Listening to the gut feeling

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It’s probably a weird hobby, but I tend to go to a lot of job interviews, even when I am not  actively searching for a job. Sure, I don’t apply for anything I wouldn’t want or for which I am not qualified (obviously I wouldn’t be invited to an interview without qualifications). I have probably written somewhere before that I think keeping the interview skills sharp is important, and even if I can’t claim to be brilliant at interviewing skills, despite my keeping my “hat in the ring”, I would be even worse if I weren’t actively practicing.

Because this is a common enough occurrence in my life, as a hobby, I give the process and the part of the process that involves gut feeling, a lot of thought. Possibly I am more interested in worklife/human resource linguistic anthropology than in getting jobs. I’ve written before about red flags and alarm bells experienced in interview situations. Sometimes, though, things are even more subtle. You get a sense for a company culture by the small things you see and observe. You might be wrong about the impression you get, but ultimately those impressions matter. You probably aren’t going to feel particularly comfortable in these places if you do get these inexplicable feelings or unusual observations.

I am thinking now about a few other examples. I had a great series of interviews with a company but to start with they rescheduled interviews multiple times throughout the process. I am flexible, so this was okay, especially when we were doing Skype calls and could be flexible. But then they invited me for some final interviews, which required moving around a lot of my schedule and traveling at the last minute. I flew to the city where the company was located. And late in the evening the night before the interview, they emailed to ask if I would mind postponing an entire day. Not just a few hours but an entire day. I already had my tickets to return home in the evening, after the originally scheduled interview. Looking back, maybe I should have said no. Instead I agreed to the change but told them that it was really inconvenient.

In the end, even though the interviews went well, I noticed as soon as I went to the offices that everyone I saw in the office except for a receptionist, everyone I talked to, everyone who was referred to as being a part of the global organization, was a man. And when they talked about their customers, they kept referring to the men who use these products and their wives. It may well be that the majority of their customers are men, but the framing was (unintentionally) gender imbalanced. And later, when they called to tell me it had been a hard decision, narrowed down to one other person and me, they ultimately hired the other person – a man. I don’t necessarily think that was conscious or had anything to do with it, but it was something that I clearly observed. The gender imbalance coupled with the multiple last-minute shifts in schedule led me to think that it was a good thing that things didn’t work out.

Photo by Rostyslav Savchyn on Unsplash

 

 

 

Work: 2 key considerations about your future… or maybe I’m a renegade

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I think a lot about work. Every aspect of work. Not my specific job or career but the overall concept of work.

And I always have. Even when I was in high school/college, I was trying to wrap my head around the different aspects of work. Work life, labor policy, pay, equality, office life, teamwork, reconciling being a non-conformist introvert with the “rah rah” of corporate cheerleading, recruitment, innovation and automation in recruitment, the shift from “pounding the pavement” to targeted online search and the role of technology in hiring and working, the economics of hiring, maintaining a workforce, building small businesses and startups, fitting into a corporate culture (or not) and finding one’s professional niche. I have thought a lot about the past (the “job for life”), the present (freelance/for-hire/impermanent job culture) and the future. All of this can include everything from education and how people learn and enter the workforce to how individuals can find just the right career and balance that works for them. It’s no more cookie cutter than anything else in life, but often it feels like the whole concept of work life is a conveyer belt in a factory making millions of the same commoditized, non-differentiated product.

No, not every company or job is alike. Very different cultures, industries, expectations… but when it’s boiled down to, for example, the job ad – the hook that gets someone to apply in the first place – there is very little differentiation. Recruiters can ask for different approaches to applying (for example, “send us a video and tell us about yourself” – but that just lights up all the pseudo-legal, proto-litigious lights in my head, “And open myself up for blind discrimination because I’m a middle aged lady?”) and change things up, but even the fresh wording in job ads is filled with subtle and not-so-subtle coding. A lot like real estate ads that describe a dilapidated shithole as a place with a lot of potential, if you just think outside the box and will just use your imagination, elbow grease and a lot of energy to turn it into your dream home, many jobs turn out to be the same.

And maybe these limit us – all of us. For example, I might see a job description that mentions how “young” and “fresh” the company is – I am immediately thinking about how environments emphasizing youth, a. probably don’t want anyone over 30, b. no one over 30 and/or really experienced wants to be there, c. the company probably demands much more than they give back, d. it would not be a good fit. And maybe nine times out of ten, it wouldn’t be a good fit. BUT… what if the job description was written by just one person who had a bias or interpretation and that is not at all what the job or company was about? Or, what if, like Microsoft, every job ad spewed into the world, read like it was written by a computer?

Thinking about limitations, probably the biggest concern/lingering thought I have on work pertains to remote work and home offices. I have long felt that technology would enable employees and employers alike to have their pick of the right fit regardless of geography (this has not managed to bear out the way I expected on a large scale). I’ve become semi-activist in my firm belief in remote/distance/distributed work and flexibility in the workplace. I’ve run my own business from a home office for 19 years without a hitch, but somehow most regular jobs and companies aren’t up to speed with that unless they are working with freelancers/outside “renegades”. So maybe I’m a renegade.

The point of this is that work takes up a lot of our lives. And we can end up feeling pretty miserable just because we take on a job (and stay in it) when it’s not the right fit. I read an article today that highlighted five things you need to make sure you do before you sign the dotted line on any new job.

From this, I took away key two points as an extension of the writer’s points:

It’s so tempting to just take the offer and put the job search to rest — but your career, not to mention your health and sanity, are more important than a quick close!”

This statement is true – no job is worth your sanity or health. You might need a paycheck, and you might say yes to a job that won’t be your career to pay the bills. But looking long-term, you’ve got to look for a good fit. BUT (!) what struck me here is the statement that one puts the job search to rest.

In this day and age, in an uncertain and even unstable economic climate and with the ease/automation of the search, does anyone ever “put the job search to rest”? Aren’t you always kind of keeping your eyes and ears open, feelers out and antennae up? Am I just crazy that I regularly update my CV, I keep an eye on the job market and in-demand skills, that I take on occasional freelance and volunteer opportunities, sometimes apply and interview for jobs (if not to get the job to keep the interview skills intact?)? Maybe because I have obsessed about work all my life this restlessness is to be expected, but perhaps a less obsessive but certainly thoughtful and measured approach (always having the job search at least casually open to possibilities) would be advisable.

The second point:

It can take nerves of steel to pass on a job opportunity, but if you’ve ever had the wrong job, you’ll know why it’s important to have standards.

The wrong job can shorten your lifespan.”

I agree on the stress and shortened lifespan. I’ve had some wrong jobs, and I found myself tied in knots, stressed, unable to sleep… and so blinded by the need for a job that I could not even recognize the signs until I had moved on to a new/better situation. Stay clued in when your mind, body and heart are trying to tell you something. It, as the above states, requires nerves of steel to say no – but you are your own best – and sometimes only – advocate. You’ve got to have the guts to say no, back out or take yourself out of the running if the fit just isn’t there or if you have doubts. Or even sometimes when your own life circumstances change and might render you temporarily the wrong fit for a job or company. I have finally learned to do this – for the most part. Sometimes it’s complicated, and a job offer (or job) has a lot of contingencies sucking you in like eight octopus arms squeezing you. Even after some let go, others still tether you there. Recognizing those tethers and figuring out how to ease your way free of them can be a good strategy.

But… what most struck me with this statement is not just that you should say no to the job offer but also that you should think seriously about whether to even go through with the interview – or subsequent interviews in the case of multiple interviews. Sometimes you see a job that looks perfect on paper. You read the ad and you check all the boxes and are ready for or need a new challenge. You apply. You are asked to an interview, but something about the initial exchange leaves you ill at ease. I have learned that this too is a test of will. When I was young and freshly out of college, just getting interviews was a triumph. I went to a lot of painful interviews for things I did not remotely want to do. Back then I sort of had to – but that marked me and influenced this idea that I couldn’t say no, especially because I was the one who had initiated the application process. But you can and should say no if something feels “off” – while you may well have been interested in the first place, interest cools – and you will thank yourself later for not putting yourself in an awkward situation (and for not wasting your own or a potential employer’s time).

It’s your life, your work. You don’t have to be a renegade but you also don’t have to settle for anything that threatens to kill you. If the wrong job can shorten your lifespan, at least find a way to dominate and enjoy the lifespan you have.

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: War on meetings & so-called solutions

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…a committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides, which committee decides…

Well I’m getting paper cuts, my eyes are bloodshot, from watching the tape turn red…

The Pentagon has too much paperwork to start a real war, I wish they’d just send me instead…

Ed Haynes – “I Want to Kill Everybody”

Long gone are the days when idle, if extreme, hyperbolic statements like “I Want to Kill Everybody” go unnoticed. Ed Haynes’s tongue-in-cheek protest song from the late 80s brings me back to a time when this kind of exaggeration – a modest proposal – could be said or sung and accepted in the joking, if frustrated, tone in which it was intended*. No one would call HR and think you were plotting to go postal tomorrow. (And Ed, your theme is as timely as ever. Strangely, there is very little to be found about Ed Haynes online – not even a Wikipedia page. I even have an ex-boyfriend or two with Wiki pages; how can Ed Haynes have almost no online presence, apart from a few CD reviews and listings for live shows he played in Portland, Oregon?)

I thought of good old Ed Haynes’s song, the anthem of my junior high school years, today as I sat in a meeting in which we were introduced to a new timekeeping system. The system exists ostensibly to keep track of projects to find out how much time is really being spent on them in order to better allocate existing resources (or to know where to supplement with additional resources). The presenter expressed the time-saving wizardry made possible with this new tool, which we are to use in addition to the hundreds of other tools piled on other tools where we are supposed to “report” things in the name of increased efficiency. Of course if we are spending half our time filling in reports in various systems, I think our resource problem is that we are spending half our time filling in reports.

Old Ed and his committees deciding on committees deciding, which – fair enough – springs to mind more often than it should in the current workplace, came to mind when the presenter showed a slide that housed several boxes with text in them, explaining how the decision had been made to run with this new system over a year ago… and many workshops, workgroups, task forces and other importantly-named committees met to analyze and discuss and brainstorm. See a problem here?

The company knew (or believed with no sense of irony) that it was underresourced. So, they took a large chunk of said resources and occupied their time with committees and workshops and task forces for months… all to come to the brilliant conclusion that they needed to measure how much time was being used on different projects in order to assign resources better. But what if – just what if – we cut out the years of analysis and internal focus groups and just accepted upfront that we need to implement a system and measure people’s time? Why take a year or more to decide that and then start a whole new process to choose a system for implementation?

The kicker is that most of the groups that work on a project basis today already have some form of time reporting that supposedly addresses these exact kinds of needs. Perhaps this new miraculous tool (and this company falls prey to the snake oil salesman every time – some system or another is a panacea for all our disorganized ills) will give us all the answers! Yes, it might be streamlined compared to the other solutions being used today. But what if they use this tool to collect data but then don’t actually use or interpret the data?

Oh, Ed, please cut the red tape and go directly to war… on meetings and more meetings about potentially useless, time wasting supposed time savers and redundant “solutions” that just create more work for everyone involved.

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*Back in the old days, you could actually say things that would be considered violent threats now. When I was an adolescent and working in the school office, I was walking in the hallway one day, and a kid who had been kicked out of another classroom for misbehaving said something suitably rude: “What would you give me if I let you give me a blow job?” I kept walking, but said, “A serious gunshot wound.” He sulked but nothing happened. Now, of course, I would be expelled from school for making violent threats – even though it was clearly a joke and clearly the kind of sarcastic reply called for in that situation. I don’t necessarily long for the “good old days” but somehow think that the more prohibitive we are with verbal expression, the more bottled up people’s frustrations will be.

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