The changing workscape: Clawing your way to a “career”

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It’s never permanent – and would you want it to be? Recently I had a conversation with someone who had been a die-hard loyalist to a company, going so far as to say that he “would have died” for the company, and he was devastated when he got laid off. My response was that my own feeling about companies is that it’s a “two-way street of disposability”.

Much like the trend of offering “every man for himself” “hot desks” in workplaces (a step beyond the open landscape office we all hate so much), jobs themselves are becoming a bit like hot desks. We are doing one thing (sitting somewhere) and the next thing we know we are on an entirely different career path (or desk). No rhyme or reason behind it – but the changing organization or – some factor (who knows what?) – means that a lot of people get in line for one career and end up with something else without having had much say in it. All this just to point out that sometimes we find ourselves cobbling together or clawing our way to a career. And the bottom line – nothing is ever permanent.

In fact, at least in American workplaces, the prospect of a “career job” has never been less likely. At the core of this article, the CEO of online recruiting site, Jobvite, Dan Finnigan, explains that today’s workforce will be made up of people whose careers comprise up to 20 jobs, and will require a lot of shifting and changing jobs. In an environment of economic uncertainty in particular, “…employment—even for well-educated and -trained professionals—is never a sure thing.” The essence of the article – and of career building in general – is that we, in some ways, end up being our own architects. Sometimes driving the process, sometimes clawing our way in or up. Either way, as the article states, employed people never feel secure, and even if they are happy with their current situations, they actively search for the next job or next connection that might lead to a job.

A side note: Of course cultivating all these connections can also lead to the ultimate in cobbled-together careers: freelancing/running your own business. It can be satisfying to pick and choose what work you do and want companies and industries to work for (if you have that luxury), but not everyone wants to or can do this.

But along the same lines, the job market being what it is – with everyone on the hunt all the time – are perceptions changing about what constitutes a career and how to get there? Are our frames about “working” changing at all? A recent article I stumbled across on LinkedIn covered how most people synthesize information, which then creates certain “frames” that frame or govern the way things are or how we think they are supposed to be. The article takes the frames theme a step further by questioning the frames we commonly have for how we perceive work and the search for meaningful careers.

“We have frames that we’ve been building since we were children, and those frames dictate how life is supposed to go.

The collection of frames itself becomes our religion. We don’t question our frames. We’re very comfortable with them, because we grew up with them. We don’t even see them. It’s the examination of those frames, questioning them and pulling them apart, that makes up much of our activity and our worldview at Human Workplace.

One of the biggest job-search frames most of carry around is the frame “You’re lucky to get a job at all. Who are you to be choosy?”

Another one is the frame “The employer is always in the driver’s seat.”

This is a good and relevant question given the landscape of free-market, gun-for-hire workers: Who are you to be choosy? But shouldn’t one be choosy? We are choosy about everything else – so how is it our frame when it comes to work has been built using limitation-inducing barriers?

The Changing Workscape: The Upsides of Remote Work

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When asked whether the company has meetings, he replied: “Has anyone ever said ‘I wish I could go to more meetings today’?” – President of Automattic and co-founder of WordPress, Matt Mullenweg

While for me, there are no downsides to remote work, I can understand employers’ resistance and arguments against it. It’s new territory for most of them, so it’s easy to throw out a bunch of ill-considered objections: “if I can’t see or monitor my employees at their desk, I don’t know what they are doing” (which essentially means they do not trust their employees anyway and need to rethink staffing or their tendency to micromanage); “we need to work face-to-face to inspire creativity and innovation” (this may be true some of the time but is no reason to eliminate remote work); “we’re afraid productivity will suffer” (most studies conclude the opposite), etc. It comes down to a need for control.

Discussing the backwardness of the move away from remote work (in reference to Yahoo!’s hotly debated 2013 decision to forbid distance work), Jennifer Owens, editorial director of Working Mother Media, stated in a Forbes article by Jenna Goudreau (“Back to the Stone Age?” – sure feels like it!), “It comes from fear. Fear that if I can’t see you, I don’t know what you’re working on. It’s a distrust of your own workforce.”

The trick perhaps is both in making policy and accompanying attitude changes toward distance work – and finding a balanced approach to distance work. As Wharton research shows as part of its Work/Life Integration Project, there is no ideal “one-size-fits-all” way to do distance work. But offering the possibility means that a company has more tools to tackle all the challenges they face in attracting and keeping the right staff for its needs.

Objections be damned. Speaking from firsthand experience, I have benefited from the flexibility, increased productivity and benefits of focus, a better balance with work and home life and a much stronger sense of being trusted and valued in the company I was a part of. Likewise, it was true that I felt healthier, happier and almost felt as though things like vacation or sick leave mattered less; that is, while we do need time off, the ability to stay at home and structure my time and projects my own way (as long as I met deadlines and expectations) made all my time feel like my own. The comfort of staying at home also meant I was better rested, lost the misery of commuting and was just in the perfect spot for personal contentment and professional achievement. (Some arguments employees have against remote work, though, include the opposite – that professional achievement and advancement can be more challenging as a remote worker because you’re kind of “out of sight, out of mind” – you have to make extra effort to be noticed.)

The upsides are myriad for those employers who will embrace and allow distance work, not dissimilar to things I list as benefits in my personal views on distance work and telecommuting.

Increasing productivity & time savings
With more actual time for working (less time commuting or just sitting around talking – or being disrupted/interrupted in the office), productivity increases. A professor of management from UCLA, David Lewin, mentioned in the same Forbes article that a number of studies show that telecommuting correlates with higher productivity levels.

Boosting focus & eliminating interruptions
Improved focus is a key aspect of working at home that ties directly to improved productivity. Working in an office environment inevitably leads to a number of interruptions, and interruptions have a real cost. It takes time to focus, and every interruption disrupts that focus. Among other studies, University of California at Irvine research indicates that it takes up to 23 minutes to regain that same focus level. It only takes three “little interruptions” then to waste more than a hour of each day! It’s possible to make office rules, which we’ve tried at my office, to reduce these kinds of interruptions, but the truth is – in the destructive open landscape office environment that most companies seem to favor these days, no-interruption policies can never really be enforced. With people walking in, out and through all day long, someone saying, “Do you have a minute?” is enough to derail serious, hard-won concentration (I am a writer, and I need this!) But even the people in the big open room talking to each other – not to you – is more than enough to do the damage. All of these factors lead to the sense of not having enough time to do what needs to get done, which creates considerable anxiety and stress.

Building the dream team
A company can pick the cream of the crop if they are flexible enough to choose employment talent from anywhere. Not restricting a search to the local search area or requiring the right team members to uproot and relocate, a team can be comprised of the best in the world, not just the best in the local commuting area.

Retaining the best – creating loyalty – improving satisfaction
Showing employees that they are trusted and valued and giving them the flexibility to do their jobs creates goodwill and a sense of loyalty. A 2011 WorldatWork study found that “Organizations that have a stronger culture of flexibility also have a lower voluntary turnover rate. In addition, a majority of employers report a positive impact on employee satisfaction, motivation and engagement.”

Fostering corporate agility
Real savings can be achieved by reducing onsite workforce – that is, major real estate and other overhead and infrastructural expenses. With these savings, a company can have a lot more agility and freedom to operate more flexibly and manage expenses. By selecting best-in-class staff wherever they happen to be, a company may be able to take advantage of time zone differences (these are not always a drawback). Sometimes with a distributed staff, a company has staff closer to its customers who can handle those relationships more effectively than from a centralized location much further away.

Another aspect of this kind of agility is the ability to streamline activities. In companies that are really meeting-heavy, where people struggle to get their actual work done, because the tendency is to schedule extraneous and sometimes unnecessary meetings, a remote workforce has to adapt. It’s not that they will not continue to have meetings, but the number and scope of meetings can be pared down to what is needed rather than just what is convenient to have.

In my current company, there is not just meeting overkill but there used to be two annual marketing meetings to which all employees traveled. (And there is a lot of absolutely cost-ineffective travel taking place still). Finally the company decided to embrace the concept of a webinar to deliver this twice-yearly information to all the local markets. While the company is still firmly committed to an overabundance of in-person meetings, at least the step toward using technology to make up for cost cutting measures moved us in the right direction.

Work-life balance & health
I don’t have the hard and fast numbers on me, but it makes sense that people who want to work at home achieve a better work-life balance, which contributes to greater job satisfaction and to life satisfaction overall.

Companies should move away from self-destructive, factory models of work where people are rewarded for arriving early and staying late.” – Matt Mullenweg, Automattic/WordPress