Remote working: why does it have to be either or?

When I opted out in 2009 to start working on a PhD, I also started working from home. My university department and colleagues were literally on the other side of the planet, because instead of enrolling at a university closer to home, I of course chose one that was pretty much as far away as you can get. I like to joke about that because it sounds so crazy, but actually it made a lot of sense, and in hindsight I clearly see what a wise choice it was for me in many ways. 

But the point is that I went from a job in consulting where I was expected to be at the office every day, to setting up a home office and always working there. For me personally it was wonderful. I like working at home. I like being alone, I find it easier to concentrate and I don’t get distracted by laundry or unmade beds or other non-job-related things that need fixing. Besides, my kids were quite young at the time and things tended to be so intense after school and daycare, that the quiet of my work day was pure bliss. 

However, in 2009, when I opted out, working from home, or any other place than the office, was not a widespread practice. To be honest, although some organizations have had a remote working policy and made it possible for employees at least some of the time, more organizations haven’t. Face time has been considered essential – you know, if you don’t see your employees how do you know that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing? (For those of you who haven’t realized this yet, seeing them is no guarantee. If they aren’t doing what they are expected to do the problem has little to do with them being there physically or not.)

It wasn’t until this past year when people were forced to stay at home, that many organizations that previously had been reluctant, had to try remote working in earnest. And surprise surprise, they realized that not only was it possible, for some it was better than working in the office. But many have also realized, that having people work in different physical places, puts new expectations on managers and work routines. You cannot lead people in the same way you would if you were all in the same location. This is the reason that the lockdown remote working experience of 2020 has generally been most draining and stressful for managers. They haven’t been able to just fall back on familiar routines.

But this is all fine and good. It is lightbulb moments like these that lead to changed behavior and new practices. However, one thing continues to baffle me. Just as many have previously held that their employees need to be physically present at all times for things to work, now I see debates about how always working remotely really can be a strain and difficult in many ways. I get the feeling it might be a defensive reaction of sorts to all the hype we’ve seen around remote working during the past few months? I mean, it turns a lot of the assumptions we’ve had about working life for a long time on their head. 

But who says working remotely has to mean never coming in to the office at all? Why would it have to be a question of either or? 

Even when employees are presented with the option to work remotely, some will want to continue going to the office every day. A study has shown that few people are like me, and most people prefer a combination of the two. And I think that makes perfect sense. It allows people to come in and meet colleagues, have face-to-face discussions, have in-person meetings…. But it also allows people to work from home or somewhere else when they need to and gain more control over where, when and how they work. My own research has shown that this is something people find extremely important, mainly because it increases quality of life. Simply put, it just makes life easier. 

So yes, having to work remotely all the time is not necessarily a good thing. We have seen that during the pandemic. Although many have reported that they are more productive, they have also reported that they feel tired and miss their colleagues. But that does not mean that we should forget working remotely altogether. Allowing people to have a combination – the best of both worlds – is very doable, as is allowing them to decide what they want their mix to look like. 

And yes, it involves a change of management routines.

It’s personal

One thing I often hear when interviewing people about opting out, is that they didn’t really feel like they could be themselves in their previous jobs. There were aspects of their personalities and their lives that they felt they had to keep hidden. Children, care responsibilities, health issues, personality traits… just to name a few. This is one of the reasons they generally feel so good about the work solutions they opt in to instead. Many of them choose or create workplaces where they don’t have to keep these things hidden, which is one of the reasons they finally feel like they are exactly where they are meant to be. Why they experience such a profound feeling of authenticity.

I mean, how many times have we not heard, ‘it’s not personal, it’s just business’?

That seems to be some sort of a mantra in the business world; that and the idea that that which is personal needs to be kept separate from work. Well, I beg to differ. Work – like all aspects of our lives – is highly personal.

The reason it is personal is that we are people. Businesses are made up of people and we a come to work carrying our selves and our lives with us. Granted, we are often encouraged to leave all that at the door, which I think is actually part of the problem.

It is problematic on many levels. First, whatever is going on in our lives affects us and our performance, even when are encouraged not to talk about it at work. Of course it does. If we can talk about whatever is going on, whether it is positive or negative, if we can share that with colleagues (who we, by the way, spend most of our waking hours with), then we can also support each other at work. Not surprisingly, research has shown that this has a positive impact on performance.

But not only that, if we share whatever is going on with us at work, people will also know where we are coming from when we react in certain ways, which just makes it easier to communicate, collaborate and be understood. Knowing where the other one is coming from is key.

However, there is yet another aspect. I often talk about how I time and time again hear about how organizations are reluctant to give their employees control over where and how they work, because if they can’t see them, how do they know they are working? (Yes, this is true, I hear this all the time.) The problem is trust. If people say that, they simply don’t trust their employees enough. However, the better you know someone, the easier it is to trust them. So if we really get to know an employee, we can also feel confident knowing that they are working when they say they are, even though they aren’t in our line of sight. Communicating about work issues and about how it’s going also becomes easier, which again, makes it even easier to work together and to trust each other.

We have to get to know each other better at work, and when we do, it will change working life as we know it.

We have to be allowed to be whole human beings, not just employees. We have to want to know more about each other. We have to really talk to each other without being worried about opening a can of worms. If really getting to know someone means also hearing about the hard stuff, then so be it. As compassionate human beings we will know how to react. Besides, often it doesn’t even involve reacting, just listening, and we can all do that.

Monica Worline and Jane Dutton, the authors of Awakening Compassion at Work: The Quiet Power that Elevates People and Organizations, argue that compassion, which has always been considered a “soft” value, is anything but. It’s a strategic value, which organizations need to focus on to become truly successful:

”Compassion is an irreplaceable dimension of excellence for any organization that wants to make the most of its human capabilities…  Without compassion, workplaces can become powerful amplifiers of human suffering.”

All this is on my mind as I set up my Art Place. I want the place to be personal. I want it to look nothing like conference rooms business professionals are used to spending time in. I want it to look like me, and I want people to be struck by this when they walk through my door.

Since talking about work is highly personal, I want to invite people to talk about work in a space that is just that, personal. We are people, and people are personal, and once we can see that we can create more compassionate workplaces. We can create places where people don’t have to worry about not being able to be themselves, where personal isn’t considered the opposite of professional, and where people can thrive.

So let’s do it!

Do more of what you love

I’m often asked for advice on how to opt in. I mean, I guess we can sort of figure out the opting out part on our own. In theory at least, since it’s easier said than done. But how does one opt in? How does one even figure out what to opt in to?

Well, I’m usually very reluctant to give advice about opting out and in. I study the phenomenon, but as I’ve said a number of times before, I’m not an opting out coach. When people opt out and in, they usually feel a sense of urgency, and when that happens, things generally have a way of sorting themselves out because they have to.

But as I was planning my talk for my event last week, I started thinking about my own opting out and in journey and how I as a person have grown during this time. I have learned so much on my journey, not least about myself, and I realized that I have had many valuable epiphanies that I can share.

So here goes. Lessons I have learned about finding your way and life in general:

  • You need to do things, anything, because action leads to opportunities. When it comes to finding whatever it is you are looking for, doing something is better than doing nothing.
  • You need to try things. When opportunities present themselves give them a chance. Even if it seems crazy or out of character, if it is something you think you might like, jump! This does not mean giving everything else up, it just means giving things a try. Kind of like my silk painting. I jumped, I’ve been doing it on the side, and it’s lead me to places I’ve only dreamed about.
  • You need to not listen to your inner critic. He/she is not your friend! It does not matter if you don’t have the formal training, if the competition is tough, or if there are others who are better at it than you. Try it anyway! Otherwise you’ll never know. Besides, doubt is an essential part of every creative process.
  • You need to do more of what you love. When we do things that make us happy, we tend to get good at it just because we do it a lot. And the reason we do it a lot is because we love doing it. Not only that, you also tend to love things you’re good at, so it quickly becomes a good circle, as opposed to a viscous one.
  • You need to talk about it. Tell people! Talking helps shape your thoughts and ideas. You’ll also realize what a great idea it is when you see the other person getting excited about it. You’ll realize that your crazy idea isn’t that crazy after all! And they might know of opportunities or people who can help. Or they might be able to help. This is often how opportunities appear.
  • Don’t wait for the perfect time or for whatever it is you’re doing to be perfect. If you do, it will never happen. You need to just start and you can fix and tweak as you go along. Besides, I’m a firm believer that beauty lies in the imperfections.

Famous for a week

This past week I’ve felt famous. I was interviewed for a Finnish radio station on Wednesday and when I got back from that interview I was asked by another organization for another interview. The term they used was “successful researcher” and, to be honest, it felt very flattering. The thing is, I don’t generally feel wildly successful. I just do what I do, and sometimes it goes well and sometimes it doesn’t. As an academic I get a lot of rejection that can be seriously demoralizing even though I tell myself that it comes with the territory and that I should take it as constructive criticism. Sometimes I wonder if academics are gluttons for punishment or if we just don’t know better.

Monday is the day of my book release–art exhibit. I’ve marketed the event and my book on social media, and people must obviously have noticed it. If it has made me seem very successful, I don’t know, but what I do know is that when we create narratives of what we do it tends to always seem so neat and planned and intentional.

I mean, I opted out of a career in business nine years ago. The story is that I wanted to pursue further studies in the social sciences and writing a PhD on opting out would allow me to do that. Not only that, it would provide me with the much-needed insights to understand what it is about our working culture that is making people not want to work the way that is expected of them. This would, in turn, help me make an impact in the business world, which is where I’m really from.

After that, I went on to study men, which I knew from the start would be my next step. I got the funding I wanted and now I’m doing that. With this knowledge (and with my books that I’m publishing left and right (okay, that was a slight exaggeration…)) I’m now planning on moving back towards the world of business so that I can use my research and nothing less than change the world and the way we understand what it means to be a good and successful worker as well as create real and sustainable solutions for work.

This is my story. This is the story of the successful researcher.

However, the truth is that this is only part of the story. The narratives we tell and the stories we see don’t include the pain, the insecurity, the doubt, and the fear. My story doesn’t say that when I opted out I was not at all sure I wanted to do a PhD. I was thinking about it and decided I needed to jump because I really needed a change. It doesn’t tell us about the identity crises I experienced. It doesn’t talk about how I at one point never thought I was going to complete my PhD. Or about how I was rejected for a whole year regarding my men opting out research. It just seemed impossible to get funding! Or how doing research and writing a book is a complete emotional roller coaster filled with moments of euphoria but also with at least as many moments of despair. Or the worry about what I will do next or how I will make my living. Or the pain of wearing my heart on my sleeve (which is kind of what you do when you put your soul into your writing or painting) and getting harsh criticism or even worse, being met with indifference.

None of this is part of my ‘official’ story or something that anyone else can see. They just see the milestones and successes. And there have been both milestones and successes for which I am very grateful; this book release-art exhibit is one. But that is the thing, nothing is ever as simple as it looks.

I’ve made it one of my missions in life to show people exactly that; that successful individuals have doubts and that their paths aren’t always straightforward or even planned. Like anyone else, they have ups and downs. They feel insecure and vulnerable, but they also don’t give up. They keep going after the rejection. They keep going despite the doubt. Because the fact is that doubt is part of the creative process.

So yes, I’ve had successes and I’ve had failures. I’ve had my share of both. But for this week, I’m choosing to ignore whatever bumps there have been in the road. I’m going to bask in this idea that I am a successful researcher. It will help keep me going when the next obstacle appears.

And don’t you forget to pat yourself on the back either. Celebrate your successes, however big or small. You’re so worth it!

Book releases, ketchup and other stuff

It has been so hectic lately that I haven’t had the mental space to write this overdue blog post. I have a lot going on, and as usual it never rains it pours. This is also famously known as the ketchup effect; nothing happens, nothing happens, nothing happens, and then suddenly everything happens at once.

The main thing going on at the moment is the recent publication of the paperback version of my book Opting Out and In: On Women’s Careers and New Lifestyles. I am so happy it is finally available in paperback. I have been waiting for this since the day the hardback was published. True to academic publishing routines, the hardback version is a so-called library version. In other words, an expensive book that most people aren’t willing to pay that much money for. However, the paperback is priced much more affordably and I am so excited that anyone and everyone who has expressed an interest will now be able to get a copy of their own. (It is also available in all the major online bookstores.)

However, my book is not only an academic book. It’s a book that anyone can read, and anyone should read. It’s filled with stories of real women, on real opting out and in journeys. These stories are intertwined with different societal aspects, debates, and phenomena to help us understand what opting out and in really is and how it affects us as individuals.

People have shown a lot of interest in my work ever since I set out on my own opting out and in journey, when I started doing research and collecting narratives. It makes me feel humbled, but also that what I am doing is worthwhile and important, and that – the feeling that I’m making a difference –has got to be the best feeling ever. To this day, my favorite thing is when people come up to me – friends, acquaintances, or strangers – and share with me their own opting out and in experiences. (To those who sometimes ask me: no, I will never tire of it!)

Because this paperback edition is so important to me, I decided to throw a book release to celebrate its publication. But just like everything else I do, I wanted to do it on my own terms. Instead of inviting speakers and commentators to speak during the event, I decided I want to make it my very own, and do it in a way that reflects me and my journey. I decided to make it a joint book release – art exhibit, because lately my painting has become an increasingly important part of my life and I see it becoming even more so as I continue my journey and navigate my future.

During the past year, my painting has become a second job of sorts, and although I at first felt I had to keep it separate from my research and that part of my life, I’m starting to realize that maybe there are more synergies than I first thought. The painting first felt like a good counter balance to my day job, however now I’ve realized that they also feed each other and are just different perspectives and forms of creative expression. Not only can they exist in harmony, they can also create a whole with countless possibilities that I can still only imagine.

So this book release – art exhibit is a direct reflection of me, what I do, and how I think. Symbolically it also marks another milestone on my journey, and I look forward to seeing where I will go next. Because the fact is, although we like making plans, life isn’t predetermined. You never really know what will happen.

The event will take place in Helsinki on September 24. If you are interested in attending, you can email me at theoptingoutblog@gmail.com for more information.

And if you’re interested in my art, you can follow me on Instagram: @ingrids_silk_painting

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.

“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