Controlling the uncontrollable and the art of letting go

A feeling of not having control is difficult to deal with. In my research I have found that when people cannot control things they try to compensate for it and create a feeling of control by controlling other, smaller issues. For example, when people feel they have no control over their lives or their time, they tend to be control freaks (pardon the expression) regarding things like organized cupboards, clean homes and excel spreadsheets where they keep track of family members’ whereabouts every moment of the day. I have seen this in my research, and I have also seen how people let go of the small things when they gain a sense of control. People have laughingly told me that after having opted out they became so disorganized because they just didn’t feel the need to control the minutiae anymore.

I have experienced this too.

However, an interesting thing I realized when I started analyzing my passion for silk painting (yes, I know, I am capable of overanalyzing just about anything) was how, when I go between a feeling of control and feeling of not having control, I can actually see it in my painting.

One thing that I really love about silk painting is the way the paints interact with the fabric. It’s almost magical. The paints tend to spread like crazy along the threads of the fabric, and there are different ways of trying to control that, if that is what you want to do. Because there is something so satisfying about letting the colors spread and merge and in a way dance together on the silk and just see it happening before your eyes. You can drop water or alcohol on the colors or use salts to create different effects and the exciting thing is that you never really know what you will end up with. After the paint has dried, you see what you have and then you take it from there.

Sort of like in life. You never really know what you will end up with, but you invariably end up with something and then you have to accept that in order to be able to take it from there. It’s called working with what you have.

Well, during this past year, I’ve been fascinated by the idea of controlling the uncontrollable. I like painting without using gutta, a paste-like material that creates borders over which the colors won’t spread. I like it when the colors spread and I like being able to control this without the help of techniques like gutta.

This past year I have noticed a change in my style of painting. I’ve moved away from big sweeping brush strokes and abstract color schemes to create exact lines through colorful florals or black silhouettes. Only when I have been mad or frustrated have I deviated from this (that’s when I’ve taken my frustration out on the silk, and it works like a charm). But on the most part my painting has been very controlled.

Thinking back, this has coincided with a year of searching and wondering what I should do with my life, where I want to go next. I have been feeling unsure and I have lacked a sense of control, and it suddenly became so clear to me that I, in part, have been compensating for that in my art.

Now, however, I have a plan. I’ve figured things out and once again feel like I am on the track towards my future. I have gained a sense of control and, correspondingly, I see the result of this in my painting. This summer, when the pieces started falling into place, I started yearning for less control in my painting, for larger brushstrokes and more improvisation.

But ironically, even when I try to control my painting, it’s still just an illusion. You can never really have full control, just an illusion of control. With silk paints, as in life, you never really know what will happen and where you will end up. But you have to accept what comes at you because only then can you move on to the next thing, in an informed and sustainable way. It’s just easier to let go when you feel safe.

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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.

Opting out or a strategic career move?

‘Opting out’ as a term is actually quite misleading. It started out as a debate about women who leave their successful careers, but has since come to represent so much more. I joined the debate in 2009 because I felt it was missing important contemporary aspects and since then, research has shown that it is not only about women and most of the time it isn’t about leaving working life altogether either. Still this is the term we use to debate this phenomenon, and every now and then someone points out to me what an inadequate term it really is. And they are right because it kind of sounds like dropping out instead of making a lifestyle or career change, which is what people who opt out of their successful careers usually do. People with careers rarely leave them to do nothing. Most of the people who opt out rather choose to leave a certain expected career path or way of working in order to organize their lives on different and more sustainable terms.

So yes, I do agree that as a term opting out is a bit inadequate, which is why I rather talk about ‘opting in’. I mean we know a lot about why it is people leave, but not so much about what they choose to do instead, which is very valuable information – both for people who are looking for a change, but also for employees who want to know what it is people look for in their professional lives.

By now I’ve been researching opting out and in and alterative solutions for work for years. Although I am an expert on opting out and in, I’m not an opting out coach and I always feel a bit at a loss when people approach me and ask how exactly they should go about opting out and in. And a lot of people do.

The thing is, opting out and in can be hard since imagining an alternative is difficult. It can feel like stepping out into the unknown, which it often is. Therefore the narratives I collect of people who opt out and in often contain stories of crises that have pushed them to make a change and to overcome the uncertainty of the unknown. And you can’t very well tell people to have a crisis and everything will sort itself out, because sometimes it doesn’t. Obviously there must be a better way; I just haven’t really had any tools to offer.

But then I started reading a book written by a person I have gotten to know through my blog. Monika Janfelt used to be an academic but opted out of academia to become a career coach and an expert on talent and career development. We have sort of made similar journeys but in opposite directions, and whenever we meet we always have a lot to talk about. And when we do I’m always struck by how much we have in common. We deal with similar issues in our work, just out of different perspectives.

Her book Karriere – kunsten at flytte sig (loosely translated: Career – the art of moving) was a revelation for me. I like her writing style. She bases her writing on research, she has a very pragmatic and systematic approach, and she is obviously very knowledgeable. But the revelation I had was that although ‘opting out’ as a term may be somewhat catchy and attractive to someone who is just sick of his or her current job situation and desperately wants to move on, what we’re really talking about is a career transition.

According to Monika, career transitions (of which opting out can be seen as one type) are something that we are going to have to get better at going into the future, since they are going to become an increasingly important part of our professional lives. But instead of creating a greater sense of insecurity, she argues that by building our career transition competencies (knowing ourselves and being able to drive our career changes) we can actually gain more control and influence over our lives (which is exactly what people who opt out and in are looking for).

And the good news is, unlike me, Monika has the tools to facilitate this change. Instead of jumping out into the unknown, if you want to know how to go about opting out and in, you should be in touch with her. Click here for more information.

Her book is in Danish, but I sincerely hope she will publish an English translation soon, because this book is definitely worth a read. In the meantime you can contact her directly. In addition to Danish she also coaches in English and in Swedish. For those of you who want to make a change but are at a loss as to how, this might be a solution for you!

100 reasons

My opting out and in journey has been going on for years now. I usually say it began in 2009 when I left my job in consulting to work on my PhD, but really it started way before that. It had been going on in my head, more or less consciously, for years, as I would ponder whether or not this was it or if there was some other lifestyle out there for me.

And I have to say, despite the ups and downs of academic life, I don’t regret my decision at all. I love doing research – more that I realized I would when I jumped – and although there is a lot of uncertainty regarding the future, I’m thoroughly enjoying where I am right now and have faith that when the time comes (read: when my funding ends) one step will lead to the next and new opportunities will appear.

This blog has been an important part of my journey. As I’ve negotiated my terms with myself and others, and thought about what compromises I am and am not willing to make; the opting out blog has been a space where I have been able to do things my way. I have been the one who has decided what to write, when to write it, and how to go about it.

To me the blog is about opting out on several levels. I write about my research around opting out and anything related to that, and I write about my own opting out experiences. But part of doing it on my own terms is that I don’t only limit my posts to opting out. I opt to also write about other things, things that I think are important or things that I have been thinking about, and I do so in whatever way I please. Having this ability to be the one to decide all this has been both liberating and empowering. It has been my breathing space and the one place that has been all mine to do with as I please.

About a year ago, I was asked to think about my blog, about what and how I write and who I write for – my audience. These questions were a part of a larger process and were definitely relevant. The thing is though, that as I was asked to analyze my blog, I started to find it more and more difficult to write my posts. From having had a situation where texts just flowed from my head through my fingers onto the screen whenever ideas came to me, writing suddenly became a chore and just one more thing on my to-do list. I continued writing anyway because I wanted to keep updating my blog regularly, if not for myself then for my readers, but it sort of stopped being fun.

Well, I’ve been thinking about this and I’ve come to the conclusion that not everything has to or even should be analyzed and quantified. I could probably be more strategic in my writing, but what good would that do me if takes all the fun out of it and kills my creativity? So my conclusion is that this particular blog needs to be left alone, as it plays an important role for me just the way it is. Besides, I do believe that if I write what I feel like writing and it makes me happy, my posts will inevitably be better and more interesting to read.

So I’m going to keep writing what I want to write, when I want to, and for as long as it brings me joy. Besides, this is my 100th blog post. That if anything is 100 reasons to continue.

People who just don’t listen

I had the most frustrating experience a while back. I was giving a talk on my opting out research for the employees of a company. The talk as such wasn’t frustrating; I had a great time. It went well and my audience engaged in a fantastic discussion with me. I love it when that happens. The best talks are the ones where the audience has so much to say that I have trouble getting through my material because I keep getting interrupted with questions and comments. It sort of becomes more of a dialogue than a monologue and that is just more meaningful to everyone I think.

So it wasn’t the actual talk or the audience. On the contrary, they were really engaged in questions around opting out, like wellbeing at work and sustainable working models. It also became clear during our discussions that, in addition to them having lots to say about it, there was also a lot of frustration regarding their situation and the policies in their company.

Their HR director was there and many of the comments were obviously directed at him in the hope of starting an internal discussion about perhaps making some changes regarding real flexibility (not just the usual flextime that doesn’t really provide us with a lot of flexibility at all, read more about that here) and the possibility of working offsite more.

Well, after I finished my talk I felt really good. I felt like I had really made a difference in these people’s lives if I, by being there and talking about my research, had helped them by kick-starting a discussion to change things for the better. This feeling stayed with me for about five minutes until the HR director came up to me to thank me for a very good and informative talk. So far so good, but then he goes on to say that the clock cards that they have (that had been criticized quite a bit during the discussion) are really great. That people actually really like and want them. What? Were we just in the same room listening to the same comments?? Then he goes on to say that allowing people to work offsite is just too hard because how would you know that people are actually working if you can’t see them…

By now I wasn’t feeling quite as hopeful anymore. I had just spent a lot of time talking about and citing research on the benefits of real flexibility and the possibility of working offsite. I mean just because people are in the office and you can see them is no guarantee that they are actually working. The thing is though, if you do allow people the freedom to have more control over when, where, and how they work you need to develop new management routines. In this company, they use the clock card to do the managers’ work. I hope I don’t have to explain what is wrong with using a clock card time system to manage your people instead of doing it yourself. And yes, he was right in that if people don’t come into the office to stamp their card, the system won’t be able to know if they are working or not. The manager would actually have to step in and manage.

But it saddened me. I felt sad for the employees who, after that great and open discussion, hadn’t been heard. And I felt disappointed that the HR director who should know better just wasn’t listening. He was just hearing what he wanted to hear and the rest just didn’t register.

So next time someone is talking to you, take a moment to consider this: are you really listening to what they are saying or are you just hearing what you want to hear and confirming what you already know?