My political platform: Bringing back capes, gloves, postage stamps, anti-hypocrisy and flexible work options!

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It’s another one of those random days where random thoughts are weaseling their way into my brain too fast to keep track of them.

I’m not sorry we loved, but I hope I didn’t keep you too long.

First of all, I overthink. All the time. All weekend in between working and then taking breaks from that work to do other work, I was beating myself up over the realization that it is always just when you ease into a comfort level, feeling like you can let your guard down, that you are at your most vulnerable, a victim to be gutted. You know, gutted and chopped into pieces, not unlike a poor, hapless young giraffe minding his own business in a Copenhagen zoo (and see below). Trust me.

In other news (or non-news), what the hell is wrong with Fox News and other conservative talking heads? I cannot come up with words – nothing that has not already been said. They have started blabbing about how free healthcare disincentivizes working. Who says it best? Why, Jon Stewart, of course!

http://www.thedailyshow.com/watch/thu-february-6-2014/terror-on-bulls–t-mountain

Writing (oh so seamless the segue) about disincentives to work and purported laziness, I was heartened to see a series of articles from Virgin on the future of flexwork (Richard Branson is a big supporter of flexible work solutions). Three cheers! It’s one thing for me to bang my own pots and pans on the subject of flexible, remote and virtual work (only I hear the ceaseless clanging – and maybe a handful of other folks who happen upon this blog). It is another thing entirely when someone as respected and well-known as Richard Branson puts his weight behind this flexibility.

The website covers different aspects of flexible work – which can include remote work, shared locations, next-gen workspaces and enabling “intrapreneurship”. Be still my heart.

Of course, another aspect of flexible work, as I have learned since the dawn of my professional life, is doing the most flexible kind of work there is (and that means you will get a lot of flexibility but you are going to have to be equally flexible in kind – and sometimes to your own detriment): freelancing. I find these days that when I apply for jobs that are not ideal for me but my skill set matches some other need a company has, I get calls on occasion offering me freelance projects, and I cannot complain.

On a slightly tangential note, I will never get used to how potential employers in Scandinavia, in formal interview settings, often use the word “shit” in interview conversation. This must be a failure to understand that “shit” is not quite the casual profanity that they imagine it to be. (It makes me laugh.)

As for the music and magic of hypocrisy, who embodies it better than my favorite punching bag, Marissa Mayer of Yahoo! disaster fame? The Virgin remote work segment highlights the hypocrisy and head-scratching quality of Mayer’s decision to end distance-work options for her employees (“How odd that the head of a tech company that provides online communication tools doesn’t see the irony in that statement?”). Mayer has become the lightning rod for this issue, really. One article I read questioned the fairness of piling all the blame on Mayer when other large corporations scaled back or eliminated their distance work options at the same time (e.g. Best Buy). The hypocrisy of it – the real rub – is precisely what the Virgin article on supporting remote work points out – a tech company supposedly at the forefront (or wanting to believe it is still at the forefront) of innovation and online communication is taking the workplace back to horse-and-buggy days when most of the tech world is, I don’t know, driving a Tesla or taking a high-speed train.

Another nod to hypocrisy, even if not an entirely matching overlap, is the recent decision of a zoo in Copenhagen, Denmark to kill a perfectly healthy young giraffe in its care and feed it to the zoo’s lions. I posted something about this on my Facebook wall, which sparked an immediate argument between two people who are strangers across the world from each other. One argued that those of us who were lamenting the giraffe’s senseless death were hypocrites who cannot handle how nature works when it’s shown to us with transparency. While I can appreciate the argument on its surface, the bottom line is – this happened in a ZOO, not the wild. This took place, apparently, in front of zoo visitors (the killing and the feeding pieces to lions). Yeah, if a family went on safari somewhere or were out in the wild, maybe “nature” and its transparency would be expected. In the zoo? Not so much. The zoo has defended its decision and now is paying an unfortunate price (I saw on the news that the zoo’s employees are receiving death threats now).

Back to the flexwork thing – all the articles come down to one thing: trust. Flexwork is possible when you have trust and no need to micromanage. You would also think we could trust a zoo not to kill a juvenile giraffe, and maybe once upon a time, people would have thought Marissa Mayer would not take a giant tech company back to Little House on the Prairie.

Pile on Yahoo! I’ve got my shovel

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I am not sure where all my ire for Yahoo! came from. Sure, the whole backpedalling on allowing employees a work-from-home option pissed me off even though I don’t work there. I think technology companies moving backwards like this is always counterproductive, a bad idea and not a way to garner employee loyalty or happiness – especially if you are taking away something that employees already had and valued.

I won’t even start on the tech missteps – not even getting the basics rights, like major Yahoo! mail and other service outages and redesign debacles that basically just piss off loyal users.

What is the trend you’re sensing? Yes, Yahoo! keeps making big, grand changes that piss everyone off. They are not making anyone happy, they are investing time and money and yet always come off like – first and foremost – they don’t give a shit what their users want. They are stepping backwards or stepping on someone’s toes or taking things a step too far. Or two-stepping to long-dead trends.

Today I was researching Yahoo!’s move to hire respected journalist Katie Couric as the face of its “media empire”. Smart move in that Katie Couric is a smart, respected journalist. But is it a smart move in terms of what they can actually do or expect to gain? Is it a smart move in terms of what Yahoo!’s audience and users want? I am sure they have run their numbers (although I cannot imagine that they take into account user needs given all the disasters they’ve launched into the world in recent years), and I want to say first of all that going in, guns blazing on hiring Katie Couric is a move that, on its surface, looks like wanting everyone’s 60-something grandma to stand up and take note. It’s not going to impress or attract a younger demographic. It’s probably not going to attract the army of women Oprah Winfrey once commanded (Katie sure did not manage anything like that with her daytime tv talk show).

Women in the 35-65 group might notice just because Couric is a marginally powerful and highly visible woman (not unlike Marissa Mayer, Yahoo!’s beleaguered and not very likeable CEO – not that I think CEOs need to be likeable, and I don’t love bagging on a female CEO since there are so few of them – but, from my outlying half-observant distance, I just think Mayer is not particularly good at her job). I doubt that Couric’s presence is going to interest anyone – at least not internet users. Maybe Yahoo!’s target demographic is 65-year-old women because everything Yahoo! has done seems remarkably in line with what older audiences, just on the edge of not understanding the digital world but trying to, might be into.

Couric has also sort of failed at every major news anchor bid she’s taken on so far, so it seems counterintuitive to sink six million dollars a year on giving Couric an ill-defined, part-time gig that gets Yahoo! a few mentions in the mainstream and tech press. “Reading the headlines — Katie Couric, Saturday Night Live cast members, David Pogue all joined Mayer on stage — I wondered if it was 1999 again. Content as a core strategy rings of AOL in the early aughts. Let’s say it’s a good idea — are you really building a future consumer base on journalists from the most legacy of media? Probably not.”

Yahoo! might think that broadcast dollars will follow Couric to the digital realm and thus that’s the play. I have my doubts. “Faced with consistently declining ad prices, Yahoo needs a shot of exclusive, high-profile content to get viewers to stick around and advertisers — especially TV advertisers — to pay attention.” It’s thus not about the content the audience wants but more about ad pricing, which can be quite lucrative. From a content point of view (what viewers want), this seems like a really bad idea. From a revenue standpoint, it is more of a calculated risk – Mayer is probably betting that big-money advertisers and the types coming from broadcast media would be made of more traditional, possibly even conservative, stuff, and thus would put their money where Couric’s mouth is. Smart? Shrewd? Profitable? Remains to be seen.

The bottom line, as the cited Forbes article above puts it, is: “It’s one thing to acquire a demographic you want, à la the Tumblr acquisition, it’s another to find the developers who can figure out what that demographic wants next. If Mayer is going to win me back to Yahoo — and more importantly, those who never had the habit — it will be by figuring out what I want and need before I do.” (Emphasis mine.) It’s not sorcery. From my vantage point, it doesn’t look like Yahoo! knows or understands that – and it does not even appear to be the business Yahoo! is in.

Must I Paint You a Picture?

The changing workscape: Virtual-friendly companies

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You get what you pay for, not what you wait for…

I have belabored the whole Yahoo! putting a stop to telecommuting story and the backlash surrounding it. What’s done is done.

What is more important, which is something I have been meaning to write about, is the companies that have embraced virtual work –either  in part or in some cases, the company is 100 percent remote (such as Automattic, the maker of the well-loved, much-used WordPress platform). This has been on my to-do list, but I happened upon an article from Forbes that highlights the top-100 companies for offering work-from-home options, according to the FlexJobs website. As the article points out, if not going for jobs that are obviously remote (such as work with the aforementioned Automattic or Mozilla, which are reputable companies with very visible virtual-work profiles), it can be challenging to identify companies and jobs that support remote-work possibilities – and jobs that are not just some kind of work-at-home scam to lure unsuspecting, naive dupes down a blind alley.

Of course there are a lot of companies that offer flexible work schedules and remote options without publicizing it – it is more a matter of building a relationship with people inside the company and demonstrating that location has very little to do with the work. Likewise, there is a growing number of sites and services that cater to a freelance workforce, allowing flexibility to both freelancers and companies and individuals who are seeking more project-based help. The best-known among these, oDesk and Elance, recently merged.

But where are the companies that are, if not “loud and proud” about being virtual-work friendly, supportive of the future of and possibilities enabled by a virtual, distributed workforce?

One that I stumbled on in my search is actually quite vocal about its support for taking advantage of the benefits of a distributed workforce. It’s called Lullabot. The Lullabot team is one-hundred-percent remote, and as its own content (an article from the company CEO) states,My feeling is that most conventional co-located companies simply don’t know how to manage, and more importantly, how to include their remote workforce.” These are exactly the kinds of objections I hear again and again – and tend to think it is more a stubbornness and resistance to change the way work is done than any real hindrance to working remotely. It’s like everything else – people don’t like change, and anything new is disruptive. With a company that has been distributed from day one, this change never has to happen.

I should also clarify, as Lullabot has done, that there should be a distinction between “remote” work and “distributed” work – a fully distributed company has no central location (necessarily) from which to be remote. The whole company is distributed.

Further to this distinction, I came across another company, Fuentek, which is, as an NPR article described, not a virtual workforce but an entirely virtual company – which changes the whole mindset. A company founded on the flexibility enabled by a distributed workforce is entirely different from a traditional company trying to implement flexible policies.

That said, some quite traditional employers are moving in the right direction.

Aetna, a massive health-insurance company operating a relatively staid, conservative industry, has embraced the efficiencies of telecommuting. Aetna’s reasoning is pragmatic – they managed to cut real estate and associated costs by about 78 million USD.

A really surprising leader in virtual work growth is the US federal government. (This will not come as any surprise to most, especially if you’ve ever worked for the government.) While it is not true across the board, some government agencies have been more eager to take on telecommuting in a serious way. The groundwork has already been put down to introduce telework across government agencies, but so far the one federal trailblazer has been the US Patent and Trademark Office, which has a dedicated telework coordinator and almost 70 percent of its workforce working remotely at least part time.

Ultimately these moves should not come as any surprise. The evidence shows that virtual work is a win-win. Employers can, like Aetna, attract and retain premium talent while reducing their costs. Employees are more likely to stay, feel trusted and feel a sense of loyalty to the company. Most companies have the technology for enabling virtual offices but the attitudes and institutional support lags behind.

The search for compassion and attributes found in those younger/finding however unaccountable harrowing hate/craving reaction, a hideous terminal hunger/starving for life in a world with so much on its plate” The Chills – “Singing in My Sleep”

The changing workscape: Going it alone

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Whether picking up freelance projects here and there as a kind of sole proprietor or doing something a bit more formal, setting up a company and running it, the current job market coupled with the difficulty of being “seen” by recruiters (even if you’ve got the experience, talent and skills required) are making more and more people choose to go it alone. Obviously deciding to work for yourself requires a kind of independence, confidence and belief in your skills and ideas that will give you the strength to persevere through lean times. The challenges of launching and marketing a new business – and the need to basically do at least two jobs at all times (the job/specialty you are selling and then the actual selling/marketing of those services) can be daunting. Never mind the bureaucracy and accounting work you will have to consider…

But going into business for yourself isn’t all risk, no reward – or people would not do it, keep doing it and loving it.

Beginning to see the light
The job search has been long and tough – very few interviews, or a lot of interviews that lead nowhere, and you start to think that maybe you would be better off – and much more in control of your professional destiny – if you strike out on your own. This initial “seeing the light” can be deceptive, of course, because on the surface it sounds a lot easier to just take matters into your own hands and go from there. If you’ve never started or run a business, though, you could be in for a few surprises in terms of how difficult it can be. Do your homework. But don’t let the challenges stop you. You will actually be a stronger person and may either become a successful businessperson, recognizing that this is where you belong – or you may just bolster yourself and gain insight and independence enough to know that you do belong in a regular job. But the experience of starting your own business and creating your own job has prepared you in whole new ways you could not even have imagined for the job you eventually seek. You are broadening your horizons no matter what road you take.

But first things first.

How did the “light” first come on that made you consider becoming your own boss?

The hard search – not being seen
The aforementioned “not being seen” in the job hunt is becoming more common. A recent, popular thread on LinkedIn discussed the increasing difficulty of differentiating yourself as a job candidate, particularly when you are something of a jack-of-all-trades. This inspired me to write on the subject of recruitment and HR and the foibles therein. A friend and former professor sent me another article about how HR has begun to embrace “big data” – and this is starting to influence hiring and retention decisions to, as the article points out, an almost creepy degree.

A true jack-of-all-trades, as many people pointed out in the comments to this post on LinkedIn, may be better off channeling all of those myriad skills into his or her own enterprise. If someone else cannot take in and appreciate the generalist, DIY, can-do approach to business, who better to benefit from your work than you – and the stable of clients you eventually cultivate?

When you have done your due diligence – and that means, really taking the time to tailor each application you submit (which may mean cutting back on the jack-of-all-trades theme to market yourself as a specialist in a few key areas, targeted for the specific job) – and you still find yourself getting nowhere, it might be time to apply the same efforts you make in the job search to assessing what kind of business you could do on your own using the skills in your toolbox that others have not seemed to cotton to. Do some market analysis – what needs exist that you can address?

This may be the best way to be seen and to make a mark.

The risk of self-employment 
Most things really worth doing do not come without any risk.

The biggest risk – you might fail. Many small businesses fail. It’s par for the course. But is failure in this case really failure? It’s a mixed bag. You may lose your shirt, but you know that there is always another shirt where that one came from. You will never learn as much as fast as you do in starting and running your own business – succeed or fail. If you fail, you take away valuable lessons and experience. You can either apply these lessons to your next business venture (the entrepreneurial bug is strong once you start) or apply the lessons to your next job. You are richer for it. “..a recent survey of 1,000 small business owners (conducted by Deluxe Corp and reported in Business Insider) shows that the vast majority of them are confident in their endeavors and say they’d rather embrace potential failure than never try at all”. Once you make up your mind, you’re pretty sure that you can live with failure – and need to be optimistic about success, regardless of the statistics, or you would not be likely to give the business your all.

Some might argue that it is a risk to work for yourself because you are sort of taking yourself out of the workforce specifically in your field and thus might fall behind on new trends or technologies because you are not active in that field. I doubt this. If you’re leveraging your former experience, chances are, as a self-employed person in a similar field, you have to stay ahead of the curve on trends to be competitive. This is why companies will turn to you – as your own enterprise, you are expected to be on the cutting edge. You might ultimately end up ahead of the game.

Difficulties & hard times
Money, money, money
I think one of the major reasons that more people don’t go into business for themselves, which goes beyond the not knowing how or where to start is the cash flow situation. Not only do you not have start-up costs on hand, but you, like everyone else, have bills to pay. And many people are motivated in large part by the paycheck. A steady job, even one you hate, pays you and ensures that you keep a roof over your head and all the rest. But, while theory won’t keep the wolf from the door, the idea that you work just for a paycheck is the kind of mindset that you should work to change.

Learning curve
You have a lot of skills to apply to the work you eventually want to do in your business. But to get there, there’s a lot to learn about starting, operating and building a business. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come overnight, and you will have to work hard and be patient, embracing what may be a steep and possibly winding learning curve.

Overreaching & lack of planning
You might try to do too much, too fast and overreach. You can easily lose the plot by doing this – and burn yourself out. Be sure to have very specific goals – and don’t stray too far from these, even if you see opportunities to dabble in a bunch of different areas outside your core business. This can lead to trouble, especially in the early days when you struggle to find your footing. You need to have a good plan from the beginning and, while you can exhibit some flexibility, straying too far outside the guidelines can get you into trouble, mired in projects that you cannot fulfill your commitments to. The temptation to do this can be great, especially when money is tight in the beginning, but you’re better off in the long run if you stick to your guns and do not take on something you cannot handle. Does that mean you should not challenge yourself? No, but definitely evaluate whether a project is within the scope of what your business and your expertise can offer. You risk a big bundle of stress, financial losses and a potential hit to your reputation if you don’t manage yourself and your obligations carefully.

Legal trouble
Further on the previous point, if you are careless about making delivery promises or careless in taking care of all the required aspects of establishing a business legally (especially where it concerns intellectual property), you can quickly find yourself in legal trouble. This is somewhere you definitely do not want to go. Failing in a small business is one thing – getting tangled up in lawsuits is entirely another. Always put in the time to make sure everything is above board and legal.

The rewards of self-employment
Flexibility
One of the biggest bonuses of working for yourself is the flexibility you can build into your work life. Sure, you will probably be working most of the time – but it’s your business and your time. When you need to run out and do an errand, no one is looking over your shoulder and asking you to punch a time clock. Your time is your own, and you know that you get what you put into whatever efforts you are making. For me, the home office has been a boon – I have discovered that unknown levels of productivity are possible for me when I am working at home, so the readjustment to office life has just not worked well. Sure, I need to be flexible as well – but having your own business buys you this kind of freedom.

Nonstop learning
If you are anything like me, one of the battles of working in a regular job is that many of them have an initial learning curve (new company, new project) but then once you have mastered a few things, there is not a lot of brain stretching going on. This is not always true – there is always something to learn but you’ve got to be proactive about seeking it out. Sometimes the traditional work environment, even if you are like a sponge, picking up new knowledge and skills, just wants to pigeonhole you into whatever role you are doing, and the lack of growth that results from your gusto to learn leaves the learning less than satisfying. This is never a problem in your own enterprise. You have to learn to keep going, and you will apply everything you learn all the time. For those for whom endless curiosity is a constant nag, self-employment is one salve for the soul.

Building your network, building your reputation
Don’t give yourself a bad reputation! Building up your network of clients is the best way to get more clients. In my own experience, I have tried various types of advertising and marketing, and the single best way – that keeps paying off after literally years – is word of mouth. Former/current clients are asked by friends and peers for recommendations, and even if eight years have gone by, they will remember the work I did and pass my name along.

This leads to the next point – working for yourself, you are the show, so you have to put your best foot forward and manage your reputation. Clearly building a solid reputation with clients makes you memorable, keeps them coming back and will grow your business even without you exerting effort. The effort you make today can pay dividends later.

Satisfaction
You did it! Whether you stick with it forever and keep growing or just do the self-employed thing for a while, you did it. You stuck with it and now have this invaluable experience to show that you’ve got business experience, sense and acumen.

Seeing the signs Do it alone
The way things are going – both in the job market as a whole and in specific industries, and perhaps just in your own field – you should be able to read the writing on the wall to assess whether the time has come to strike out on your own and make a go of it.

It’s not that I am a vocal advocate of starting one’s own business – I have done it because I found myself unemployed and with few options living in a new country. And if it seems like a bureaucratic rat maze navigating the vagaries of legal, financial and other considerations in starting a business in your own city, imagine doing it in a foreign country in a new language. But the fact that I managed means that pretty much anyone can do it if you have a solid plan, a target clientele, a way to market yourself and a lot of patience – and networking skills don’t hurt one bit. It is hard work – perhaps even harder and much more time consuming than going to a regular 9 to 5 job, but it can be a salvation and even an addiction once you start to see positive results and the fruits of your labor.