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.

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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?

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.

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.