When doing nothing actually does more harm than doing something

I went to lunch yesterday with a friend of mine and we had a really good conversation about workplaces we have experienced and how frustrating it can be when people do nothing, thinking it won’t effect the situation, the team, or the work culture.

I’m talking about how no management can be one of the worst kinds of management.

We’ve all experienced bad managers, I’m sure. Managers who don’t seem to know how to talk to people; managers who are controlling and micromanage you out of distrust; or managers who just don’t seem to have the skills needed and are struggling to get by. Some of us have also experienced managers who do nothing – who simply don’t manage. They don’t meddle, they don’t talk to their team members, they don’t inform people of things – they simply don’t seem to care.

I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for why someone would approach their management responsibility in this way. Maybe they do care, they just don’t have the foggiest how to go about it. Or maybe they are so overwhelmed that they just don’t have any energy left over to do anything other than survive. Whether or not there is a viable reason, the fact remains that these people still just seem like they don’t care.

The problem is though, that while they might think doing nothing at least won’t make the situation worse, this isn’t the case. While I appreciate someone who isn’t trying to hurt or trick people on purpose – I’ve also had my share of back-stabbers – they are wrong. Not doing anything may actually cause damage.

One is information. This is such a basic thing. People need to know what’s going on. They need to know what is expected of them. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing and where they can expect their job, their career, and the organization to develop from here. Not sharing information causes people to speculate which leads to gossip. People draw their own conclusions and false information starts to spread. People start feeling insecure and it can quickly become quite destructive. Gossip is one of the single worst things for workplace wellbeing.

But there are also other routine things that there just need to be processes for. For example, how do you welcome a new employee to your workplace? How do you make sure this person has everything he or she needs, and yes this includes information. How do you show new people, but also old employees, that they are important and that you care? Having a boss who seems to genuinely not care about what you do and how, is actually really demotivating. It kind of makes you feel invisible, and definitely not like a valued member of the team.

Managing people is hard. There are some great managers out there, and there are also unfortunately many not so great managers. This is true for both the business and the academic world.

I recently read an article about how academics are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues than employees in any other profession. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is the precarious work. Unless you have tenure, which is really hard to come by, work is very insecure in academia. People work on short contracts, never sure about how or when they are going to get funding again. For many the research is also very closely linked to who they are. They are their research, which means if everything is going well, they feel like they are doing well as a person, but if they get rejected – which really happens a lot in academia – it’s a hit to their very identity.

But then there is also bad management. I have seen a lot of bad management in the academic world. Academics aren’t necessarily interested in managing or being managed, which is probably why they became successful academics in the first place. But we also tend to forget that universities and departments are organizations with employees like any other organization. They need to be managed in a way that works. Granted, academics are probably not the easiest group to manage, but doing nothing really does more harm than good.

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Pretty darned great

I have always loved to read. Books have been a huge part of my life every since I was little. My parents read and my sisters read. They read to themselves and they read to me. And after I learned to read I started reading too just as much as they did. We always had books at home and it was one thing we were allowed to indulge in as much as we wanted. Not at the dinner table, however, but my sisters and I would still constantly try to sneak in books to read on the sly under the table because we just couldn’t put them down. And we always got caught but still never stopped trying the same trick over and over again.

Growing up with books, I always thought that the single most awesome thing must be to write a book. I never really though I would because it seemed like an unattainable dream that was just granted very few special people. Little did I know that one day this would actually happen to me.

Even as I started doing research and planning a book based on that research, I still sort of felt that writing and publishing a book was the ultimate thing. Then one day I started writing a book proposal and it became the first step in quite a long and slow process. The book contract was a long time coming, and then after I finally submitted my manuscript, there was the slow and sometimes tedious and frustrating process of copywriting, cover design, checking indexes… and the process was so slow that that somewhere along the way publishing a book no longer seemed like it was going to be the magical thing I thought it would be.

It actually turned out to be more of a non-event than anything else to tell you the truth. I had been notified of an approximate publishing date of the hardback, but then months in advance noticed by accident that my book was actually already available for pre-order through numerous online bookstores. Since it was an academic book (even though I made sure to write it in a way that made it accessible to anyone, so anyone could enjoy it) the first hardback version was also so expensive that I realized that few people would actually be prepared to spend that much money on a book – even a good book if I may say so myself. I have filled it with stories of women who have opted out and in, and made it a good read, but still. So that was quite disappointing, although I was learning a lot about publishing.

But I had a more affordable paperback version in my contract. I was happy about that since I know I have readers who are interested in the book. But it seemed so far away. And it really was a long wait. So long that I was starting to wonder whether or not I would actually be able to muster the energy to even get excited about it when the time finally came.

Well guess what. Last week I received news that the paperback version is going to be published in August. It is set at an affordable price, which I am absolutely thrilled about, because, as I said, my intention was all along to write a book about opting out and in that was accessible to a wider audience. And you know what? Now that it is finally happening, it sure feels pretty darned great.

So check out my book: Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles by Ingrid Biese

You can already preorder it. Click here for more information.

Where you lead, I will follow

I’m working on an academic paper with a colleague at the moment and I’m supposed to be going through my data set to see if I can find a few more relevant quotes for the different issues we raise in the paper. However, I sometimes find it hard to think without writing, and in order to find the right quotes I needed to create a storyline for myself just to get my head around the task. So I decided to start writing instead. It is only when I am forced to put my thoughts into words that they actually start to crystallize.

So I started writing, and when I do that the funniest thing often happens. It often feels like the text starts living a life of it’s own. It leads the way and I follow as well as I can and I’m never completely sure where we are going until the words are on the paper and the text is written. And the end result is often much better than I originally planned.

This also happened this morning with the paper I am working on. I first wrote down subheadings to match the issues we had agreed were the central ones. But then when I started writing, one thing (or word) led to the next and before I knew it a whole new set of subheadings opened up for me. Although the issues we want to raise are still the same, I realized that the way I had started out was not the best or most logical way to structure the analysis. It wasn’t until my writing revealed this to me that all the pieces fell into place.

This might sound strange to someone who doesn’t write, but I’ve heard many writers of fiction say the same thing. They never really know what will happen to their characters when they set out; it’s like they have a will of their own. And really it’s not so strange; it’s just how our brains work. It isn’t until we actually write things down that we realize which way we should go with our texts. But it does feel a bit magical and it’s what I think is one of the most exciting things about writing.

So, let the text lead the way and I will follow! I can’t wait to see where we end up.

Don’t send me the same shoes over and over again

One thing that really bothers me about the infamous algorithms on social media is that by showing me what they think I want to see they provide me with a skewed picture of what is trending. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of articles and posts about the advantages of working from home and on how entrepreneurs tend to be happier. You’d think I’d be excited about this since I’m continuously getting support for my research and confirmation that I’m on to something. But something tells me that the real reason I’m seeing this is that this is exactly what I’ve been posting and writing about on my blog. I’m of course finding these articles very interesting, but when I look out into the world to see what is out there, I don’t want to look into a mirror and only see myself.

Besides, reality is never that simple. Working from home is something I really like to do, but it has its plusses and minuses. It’s not for everyone or for every job, nor does it have to be an either or solution. Working from home doesn’t have to mean always working from home.

Incidentally, I’ve also done some research on entrepreneurs and their sense of well-being as many of the people I have interviewed have opted out of work in large corporations to set up businesses of their own. They do this for a myriad of reasons, the main ones being an attempt to gain more control over their lives and their time; as well as to be able to do what they love, and to do so to their full potential without being held back by rigid structures, corporate culture or discrimination to name a few. So yes, in many ways they are happier, because being an entrepreneur, in their case, means more control and a feeling of being able to be themselves.

But it’s not that simple. It turns out that this is not necessarily true for all entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs don’t always experience more autonomy and control. It is generally entrepreneurs who set up small businesses without any employees who experience this the most. So again, although trending (or not trending) articles will have us believe that this is the answer for all, it isn’t necessarily the case. Entrepreneurship has both advantages and disadvantages and it’s good to be aware of both.

I’ve actually published a chapter recently with a colleague where we discuss opting in to entrepreneurship, among other things: Creating Alternative Solutions for Work.

In the meantime I would like to ask the algorithms if they could be so kind and stop sending me more of the same. It’s like when I bought a pair of woolen slippers a while back. After my purchase, I kept seeing ads for more of the same slippers, but I had already bought a pair. Honestly, I think it would have been a smarter move to send me ads for footwear that I hadn’t just purchased.

So what do we actually need to do to create more sustainable solutions for work?

Last week I published a post on creating sustainable solutions for work, and reading it now, I realize there is so much that I still want to say on the subject, that the length of a single blog post didn’t allow.

I argued, that in order for working cultures to become more sustainable, change needs to come from inside the organizations. Existing organizations need to change their practices so that they can cater to different wants and needs. They need to really embrace diversity in order to create environments that are sustainable not only for their employees, but also for themselves. After all, one thing that this opting out and in research has taught me, is that if we don’t start thinking about sustainability and wellbeing in real terms, we will see much more opting out as time goes on, and not less. And opting out is not a good long-term solution for our economy, although changing the way we understand work, is. We need to create workplaces that people won’t want to opt out of.

Now, when I say this, I often get the question, well how does one go about that because it sound like a major undertaking. But the thing is, I really don’t think it is. When people opt out, the step from a feeling of no control to a feeling of having control really doesn’t have to be that big. It involves allowing employees to take a holistic approach to work and other areas of life that are important to them, and allowing them to decide when and how they move between these different areas of life. However, when people ask for more flexibility, they will probably settle with a bit more flexibility as long as it is real flexibility and not the illusion of flexibility that solutions like flexitime create.

The hard part really isn’t creating new work practices and routines. We have the tools to do this and there are already plenty of examples of companies that are already doing exciting things in providing real flexibility. The hardest part is getting organizations to see this, getting them to change their mindset and take this leap of faith. But even that isn’t impossible. It craves a change of mindset that permeates the entire organization and that every employer is a part of creating and sustaining. That is the only way to go about successfully changing organizational culture.

And the good news is that this is very doable. This is exactly what I did with my colleagues when I used to work as a consultant. Let me know if you want to know more about this. You can email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com

How to create sustainable solutions for work

I was at a conference a couple of weeks ago where I, among other things, attended an event on good work and alternative organizing. It caught my eye in the conference program, as it sounded pretty much exactly like what I am currently researching and spending most of my time thinking about. That is, what constitutes good work and how we can create different solutions for work that are sustainable but that also cater to the diverse wants, needs, and objectives of the people who make up the work force?

The event was basically a panel discussion between scholars who research different types of organizing and much of the discussion revolved around work cooperatives. A work cooperative is an organization that is owned and self-managed by its workers. Either the workers are all democratically involved in the decision-making together, or they elect a person to manage the cooperative and make decisions for them. The work cooperative follows certain principles like democracy, training, and control, which provides meaning and is also one of the reasons it might appeal to people as a solution for organizing.

This struck a chord with me because control is one of the major issues that comes up in narratives of opting out and in. People experience little or no control over their lives and their time before opting out, but once they have opted in to new lifestyles, mindsets and solutions for work, they gain control over when, where, and how they work, which not only is important to them, it also adds to their sense of authenticity and wellbeing. (You can read more about that here and here.)

Another thing that I found interesting was that the researcher who had been studying cooperatives was obviously very intrigued by this way of organizing. When talking about cooperatives, she confessed that she was almost reluctant to admit that work in cooperatives can also be problematic as it can be precarious and lack security. In other words, it is not always a good solution for everyone. She was reluctant because she kind of really wanted it to be.

As someone who researches opting out and in, I can recognize that feeling. One of the things that is symptomatic of opting out and in, is that people generally come out the other end of their journeys – which can be very difficult and troubling experiences – feeling happy and better about themselves simply because they have more control and they feel like they can finally be themselves. Because of that they typically feel that their journey has been a successful one, and it becomes easy to think that maybe it could be a solution for everyone. But it isn’t.

Success is actually quite a complex and multifaceted issue. When we speak of success, we have to ask ourselves, out of whose perspective? When people opt out of successful careers, they often give up their high salaries, which, in turn, may have a direct effect on their pensions later on in life. This is something they seldom think of at the time. It might also entail an increased dependence on a spouse, which makes a person more vulnerable should something happen (for more about that, I can recommend The Feminine Mistakeby Leslie Bennetts). And then there is of course the societal perspective. If women, for example, opt out of power positions in society by choosing not to have careers, how will that effect gendered structures and gender equality?

No, even though opting out and in can be a wonderful and emancipating experience in many ways – I should know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past decade – it’s not a solution for everyone, nor should it be. And to have an increasing number of people opt out is, in the long run, certainly not a sustainable solution out of a societal perspective.

So the answer isn’t to abandon all traditional ways of organizing. The answer is to change organizations from the inside. We need to help organizations create sites for good work, where people can have a sense of control and wellbeing so that they won’t feel a need to opt out or choose precarious work in order to feel authentic and find meaning. That will of course mean different things to different people, but what it would mean for organizations is that instead of just talking about it, they would have to really embrace diversity in the real meaning of the word.

That is what we need to do to create sustainable solutions for work, solutions that are sustainable not only for the employee, but for the employer and for the economy as well.

My time

Time is an interesting concept. As time passes, we think of the minutes and hours that make up the day as progressing in a linear fashion at regular intervals. We often think these minutes and hours, days, weeks and years are definitive of time, but they aren’t. They don’t define time; they measure it. They are neat units created to measure the passage of time; a tool invented to help us think about where we have been, what we are doing, and where we are going. But they are a man-made construct and just one way to view time.

There is actually a lot of interesting research on time. For example in her book, No Time: Stress and the Crisis of Modern Life, Heather Menzies talks about differences between clock time and calendar time on the one hand and reflective multiple time on the other where experiences, expectations, and stress come together and create situations that, for women especially, can be overwhelming. Julia Kristeva has introduced a concept she calls women’s time, which she sees as cyclical rather than linear and chronological. Others have argued that the linear notion of time with a distinct orientation towards the future is, in fact, a capitalist notion, where time and space are reduced to units that can be divided and measured. And we do like to measure things.

But theory aside, I think anyone can see how the passage of time can be cyclical. Life seldom moves forward in a timely fashion but happens more in waves and things come back and haunt us as history repeats itself. Time will sometimes move so slowly if feels as if it is standing still, and sometimes it will gallop forward in giant leaps depending on who you are, where you are, and what you are doing. And the most mindboggling notion of all is when the pace of time can simultaneously be so vastly different for different people. Time that snails its way forward for one person might at the same time be fast and fleeting for another.

Personally, I have thought a lot about time lately. The reason is that many people have recently told me how great it is that I seem to have so much time to do what I love. They’re referring to my painting, which has recently evolved from being a private hobby to a more public endeavor thanks to my Instagram account. I love to paint and it brings me such joy and inspiration, and works as a wonderful counterbalance to other things that fill my life. If I could, I would probably paint much more than I do now, but I don’t because I have a job that I want to keep and family and friends who I don’t want to neglect. So I confine my painting to my free time.

The thing about these comments regarding me being lucky to have so much time to paint is that they are often followed by a wistful remark about how they wish they also had extra time to do something they love. However the truth is, although I have a lot of freedom as a researcher in how I plan my time, I really don’t think I necessarily have that much more time than anyone else. As I said, I have my job, my family and my friends; and I have obligations that compete for my time and attention. But I really want to paint so I do it anyway every chance I get, which is often on a Saturday or Sunday morning, still in my pajamas. I take moments whenever I can.

You see, when you really want to do something, when you feel like you have to, suddenly you find the time because you make time. Your priorities might change and what you didn’t have time for before creates time for itself and becomes a space where time stands still. Sometimes this space in time is five minutes, sometimes an hour, I never really know. But it is my time and when I come back to the bustle of family, work, and household chores, it’s like I’ve been away on a mental vacation. And coming back is good, especially knowing that in the evening or the next morning I’ll be back in my time and space again, vacationing up to my elbows in paint.