Keep your reminders

As I write this, I’m sitting at my desk looking at a flower in a glass bottle. A flower that is the sole survivor of a wilted birthday bouquet I got about a week ago. It wasn’t the prettiest flower in the bouquet, but on my desk it looks quite stunning, and it serves as a reminder of all the relaxing days I had over my summer break.

I had a wonderful vacation. I managed quite well to stay off my work email, email in general actually. I wasted time frivolously and extravagantly, sat around drinking coffee, engaging in good conversation, and taking in the beautiful scenery without checking my watch or being stressed about all the things I should be doing. And that was probably the best part of my vacation, wasting time, or rather using it any way that I wanted.

I had time to think and, as you may know if you read my blog post from a few weeks ago, I imagined exciting futures and new beginnings. Now, however, I’m back at my desk, working on on-going projects and faced with a long to-do list, as always. As I’m getting sucked in to the drudge of everyday life, I easily forget my thoughts and plans for the future. Still just abstract and fleeting, they so easily get pushed into the background and forgotten, and if I’m not careful I’ll forget I had the thoughts in the first place.

So I keep reminders. One is the flower. Another is one of my silk paintings that I’ve decided to keep for myself. When I painted it, I experimented with a style and technique I came up with myself and created something unlike I had ever painted before. The concept became an instant hit and it reminds me of how anything can happen and that everything is possible. It hangs on the wall in my living room and I can see it from several points in my house, and every time I see it, I remember.

Because I tend to forget. I tend to get caught up and sucked in. I get so busy that I forget my plans on opting on. And if I do, I won’t. Opt on that is.

So the painting literally jogs my memory every time I see it and inspires me to keep going and work on making my dreams and plans reality. Because the truth is, they won’t happen by themselves. I need to make them happen.

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“Keep going, keep going, keep going”

I have learned something important during the past year. I’ve learned that when an opportunity presents itself, you should just jump on board, even if it seems crazy. Because if it seems like a fun thing you might like, it probably isn’t crazy at all, it’s just that your self-doubt is telling you that it isn’t something you ‘do’. And that is one of the things I have learned. That just because you don’t usually do something it doesn’t mean it isn’t your thing. It just means you haven’t discovered that it could be your thing because you haven’t been ‘crazy’ enough to try.

I’ve been there. I’ve had Doubt sitting on my shoulder whispering loudly into my ear. I haven’t tried things I might like because how could I <insert here something you’ve always dreamed of doing> since I’m not formally trained, I’m really not that talented, there is so much competition in that area, I already have a job…. or all of the above. But this year I’ve tried things. I’ve jumped on board and I’ve ignored my self-doubt, even though it’s there. And it’s true, we all doubt ourselves at times, all of us.

One was of course my silk painting. By now it has snowballed into something quite exciting simply because I allowed myself to just go with it. And honestly, I still don’t know where it will lead, but it has gone from being a private hobby to becoming something of a small side business.

Another is a project that I’m working on right now, which I am really excited about. It’s still too early to talk about, but let me just say that it’s an idea that presented itself and I decided why not give it a try. I never really thought it was something I would be able to do, but I’m finding I’m better at it than I thought and not only that, I’m really enjoying it, despite many moments of doubt. And let me tell you, there have been many.

But the only way the crazy opportunities can lead anywhere – the only way you will succeed – is if you keep going despite the doubt. Last week I read Talking as Fast as I Can by Lauren Graham (a seriously fun and feel-good read, by the way) and she talks about this. She talks about what the secret to success is, to accomplishing a lot, and this is how she sums it up:

“Ignore the doubt – it’s not your friend – and just keep going, keep going, keep going.”

This, my friends, is my new mantra.

Opting on

During the summer, I spend as much time as possible with my family on an island in the beautiful Finnish archipelago. We love to go boating, and when you’re on a boat surrounded by little else but glittering waves, you really have a lot of time to think. And as I think, it’s becoming more and more clear to me that an academic career isn’t for me. It isn’t going to help me achieve what I have set out to do.

As many of you know, I’ve been on my own opting out and in journey for the past few years. I came to academia from the business world and in a way, ever since I started working on my PhD, I’ve felt a bit like a tourist. Maybe it’s all the baggage I carry with me from years in business, but I’ve never really started feeling like a native academic.

Part of it is the system. The rigid structures and organizing in no way reflect the innovative, cutting edge research and thinking that goes on in academia, nor does it support the amazing work that researchers do. As a former management and leadership consultant, it is actually quite painful to see how unhappy and frustrated so many academics are due to appalling management and support systems and processes, as well as policies that just don’t support the nature of academic work.

But most of all I now clearly see how pursuing an academic career and everything that entails won’t enable me to do what it is that I really want to do. It won’t help me make an impact where I want to make it.

I want nothing less than to change the world. I want to help change organizational cultures and create work environments that are sustainable and where people can and do thrive. Publishing in academic journals is not going to help me do that. However, publishing on platforms that are accessible to practitioners and working directly with organizations is.

I had coffee a while ago with a person who contacted me through my blog – a fellow opt-outer (you can check out his blog here). We met up to talk about opting out and in and we had a very meaningful conversation. We talked about how opting out isn’t the same as dropping out, and that it’s cyclical. Once you’ve been through an opting out and in process, it sort of becomes a state of mind where you’re continuously evaluating and re-evaluating what you’re doing, what your terms are, and what’s important to you. He really hit the nail on it’s head when he said that as a term opting out is actually quite inadequate, that really it should be called opting on.

And that’s what I’m doing; I’m opting on. I’m not leaving academia completely, I still love doing research and I still want to be a part of the amazing work done by my academic colleagues (and I have a research project to finish). However I also want to do more hands-on work with organizations and use my research and knowledge to make a real difference in everyday lives. To do that, I need to opt on, and I feel really excited by the prospect of embarking on the next phase of my journey.

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.

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.

Be yourself

When I was at my first job out of business school and applying for my second, a very supportive senior manager who I had worked with gave me a piece of friendly advice. She said, “Try not to be so ‘nice’.”

Now, you have to understand where she was coming from. She was a woman who had probably learned the hard way to not be too nice or too feminine in order to get to where she was, and she was trying being helpful. Maybe she was wishing someone had given her the same advice when she was starting out in her career. And I did appreciate her taking an interest in me and wanting to help.

Well, my job search led to an interview. Behind the interviewer there was a huge mirror and about half way through the interview I noticed my reflection. I was scowling and for a second I didn’t even recognize myself. I was shocked by how unfriendly I looked and tried to relax my face. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job and I’m not sure if it was because I succeeded in not coming across as ‘too nice’ or if it was because I decided to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t about half way through the interview. All I know is that in that moment I decided that I couldn’t and I wouldn’t rearrange my face or my attitude according to someone else’s definition of what it takes to succeed. I decided that if I’m not hired because I seem too nice or too friendly for some organization, then it’s not the right organization for me.

But that senior manager is by no means alone in her experiences. What I have found in my research is that many people – both men and women, but especially women – feel like they can’t really be themselves in their corporate jobs. It’s one of the main issues that hits me in so many of the narratives of opting out and in that I have collected. After having created a way of working on their own terms, many report finally being able to be who they really are and not having to hide different aspects of their lives and personalities. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of authenticity, which has a great positive impact on their wellbeing.

So imagine my surprise when I was attending the Work Goes Happy event in Helsinki last week. I walked past a stand with a poster displaying necessary, strategic elements for a successful and productive career, and in one of the big circles it said, “be yourself”. I stopped in my tracks and asked the person at the stand to tell me more about that, because in my experience this is something that people don’t necessarily feel that they can do.

Well, it might be a generational issue. Are the people currently starting out in their career better at being themselves and making sure they are allowed to do so than older generations? Or maybe it’s a hierarchical issue? Is it harder to be yourself the higher up you get in corporate hierarchies? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

But one thing I do know is that being yourself is a good thing. I’m with that consultant I met at the event on this. It’s good for you, but it’s also good for your organization. We already know that diversity is a strength, but allowing for diversity also means letting people be who they are and not trying to force them into a mold. It increases their sense of authenticity and acceptance, their wellbeing, and as a result also their productivity. Letting them be themselves will simply make them happier at work.

So, let’s do it. Let’s all be ourselves. Besides, it’ll make your organization a much more interesting place to be.