The changing workscape: Flex-work options – What if we’re just not doing it right?

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Working in an environment that does not invite or encourage an ethos of working where and how one is most productive, it can be difficult to believe that there are companies with flexibility in their DNA. Leaving the flex nature of the small- to medium-size tech enterprises, it did not seem like it would be that vast a cultural chasm to cross because we’re all working in this fast-paced, tech-driven world, aren’t we?

Truth is – no, we aren’t. Tech companies live and die by the technology. A conservative, traditional company operating in selling commodities does not believe it needs to be on the fast-track to digital change (either in how it does business/sells or in how it works internally). For all the grandiose, pie-in-the-sky talk about embracing technology, change and finding new ways of working, leaving that comfortable zone where one has “always had success” doing business is still how things are plugging along. Fundamentally, there is a disparity between the talk of change and innovation and the walk of eschewing change, putting up obstacles and viewing flexibility with suspicion.

It comes down to communication, on some level – first, a company (whatever its size, business or take on flex work) needs to go beyond lip services regardless of what they want. If they want employees to innovate and work where they feel best or chained to their desks 8 to 5, they need to make that clear in an honest and clear way. And employees need to make their needs known as well. Many companies have flex-work policies on the books, but people are afraid to take advantage, fearing being perceived as “not dedicated to their work”.

But, as a Virgin/YouGov survey predicts, we may be moving close to the almost office-free world in the next 20 years. It would be better and easier to start confronting the challenges and barriers now. Starting with the aforementioned and all-important practice of communication. Can we not shake off the stigma of flexible work and be clear about what “flexible work” means and what employers and employees expect of it?

The partial answer, at least for today, is: We’re not there yet. An apt answer for flex and telework (as well as for relationships in the undefined, “budding” stage!).

As with most things, I could ask whether there is actually a right or wrong way to introduce and undertake some of the flexible work options that are out there. Are we doing it right? No, probably not yet. As stated, we’re not there yet in terms of every company jumping on board looking for options – but we are at a stage that most companies have some of their workforce that could be offered flexible options – and the benefits go both ways.

“Flexible work” could mean a host of different things. Telecommuting, near and dear to my heart, alone has tremendous potential for changing the workscape as we know it today. A couple of ZDNet articles grabbed my attention for their focus on bigger societal benefits (not emphasizing the benefits to the individual or even the economic benefits to the companies taking advantage of remote or virtual work). One article made the point: Working at home is going green. The commute is reduced/eliminated – the environmental impact of that could be huge. Right now there are well over 200 million Americans making a daily commute. The second article discussed how policy-level decisions to support telecommuting would incentivize business growth. In this era of lost jobs and economic uncertainty, it does seem like policy change (especially with regard to making taxation more transparent and easy to handle for small home-based businesses, as an example – or making clear deductions possible for those who work from home offices and forgo the commute) would go a long way toward changing the dialogue and figuring out how to get flexwork going  — the right way and for real.

Work Life – Retreading the Repetitive Inertia – “My transformers are gone”

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“Work without hope draws nectar in a sieve –
Hope without an object cannot live.”
–Samuel Taylor Coleridge

“I’m a broken television on a Neukölln street,
That dog over there just pissed on me.
My screen is cracked, my transformers are gone,
I was state-of-the-art until it all went wrong…”

-SONIC CONTROL “Broken Television on a Neukölln Street” (listen – loud!)

Corporate life without dynamism and real decisions made and implemented (that is, backed up with real action) makes one inert – the planning for planning for planning to change for a change that never really comes. A lot of processes, developing processes and storing these storied processes somewhere (where? Some barely functioning, buggy database? Some bespoke little system that the company pats itself on the back for contracting the creation of – not realizing it is not scalable, not usable, not changeable, not modular, not portable, not mobile, not user friendly, etc. etc. A system that was not only expensive but so individual to the company’s needs that it cannot be applied outside the system or the company and any upgrades have to be done by the same original developer – and what should the company have learned in these cases, given that they repeat this mistake again and again, except that the company is a cash cow being milked for all its technical naivete and lack of technical competence is worth?)

The inertia also comes from a lot of talk about change management – but what change are we actually managing? The churn of the upper execs brought in to “change” things? To talk endlessly about change and innovation that no one has a clue how to implement – talk is cheap. Innovation is a buzzword, and if it is really meant to exist throughout the organization, an organization needs (supposedly) to find ways to work differently, communicate differently, be leaner. But this is all too often just a lot of talk. The push to innovate adds an extra layer of talk, endless meetings, pressure to do something without any idea what while the true organizational structure, the way it works and the people it hires, is not leaner, is not better suited to the needs of the future, is less transparent and even the simplest of “yeses” are really “nos”. Usually no one person has the chutzpah or cojones to say yes, mean it and back it up or to just say no and stick to it. Reality is in the corporate netherworld in between where decisions are half-made in committees that then must present to another committee. All that is left to show for this endless process is months and years of wasted time and really crappy PowerPoint presentations that no one will ever look at again.

If a company, for example, is going to place all its eggs in the “future-oriented” basket – then IT probably needs to be woven into the whole organization – not just SAP and supply chain issues, for example. It actually needs to be integrated with every part of the business (at least relevant people need to know what effect business decisions will have on IT systems and needs and vice versa). That means that a company-wide change cannot be vague and “IT-oriented”, heralded loudly and visibly as a major priority and then in reality set adrift on a rickety raft, isolated from the rest of a company, guided by competent but unqualified and junior-level teams without any authority. Change cannot be something guided by an organization instructing: “Turn this raft into a luxurious cruise ship that everyone will want to board. Here’s 1,000 dollars to do it.” Creativity and ingenuity go a long way – even assigning people who do not necessarily come from the “right” background suited to these fields can be a smart asset – getting new perspectives and ways of doing things but not if these people are not provided the resources and support to really implement the change.

One colleague referred to much of this as herding cats. I also thought of the way things in the corporate world operate when I was watching the film My Week with Marilyn today, when Kenneth Branagh as Laurence Olivier yells something like, “teaching Marilyn to act is like teaching Urdu to a badger”. Corporate life seems to be a lot about forcing people into roles that are just not made for them – or roles that no one could succeed in or giving roles that are absolutely beyond the knowledge, experience and expertise of those given the roles, but no one knows or cares because those filling the roles are “yes men” and “yes women”, who buy into the game, who speak the lingo and don’t really care if things really get done.

The frustrating part, which renders the people of such a corporation inert, is that they sink a lot of time and work into efforts that are ultimately thwarted because there is no “big plan” or at least nothing that is backed by real resources. It is just like running in a hamster wheel – or worse, a rat maze from which no one is quite sure there is an exit. If a company could employ clarity and honesty from the start – that might make a difference. As one person said to me, a company could just admit that they are a hot dog stand and aim to be the best hot dog stand instead of being a hot dog stand striving to be a fine-dining establishment. The company is just playing in the wrong league, the wrong ballpark – maybe even the wrong game. Possibly the wrong decade – management with traditional ideas that were state-of-the-art in the 1970s and IT solutions that were cutting edge in 1998.

The feeling of employees beaten down by this machine, beating their heads against the wall, can only create frustration, unhappiness and eventually apathy.

Maybe it is not apathy so much at that point as it is  – why would one do something that is the antithesis of what they want to do? One can survive and thrive in some other way without the daily sense that nothing they do is going to matter.

After watching the documentary Hit So Hard, I was inspired to reread an article about Generation X heading into middle age, and it struck me that most people in my generation are somewhat apathetic (even if they are smart, hard workers). They don’t want to step up somehow because the world during their lives presented one crisis after another – and this corporate “thing” just isn’t our thing. (“‘If anything,” says Wendy Fonarow, a social anthropologist and the author of the indie-rock chronicle Empire of Dirt, “our generation is characterized by not hitting a wall of midlife crisis but having crises throughout.’” Also: “‘The problem is, with adulthoods repeatedly shipwrecked by economic disasters, Xers might have neglected to track the crossing over. Susan Gregory Thomas, author of the resonant memoir In Spite of Everything, says that many Xers ‘are always living in a state of triage, always in a survivalist mode. We’re not thinking long-term.’”)

Many people in this generation have created their own businesses – many doing innovative things that enable working without compromising. Experience shows that we can find greater satisfaction if we have a certain amount of flexibility, if we are steering the ship – sometimes completely outside the confines of the “corporate box”. We can be compliant team players and prolific, engaged contributors – but not within a box.

For me individually, I don’t want to spend my life, my time, my effort contributing to hypocritical institutions that bow down to how things have always been done. I won’t give lip service to – and give my service to – something that is just sort of like putting a patch on a sinking raft. I want to get on a robust – even if small – ship and move full steam ahead (although I don’t mind the old-fashioned way of doing things and the knowledge and experience needed to do things in another or older way).

Maybe I am not thinking in the long-term because it has never done me any good to do so. No amount of planning can insulate one from economic reality or from disposability. I will undoubtedly always choose to do what is best for me personally and professionally, which for me has been a path toward freelancing or, ideally, full-time virtual/remote work. I have become a vocal proponent, near “activist” of sorts, for this. Sure, the virtual work concoction is one part selfish, i.e. I am more productive, healthier and happier working at home. But it is also another part driven by other considerations – our globalized world is under financial and environmental pressures, for one thing.

While this makes little difference perhaps for someone who lives in the same city as they work, it has become important to me as I have observed a large part of the “global” staff commute in from different countries on a weekly basis just to attend a few meetings and have a presence in the global HQ. Yes, people are literally flying in every single week. There is a tremendous environmental cost to this – and for what? These travel and housing expenses are covered by the company – so when the entire employee base is constantly prodded to think of smarter, more efficient, less expensive ways to work – this seems like an obvious, hitting-the-nail-on-the-head no-brainer. Technology has progressed to the point that I imagined telecommuting and virtual workforces would be a much more integrated and normal thing by now but it is instead working the other way. I don’t see the value if looking in a sheer cost-benefit manner in maintaining this commuting workforce, some of whom literally show up for one afternoon to attend one meeting. If the expertise of these staff is that valuable, fine. But how on earth does this excessive travel make sense? How is this lean or well-organized?

I was state-of-the-art until it all went wrong…” (SONIC CONTROL)