Better meetings please

The other day I came home from work feeling completely inadequate. I had been at a meeting, which had been fine. The problem was that I had to leave early because while I had allocated an hour and a half for the meeting, which was plenty based on previous experiences of similar meetings, when I got there, the chairperson announced that we would reserve a total of two hours for the meeting. Argh… I didn’t know that. Had I known I would have allocated two hours, but now I had another appointment two hours later and would have to leave 30 minutes early. I mentioned this to the chair and he took it well enough, although I have to say, he didn’t look terribly pleased. I, on the other hand, having a slightly unhealthy guilt complex, felt bad that I was letting them down and I was kicking myself for not being able to foresee that the meeting would in fact be longer this time.

I was feeling pretty bummed when I got home, until it dawned on me: I couldn’t possibly have known the meeting was going to be that long and had I known, of course I would have reserved the right amount of time. And do you want to know why I didn’t know? Well, because although I was sent an email with the starting time, I was never sent an agenda nor any information about how long the meeting was going to be. And that, my friends, is just bad meeting manners.

Seriously though. I generally don’t like meetings. I remember my first job out of business school; I was working with the marketing team at a company and they had the longest meetings. They would go on and on and on and most of the time we would talk about things not on the agenda, which would have been fine except that as I was sitting there, bored to oblivion, work would pile up on my desk in my absence and I would have to work late to get everything done. It was just a total waste of time.

Later I found that bad meeting habits are really quite ubiquitous. In all my different jobs, I would go to countless meetings and much of the time I would wonder if we really all needed to be there for all of it. As a result I have developed a strong dislike for meetings over the years, but recently I’ve realized that it’s not meetings as such that I don’t like, but rather bad meeting culture.

Meetings serve an important function. They allow people to meet and discuss issues or get updated on important information. Often, however, people call meetings and invite all too many people to discuss all too many things that aren’t even relevant to everyone. Sometimes a meeting isn’t needed. Sometimes a one-on-one conversation is much more efficient. Or a ten-minute huddle in the hallway where team members can effectively update each other on what they are doing, how it is going, and what they need help with. Everyone doesn’t need to be involved in every discussion.

Also, if there is no agenda, I tend to avoid going altogether (although in the aforementioned meeting that wasn’t an option unfortunately). Meetings without agendas are more like social gatherings. Don’t get me wrong, I like social gatherings, but not at work when there is business to attend to.

In order to avoid bad meeting behavior and seriously frustrated colleagues, I’ve taken the liberty to write down a short checklist to help you create a better and more productive meeting culture where you work. It really is quite simple.

  1. What is the purpose of the meeting? Plan the agenda and participants accordingly. People who just need to be informed do not need to be involved in a lengthy discussion. If it is a matter of FYI for some people on your invitation list then maybe you need to plan a separate meeting or just use another medium to spread the information.
  2. The invitation should always include: starting and ending times, place, and an agenda. See my comment above regarding social gatherings. Also people need to know what is going to be discussed. Is the meeting even relevant for them to attend?
  3. Stick to the agenda and the schedule. Preferably have someone chair the meeting, but if no one is chairing, see to it that someone is responsible for making sure you stick to the agenda and the schedule. People need to be allowed to leave when the meeting is supposed to end. They have other things they need to do and running overtime is just disrespectful of their time. If you have more to discuss, plan a follow-up discussion with the relevant people.

That was it, not very complicated. So here’s to productive meeting behavior. Trust me, it will make all the difference.

 

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Two things you need to do to change your life

The one question I get asked most often is, how does one do it? If you want to opt out, how do you figure out what it is you want to do instead and how do you take the step?

Unfortunately there is no easy answer, no recipe or magic formula to follow. However the good news is that there are things you can do.

First of all, you have to be prepared to step out of your comfort zone. If you continue the way you have within the safe realm of what you know, things will most likely not change. The other day I stumbled across an article that really hit the nail on its head. It argued that you have to do things that make you uncomfortable to find happiness and success (and it also listed what these uncomfortable things are).

Those of you who know me, and are familiar with my writing, know that I find this constant search for happiness problematic to say the least. Happiness and success are a result of something else, of doing something meaningful and something you love. We tend to love what we are good at and become good at what we love, simply because being good at something tends to be fun and if you really like doing it you generally throw yourself into it with gusto, which tends to lead to success. And research has shown that the constant search for happiness, which seems to have become a societal obsession of sorts, actually makes people less happy and less fulfilled. So they continue searching and end up in a vicious circle.

So how to we know what we love if we haven’t found it yet? To find out, here are two things you should do:

  1. You have to put yourself out there and explore. That means talking to people. Tell people that you’re looking, ask them what they do, find out more about what kinds of things, activities, and jobs there are. It’s hard to imagine anything other than what we know. That was certainly true for me before I opted out; I couldn’t really imagine working in any other way than I always had. Without talking to people and exploring you don’t even know what you don’t know. But if you reach out to find out more, worlds you didn’t even know existed will open up and you will find new activities, lifestyles, and forms of work to try.
  2. Don’t wait until you have it all figured out. I’m a very private person and this was a mistake I used to make a lot. I used to never talk about my thoughts and dreams until I had it figured out. I guess I was worried I would seem stupid or something if things didn’t turn out the way I had planned. However, I think it’s safe to say that everyone understands that plans are only plans and that they can change. The risk of waiting to tell people, or to take steps before you have everything figured out and ready, is that you may never figure it out unless you talk to people. This is related to the previous point on putting yourself out there.

What this means is, you don’t have to leap right away. You can start small while you’re still figuring it out. You might want to try something on the side, and then if that doesn’t work or you realize you don’t like it as much as you thought you would you can stop doing that and try something else. And remember: don’t stop exploring just because you don’t find your thing right away. Contrary to popular belief, when it comes to life, there is no such thing as a quick fix. You’ll get there; you just need to give it time.

And one more thing, don’t forget what Brené Brown says: you don’t need to negotiate your right to be anywhere with anyone. You are the one who decides that.

Time well wasted

I have a weakness for signs. Not the cosmic type, I don’t believe in those. I think when people look for signs, what they’re really doing is looking for confirmation for things they have already decided or already know to be true in their hearts. They see what they want to see and attribute meaning so that they get the confirmation they need.

No, the signs I’m talking about are physical signs, words written on a slab of wood or a sheet of metal. I have two hanging on the wall over my desk in my office. One says, “Wake up. Kick ass. Repeat.” and was a gift from a dear friend. Looking at it makes me feel strong and, if not fearless, then at least less afraid. The other one was a birthday present from my family and it says, “Of course I talk to myself. Sometimes I need expert advice.” It makes me laugh, and the truth be told, I do talk to myself a lot.

Not too long ago I saw a sign in a shop that said, “Every day without laughter is a day wasted.” I was drawn to this sign because I truly believe in laughter. Laughter is so important. It’s healing, it’s therapeutic, it’s the glue that keeps families together, and it’s fun. But there was something about this sign that just didn’t feel right. I realized it was the part about days wasted.

Let me set one thing straight. No day is ever a waste of time, regardless of whether it’s filled with joy, sadness, stress, or just boredom. Every day is important, a piece of the puzzle that makes up your life and who you are. We can’t go through life always laughing. Some days I, at least, definitely don’t feel like laughing and those days are important too. A day without laughter may not be a fun day, but it doesn’t necessarily make it a bad day, and definitely not a wasted day.

This whole concept of wasting time gets to me. Ever since industrialization, productivity has become a mantra; it’s become something to strive for in everything we do. Organizations are supposed to be productive, individuals are supposed to be productive, and we streamline to the point of maximizing productivity at all times. We are led to believe that anything less is a failure to live to our maximum potential. This, however, is not a truth, it’s not a law of nature; it is just the way we are conditioned to think in society. We constantly seem to weigh everything’s worth instead of letting things be for the sake of being.

As I write this, I’m lying on the couch, nursing a cold, and thinking about how I should be using my time. I’m definitely not feeling very productive. Instead of just focusing on getting better, a part of me feels pressured to at least make an effort and answer emails – even though I’m feeling too tired to work – because aren’t we sort of expected to work anyway, even when we’re sick? Even though resting will make us better faster? Productivity is so ingrained also in my consciousness that even I, who research these things, get filled with self-doubt if I don’t feel I live up to social expectations.

Well, I’ve been relatively successful at resisting the temptation to work. I have taken a well-deserved rest, and let me tell you what happened: As I lay here on the couch doing nothing, I got bored. My mind started to wander and I started thinking about that book proposal I’m supposed to be working on but just haven’t had the peace of mind to get my head around. I started to see how I want to structure the book and jotted down a preliminary table of contents. This gave me such an energy boost that it inspired me also to write a blog post. Hooray for so-called wasted time!

P.S. And yes, I’m going to write another book! I’ll keep you posted, so stayed tuned!

Having a successful life

“The changing nature of work has made subjective success measures more important.”

This is something I jotted down in my notebook last week at the WORK2017 conference, as I was listening to a presentation on the ‘net generation’ and work in the digital age. The presenter said something along those lines and my immediate reaction was ‘YES!’

In research we differentiate between objective and subjective definitions of success. For a long time, success has been measured in things like salary, promotions, and fringe benefits (like a company car) – so called objective measures. In other words, the more you make, the more often you get promoted, the more powerful and higher up you are in the organizational hierarchy, and the more access you have to things like business class travel and other perks, the more successful you must be.

Okay, but that is a very narrow and one-sided definition of success. People who have opted out of objectively successful careers sometimes report that yes, they may have had a successful career before opting out, but not necessarily a successful life. Objective definitions of success didn’t always make them feel successful, not to mention happy or fulfilled or any of the other things that are considered important in a well-rounded life.

For them things like feeling that their work was meaningful and being excited about what they were doing, feeling healthy and rested, and having the time and the possibility to pursue other interests and spend time with the people they care about were more important. These are examples of subjective measures of success.

What this means in practical terms is that more money and power doesn’t necessarily attract potential employees anymore, or at least it isn’t enough. But don’t think that means you can offer people a meaningful job without paying them what they deserve. Getting paid is a hygiene factor and should be a given. It’s also an important form of validation and needs to be taken seriously.

But as always I feel pleased when my research results and ideas are confirmed. Employers need to recognize that there is more to life than work and objective definitions of success. But they need not worry, just because people value subjective success doesn’t mean they aren’t ambitious or don’t want to work hard. They just realize that a successful job isn’t enough; they want a successful life too!

The times they are a changing, and we can be part of that change

I’m at a conference at the moment in the beautiful city of Turku, Finland, and the topic of the conference is the future of work. You can imagine, I kind of feel like a kid in a candy store. I mean, this is what my research on opting out and in is all about: to decipher clues that might tell us something about how people want to and will work in the future.

Well, I listened to a very interesting keynote presentation yesterday. It was given by Marina Gorbis, Executive Director of the Institute for the Future. Gorbis said something that really hit home: you can shape change as it is happening, but you can’t put it back in the box thinking that things can continue as before. Because they won’t.

We’re living in an extremely interesting and exciting, if not also somewhat frightening, time in history and things are changing at a mindboggling speed all around us. The nature of work is being completely revolutionized and we need to be involved in shaping this change. According to Gorbis, jobs are being broken down into tasks and micro-contributions and organizations have access to large networks rather than just a finite number of employees to complete these tasks. To a certain degree, management is being replaced by algorithmic coordination.

Gorbis talked about machines as economic agents and how many people feel threatened by this, by machines, technology, and artificial intelligence, but that these are, in fact, not part of the problem. The real problem is that we’re competing not against machines when shaping our lives and work, but against social processes and institutions. We’re in a time of dramatic change and development, but we are stuck in our ways, which makes it difficult to influence the change in a way that will serve us – humanity – in the best possible way.

And this is true. This is what I see in my research. People want to work differently, to create alternative ways of understanding and organizing their work. However, many organizations are stuck in routines and mindsets that date back to industrialization. When these organizations are unable to change with the times and accommodate the people who work for them, and who would most likely continue to work for them under different circumstances, some people see no other alternative but to leave – to opt out.

Another thing that I have found is that the change that is needed for these people to want to stay is really not that dramatic. They aren’t asking for much, just some flexibility, freedom, and control over their lives and their time. They still want to work, and they want to do so in a meaningful way. No, the change people crave isn’t necessarily really that great, but it involves a change of mindset; a change of the social processes and institutions that Gorbis talked about.

So to tell you the truth, as I was listening to her talking about the future, the future that is already here by the way, and describing the innovative ways in which people already organize their work – for better and for worse – I realized how ridiculous the situation really is. The fact that these organizations that people have opted out of are worried about things like flexible hours or working offsite is laughable. Come on organizations, catch up already!

A touch of humanity

A dear friend of mine is just about to embark on a new exciting journey. She is going to retrain as a nurse and I am so excited for her. She is following her heart and her dream.

She is doing this after having left a career in business, and what I find so interesting is that she isn’t the first person I know who has decided to become a nurse after having opted out of a corporate career. Not too long ago I interviewed a man who had done the same. And he apparently knew of a whole bunch of people who had opted out of different careers to become nurses. I quote:

“When I started [studying to become a nurse] I was 45 years old, but surprisingly I wasn’t the oldest in the group. As a matter of fact, just in my course, there was a small group of older men like me who wanted to change careers. So I’m not really a unique case.”

He’s right; he isn’t a unique case. Come to think of it, although everyone didn’t choose nursing, most of the people I have interviewed for my research – both men and women – have left corporate careers to do something that involves caring for and helping people. Two became life coaches. A few became teachers, teaching everything from preschool to college. One started working with immigrants, giving legal advice. One became a nutritionist and works with schools to make sure kids are provided with healthy food. A few started working pro bono and many are involved in charities of different kinds. I could go on.

All of a sudden I realize that I see a pattern here. A common denominator seems to be opting in to work where they can help others. And I don’t think this is a coincidence. I do, however, think it says something about the corporate environments they chose to leave.

We focus so hard on productivity and profit, and organizations are streamlined to the point where we seem to forget that they are made up of people; people with human needs. When people finally have enough, when whatever happens that pushes them to take the step and leave a career behind, they choose a road that provides them with the coherence and meaning that they didn’t get in their previous jobs. And apparently also one that provides a touch of humanity.

Not only that, all of them, every single one of my interviewees, talk about the people in their lives. They talk about family and friends, and about having a job and a lifestyle that allows them to be there for those who are important to them.

And that’s what I’m going to do now. I’m going to take some well-deserved time off to spend with my loved ones. Because to be honest, as clichéd as it may sound, it really is the people in my life that make life worth living.

I’ll be back in August with more blog posts. See you then!

Sometimes slow is faster

I remember when I was working on my PhD. I would get so stressed over how long everything took. As I wrote chapter drafts, I couldn’t believe how incredibly slow the writing process was. Academic writing is a very particular and exact art form, not like jotting down a blog post. Well anyway, it felt excruciating at times and what I thought would take one week, took two or three, and then I would wait for feedback, after which I would have to rewrite parts… At a certain point I thought I would never finish, and never make the four-year deadline.

Well I did finally finish, but the thing I realized as I was working on my thesis was that the faster I tried to work, the slower it went. When I rushed, which I tend to do when I get stressed, I ended up having to rewrite more, not to mention rereading and having to go over my sources again more carefully. In other words, rushing really slowed my process down. So when stressed, I forced myself not to let my impatience get the better of me, and my mantra became “it has to be allowed to take the time it takes”.

I know this doesn’t sound very profound, but to me it really was. Because things do just take the time they take, whether it’s writing or learning a new skill or recovering from an illness. In this age of quick fixes and instant gratification, this can be hard to accept, but sometimes we just have to.

A while back as a group of us at work were fretting over looming deadlines and too much too do in too little time, a friend and colleague recommended a book by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber titled The Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy. This book is about academic life, but many of the points the authors make are definitely relevant to all of us.

The authors talk about what they call a “culture of speed”. In fact it is exactly this – the sheer speed of things – that many sociologists have argued is what makes contemporary life different from any time we have ever experienced before. The problem as Berg and Seeber see it, is that there is a constant pressure to increase productivity, which means that work tends to take over what should be our down time. As a result we end up having to manage also our free time in order to squeeze everything in (work, spending time with kids/friends/family, exercising, having fun…). And this, in turn, can lead to stress, a feeling of time poverty, and even mental health issues, in addition to stifling creativity, which at least for an academic trying to write is absolutely vital.

Besides, we cannot constantly create or write, we also need time to reflect so that we actually come up with something to write or create. We need quiet down time not only to recuperate, but also to actually be productive. Productivity does not necessarily come from doing more.

So let’s make sure we have enough down time this weekend so that we can be more creative and productive and whatever else it is we need to be.