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.

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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?

Tolerance doesn’t do the trick

Times have changed, thank goodness. Sometimes we take a few steps forward, sometimes a few steps back, but all in all our world is becoming increasingly tolerant. In Finland same sex couples now finally have the legislated right to get married. A bit late in the game I have to say considering how progressive my country has been compared to others when it comes to issues like gender equality, to name one. Although also in that area we sometimes take steps forward and sometimes backward. But the general direction is still, thankfully, forward. In the US, however, we see threats of backsteps on many fronts, and although this is really worrying, not to mention scary, and something many of us are painfully aware of, that is not what I am going to write about today.

I’ve been reading a book about choice, namely The Art of Choosing by Sheena Iyengar. Choice is an interesting thing. It is one of the concepts that defines the very fabric of being in our individualist society. How much choice we really have or whether we just think we have complete freedom of choice is constantly up for debate, but the rhetoric and idea of choice is, either way, central in contemporary society.

Choice gives us a sense of agency, a sense that we have control over our lives and how we live our lives, which according to Ivengar is important for our sense of wellbeing. Although it’s worth mentioning that research has also shown that too many choices can have the opposite effect. It can just be overwhelming and create anxiety over whether or not you’re making the right choice. But still, on a whole, the idea of free choice is something that appeals to most of us.

So how ironic isn’t it then, that so many people are still reluctant to let other people exercise this concept that many consider a fundamental right? I’m thinking about people in the HBTQ community for example. The message they often get is you can choose what you want as long as you make the same choice as everyone else. I hate to break this to you, but that’s not freedom of choice.

But as interesting as this book on choice is to me, there is one thing that Iyengar writes about tolerance that in all it’s simplicity was so profound to me that I had to underline it:

“While tolerance is certainly better than judging every other culture from the fixed point of one’s own, tolerance has severe limitations. Rather than promoting conversation and encouraging critical self-reflection, it often leads to disengagement: “You think your way, I’ll think mine, and we don’t have to interfere with one another.” … We cannot tolerate one another by shutting the doors because our spaces, real or virtual, intersect as never before.”

And isn’t that just the truth. All this talk about tolerance is good to a point, but it’s not enough. Tolerance is ‘you do what you want and I won’t bother you as long as I don’t have to be a part of it.’ Do you see the problem? It’s not going to make people get to know others who are different from them. It’s not going to help integrate people in the community. It’s not going to make sure everyone has the same fundamental rights. In short, it’s not going to help people understand, just tolerate.

Tolerance just won’t do.

 

 

Flexibility is the future, so what are we waiting for?

I read an article in the New York Times the other day, about how job flexibility is the answer to closing the gender gap. This was great for two reasons. The first reason is of course the fact that articles like this prove that there at least seems to be some interest in closing the gender gap. The other reason is that it makes me very pleased that people more and more seem to talk about – and argue for – increased flexibility in the work place. Flexibility makes it possible for people to have a life not just a job, and it provides them with a sense of coherence and control, which is essential for their sense of well-being. And this is exactly what the article argued: how people want and need to have more control over their time.

The problem, however, is that this need for flexibility is seen mostly as a women’s issue, and this article was also mostly about women. The argument was that if women had more flexibility they could better combine work with children, which, in turn, would mean that they could compete for the top jobs they previously may only have dreamed of.

But here’s the catch. If it is only women who are considered to need flexibility and if only they are provided with this possibility, they will continue to be seen as deviants, people who for whatever reason don’t live up to corporate expectations. As a result, most of them will most probably not be able to compete for those top jobs after all. Because let’s face it, there are still a lot of companies who do not offer flexible solutions, not to women and especially not to men. A real man will just do the job, right?

No, that’s not right, but that’s the norm. However, the article did also mention that 48% of fathers rate flexible work schedules as extremely important. That’s right, that’s almost half. Despite popular belief there are many fathers who want to be able to be with their children more, and many of them have wives or partners who expect no less. So you see the problem here. Many men value flexibility, but as long as we only speak of it as something women need, it will not be offered to men, at least not readily. And as long as we continue to create solutions only for women so that they can combine a career with children, we continue to set them apart from men – they will continue to be seen as an exception – and men will continue to work the long hours that do not really make it very easy for them to be more present in their children’s lives. And as long as we do that, the gender gap will certainly not be closed.

But we’re in the 21st century. We need to break out of a mold that was created decades ago in a time long past. Creating more possibilities for flexibility, for combining work with other areas of life (because you know what they say about all work and no play), and making it possible for people to create their own individual solutions for how they can do that, is something we need to make available to everyone – men and women. If we do that, we create the possibility for men to be more involved in their children’s lives without the risk of seeming unmanly or not serious about their jobs. Like Anne-Marie Slaughter says, it is only if men also start doing more non-paid care work, will we stop devaluing it so much, and only then will the amount of men and women doing different kinds of work in the public and private spheres be more balanced.

A few months ago I participated in a seminar where a representative of DNA, a Finnish telecommunications company, presented their new HR solutions. They had turned conventional rules regarding time and place of work upside down. They had given their employees complete freedom in deciding where they wanted to work. They did not have to come in to the office at all if they didn’t want to.

This is quite unusual because many people I’ve talked to in the business world say that this is something you just cannot do. You can’t give employees complete freedom when it comes to where they work, because then no one would ever come in to the office. But this is not what happened in the case of DNA. You see, most people, despite not being forced to, really do want to come in to the office to work several days a week. Some might appreciate keeping work separate from their private life, some want to come in to meet colleagues, and then there are things like meetings that tend to gather people anyway. It is just that most people really appreciate the ability to choose, to have the option to spend some of their time working offsite, wherever that may be, when they want or need to.

This new arrangement naturally meant that the managers of DNA also needed to develop new management routines. After all, if all your employees aren’t physically in front of you at all times, you need to adjust to that. And they had the technology, but more importantly they had the will.

Another argument I often hear from companies is that if you have people working offsite, how do you know that they are actually working? Well, to be honest, how do you know that they are working when they are in the office? Just because they are there physically does not mean that they are working. Besides, I once heard someone say, if you can’t trust them, why did you hire them in the first place?

The ironic thing is that what seems to be a giant leap of faith for organizations, doesn’t necessarily mean that dramatic a change in practice, as most people will continue to come in to work regularly anyway. Although it will mean some new routines, the main difference is that this freedom provides employees with a sense of control, and a possibility of combining their work with the other areas of life that people invariable have, whether their employers like it or not.

Research has shown this is what a lot of people want, and that it is especially true for Millennials. Flexibility and individual solutions are the future, people. So come on, what are we waiting for?

The illusion of control

One of the things that comes up again and again in my research is control. Before opting out there is a feeling of having little or no control over one’s life and career. People talk about how they are drawn between work and family, they never seem to be in any one place enough – never at work enough, never at home enough – and the hectic pace simply becomes hard to keep up with. There’s a feeling of being stuck – in a job or a lifestyle – with no idea of how to break free. Because the fact of the matter is, although you want to break free, seeing or imagining what you could do instead can be hard.

And then something happens and you do finally take the step. You opt out, you leave that lifestyle that that you haven’t been able to break free from, and you feel like you’ve managed to take control over your life. You have a sense that you can finally be you.

It’s no coincidence that so much seems to revolve around the idea of control. It’s so deeply embedded in contemporary culture, in how we talk and think. We want to control everything, and we develop technology to do so; to control nature, our bodies and our health (although ironically a consequence of this is a loss of control – just consider global warming for example), and this goes hand in hand with the concept of choice. The rhetoric of choice has become one of the corners stones on which Western culture stands. By being able to choose, we believe that we can control not only our lives but also our destinies.

It reminds me of a former colleague of mine who liked to talk about the ‘illusion of control’. Before meeting clients or kicking off a development project, he would check with the team, “So do we have the illusion of control?” he would ask, and if we did we were good to go. Because you can never really have control, you can only have a feeling or an illusion, and that’s how ready you will ever be. And that’s good enough when opting out and in as well.

In fact, that has been one of my main findings. After opting out and in, people recognize that they really can’t control their lives and their surroundings, no matter how hard they try. Before opting out many of those I interviewed reported being control freaks and pathologically organized. After opting out and gaining a sense of control, they felt less need of actual control. Many became forgetful and some became rather disorganized, but in a way that they recognized as healthy.

One of the most powerful stories of letting go came from a woman who was terrified of flying. After opting out she boarded a plane to Spain, only to be informed that there was something wrong with one of the engines, but that they were working on it and hoped to be able to take off shortly. This is scary for anyone, but for someone who is afraid of flying this is definitely not good news. But instead of having a panic attack, she surprised herself by just leaning back and thinking “Well these people are professionals, I’m sure they know what they’re doing.” The difference was dramatic.

So the concept of control is important, but it is rather the idea of control than actual control. When we feel like we have control, we don’t as acutely feel the need to control. Instead we can just let go. And letting go, it seems, adds to a sense of sanity and a sense of peace. It adds to our wellbeing. Maybe that’s what we should be doing more of – letting go.