Office Golden Rules

One year when I was a student in journalism school, it was announced that my class would be visited by one of the country’s most prominent journalists. Days before her arrival, the visit was cancelled. No reason was given, and our professors were tight-lipped. And then one day in early spring, news came that she had died of an illness she’d lived with for years and kept secret.

I remember a quote attributed to her: We must be kind, because we don’t know what other people are carrying around inside them.

Ask the hard questions, yes, as the journalist did. Have difficult conversations, because you care. But recognize the human in the being across from you.

I am a flawed human being, but I happen to like myself. Or at least tolerate myself. I expect people to cut me slack.

As you see yourself, I will try to see you.

I believe I am motivated by the best of intentions. I will assume you are, too, unless you prove otherwise. For proof I will set the bar high. If you go over it, you’re done. But I’ve never seen anyone go over that bar.

I detect you have some blind spots. It frustrates me that you can’t see them. Oh, that’s why they’re called blind spots. I acknowledge I must have them, too. If there’s a malady without a self-cure, it’s obliviousness. I promise to pause and consider what I’m not seeing, and ask questions, and listen to the answers. Well, I’ll try.

My head is full of thoughts and I am always in the grip of some emotion. I imagine the same is true of every person I meet on the street, every person on the bus, every person whose image greets me on Microsoft Teams. I will assume you have the same rich inner life I do, and that there’s plenty going on behind your neutral expression.

I might ask after the health of your cat. I might remember the names of your kids. I might ask about your cold. I don’t score high on the empathy scale; it’s something I have to work at. For me empathy is not a personality trait but a practice. It’s not what I am, it’s what I do. Empathy is being mindful.

I will try to be mindful.

Beware this work-from-home truism that isn’t true

You may have heard this one. “Working from home is bad for extroverts, great for introverts.” This was never true, and as time goes on its untruth becomes ever clearer.

All people need and desire connection with others, including introverts. All people need quiet time to process their encounters, including extroverts (although they might not enjoy it as much).

When the workforce emerges from this pandemic, organizations will face a new expectation that work arrangements be flexible. Whatever the pros and cons, we should not fear that our teams will split into in-office extroverts and stay-at-home introverts. That’s not how it works.

Different people at different times manage their energy differently. That’s all. It has little to do with desiring either stimulation or isolation as a default mode. Beyond figuring out how to work well together, the introvert-extrovert scale is a red herring that doesn’t have much bearing on anything essential.

For my early morning walk before work, I often choose the same wooded path. I sometimes meet a man and his dog who share my routine. The man is middle-aged and bald, and his dog is a poodle, I think, with fur of light maple. The dog’s name is Sadie. I know this only because this morning she chose to hate me, and the man had to restrain her on a short leash. We exchanged curt greetings and moved on.

None of us were pleased to meet on the path. That’s fine. There are plenty of other paths in the neighbourhood. We can each choose a way that suits our mood.

Employee engagement across all sectors is low, we’re told. What would be the result if we gave everyone the freedom to choose?

Work-from-home productivity requires more than uninterrupted focus

If each person on my team had a dollar for every time I stuck my head in their office for “one quick question,” they’d be set up for retirement. That would be pre-COVID, of course. Work-from-home means fewer interruptions (from the boss, if not from the kids), and that has some people feeling they and their teams are more productive now than they were in the office.

No doubt people are finding themselves better able to focus, better able to control how their discretionary time is used. Anyone who suffered in the high-traffic areas of open-plan offices is probably better off.

But how are we defining “productive”? Hovering over the inbox and leaving no email unanswered? Busy does not equal productive.

I feel we’ve done a good job in our shop along most dimensions of WFH. If I had to pick an area for improvement, it would be setting expectations and goals, and reviewing them regularly.

Cal Newport, writing recently in the New Yorker, says in the modern office, supervisors provide clear goals and leave employees alone to figure out how to accomplish them. This hands-off approach is appropriate for complex and creative office work, he says. Ambiguity and fluidity aren’t necessarily drawbacks, as long as they are balanced by continuous, informal course-correction. It’s this informal communication we’ve lost in the COVID era. (1)

These days, I’m much less likely to do the virtual equivalent of popping in. Not to overestimate the value of my unannounced visits, but these interruptions that contributed to distraction in the office were also the vehicle for a lot of clarification. The interruptions served a purpose, one we should replicate if employees are going to apply their newfound focus productively.

What was once informal (though disruptive) has not been effectively replaced by informal online interaction, which tends to require planning and a certain deliberateness. We have to be more deliberate not just about what we do, but how we do it, Newport writes. As organizations consider extending work-from-home into the future, beyond COVID, it is important that we diagnose these issues.

Newport suggests that our loosely-run organizations adopt some of the project planning tools of software developers, which provide transparency across the whole team as well as removing a lot of the ambiguity around which tasks have been assigned to whom.

“More structure, more clarity, less haphazardness,” he says.

Talk to your team and each individual about your, and their, expectations. Set goals and measures of success to ensure accountability. Regularly review goals and progress. Continuously reclarify at the team and individual level to maintain focus, and modify as needed to ensure progress is actually being made and that team members are engaged.

Remote work carries the promise of focus, but it will remain only a promise unless we ensure people are given a relatively small number of things to work on at a time and are able to go deep on them with a clear sense of direction.

  1. Why Remote Work Is So Hard—and How It Can Be Fixed,” by Cal Newport, The New Yorker, 26 May 2020

Pivoting to hope

Tigers living in the Bronx Zoo have been found to have COVID-19. I read that news on my phone late at night and asked myself, “Wait, you mean cats can get this?”

Is it helpful that, minutes before going to bed, my last thought of the day is that our neighbours’ roaming cats could be spreading the virus from house to house?

No, it’s not helpful.

The news has a seductive quality. Keeping up on developments feels necessary, even responsible, but the tiger story convinced me that it’s corrosive as well. From now on, I will tune in to the public health updates and do my best to tune out the rest.

Or at least tune in to the positive. The curve is flattening, even descending, in some countries and regions. This is not reason to become lax, but is evidence that this crisis won’t last.

It may be time to start talking about that with our teams. To this point, I’ve been stressing that we are in this for the long haul, because I wanted people to act quickly to make their home workstations comfortable and safe, and not to hoard (and, potentially, lose) their vacation days.

Some of us have family members who are in danger. I don’t want to minimize anyone’s genuine anxiety. For the rest of us, it’s time to devote some mindshare to the post-COVID future. When I get a chance to do so, it’s a welcome relief.

So implement your new CRM, plan for your next campaign, pursue professional development for you and your team, talk with donors about their dreams, work on strategy – and push on.

Since this thing began, we have been absorbing the idea that the way ahead is uncertain. Well, everything has always been uncertain, hasn’t it? What is certain is that this will end. How we think and behave now will decide whether we arrive on the other side exhausted and depleted, or invigorated and ready.

When the novelty of work-from-home wears off

Our sector is undergoing a massive work-from-home experiment. The experiment is universal, but for our sector the change is especially dramatic. Whenever some of us get a chance to think (between one videoconference and the next), our minds turn to what this might mean for the future of the office.

No question, work-from-home is technically possible. A few weeks in, it is clear that cloud-based software and videoconferencing are passing the test. If there’s a drawback with remote work, it isn’t the tools.

However: consider what the current experiment means for its human subjects.

Everyone has moved offsite in a matter of days. People are now socially isolated, without normal supports. They may be forced to be productive in limited space shared with children, parents, roommates, and spouses who may also be working from home. Distance is impeding asking questions, sharing information, and getting to know others. On top of that there’s worry about an unrelenting crisis with personal, local, and global effects, with no end in sight.

If this work-from-home experiment were a real experiment, it would be ruled unethical.

The pandemic will subside, and with it, the need to isolate and the general anxiety that wakes us at 3 a.m. (However, if people weren’t already somewhat anxious before the crisis, they weren’t paying attention.)

Other effects remain to be discovered.

Remote work might be normal in the private sector, but I question whether it translates perfectly to mission-driven organizations. A mission-driven organization requires inspirational leadership and engagement around shared purpose, not just hitting numerical targets. To say that the higher education and non-profit sectors need to get with the times and embrace private-sector models of work would be classic bizplaining.

We should also recognize that the likelihood of having adequate home-office space breaks along the line of income and reporting level. Implemented poorly, across-the-board work-from-home would impose disproportionate costs on lower-income workers. Implemented fairly, work-from-home might be costly for organizations.

Certainly, the best thing for our students would be to be back in classrooms and labs. The common campus experience levels the field somewhat for students from different economic backgrounds. More fundamentally, a university without physical proximity is not really a university. An experience based on engagement with the world balanced with an encounter with the self does not translate to digital. I am not convinced this is opening a new era for learning.

It may, however, be a new era for administrative offices. I’m intrigued about the possibilities of more flexible work arrangements that benefit people and organizations. Employees skip the commute while organizations free up some space – it sounds win-win.

We may be still be blind to the downsides, though. Let’s get through this first, and take careful notes.

Business continuity is not business-as-usual. It’s taking care of people.

Many classrooms at universities across North America will be empty come Monday. Staff in advancement shops, though, will report for work, either in person or remotely. Some will wonder, does fundraising and engagement go on through such a crisis? Why are we even here?

It does go on, and it should go on, even if it’s over the phone or by email. The conversation will be different. Now might not be the time to ask, but it may be the time to connect, to commiserate, to seek advice – to deepen the relationship. Your most committed supporters remain committed, even if financial support is not what’s uppermost in their minds.

(There is so much useful advice out there. I don’t intend to promote one vendor above others, but do check out BWF’s whitepaper: Tips for Remote Relational Fundraising. It has practical and timely advice for every advancement function.)

Fundraisers need supports and tools to do their jobs. Relationships need to be managed. Business continues.

“Business continuity” sounds like a cold and heartless expectation for these days, but really it starts with not only ensuring the team is safe, but ensuring that everyone feels safe. It’s about communicating openly and honestly, and exercising flexibility and understanding in dealing with fear and anxiety.

Priority number one is ensuring the health and safety of your team. Nothing else comes close in importance. Follow the directives of health authorities and the leaders of your institutions. No exceptions.

The rest is up to you. Do it poorly, and all the social distancing and technology for remote work you’ve got will fail to deliver continuity. People need to know their work is important, but they also need to feel secure. And if they don’t feel secure, they should be free to express their fears and be taken seriously.

Your university probably has mental health supports for employees. The most immediate support, however, comes from managers and leaders. Not in terms of providing mental health supports that only a professional should provide, but in understanding and respecting the anxiety of employees (who may be worried for vulnerable family members), communicating honestly about our shared stress, and being flexible with work arrangements when possible.

If a business continuity plan is in place, it’s a given that something significant has happened. Never say it’s “business as usual,” because your people know that it isn’t.

So your horoscope says you’re an introvert

Have you ever been made to take a personality test as part of a job application? I have. And I learned a lot from it – although not about me.

The test was administered and interpreted by an associate professor of industrial/organizational psychology, consulting for the recruiting firm contracted to help fill the position. I was not surprised by my test results – introvert, detail-oriented, compromise-seeking – but I found the professor’s interpretive report a little on the negative side.

I got the job. I was offered the opportunity to meet with the professor. I showed up at his office keen to learn how I might compensate for deficiencies in my psychological makeup that would hold me back as a leader if left unaddressed.

You see, years of exposure to conventional wisdom about personality types had conditioned me to suspect that introverts don’t belong in leadership roles or collaborative work environments. Or maybe they can be admitted as long as they undergo the personality equivalent of conversion therapy.

For example, I once attended a team meeting on talent development in which one of the participants presented resource materials that essentially stated that introverts are best suited to working alone doing repetitive tasks. I should have objected but I said nothing.

(Introverts are well represented on my team. I can attest that no one in Advancement works in isolation doing solely repetitive tasks. No one.)

But I have an open mind, and I listened to what the professor had to say. Which wasn’t much. He seemed evasive, and I left with an empty notebook.

A few weeks later, I read a story in the local paper based on an interview with this same associate professor. He had co-authored a study on people who lie during job interviews. He said he had found a link between personality and deceptive interview answers.

Introverts, he found, tend to be less confident, and use deception to cope with the perceived difficulty of the interview, while extroverts tend to be more honest.

“What we found is individuals who are more extroverted, that are more conscientious and are more experienced and have better prepared for an interview (tend to) use more of the honest strategies,” he said. “While those who are more introverted, less conscientious, less prepared, and maybe less experienced, they go in the interview and apparently they tend to be less confident. They perceive the interview to be more difficult for them and then they use the deceptive strategy as a way to kind of cope with the anxiety that can arise because of the situation.”

I have not read the study, and the reporter may have mangled the message; the quote suggests the study included multiple variables. But it made me angry. I’ve kept the newspaper clipping for years, intending to write about it, but my anger has prevented me.

I’m still angry, but I write now because I fear that some hiring managers might actually believe this.

Personality testing has validity, and can be used for self-reflection and for helping diverse personalities work together. But barring people from higher levels of employment based on dubious interpretations of ambiguous data is wrong and harmful.

It is harmful to individuals, to teams, to organizations. We deny opportunities to talented people, or those talented people self-select out of the running. The psychological diversity of our teams that encourages good decision-making is impaired.

Personality is not irrelevant in assessing fitness for a role. But I know many extroverts – either I work with them or love them – and believe me, extroverts (as a group) are no better equipped to handle life and the world and leadership than introverts are. (And in some cases, I see people judged unfairly based on their extroversion — it can cut both ways.)

Personality testing is interesting the same way the starry sky is interesting: full of real and complex phenomenon. But if you’re a hiring manager or a potential job candidate, please don’t be swayed by astrology.

Figure out what you want to do, versus what you want to be

What is a “job”? It seems a very solid thing. Often it isn’t. There’s a job description, some records in the HR database, a payroll arrangement, a title on a business card, a set of performance objectives, a workspace, and a lot of assumptions and expectations spoken and unspoken.

As a container, a job is less like a box with hard sides and more like an elastic bag. It changes. It can shrink in places, stretch in others.

Late last year, President Obama came to town. In his wake, a remark he’d made about advice to young people became widely quoted. He said, “Worry less about what you want to be and worry more about what you want to do.”

This advice translates to the workplace. Ambition expressed as a desired job title or income level is uninspiring and empty. Better to study how your organization’s strategic goals align with what gives you meaning, and think how your role could evolve to serve that alignment.

Your supervisor might not be asking you what you would like to accomplish, what gives you joy, or what purpose you want to pursue via work. But you should certainly ask those questions of yourself.

Shiny objects, bright ideas, and your team

Recently I read about a cool project in a magazine and shared it with one of my managers. Another university had had success with it, it was related to a challenge we were having that week, and honestly it was just cool. I had some level of self-awareness at least: I described it as a shiny object that I was just passing along for interest, and said I would not follow up. To her credit and mine, it has never come up since.

No harm done, I suppose. And ideas are good, right? But a supervisor’s ideas, even off-the-cuff ones, are hard to ignore. This manager might have moved my idea from pile to pile for weeks, unsure what to do with it but reluctant to throw it out. Like an appliance left plugged in that draws current in a steady trickle, it might have exacted a small but real cost in mindshare.

Better to jot the idea down and let it rest. I’ve always enjoyed musing aloud about cool things, but coming from the leader of a largish team, such talk may not read as blue-sky chitchat. Some people will give impulsively-shared ideas no more weight than they deserve; others will be alert for cues about what they should be doing. The latter will misinterpret notions as direction.

If you’re into brainstorming, it should be a planned event with ground rules and equal participation by all.

The problem with passion

The advertisement posted above the heads of my fellow bus commuters read, “Follow your passion.” The ad was for a career college. We hear that phrase all the time, follow your passion. The poster caused me to reflect on its implication. Which is, I think, that everyone has a “passion,” that we know what it is, and that success lies in acting on what we know.

As if one’s passion is a door with a sign on it that you simply open and walk through.

Perhaps you’ve had the experience, as I have, of sitting in a staff meeting wondering what the hell’s wrong with you. You looked around the room and thought, “Jeez, all these people seem so into it.” You wonder if you belong there.

A wise colleague once warned me against the mistake of “comparing your insides with everyone else’s outsides.” People in a meeting show their carefully curated outsides. That does not make them fakes. It makes them just like you.

It pains me that anyone is unhappy and restless because they think they’re lacking the critical ingredient of passion. Some people burn with an inner fire driving them to great things; the rest of us are fuelled by a steadier flame, something less dramatic, less ephemeral.

In place of passion we need a grounding of care. When you are responsible for something that matters, when for this stretch of time that thing depends on you and your team, an ethic of care begins to build and strengthen. You grow into it, and it in turn makes you grow.

In caring we achieve the inner harmony that brings joy at work. But this requires discovery, and discovery requires time, and time requires patience. It’s very different from the notion of a passion stamped on your soul for which there’s one matching purpose out there in the world. That’s a tall order leading to anxiety and frustration.

No one should take career advice from me. But I’ve gone outside the comfort zone of my supposed passions many times, and there I have found a universe of things I’ve come to care about deeply.