac to keep my old Mac up to speed and also regularly scan for malware with F-Secure. In the best of times having a frozen computer is stressful. When you are stuck at home it is worse. And please remember to back up your work.

Learning new things is an important part of my work and I find podcasts to be a great medium for that. There are many more great podcasts out there than you will ever be able to listen to, but getting inspiration and new insights from different sources is part of my daily routine.

What books do you recommend during this time at home?

So many great books to read, but these books give me some perspectives on where we come from, where we are going, some of the important challenges we face and how we can think about the meaning of it all.

1. Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

2. A Treatise of Human Nature: Being an Attempt to Introduce the Experimental Method of Reasoning into Moral Subjects by David Hume

3. Dialogues and Essays Seneca

4. Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control by Stuart Russell

5. Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men by Caroline Criado Perez

When this is all over, what will the opportunities look like?

I see opportunities for individuals and societies to rethink the way we work and live. We are collectively learning that it is possible to change routines and habits when circumstances dictate it. We are also experiencing that our way to work and live before Covid-19 was fragile.

Let’s resist the temptation of going straight back to normal. We are facing many other challenges, which will benefit from our new ability in changing habits and working differently. Do we really miss the big open offices, the cubicles, the long commute and slow moving traffic? Maybe we don’t need another lane on the motorway, but rather change the way we work. We need more resilient societies and we need to take care of our environment and address climate change impact. We are learning some new skills now, but most importantly we are learning that change can happen, when we want it to, and in this lies a huge opportunity to create better societies in the time after coronavirus.

“We are learning that change can happen, when we want it to and in this lies a huge opportunity to create better societies in the time after coronavirus.”

Niklas on Twitter

Acumex

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Sharing founders and innovators’ productivity hacks and work from home spaces during the Coronavirus pandemic

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Danielle Newnham

Danielle Newnham

Host of Danielle Newnham Podcast — interviews with tech founders and innovators. Writer. Author. Recovering Founder.

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