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.

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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.

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?

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!

Open your mind, there are worlds out there just waiting to be discovered

One of the misconceptions of opting out is that it is forever. Like any career transition, the work solutions we opt in to are anchored in time and space. What feels like the right solution depends on where you are and the challenges you’re dealing with at that particular time.

Opting out and in comes with a lot of soul searching. When you go through a life change you invariably spend time thinking about what’s important to you and where you want to go in life, which is a good thing. More people should. However, this is also a continuous process, because just like your career or lifestyle solutions, it is also tied to time and space. So you have to go back and keep reminding yourself what your terms are and check that they are still valid. I think once you’ve started a habit of of self-reflection, you don’t stop. And if you’ve been through something that pushed you to make a lifestyle change, you want to make sure that you don’t end up in that same situation again.

This is true for me. I think a lot about what I want to do, where I want to go from here. What was the perfect solution for me a few years ago as I opted out and in might not be anymore, but that doesn’t worry me. I know that situations change and needs change and that is fine. As a matter of fact, change is probably the only constant we have, and in a way I find that comforting. I find comfort in the knowledge that things will inevitably evolve, not matter what the situation.

But as I reflect over my choices, and the lifestyle changes I made as I opted in to academia, there is one thing in particular that I am especially grateful for. Working on a PhD really opened my mind. And I’m not talking about the actual research now, although obviously that opened my mind too. I’m talking about the insight I got into the fact that there really are different ways of living and working, there is no one right way to make a living.

Let me explain. Before I opted out, all I knew was what I had experienced. I had always worked in an organizational setting, and I didn’t really know of any other way of making a living. I sometimes longed to but I couldn’t imagine it. That’s why opting out can be so scary, because it means taking a step into the unknown. But after I did, I started to realize just how many people there are out there who work completely differently with different routines and different ideals, and that it can be done, that I can do it too.

And I think it is thanks to this insight that I have actually realized yet another dream.

I have always loved to paint and one of my passions has been silk painting. I’ve been doing it on and off for years, and took it up more actively after I finished my PhD (all of a sudden I wasn’t finalizing a thesis every waking moment and had free time to fill). I always had this, what I thought was a frivolous and completely unrealistic, dream of being an artist but I never really thought it was something that could happen, because I just didn’t know how to. I couldn’t imagine the lifestyle. Well something magical happened a few months ago. I was asked if I was willing to sell some of my silk paintings, and I was absolutely thrilled and definitely willing. The thought of my paintings adorning someone’s wall instead of gathering dust in my study felt great. And that someone wanted to buy something I had created without the help of publishers and copyeditors etc., was simply amazing.

This inspired me to start painting more and to start an Instagram account for my silk painting (with the help of and a small push from my wonderful daughter). I’m not going to quit my day job or anything, but I guess I can sort of say that I’m an artist now too. At least I’m a ‘silk painter of Instagram’. And I honestly think I never would have done this had I not been open to different ideas of what constitutes work.

So my wish for you this holiday season is open your minds. Realize that there are worlds out there that stretch beyond your imagination, and if you just dare to venture out there they are waiting to be discovered. Just because you can’t imagine them yet, doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

Happy Holidays! I’ll be back in the New Year with new blog posts.

Oh, and if you’re curious, you’ll find my Instagram account under @ingrids_silk_painting.

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.

 

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.