The changing workscape: Why is virtual work stigmatized while internet dating no longer is?

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Does “flexibility stigma” exist?

Apparently so; it exists when it comes to work.

A similar kind of stigma used to exist when it came to online/internet dating. A CNN article highlights the fact that fewer than one percent of Americans were using the internet to meet dates in 1992 – and by 2009, almost a quarter of couples were meeting online. The Guardian reports, based on a University of Rochester study, that online dating is the second most common way Americans start relationships today.

My guess is the numbers may even be higher than what the CNN article reports; the stigma is virtually gone, but I think people probably still underreport their online-love exploration.

Online dating became broadly experimental, then accepted, and then mainstream. People (almost) proudly talk about how they met on OkCupid or Match.com or whatever the flavor-of-the-month or niche dating site is. The process has moved a lot like the bell curve of technology adoption. Online dating started with innovators and early adopters – I imagine that those who adopted early were tech-oriented people but also possibly the kind of people who would benefit from the barriers and anonymity of online interaction. (Hey, not taking any shots – I am a wee bit techie, a wee bit nerdy and a wee bit shy myself.)  Eventually a wider audience could see the benefits of doing a bit of pre-date vetting, getting to know people a bit better before meeting and being exposed to a broader array of people than one could meet in everyday life – particularly if they are busy people tired of trying to make some kind of connection with drunk people in bars. (Of course that assumes that the other people engaged in online dating are like-minded souls. That’s where the diffusion of innovation curve, in this case, does not work too well, especially in the early stages, in the early adopters’ favor.)

Okay, so online dating is not a panacea that answers all dating ills, and in fact there are some psychologists who claim that there are pitfalls (the aforementioned CNN article makes that clear, citing that online daters may be susceptible to warped outlooks and expectations, relying too much on vague profiles and contributing to a sense that one can be too picky or judgmental.

The Guardian article cited above also explores the idea that people online are looking for different things – and perhaps deceiving each other about it. There are some other great looks at how online dating is unsatisfying and can never really give people an accurate idea of whether they will really click with someone or not. Too true:

“…online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.”

Personally, I would also argue about the creation of the illusion of endless choice – related to the point about pickiness and judgment made in the CNN article. People also don’t always know what they want – or need. But that is totally beside the point here. It’s a complex thing, like relationships themselves.

The question is – how has online dating become accepted, acceptable and the de facto thing to do while something totally above-board like online, virtual work isn’t? It’s not like for like and may not be comparable, but I suppose the difference is the line between what is personal and what is professional – and in the professional realm, more is at stake. On the other hand, do people pay a certain price for taking steps (personal or professional) that fall under one of these “stigma umbrellas”? That is, is the online dater somehow limiting herself to just that pool of people willing to be online and to those who can craft a profile that speaks to what she (thinks she) is looking for? Is the person who takes advantage of “workplace flexibility” also being stigmatized at work – not advancing in her career, perhaps – because she has asked or opted for a more flexible arrangement?

The worker seeking flexibility in her own life may in fact be seen by the employer as less flexible and less committed and therefore less “promotable”. While it may seem that women would be disproportionately affected, some studies show that men may be most adversely affected by asking for flexibility. Basically there is a lose-lose for both men and women who aim to work flexibly:

“There can be a stigma for remote or blended schedules, however: parents who want to be more available to their kids may opt for this, and that usually means women. These remote employees may not be as available as someone in the office, may appear to be slacking off, and may reduce their opportunities for promotion. Whether or not those things are true does not matter if there is a perception of truth to them.”

This only covers how some employers see flexible workers – it does not cover the whole concept of flexible work. Flexible work itself, regardless of the person doing it, invites all kinds of stigma about the kinds of workers who want to work at home (or without workspace restrictions) and the quality of work and productivity that can come of it:

“The fact working from home is often less pressured is probably why 19% of those asked, felt home workers take advantage of having no boss around and slack off.

Yet, when you look at the 2.8m home-based entrepreneurs who are running businesses from their kitchen tables and turning over an extra 284bn for the UK economy, you start to recognise that home-workers can be just as productive and even more driven.

Lastly, giving employees the option to work from home can make good business sense in other ways too. It can help a business save money because it means it won’t have to fork out for a huge office and there won’t be as much wear and tear on the office utilities.”

I have had the same questions – how is it, if I have successfully operated my own content business from my home for 15 years, that a corporation who chose to hire me as a regular employee would not be able to value the productivity and experience gained in those 15 office-less years? Imagine this: Microsoft in Finland a National Remote Working Day, asking employers to think about the benefits of remote working, including shorter commute times and further reaching environmental benefits. Events like this are unfortunately rare enough that the idea of virtual work may still be holding businesses back.

It’s Personal – Networking and Admitting Needs

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There are about five million articles out there about “how to network”, “how to build a network” and use networking to find a job. Most of these articles are generic and repeat the same things. I am not going to echo the repetition. You can get some fairly good insight from a veritable library of online resources. But I am thinking that the right way to network is a personal journey. Articles can provide pointers, but the building process is about finding the right ways and means for you as an individual. It’s not a prefab house, after all.

About networking, I can say from a personal perspective that when it comes to advancing my own career, I am not a person who is skilled at networking in the social and schmoozy sense. I have friends who are pros at this, making personal and genuine connections almost immediately, and I am in constant admiration. (I can turn on the schmooze in a professional setting when it is not for my own gain or self-advancement because then it is impersonal.) I have largely been a highly productive, behind-the-scenes doer who believes that the work product speaks for itself. But this is not really true. After many years, I believe that both the network and the built-up work reputation are important. (Not that that is a mystery or rocket science – it is just that I think maybe many people struggle because they rely too heavily on one or the other. I have known some who schmooze their way into situations in which they are way over their heads; I have been guilty of relying too much on the work and not being as driven by relationships as I could be.)

In the early days of my freelance experience, this was one of my biggest hurdles. I did not even have a personal, let alone professional, network because I was working in a new country. I knew no one. But little by little I met one person here, one person there, I awkwardly dropped hints about needing to find work, and eventually I had a flow of freelance jobs coming in and, mostly by word of mouth, had more clients popping up. This happened because I worked hard, fast and usually overdelivered. People remembered me, both when they needed work done and when others needed work done. There is a lot to be said for willingness and the inability to say no. Bottom line, though – when there are personal stakes and personal interest – or some form of a relationship – networking is at its most effective.

As the Lifehacker articles I point to explain, networking requires a personal and genuine approach. This means that networking is a two-way street. I have needed help, but more than that, have been first in line offering my help to others in their own professional pursuits. You’ve got to give to get – and being able and readily willing to reciprocate actually improves the networking channels. Everyone needs a way to get their foot in the door.

For me, as for most introverts, it is incredibly hard to admit to needing help or even to making the kinds of connections one could eventually turn to for help. Another Lifehacker article cites a New York Times piece that tells introverts to force themselves into in-person meetings and into small talk. Any introvert would react with something like, “What fresh hell is this?” It is also a bit too much like cold-call sales versus the kind of networking I would prefer to do – which is both based on my work performance and my own quiet, observational analysis of people and situations. I eventually prove my value this way. My approach to networking is the long-game approach.

Lately, though it has been many years in the making, this approach has really begun to bear fruit. At this point, people are coming to me without my having asked for help or having reached out at all. My network has become so strong and trusted that it spreads on its own.

The positives are adding up, and the first step was finally coming to a point where I could speak up for myself to say I needed help. When I needed it, help was there. It is not unlike the incredible difficulty of admitting a need for love, really. The whole concept of surrendering to some need that you cannot completely fill for yourself invites vulnerability.

In a slightly unrelated matter, of course admitting and facing what we really need can also be comical!

We accidentally played a clip from the Al Jazeera America channel that was threatening to get inappropriately in depth about foreign policy. Obviously Al Jazeera America is new here and don’t know how we do things.” (From The Daily Show on 11 February)

We need real information and news, but we have managed to fool ourselves into thinking that we need to know the salacious details of politicians’ personal lives. We are blind and never focusing on the right things. And how this relates to what I started writing about in the first place? Well, we live in an era that makes heavy use of comparatives – and I spend too much time comparing, particularly the present against the past. And where that’s led me, now, is the path toward figuring out how to get beyond all the wrong triggers, targets and foci to get to who, what and where I need to be. And of course, in keeping with the generous and reciprocal nature of real and valuable networking, helping other people get to their right places as well.

Tennis – “It All Feels the Same