For the love of working from home

I was at another conference last week – the Work2015 conference in the beautiful city of Turku – and I have to say it was a really great conference with excellent papers and presentations and some really good conversation. And yes, I may still be dazzled by the fabulous, designer Marimekko bags they handed out as conference bags, but it really was a great conference.

There was one presentation that was particularly intriguing for me as I have set out to change working culture as we know it; and as I ponder the alternative solutions for work I come across in my research, as well as what it is about these solutions that appeal to people and make them say things like “I could never imagine going back to working the way I did”. This particular paper was by a Swiss scholar who had done a quantitative study of the advantages of working from home, examining the correlation between working from home and work effort.

Previous research has argued that there are advantages to working from home, and the list is actually quite long. It includes flexibility, the ability to plan one’s work according to one’s personal rhythm, less distractions, reduced work-related stress, better work-life balance, higher job satisfaction, and more autonomy. However according to this Swiss scholar, there really hasn’t been a lot of empirical evidence, so this is what she set out to do. I’m not going to go into the details of her regression analysis (mostly because I’m a qualitative researcher and it eludes me) but the conclusion she came to was that working from home leads to greater work effort, and not only that, she also found that when you work from home more often, work effort also increases.

Now as a qualitative researcher, I have to point out that things are seldom as simple as we like to portray them, and when analyzing quantitative variables we also need to understand and critically examine what lies behind these variables and the assumptions we are making about them. In this study effort was measured as the hours a person works beyond the hours specified in his or her work contract (i.e. overtime), and we need to be careful when equating overtime with effort or commitment to an organization, which she was also arguing.

For example, those of us who have worked from home a lot know that some colleagues can be quite suspicious of people who don’t come in to the office daily. People gossip and speculate whether or not you’re really working. I’m sure we have all been conscious of things like when we email people so that they can see that we are actually at our computers like we said we would be, as well as a little (or a lot) longer than we are expected to be. Since most organizations still don’t have much of an established offsite working culture, people who work from home may put a lot of energy into managing others’ perceptions of them. In short, what drives a person to put in the extra hours may not simply be related to their commitment to the organization.

And, related to this, there is also research that shows that more hours don’t necessarily make us more productive. On the contrary, energy levels plummet if we do very long days and it has been argued that we may even get more done if we did shorter days and didn’t get so tired. So longer hours is not necessarily something we should automatically strive for.

So one needs to be a bit careful about one’s assumptions, but still this study is an indicator of something that is definitely worth thinking about. We need to question the belief that a working culture that demands working in an office environment during certain designated hours according to a certain script is the best and/or only right way of working.

As someone who truly loves working in my home office and needs to do so as much as possible for my sanity and peace of mind, I got quite excited about a study that examines the advantages of working from home. But most of all I rejoiced at the mere existence of this study because I can use it and show it to the organizations that have policies for working offsite but also admit that they generally don’t allow people to do so because how could they possibly know they were really working. After all, for whatever reason, this study did show that people who work from home tend to work more.

We need to shatter prevalent but dated ideas of what an acceptable way of working is as well as where it is appropriate to work. But we also need to get better at measuring the quality of work achievements and not just the quantity of the hours put it. By focusing on quality and not so much on quantity we don’t have to be so suspicious of and constantly monitor employees and their use of their time. We can allow and perhaps even encourage them to work wherever they feel they want and need to work, and if I’m any indicator, that might just have a huge impact on the quality of their work, their quality of life, and their wellbeing.

Opting out isn’t an end in itself

As I’ve mentioned before, I often get asked for advice on how to opt out. And when people hear me speak, many get very excited about opting out, and about how things turned out for the people in my study. They dream of opting out too, and of adopting a new lifestyle where they can be freer.

Well I’ve thought about this a lot. Some people have suggested that I take up coaching and help others figure out what they want to do, and help them opt out so that they can do it. And when they suggest this I say hmm, ok I’ll think about it, but to be completely honest I say that mostly so that we can move on and talk about something else because I’m not an opting out coach and I don’t plan to become one.

Why is that you may ask. Please don’t get me wrong; I have nothing against coaching. On the contrary, coaching can be very helpful. I even wanted to become a coach at one point, and was going to get certified (a process that I never finished) and I have done a fair share of coaching myself as a part of my job in my previous career. I actually really liked coaching and in my current job I get to supervise students, which in a way is similar, and I like that too.

But an opting out coach I don’t think I will ever be. And the reason is I don’t necessarily believe that opting out of a career is an end in itself.

Now this may surprise you since I’m doing all this work on opting out and I have opted out myself. But people often mistakenly think that if you research something you are also advocating this very thing. And yes I find opting out fascinating; I love talking about it, after all I did it myself. But as I research opting out, I look at and analyze both the good and the bad; and with opting out there is both good and bad. So no, I am not trying to encourage everyone and anyone to opt out of their career.

If opting out is good for you then by all means do it. But we also have to recognize that not everyone wants to opt out, and not everyone can for whatever reason, and that has to be okay too. Besides, I don’t think having everyone opt out of their corporate career is necessarily a constructive, not to mention proactive, solution. Although organizations would have to react and start developing more sustainable working cultures if more and more people started opting out, wouldn’t it be even better if we had organizations and corporations that made it possible for people to set up ways of working so that they don’t want to opt out in the first place? Most of the women I have interviewed say that they never originally planned to opt out, and that if they had been able to they would have loved to continue doing what they were doing. So wouldn’t it be great if we could enjoy the sense of authenticity, the coherence, and the control that my fellow opt outers have achieved and still be able to do the work we originally dreamed of?

So no, I don’t see myself coaching people on how to opt out. What I see instead is a future where I work with organizations to help them join the rest of us in the 21st century. What I mean is, I want to help them create mindsets that allow for different career models and real, sustainable, and individualized solutions for work so that they can become places of work that people don’t feel like they want or need to opt out of.

In the meantime, I’m doing my research, which I love and which I think is very important, because it’s going to give us a clue as to what it is these organizations need to do, develop, and provide in order to not to only attract but to also retain talented employees. And that, my friends, will have a long run positive impact on both the organizations as well as on everyone’s wellbeing.

It’s a state of mind

A while ago I published a blog post titled The five main myths of opting out. Looking back, I now realize it should actually have been called The six main myths of opting out; I forgot one myth! But since it’s never too late to make what’s wrong right, here it is:

Myth #6: Opting out is forever

Many people think that when you opt out and in it’s forever. That you finally find the real you and figure out what it is that you want to do with the rest of your life, which you then set out to do forever. But nothing is forever; things change. We change, our lives change, our preferences change, and our needs change. For those of us who have children, they grow and their needs change. And sometimes we just want or need to take a break, leave temporarily and get some distance, so that we can then come back and get on with it. And sometimes we just change our minds, and that has to be okay too.

What I have found is that opting out and in isn’t so much about what you do; it’s about adopting a different mindset. It’s about a certain attitude to work and life.

People who opt out think long and hard about what their terms are. They want to live and work on their own terms and not according to social expectations or corporate norms. They want to do things in a way that is good for them, and they have usually gone through some tough times to get to where they are, so what other people think of their choices doesn’t matter to them quite as much as it used to.

In research we differentiate between subjective and objective success. Objective success includes things like raises and promotions while subjective success is more about personal satisfaction. Many people who opt out give up prestige and high salaries to do things a bit differently, but even though that might not seem successful out of an objective perspective, they personally feel very successful and satisfied. For them, creating a life where they can thrive, where they can do meaningful work without feeling like they have to give up a part of themselves, and where they feel better physically and mentally, is a huge success.

After I opted out and in to work on a PhD I was doing pretty great. I was happy, I was satisfied, and I felt fulfilled. And then I was offered a job and I sort of freaked out. The reason I freaked out was that I had thought long and hard about what was important to me, and what it was in my previous lifestyle that hadn’t been working for me. I was worried that the second I started working in an organizational environment again, everything that I had worked so hard to achieve would be blown away in an instant as I once again got assimilated by what is acceptable working culture.

Well, I was at dinner with good friends of mine and I was discussing this with them when one of my friends said something really important. She said, “But Ingrid, you have your terms, just don’t forget what they are.” And she was right. I went into the working relationship remembering what my terms were, and some of them were worked into the deal. I took the job and I didn’t lose myself just because I was employed again. What I’m trying to say is that it may seem hard but there are different ways of working and pursuing a career, even in a corporate culture. And I’m convinced this is something we’re going to see more of in the future. We just need to be brave and remind ourselves what our terms are and what we are and aren’t willing to give up. At the same time, especially in times of economic insecurity, making demands may seem risky. But maybe you can start small; it might make all the difference!

I’m back!

I’m back from my summer vacation and I have a confession to make. I worked during my time off. Why do I feel that this is something I have to confess to? I’m not exactly sure, but I have the feeling that this is generally frowned upon.

The thing is, and now I have another confession to make, I was feeling kind of stuck before I went on vacation. I didn’t get nearly as much writing done during the spring as I had planned, and I was feeling pretty lousy about that. It was a vicious circle; feeling bad about not getting writing done was making it even harder to write. And I have to admit (this is going to be my last confession, I promise), I was also feeling quite frustrated about many aspects of the academic world, so I spent a lot of time thinking about what I really wanted to do with my life. You may think this is ironic for someone who has recently opted out and in, but I beg to differ. Opting out and in is not forever. Nothing ever is.

Well, so I went on vacation feeling less than satisfied over what I had gotten done during the past couple of months, and I brought my laptop with me to the beautiful island where we spend our summers, hoping to maybe remedy that. I had mixed feelings about this but decided to set aside some time for work anyway in order to not feel completely stressed out over everything that hadn’t gotten done.

And boy, am I happy I did. I obviously didn’t do full days, but I did on occasion lock myself in a very peaceful room with a desk and a view to work on a paper that had lately become larger than life. And get this: it was great. It was relaxing. Yes, it was relaxing to work!

I decided to work no more than one hour or so at a time. This was, after all, my summer vacation, and to be honest I can’t really produce coherent academic text for more than that in one go. There were no distractions (i.e. no internet connection) and it was amazing how productive I was in that time slot. And not only that, writing felt fun again after having felt like a chore for the past couple of months. I had almost been worried that I was just going to be a one hit wonder; that I wasn’t ever going to be able to produce anything good anymore.

But now the vicious circle is broken, amazing what a change of scenery can do. After spending an hour or so writing, I felt happy and energized for the rest of the day. I was back and it felt great. So this got me thinking: this is actually exactly how I want to work. I don’t want to have to worry about sitting a full day at my desk in my office. If I’m stuck or if I need to focus my attention on something else, I want to be able to do that without feeling like I’m playing hooky. Instead I’ll happily work when I’m not expected to but when it suits me better. Having said that, I do realize that, being a researcher, I enjoy more flexibility than most. Still, I think I’m on to something. This should not be impossible or unheard of. After all, we have the technology; it’s just the mindset we’re still missing.

What I found personally was that the sense of accomplishment I got from working the way I did this summer really made me feel good about myself. And, interestingly, as I was going over the material for a course on organizational behavior that I’ll be teaching this coming semester, I stumbled across a study that shows that happiness does not lead to productivity, contrary to popular belief. Rather, productivity leads to happiness. Well, isn’t that great; this is what I’ve been saying all along! I’ve quoted her before (see A meaningful existence) and I’ll do it again: as Catherine Sanderson says, if you want to be happy, figure out what you’re good at and find more ways to do it.