Book releases, ketchup and other stuff

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Is opting out trendy?

I have a few friends with whom I always have the most interesting and inspiring conversations. I meet them every now and then for lunch, after which my mind is always bubbling with ideas for blog posts, and I was lucky enough to see one of those friends just a few days ago.

This particular friend has also opted out and in. We had a conversation about ‘opting on’ and the blog post I wrote not too long ago. I told her how interesting it has been because after sharing with the world that I myself plan to opt on again, I have gotten so many really positive reactions.

And it’s true, I have gotten comments and messages from people – both from the academic world and from the business world – who have told me how happy they are that I am opting on. Although I’ve been thrilled by these reactions, I also find them extremely interesting. Especially since most of them seem to just be happy in general rather than specifically for me.

I’ve been thinking about what that might mean. I think maybe for academics there is a frustration regarding the way many things work in academia and the fact that someone is critical of it might be intriguing to them. But what about non-academics? They don’t have a bone to pick with the academic system. Maybe it’s just the thought of someone doing their own thing on their own terms and breaking free from predetermined paths that appeals to them?

Judging from the reactions people who opt out generally get from others this is probably true. Many wistfully say that they think the person opting out is brave and that they wish they could do it too, although I speak for many when I say that bravery often doesn’t have anything to do with it when you opt out. Opting out is often just something you feel like you have to do.

So my friend and I were discussing this and suddenly she says that opting out is, after all, quite trendy. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that, but it just seems so strange to me because opting out and in is not an easy thing to do. It isn’t something people do lightly. It’s usually a result of some kind of crisis that pushes a person to make such a big change. Without the push and a feeling that continuing that way they have just isn’t an option, they are generally not able to leap into the unknown, which opting out often is.

Still, opting out is romanticized, especially in the media. We have a romantic notion of what it is like and think that people who opt out do so bravely and happily in order to opt in to their dreams, where they can be the best versions of themselves. Although that sounds wonderful, that doesn’t necessarily provide us with a realistic picture of what is really going on.

So one of the things I came to think of when lunching with my good friend, was that if that is true, that opting out has become trendy, and if it is something that people not only long to do but think that they should do in order to be happy, then that is really quite troubling. Because since opting out is hard, and really isn’t something that most people do just because it is so hard, aren’t we setting people up for disappointment by creating a trend that really isn’t very easy to adopt even if we wanted to?

This actually goes hand in hand with the notion that happiness is something that we should strive for in order to be just that – happy. The problem is that if you search for happiness it is always going to elude you. I want to be happy as much as anyone else, but happiness is the result of other things. It is a result of a meaningful life filled with meaningful relationships and activities.

If we always dream of something else, we will never be happy with what we have. So instead of making opting out trendy, maybe we should rather focus on making being happy with what we’re doing now cool? Just as it is okay to opt out if that is what you need to do, it also needs to be okay to like your job and your life just the way it is.

So on that note, I’m going to stop here. In front of me I have a cup of coffee. The cup was a birthday gift from my husband and it very appropriately says, ‘Love what you do’. Pretty good advice if you ask me.

When doing nothing actually does more harm than doing something

I went to lunch yesterday with a friend of mine and we had a really good conversation about workplaces we have experienced and how frustrating it can be when people do nothing, thinking it won’t effect the situation, the team, or the work culture.

I’m talking about how no management can be one of the worst kinds of management.

We’ve all experienced bad managers, I’m sure. Managers who don’t seem to know how to talk to people; managers who are controlling and micromanage you out of distrust; or managers who just don’t seem to have the skills needed and are struggling to get by. Some of us have also experienced managers who do nothing – who simply don’t manage. They don’t meddle, they don’t talk to their team members, they don’t inform people of things – they simply don’t seem to care.

I’m sure there are a variety of reasons for why someone would approach their management responsibility in this way. Maybe they do care, they just don’t have the foggiest how to go about it. Or maybe they are so overwhelmed that they just don’t have any energy left over to do anything other than survive. Whether or not there is a viable reason, the fact remains that these people still just seem like they don’t care.

The problem is though, that while they might think doing nothing at least won’t make the situation worse, this isn’t the case. While I appreciate someone who isn’t trying to hurt or trick people on purpose – I’ve also had my share of back-stabbers – they are wrong. Not doing anything may actually cause damage.

One is information. This is such a basic thing. People need to know what’s going on. They need to know what is expected of them. They need to know why they are doing what they are doing and where they can expect their job, their career, and the organization to develop from here. Not sharing information causes people to speculate which leads to gossip. People draw their own conclusions and false information starts to spread. People start feeling insecure and it can quickly become quite destructive. Gossip is one of the single worst things for workplace wellbeing.

But there are also other routine things that there just need to be processes for. For example, how do you welcome a new employee to your workplace? How do you make sure this person has everything he or she needs, and yes this includes information. How do you show new people, but also old employees, that they are important and that you care? Having a boss who seems to genuinely not care about what you do and how, is actually really demotivating. It kind of makes you feel invisible, and definitely not like a valued member of the team.

Managing people is hard. There are some great managers out there, and there are also unfortunately many not so great managers. This is true for both the business and the academic world.

I recently read an article about how academics are much more likely to suffer from mental health issues than employees in any other profession. There are a lot of reasons for this. One is the precarious work. Unless you have tenure, which is really hard to come by, work is very insecure in academia. People work on short contracts, never sure about how or when they are going to get funding again. For many the research is also very closely linked to who they are. They are their research, which means if everything is going well, they feel like they are doing well as a person, but if they get rejected – which really happens a lot in academia – it’s a hit to their very identity.

But then there is also bad management. I have seen a lot of bad management in the academic world. Academics aren’t necessarily interested in managing or being managed, which is probably why they became successful academics in the first place. But we also tend to forget that universities and departments are organizations with employees like any other organization. They need to be managed in a way that works. Granted, academics are probably not the easiest group to manage, but doing nothing really does more harm than good.

Don’t send me the same shoes over and over again

One thing that really bothers me about the infamous algorithms on social media is that by showing me what they think I want to see they provide me with a skewed picture of what is trending. At the moment I’m seeing a lot of articles and posts about the advantages of working from home and on how entrepreneurs tend to be happier. You’d think I’d be excited about this since I’m continuously getting support for my research and confirmation that I’m on to something. But something tells me that the real reason I’m seeing this is that this is exactly what I’ve been posting and writing about on my blog. I’m of course finding these articles very interesting, but when I look out into the world to see what is out there, I don’t want to look into a mirror and only see myself.

Besides, reality is never that simple. Working from home is something I really like to do, but it has its plusses and minuses. It’s not for everyone or for every job, nor does it have to be an either or solution. Working from home doesn’t have to mean always working from home.

Incidentally, I’ve also done some research on entrepreneurs and their sense of well-being as many of the people I have interviewed have opted out of work in large corporations to set up businesses of their own. They do this for a myriad of reasons, the main ones being an attempt to gain more control over their lives and their time; as well as to be able to do what they love, and to do so to their full potential without being held back by rigid structures, corporate culture or discrimination to name a few. So yes, in many ways they are happier, because being an entrepreneur, in their case, means more control and a feeling of being able to be themselves.

But it’s not that simple. It turns out that this is not necessarily true for all entrepreneurs. All entrepreneurs don’t always experience more autonomy and control. It is generally entrepreneurs who set up small businesses without any employees who experience this the most. So again, although trending (or not trending) articles will have us believe that this is the answer for all, it isn’t necessarily the case. Entrepreneurship has both advantages and disadvantages and it’s good to be aware of both.

I’ve actually published a chapter recently with a colleague where we discuss opting in to entrepreneurship, among other things: Creating Alternative Solutions for Work.

In the meantime I would like to ask the algorithms if they could be so kind and stop sending me more of the same. It’s like when I bought a pair of woolen slippers a while back. After my purchase, I kept seeing ads for more of the same slippers, but I had already bought a pair. Honestly, I think it would have been a smarter move to send me ads for footwear that I hadn’t just purchased.

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

Be yourself

When I was at my first job out of business school and applying for my second, a very supportive senior manager who I had worked with gave me a piece of friendly advice. She said, “Try not to be so ‘nice’.”

Now, you have to understand where she was coming from. She was a woman who had probably learned the hard way to not be too nice or too feminine in order to get to where she was, and she was trying being helpful. Maybe she was wishing someone had given her the same advice when she was starting out in her career. And I did appreciate her taking an interest in me and wanting to help.

Well, my job search led to an interview. Behind the interviewer there was a huge mirror and about half way through the interview I noticed my reflection. I was scowling and for a second I didn’t even recognize myself. I was shocked by how unfriendly I looked and tried to relax my face. A couple of weeks later I was offered the job and I’m not sure if it was because I succeeded in not coming across as ‘too nice’ or if it was because I decided to stop pretending to be someone I wasn’t about half way through the interview. All I know is that in that moment I decided that I couldn’t and I wouldn’t rearrange my face or my attitude according to someone else’s definition of what it takes to succeed. I decided that if I’m not hired because I seem too nice or too friendly for some organization, then it’s not the right organization for me.

But that senior manager is by no means alone in her experiences. What I have found in my research is that many people – both men and women, but especially women – feel like they can’t really be themselves in their corporate jobs. It’s one of the main issues that hits me in so many of the narratives of opting out and in that I have collected. After having created a way of working on their own terms, many report finally being able to be who they really are and not having to hide different aspects of their lives and personalities. This, in turn, provides them with a sense of authenticity, which has a great positive impact on their wellbeing.

So imagine my surprise when I was attending the Work Goes Happy event in Helsinki last week. I walked past a stand with a poster displaying necessary, strategic elements for a successful and productive career, and in one of the big circles it said, “be yourself”. I stopped in my tracks and asked the person at the stand to tell me more about that, because in my experience this is something that people don’t necessarily feel that they can do.

Well, it might be a generational issue. Are the people currently starting out in their career better at being themselves and making sure they are allowed to do so than older generations? Or maybe it’s a hierarchical issue? Is it harder to be yourself the higher up you get in corporate hierarchies? Maybe it’s a bit of both?

But one thing I do know is that being yourself is a good thing. I’m with that consultant I met at the event on this. It’s good for you, but it’s also good for your organization. We already know that diversity is a strength, but allowing for diversity also means letting people be who they are and not trying to force them into a mold. It increases their sense of authenticity and acceptance, their wellbeing, and as a result also their productivity. Letting them be themselves will simply make them happier at work.

So, let’s do it. Let’s all be ourselves. Besides, it’ll make your organization a much more interesting place to be.

Employee wellbeing is profitable

The other day I had the pleasure of attending a presentation held by Professor Guy Ahonen. Guy is an expert on workplace wellbeing and I had really been looking forward to his presentation since his research is so closely related to my research on opting out and in. One of the things I have found in my research is that opting out and in can have an immense positive effect on wellbeing. And what I want to do with this knowledge is help organizations create sustainable working models and cultures where individuals won’t feel the need to opt out to achieve this sense of wellbeing that so many seem to be missing today.

Well, I wasn’t disappointed. The presentation was great; Guy’s research is pretty mind-blowing.

Through his research, Guy has managed to show that not only is employee wellbeing important in order for a company to do well, but it is so important that it should be considered strategic. The thing that makes this research so amazing is that not only does he show that wellbeing has a direct effect on performance and productivity, he does so in real numbers, in actual money. In other words, he has an ability to translate his research into a language that organizations really can understand, and to show them exactly how much money they would actually save if they work on increasing employee wellbeing. And let me tell you, we’re talking about a lot of money.

The research is based on data from companies in the Nordic countries, but they can be translated to other companies as well. What Guy and his team have done is collect data from companies on costs directly related to illness in the workplace. These include things like cost of injury, sick leave, and early retirement (and opting out I might add). It turns out that during the past couple of decades the cost of mental illness has skyrocketed, which may be due to mental illness thankfully becoming less of a taboo in society, but also, no doubt, due to things like constant restructuring and job insecurity. In fact, the Kelly Global Workforce Index shows that over 50% of all workers in the world are unhappy mostly due to these very reasons.

Well, the cost of illness in society is huge. In Finland it was about half of the state budget in 2012, which is mind-boggling. All costs aren’t work related, naturally, but the effect this has on individuals’ ability to work productively is substantial.

So what Guy and his team did was study companies that strategically and specifically targeted employee illness in order not to just minimize costs but also to get to the bottom of what the problem actually was and fix it. The savings these companies made was six times the savings made by companies that didn’t treat wellbeing as a strategic issue. You’ll have to read his book and report for exact numbers, but the implications are tremendous. Companies can save huge amounts by focusing on their employees’ wellbeing.

This is all fine and dandy and all companies in their right minds should obviously jump at this opportunity right away. But there is one thing that bothers me, one nagging thing at the back of my mind.

The thing that bothers me is the very argument that companies should care about their employees’ wellbeing because it is profitable. We argue this way because companies’ raison d´être is to constantly increase productivity and profit, and by speaking to this we (hopefully) get them on board. This is also true for gender equality or diversity initiatives. By showing companies that it is good for productivity and profit (which it is) we hope they will work at becoming more gender equal and inclusive.

But what happens if it stops being profitable? What happens if companies realize that it isn’t as profitable as promised, or that they are doing well enough as it is and the cost of turning their corporate culture around just isn’t worth it?

That is not okay. Caring about wellbeing, and making sure that employees don’t suffer, is a moral and ethical issue that cannot be reduced only to questions of productivity and profit. Making sure that half the population (women that is) have the same rights and possibilities to advance in their careers, not to mention people of different cultures, races, and sexual orientations, is not something we can do only if we feel like it or if it is worth our while. It is absolutely essential and anything else is immoral, unethical, and just wrong. Regardless of whether or not it is profitable.

How can we get organizations to understand that?