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.

What is the new normal anyway?

Have you noticed how everyone seems to be talking about the new normal? It’s like it’s a new catchphrase that people slip into their conversations when talking about life after corona, or rather during corona since it obviously isn’t over yet. Not even for those of us living in countries where it almost feels like life is going back to ‘normal’.

I put ‘normal’ in quotation marks because what is really normal about the life we lived before corona anyway? Is it normal that mental health is higher than ever before mostly due to workplace stress and insecurity? Is it normal to spend so much time sitting still at your desk that you have chronic neck pain and you have to schedule time to just move? Is it normal to deplete the Earth of its resources in the name of prosperity? Okay, you catch my drift.

Well, what is the new normal then? We are in a situation where we still don’t know what is going to happen and how the next few months/years are going to look. During corona, the situation has constantly changed from one day to the next. There is so much we still don’t know about the virus and we don’t know whether there will be a second wave, or splotches of outbreaks, which seems to be what the experts are talking about at the moment.

Yes, a lot has happened since the outbreak, and we have had to reinvent the way we do countless things. Things that have previously been considered impossible are suddenly a necessity. Working remotely is an example. Other examples include consumer habits; we have cooked our own food more, as opposed to eating out. The staycation has become the new vacation.

And the environment has thanked us. We have seen reports of clear waters and starlit skies in cities where there have been none. However, although many of us, me included, hope for a lasting effect regarding this, a few weeks ago I read that the air in some Chinese cities is actually worse now after the lockdown has been lifted than it was before corona.

In a study conducted by YLE in Finland, about half of those who have been working remotely during the pandemic would like to continue doing so, at least sometimes, as they feel it increased their quality of life. According to a study conducted by KPMG, 64% of office workers and managers in the US have said that their quality of life improved thanks to the disruptive impact of COVID-19 (although it has been harder on managers).

But what does this really mean? Does it mean that we will take all our new insights and improve both the world and our lives?

Unfortunately this won’t happen by itself. It is simply too easy to just slip back into old habits and routines. Besides, I think a lot of people don’t want to change, but are rather just waiting to be able to go back to doing things in the ‘old normal’ way.

But seeing what the alternative could be, which many of us have done these past few months, is what makes change possible. So, I do hope we take what we have learned with us and implement the good stuff, I really do! But we have to do it consciously.

In the meantime, I think it’s a bit early to be talking about a new normal. Unless of course the new normal is that there is no normal. Yes, maybe that’s it. I mean what is normal anyway?

Racism

When I was working on my PhD, quite a few years ago by now, I read a book that made a deep impression on me: The Impossibility of Sex by psychoanalyst Susie Orbach. This was an important book for me in many ways, maybe mainly because I got ideas for how to interweave real people’s narratives with theory and debates in a way that really engages. Another thing that made an impression was Orbach’s open and unpretentious way of sharing her personal thoughts and feelings.

The book has really been quite groundbreaking, mainly because Orbach writes so openly about her work and experiences as a psychoanalyst. This is a rare treat. Doctor-client confidentiality makes it tricky, but Orbach solves that by creating fictive characters based on real-life experiences she has had during all her years as a therapist. None of the clients in her book are, in other words, real, but they are based on real situations.

However, gaining insights into the ongoings in a psychoanalyst’s office isn’t the only thing that makes the book so special. It’s also Orbach’s openness and candidness when it comes to her thoughts, feelings, and reactions in therapy situations. It’s quite unique, really. She’s so honest, open, and thoughtful about it. It’s powerful, but also helpful and valuable, not least to other therapists or those training to become therapists.

But that’s not actually what made such a great impression on me when I read the book. It was rather what she wrote about racism. When Orbach analyzed her reactions to different clients and situations, she at one point kicked herself for being racist. She had a client of a different ethnic background and skin color than herself, and she noticed that she was extra careful not to do or say anything that that would seem racist and to treat this person just as she would treat anyone else. I was baffled by this because I just couldn’t see how that was racist. Wasn’t that what she wasn’t?

Well, years later, I now think I know what she meant. The reason it was racist was that she was so conscious of the other person being of a different race, that she invariably ended up acting and treating the person differently anyway, Maybe she concerned that her client wasn’t perhaps getting the best possible care after all; at least not the care a white person would have gotten.

I have grown up abroad and gone to school with kids from all over the world. I have had friends with all possible different shades of skin color and I have never considered myself racist. I mean, how can I be racist since I don’t care where people come from or what they look like?

But the truth is, it isn’t that simple. The reason is that we aren’t just individuals, we are also all a part of our cultures and the social and societal structures that surround us. We are given values to live by as we grow up – sometimes explicitly, sometimes implicitly. Much of what we have learned and gotten, we aren’t even aware of. And even if we are aware of it, it isn’t something that is easily changed or unlearned.

I know this now. I also know that I can’t just say that I’m not racist. The reason is that racism is such an integrated part of what I have been given in my culture, even though it hasn’t been conscious or consciously racist.

We know that racism is ubiquitous, but still no one – or few anyway – consider themselves racist. We are not aware of it, or if we are, it’s very hard to admit because most of us don’t want to be racist.

But as long as we don’t see it or admit it, we are a part of the problem. Because as long as we don’t, we are part of maintaining the existing structures instead of building new ones. This is actually not only true for racism, but all questions pertaining to different aspects of equality. It feels uncomfortable to think that you can both believe in equality and be a part of the problem.

I recently read an excellent book that explains all this very well: White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo.

DiAngelo is a sociologist. She has been a professor but now works as a diversity educator. She writes openly and disarmingly, without pointing fingers. She explains how our society is built on a racist foundation and how racism is integrated in the very structures that surround us. With us, she means us white people.

Racism of course exists elsewhere too, not just among white people, but this book is explicitly about white people’s racism and white supremacy. DiAngelo is able to explain, in a way that is easy to understand, that our actions and what we say can be unconsciously racist even though we don’t mean them to be. Most of us don’t want to be racist and consider ourselves good people, but also good people do and say unconsciously racist things just because we have grown up with racist principles and assumptions without even being aware of it.

If we realize that this isn’t about whether or not we are good people, but about societal structures that we need to learn to recognize and question, we can work with ourselves and learn to gain a greater understanding of these underlying processes without feeling wrongly accused. If we can assume that we are good people and that this isn’t about our character as individuals but about the society that surrounds us, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or insulted when the word racism comes up. Only then can we have a constructive dialogue around racism and work for a more open and equal world.

Let’s do that! Oh, and please read DiAngelo’s book!

Ode to my Maple

There are so many things I could write about today that are related to my work and research. I mean, we are certainly living in extraordinary times. People and organizations have been forced to reinvent working routines and solutions in ways they never even considered before. For me this is, of course, fascinating because organizations that have, for example, said that working offsite is impossible or impractical have had to try it and now realize that maybe it’s not such a bad thing after all. For someone like me who has seen how one size fits all really isn’t the best solution – not everything works for everyone nor for all types of work – this is of course satisfying to see. Hopefully we’ll take some of the things we’ve learned during this pandemic with us and see more individualized solutions in the future.

And then there’s my book on men opting out, I could write about that. I could let you know that I have now basically completely the first draft of the manuscript, which is absolutely mind-blowing for me. It is something I have been working on for so long and now it is finally coming together. But I don’t feel like writing about that either. I want to write about the maple tree that stands in my garden.

These weeks of social distancing have, for me, meant slowing down. In a way it feels crazy that it’s only been a few weeks, it feels more like months. A lot has happened. I’m definitely one of the lucky ones. I live in a house with a garden, close to a forest where it is safe to be. I have work that I can do from home and I have teenagers who have managed their distance schooling very well. So apart from the anxiety of following all the horrendous news from around the world and worrying about the safety and health of loved ones, this social distancing thing really hasn’t been that bad for me.

One of the wonderful things I have experienced, thanks to the lockdown, is the spring. I am at home more than I’ve ever been before and I go out into the garden to just get out of the house and get some fresh air. I don’t have anywhere else to be so I take time taking everything in and I just love it. I have witnessed all the birds and flowers and trees come alive after the winter: cranes circling in big flocks over our house; more tiny spring flower than I have ever known existed, and the buds of our maple bursting open before my eyes.

I have always loved my maple. I can see some of its branches from my bedroom window and I often just lie there in my bed looking it at it as I contemplate whatever it is I’m thinking about at that particular time. I love it all year around; all the colors in the fall, the bare branches against the sky that are sometimes covered in snow or frost in the winder, the buds and the delicate, yellow flowers that bloom in spring, and the big leafy leaves that provide shade in the summer. This spring I noticed how beautiful the big, velvety, brown buds were for the first time; it felt weird that I hadn’t really noticed them before. On one particularly warm and sunny day last week, as I was standing under the tree admiring the millions of buds, they started bursting open before my eyes.

Because there are no airplanes in the sky at the moment and hardly any cars on the road, our garden is quiet. And as I was standing there, I could hear the tiny snapping sounds of the bud bursts, click click click click all around me in the air.

It was amazing. I feel honored to have been included in this beautiful event. Thank you, Maple!

Create, create, create!

I follow Elizabeth Gilbert on Instagram. You know who I mean, the author of best-sellers like Eat, Pray, Love. Although I have to admit I have never read Eat, Pray, Love, nor did I see the movie. But I have read a book by her titled The Last American Man. I have a beat-up copy that I bought at some flea market once when I was starting out on my research project on men opting out. At the time, I devoured any books about men I could get my hands on of any genre in order to gain insights into the strange and mysterious world of masculinities (I’m kidding about the strange and mysterious… sort of 😉 ).

Anyway, The Last American Man is a biography, or maybe rather an ethnographic account of the somewhat legendary Eustace Conway’s life and existence (no I hadn’t heard of him either until I read the book). And this might not sound like the most exciting read, but it was really an excellent book. The way Gilbert approached the whole situation and her style of writing was funny, entertaining, insightful, thoughtful and just so good. It was certainly a good read, and I became curious about this best-selling author that I of course knew of but who hadn’t really piqued my interest before. When things become hugely popular and everyone is talking about them and you’re constantly told that you have to read, see, try, do something, I get a little bit put off and then I just don’t. I know, I can’t really explain it, but there you go…

So after that, I stumbled across Gilbert’s Instagram account @elizabeth_gilbert_writer and I have to say, I really enjoy her posts. Again, what a funny, generous, positive, insightful and sensitive person. The other day she was interviewed live on Instagram, which I watched part of, and something she said just resonated with me. I can’t remember it exactly word for word, so I might get this wrong, but what it in essence was, was that we all have a natural drive – a need – to just create, create, create. Not just people, but also nature, nature of course creates too. It includes everything from creating life, creating order where there is none, creating art, creating beauty, creating meaning, creating connections, creating music… It’s what we do; we create, create, create.

I don’t know if I’m able to convey this in a way that makes any sense, but it just made such perfect sense to me as I was sitting there in my kitchen on a Sunday evening, preparing myself for another week of social distancing and distance schooling (my kids) and (what feels like) a million meals and absolutely maddening amounts of dirty dishes. Ironically, or perhaps not, this feels like one of the most creative periods of my life, which kind of sounds funny since I’m not painting nearly as much as I usually do.

About three weeks ago, like for so many others, my calendar was wiped clean. Everything I had planned, events, talks, silk painting courses, my exhibition… everything was either canceled or postponed. That is generally bad news for entrepreneurs (and I know there are so many entrepreneurs out there really struggling right now), but in a way it was a blessing in disguise, because I finally had the time and space I so badly needed to actually finish writing my book. And I am making great progress – I’m planning on having my first draft of my manuscript done by the end of April (I know can you believe it?! I barely can).

That is of course very creative to say the least. And I want to point out to those of you who were thinking you were going to work on that book you always dreamed of writing during the Corona lockdown but haven’t been able to get started: this isn’t that. There is so much to deal with both practically and emotionally during this time that just managing to get what has to be done from one day to another is more than enough. It really is, so don’t beat yourself up about it. This is my day job, what I am supposed to be doing but have been struggling with due to a lack of time. It’s not a dream I’m finally making happen (although in a way it’s that too, but that’s a long story).

But that’s just my book. I think for all of us, this is a time when we really have to be creative and do things differently, and I think people are rising to the occasion in a way they probably never thought they had in them.

I’m not doing the heroic work that health care workers are doing, or my kid’s teachers who are absolutely amazing. For me it has entailed being creative in the kitchen and cooking a variety of meals like never before. It has meant walks in my nearby forest, which have become so important to me. It has meant activities with my teens. And for the past couple of days it has meant sewing a whole bunch of face masks for family members who need them.* It has meant doing things I have never done before, and it has meant doing them in a way I have never done before. All of a sudden, I’m at home and I have time on my hands because I have nowhere to be. It means that I allow things to take the time they take. I do them slowly and perhaps not surprisingly, doing things slowly makes the process both more enjoyable and more meaningful.

As I sit here, and wait this situation out, I’m not dreaming of all the things I could be doing instead. I’m just here, and I create, create, create. I create so much that I have little creativity and energy left to paint. But that’s okay. My upcoming exhibition has been postponed, so I’ll have all the time in the world to do that once my book is written.

The point is, we all create, and whether you have been defined as a creative person or not has nothing to do with it. So, in that spirit, remember: create, create, create! And while you’re doing so, stay safe and well!

 

*If you want to make a face mask of your own, you will find a free pattern here: https://www.craftpassion.com/face-mask-sewing-pattern/

 

Lost in Socklot

You’re probably wondering what that means, ‘lost in Socklot’. I’ll tell you, but I have to backtrack a little first.

There is a small town on the coast of Finland where my grandparents used to live. I spent all my childhood Christmases in this town. I also spent other holidays there but the Christmas magic is what will forever stand out in my mind, because my family was especially good at creating magic. It of course helped that there was always snow, but it also involved things like carol-singing, home-made wool socks, and imaginary elf sightings as they rushed between homes in a terrible hurry to get everything done in time for Christmas. I remember the sweet, juicy mandarins my grandmother always kept in a bowl on the coffee table. Even the dog loved them and would appear in a flash the instant you pressed your thumb into the fruit to break the peel.

My grandparents passed away many years ago, but I go back once in a while and drive past their house, although not very often. However, this fall I found myself visiting twice in the span of just a month. Not only that, I went in a professional capacity – which was a first for me – and in a strange way it felt like things kind of came full circle. You see, as a little a girl, I dreamed of working in this small town when I grew up, although my dream involved the cash register of the local grocery store. Pushing all those buttons just seemed like so much fun.

Alas, there were no cash registers involved when the opportunity to go there for work arose. I went to give two talks, and while I was there, my cousin came up with the idea of exhibiting my paintings in her daughter’s wonderful café. Said and done; we set a date for the vernissage, and that was how I ended up spending a whirlwind weekend not just hanging an exhibition and hosting a vernissage in the same day, but also driving about 1000 km (back and forth, but never-the-less) to do so.

I never planned on doing it alone, but in the last minute something came up and there I was. I set out on a Saturday morning, drove by my Art Place to pick up my paintings, and then set out North, belting duets with Billy Joel as I drove to make the time pass more quickly. Fast forward to the afternoon, and I arrive at the café somewhat stiff, with a huge craving for coffee, lugging a bunch of silk paintings. Well it was a café so the coffee thing was easily fixed… but it was a café so it was also filled with café guests nursing their own coffees, and blocking the walls onto which I wanted to hang my paintings.

Those of you who are artists know just how difficult and stressful hanging an exhibition can be. There I sat among the guests and every time someone got up to leave, I pounced before my access to that particular section of the wall got blocked again by the next set of guests. Standing on tables and chairs, I hung a couple of paintings as quickly as possible and prayed I got it right on the first try and wouldn’t have to do it all again.

Eventually the paintings were hung – not perfectly but well enough – and I rushed to my hotel to change for the vernissage. The event in itself was a success, although somewhat exhausting for an extroverted introvert like me, especially considering I was hosting it all alone away from home. Plus, exhibiting your art is soul-baringly personal, clichéd as it may sound. But guests came and it was wonderful to see everyone, it really was.

After the vernissage, a lot of flowers, and many warm congratulatory hugs, I happily made my way back to my hotel to get a good night’s sleep before my long drive back. But I didn’t really sleep, not after all that excitement, so the next day, I woke up quite tired, albeit to a sparkly white winter wonderland.

After breakfast, I got back into my car and started driving towards a small village called Socklot to visit the painting studio of an artist I had had the pleasure of meeting during one of my talks. I was really looking forward to this visit and I had a fantastic time. We hit it off and spent a couple of hours looking at his work, discussing techniques, and talking about my work… He gave me two sketches, which I treasure dearly, and I left with a full heart and a terrible itch to paint.

I got back in my car again and finally headed home. I was in the countryside and assumed I would find my way back to the main road without too much trouble. However, being a bit of a city person who navigates with the help of city blocks and sidewalks, the country roads soon led my astray and before long I realized I was lost. Well, not really lost, I mean I have a GPS on my phone so I wasn’t worried. But I realized I had driven in the wrong direction and was now even further away from the main road, and my drive home was getting longer by the minute.

Just as I had this realization, my phone rang and it was my husband. I hit the green receiver button and declared, “I’m lost in Socklot.”

It all felt a bit like a Kaurismäki movie, but ‘lost in Socklot’ also kind of said it all. It sort of summed up my life for the past few months. I was in a good place, doing amazing things. I was quite tired and a little lost, but not really because I knew the general direction I wanted to go in, plus I had a GPS to help me navigate. So I was lost but not really.

And I have been doing amazing things for the past few months. I have been setting up the Art Place of my dreams. I have met with interesting people, made new friends, experienced so many firsts. I have been doing exactly what I want to be doing, although at the same time it has been overwhelming and exhausting, not to mention scary. I have been out of my comfort zone in more ways than I can count, but I can also say that I have been living my dream. Sometimes I’ve felt a bit lost, but in a safe way because I have experience to fall back on and supportive people around me. I know the general direction I want to go in and I’ve always had a map or GPS of sorts at hand.

Sometime in October I started to realize that I can’t do it all. For my own sanity and wellbeing, I needed to focus on what was really important and what I simply had to get done. For the first time in five years, I didn’t have the energy nor the inspiration to update my blog. From being a weekly column, it became a monthly thing, although now two months have already passed since my last post. I started writing a new post at least twice before Christmas to wish you all a happy holiday season, but I just never managed to finish it.

But that is life, right? We can’t always do it all and we have to be kind to ourselves. I wanted to give you a life sign though and let you know that I’m still here and that I’m not done blogging. The Opting Out Blog has been such an important part of my own opting out and in process, and a place where I not only write about my research but can also air my thoughts on other related topics. I believe I still have a lot left to say, and I will, although at the moment it may not be weekly or even bimonthly.

But I’ll keep you posted and I’ll keep posting, and I hope you will continue reading. Your comments and reactions still inspire me more than I can explain and I wish you all the best for the new year!

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!

Following my heart, but taking my brain with me

I own 48 champagne glasses. You may wonder why. The reason is that after getting my PhD (in Australia) in 2014, I organized a seminar in Finland where I spoke about my research and served sparkling wine to toast my hard-earned degree. The department, where I worked at the time, wasn’t in the university main building and having the catering company in charge of the cafeteria bring champagne glasses over to the next building was surprisingly expensive. Way more expensive than just buying glasses from IKEA. And, having spent the past four and a half years applying for grants to cover tuition, living costs etc., the more affordable version seemed like the way to go.

So here I am, the proud owner of 48 champagne flutes. They have been put to good use. I have used them myself when organizing events, and friends and family have borrowed them on occasion. This spring alone they have been at a wedding and a high-school graduation party. And I tell people not to worry if any should break. God knows I have more than enough, and as you already know, they really weren’t very expensive.

But still, they are special to me. They are symbolic of good things to come.

After I graduated, a friend and I fantasized about what the perfect work place for us would be. I mean, I had just written a PhD on opting out, and I was spending a lot of time thinking about work places, sustainable working cultures, toxic environments, good work routines, and basically just what does and doesn’t work for me personally. My friend and I fantasized about one day having an office together where we would do everything on our own terms. We hadn’t quite figured out what our business would be, but we did know what we wanted and we didn’t want, what practices we did and didn’t appreciate. We dreamed about this fantasy place and I jokingly told her that I already had the champagne glasses for office celebrations.

And so, these 48 glasses, became symbolic of my future – my future office, my future business – a place where I would work with what I love, in a way that I love. I didn’t really know if that was ever realistically going to happen, but the glasses have been a reminder that it could. You never know, right?

Well, let me tell you something. On August 1st, I am moving the 48 glasses into my new place. Take that in for a second, I can hardly believe it myself.

You see, I have a vision. I want to be involved in changing working life as we know it, and I want to bring people into a space that doesn’t look like an office to talk about work. I think we have to be taken out of our usual environments and see alternatives to more effectively challenge our mental models, and that is what I plan to do.

I have three legs that I stand on: research, consulting and painting. I’ve been doing research for the past ten years, but I also have a background in consulting and I want to take my research back to the business world where my findings belong. And then I have my painting. My painting is my passion and it has snowballed into a second job during the past couple of years. It has expanded to the point that I simply need a bigger place to paint, and I figured I could combine my three legs in one space. Not only that, after looking for a place for some time, I have finally found my perfect space and I signed the lease just a couple of weeks ago!

I call it ‘The Art Place’ – a place to paint but also a space for reflection and dialogue. A place to talk about and practice the art of change, of leadership and of reinvention. A place to think about alternative solutions for work and different ways of understanding work in a space that doesn’t look anything like an office. It will look like me and all three parts of me. I will be my space.

When I try to describe to people what it is I’m doing, it’s hard to do in just a few words. Yesterday, on Instagram, I saw a quote that said it all:

“Follow your heart, but take your brain with you.”

That, my friends, is precisely what I’m trying to do. So please stay tuned – more soon as I start setting things up!

“At least for now” – nothing is forever and why that’s okay

One of the things people often wonder when I give talks on my opting out and in research is, what happens further down the line? What happens after a few years, maybe this new lifestyle or way of working proves to not be so wonderful after all and maybe my interviewees will opt out again?

They often say it in a way that suggests that they suspect that I may have missed something, or that I am romanticizing opting out and in and have an unrealistic image of what is really going on.

Well, I’m always glad when I get asked this, because the fact is that this is exactly the thing: the new lifestyle is not forever. It’s good for now, and the people I have interviewed are generally aware of that.

The reason is that things change. Situations change, we change, our needs change, and we invariably adapt our lives accordingly. Some people will opt on to the next thing, someone might even opt back into what they opted out from in the first place, and that’s fine because that is what they want or need to do at that particular time in their lives. The difference is that once you have embarked on an opting out and in journey, you become more attuned to your needs and keep revisiting your situation to check that things are still okay. You remind yourself of what your terms are, terms which change and evolve over time.

I was talking to a new friend of mine the other day. Although we live on different continents we share a similar story. She opted out of a corporate career to become an artist. We were talking about her new lifestyle and when I told her she seemed right in her element, she responded with “at least for now.” Don’t misunderstand, she has gone all in. She sells her creations, she is passionate about what she does and she is good at it. Still, she knows that this is “at least for now.”

Realizing that it is good for now is a strength. It is a strength to understand that things not only might but will change. That doesn’t mean we don’t value what we do now, nor does it mean that we don’t do it full heartedly. It just keeps us open to new opportunities when they present themselves, and it keeps us able to rethink our terms and our lifestyles when needed.

And it’s the same for me. I love where my life is going professionally at the moment. It’s great – at least for now.

 

How do we design technology that actually enhances our quality of life instead of making us lonelier?

I’m reading a book* about iGen at the moment. iGen is the generation of kids who have grown up with the Internet, computers, smart phones and the like. In other words, my kids’ generation. It’s fascinating reading and they are a remarkable generation in many ways. They are tolerant and sensible and instill hope for the future, at least for me personally. I like the book’s approach, the way it says their values and ways of life are not good nor bad, they just are. I like that because we spend so much time judging iGen kids and comparing their ways to the reality the rest of us had when we were the same age, even though the realities they deal with now are completely different from what ours were in many ways.

One thing that strikes me though, yet again, as I read about those who are young today, is the issue of loneliness. They are a lonely generation, and as research has shown in a number of different countries, loneliness among young people today is a huge and rising problem. And one of the problems is, of course, social media. I think no one is surprised by that.

While social media is supposed to connect people, it has especially young people meeting online rather than face-to-face. They have friends who they socialize with, but due to many reasons, they mostly socialize with them on social media platforms. And, as may also not come as a surprise, chatting on social media does not fill the same function as meeting in person. Humans need relationships, we need intimacy and closeness. We experience connections on a deeper level when we meet and have conversations with people in person, which we just don’t do in the brief chats and messages we exchange over social media. These deep connections provide meaning and a sense of community that we as humans all need.

Not only that, research has also shown that even when they are at home with family, iGeners will often rather be alone in their rooms on their phones with their doors closed, than be with the rest of the family. So even though loved ones may be there on the other side of their bedroom doors, they are still often alone.

But what strikes me is that even though social media may exacerbate loneliness among iGeners, possibly even cause it, it isn’t really social media as such that is at fault. Social media is just technology that we humans have developed. It is how we have designed and defined it, and how it has been programmed to be used that is the problem.

The same goes for AI (artificial intelligence). Many feel threatened by it, and worry what it may or may not do to our lives. But the fact is, that it is we humans who decide what it should be and what it should and should not be able to do. The threat is not social media, it is not AI, it is how we humans decide to define and develop it.

There is so much happening in society now. Life as we know it is being redefined as we speak, and we need to make sure it is done in the right way. Social media can be great. AI can change our lives for the better in uncountable ways. We just have to make sure that it is developed to do so, and not to harm us and our wellbeing.

So instead of having social media designed to isolate us and make us lonely, as it seems to be today, how about we design technology to bring us together rather that to keep us apart? How about reinventing social media so that we actually interact with each other more in person and not less? How about using technology to actually enhance our quality of life, and not isolate us and make us lonelier?

This is for all you programmers and developers out there. Please design technology to be the resource it could really be.

*iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant and Less Happy – and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (and What That Means for the Rest of Us) by Jean M. Twenge, PhD