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.

Impossible! Or is it?

It never ceases to amaze me how hard it is to question what we take for granted. I notice this in my everyday life when I feel stuck. When I’ve organized my life or my routines in a certain way, I become so used to them that imagining a different way to go about things is surprisingly hard.

Let me give you an example. About a year ago I started painting more again, after years of really not painting very much. A friend wanted to buy a few paintings, which really inspired me and before I knew it, it had snowballed into a second job. I desperately needed a place to set up a painting studio, and I wanted to do this in my home but there was just no space. Every inch of our house was pretty much taken, not to mention all the rooms with enough natural light. So it seemed like a mission impossible. I did finally set up a table in a corner of a room where I painted for the first few months. However, this space was completely inadequate. It was cramped and the light was pretty bad. Every once in a while I would carry what I was working on outside to check how the colors really looked. Not to mention how unergonomic the space was, my back was not happy!

But I was stumped. There was just no other space to set up my paints.

Well, in this situation what usually happens to me is that it takes a while but eventually I start considering the impossible. I need that one moment when I realize maybe the impossible could be possible after all.

The solution eventually came to me. I have a study at home where I write and my desk is actually a dining room table with a lot of space for piles and piles of books and papers. But my study was absolutely off limits. I mean, my research and writing! That’s my job. It’s how I make a living. There is no room in my study for anything else.

But then one day I thought, or is there?

In a moment of clarity I realized that if I turned my desk 90 degrees there would be room to extend it (it has a built-in extension) and not only would I have space to write on it but to paint too! My study could be a combined study-studio! Not only that, it has plenty of natural light.

It was like an epiphany. What had just been impossible was suddenly the solution and I set about rearranging my stuff right away. I made room in my bookshelf for the piles and now only keep what’s absolutely necessary on the table. And it’s perfect. I no longer have to carry paintings in and out of the house to see what they really look like and my back is also thanking me.

But symbolically the change meant even more. My second job got a place of its own in my study-studio and suddenly it became a very real part of what I do. It’s actually quite mind blowing and opened up even more possibilities in my mind. Who knows where this will lead? Maybe the minor rearranging of furniture will turn out to have a much greater effect than I ever imagined?

The point is, in my mind the impossible became possible. This particular story is about my painting, but it works for just about anything. Think about it: are you stuck with no imaginable way forward? If you think it is impossible you might just need to ask yourself, or is it?

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.

Providing employees with control over where, when, and how they work can have a positive effect on both productivity and culture. Here is what you need to think about.

The one thing that all people who opt out and in seem to have in common is the issue of control. Control over their lives and their time is what they lack before opting out, and control is what they look for in their new lifestyles and solutions for work. Control over where, when, and how they work.

This can mean different things to different people. Some people like to work in an office, others don’t. Some people like to work for long stretches at a time and others can’t. Some people fare better when they can work in small bursts and intertwine different areas of life in a more seamless way. I think it’s safe to say that we are gradually becoming more aware of the fact that individuals’ needs vary, but many may not know that individualized solutions could potentially increase productivity. After all, if you are allowed to work in a way that works for you, it tends to increase the quality of your output. In fact, according to the co-founders of the job-search platform Werk, flexibility should be a business imperative and not just a lifestyle perk. But most organizations still seem to be at a loss as to how to go about this.

If only I had a penny for every time I’ve heard, ‘how do you know that a person is working if they aren’t in the office’ or ‘if everybody was allowed to do as they please we would have anarchy’.

Well first off, let me set one thing straight: a person isn’t necessarily working just because he or she is in the office, and no one said anything about having people randomly do anything they want anyway. We’re still talking about work that is managed and structured and measured to make sure we meet our targets. And it’s doable, it’s just a question of changing attitudes and management routines.

Although most companies still subscribe to the importance of face time (i.e. coming into the office and showing your face), there are companies out there doing new and exciting things. The other day I stumbled across an article about a Baltimore based company that realized it couldn’t rely on geography to find the right people for the company and they ended up recruiting from all over the country, in addition to having people employed in their local office. They found this to be a really good solution; what they call the hybrid model (having people work on and off site) was apparently good for both their productivity and their organizational culture.

One reason was that the remote workers displayed high self-motivation and responsibility, which apparently rubbed off on other employees making the whole company more productive as a whole. But they also changed some management routines to make working with a hybrid model possible. The main thing they worked on was communication, and getting the right communication technology and using it in the right way. Giving employees a chance to get to know each other face-to-face also makes remote communication easier.

But there are other things to consider as well. Another article emphasizes the importance of emotionally intelligent managers (although also here what we’re talking about is communication) and boils it down to four points:

  • Don’t create two classes of employees: One way of doing this is to have everyone participate in meetings on the same terms. If a few have to be online, have everyone be online from their desks, even the ones located in the office building.
  • Lead with trust, not control: If you don’t trust the people you recruit then you have a problem. Still, many managers have a hard time trusting, but as I said before, having people in the office creates a false sense of security because physical presence doesn’t necessarily mean they’re doing their jobs or doing them well. If you have people working remotely you’re going to have to get over that hurdle, and you’re going to have to communicate with them better and more regularly. Get to know them and try empathizing with their situations; you’ll find the trust issue much easier to deal with.
  • Ask more questions and learn to listen: Again, this is about communication. If you have people working remotely you won’t automatically find things out about them and their lives by just seeing them around, you have to make an effort to get to know them. Ask questions about them and about what’s important to them. You’ll not only get to know them better, they will also feel more understood and valued, which may lead to greater motivation and commitment. This goes hand in hand with the previous point.
  • Talk about the difficult things: This is always true, but especially when you have people working remotely. You need to be able to embrace and raise uncomfortable issues and frictions; no beating around the bush here, you need to be upfront. Your employees will thank you for it because they will have a better idea of what is expected and working with you will just be easier.

And then, of course, you have to follow up on targets and results. But hand on heart, isn’t this what a good manager should be doing anyway? What we’re talking about really isn’t rocket science. It’s not that dramatic a change, we just need to get past this old-fashioned idea of having to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to do a job properly. We have the technology, now all we need is the will. After all, as they say, where there’s a will there’s a way.