If you’re like millions of other people riding the pandemic roller coaster, you’re re-thinking your world of work.
You’re likely using technology in ways you didn’t imagine a year ago. Your morning commute may be no more than those 25 steps from the kitchen table to that folding table you set up in the guest bedroom. It’s probably been months since you shook hands with a client (or anyone else, for that matter). You sometimes use the term “new normal,” but you can’t be sure what that really means because “new normal” is so fluid.
So you’re examining your work life in ways you never before found necessary. You have a zillion questions about the future and your place in it.
Jonas Altman can help. He’s an expert in leadership and workplace practices and author of Shapers: Reinvent the Way You Work and Change the Future.
In the first part of this conversation, he offered counsel on how to clarify purpose and derive meaning from work. Now he explains the individual’s responsibility to create joy and satisfaction in work and how to stay adaptable. This is counsel worth a careful look.
Rodger Dean Duncan: You use the term “engaged workaholism.” What exactly is that?
Jonas Altman: Whereas a workaholic exhibits an avoidant behavior, an engaged workaholic demonstrates a deliberate one. When we find meaning in our work–seeing it as a joyous endeavor—we don’t necessarily need to recover like “unhappy workaholics” who might be obsessed with their jobs but don’t actually like them. For engaged workaholics, their toil does not function as a diversion but as an indulgence.
Duncan: What are the steps to transforming a disliked job into work that is appreciated and even loved? And whose responsibility is that transformation?
Altman: One way to turn that god-forsaken job you have into one you love is through job crafting. Dissatisfaction breeds innovation and this practice can help you examine and re-jig your tasks, relationships, and mindset.
In one extraordinary case, a hospital cleaner took it upon herself to perform many activities in addition to her usual duties. She regularly dusts the ceilings so patients don’t have to stare at the dirt or cobwebs. She often takes water to thirsty patients between nursing shift changes. For comatose patients, she even changes their surroundings in the hopes that it might improve their well-being (or potentially help wake them up). This cleaner sees herself not just as a cleaner but as a caretaker. Expanding her job, within reason, enables her to derive much more satisfaction and enjoyment.
Sometimes business conditions are just too toxic to permit fruitful job crafting. While the onus for appreciating your own work rests with you, leaders and colleagues certainly can, and should, support in helping make this a reality.
Duncan: Our world of work is changing faster than ever. What can people do to ensure that they stay adaptable to emerging opportunities?
Altman: Set ambitious yet realistic priorities and monitor them with regular and balanced input and reflection. Draw hard-nosed boundaries to remain focused during your most creative hours. Fine-tune your attention, stay conscious of your moods, stay present and sense what is needed in the moment. Stay steadfastly accountable to yourself and to others. Take a diverse and nimble approach to work by having a solid skillset and be developing others as you go. Make sure you’re always learning how to learn how to change.
Duncan: Can people engineer serendipity? If so, how?
Altman: Yes. Here are some ideas on how—continue doing those things that light you up. Remain open-minded. Have good thoughts in your head. Be in the right places. Connect people. Do the right things. Start with the give. Chose curiosity over judgment. Learn to let go and never stop learning.
Duncan: “Self-management” is an approach that a growing number of companies are adopting with their people. What’s the key to making that work?
Self-management is predicated on trust, competence, and dignity. It’s an ongoing experiment that evolves over time much the same as people do. And so the first thing required is a willingness to take the plunge.
It’s also easy to think of self-management as prescriptive, but what works for one company won’t necessarily work for another. It’s an attractive theory, but putting it into practice can be a real drag. When workers cannot hide from the truth, egos, fears, and motivations are all exposed. This emotionally charged atmosphere can be both powerful and paralyzing. And the vulnerability required in self-management cultures is not for the faint of heart. Many folks don’t want to deal with all the extra office baggage when they get enough of it at home.
The Covid pandemic has helped push some companies that may not have been ready for self-management in the right direction. Others that were cultivating the practice are now doubling down because the model is purposefully designed to harness more of our human capital at a time when we need it most.
Duncan: What can people do to set boundaries for themselves so they can overcome (or altogether avoid) an addiction to busyness for the sake of busyness?
Altman: Benjamin Franklin used to ask one question in the morning: What good shall I do today?
At the end of the day he’d ask: What good did I do today?
We can start by emulating this and getting real clear on our priorities and our values. We can appreciate that our creative and cognitive energy is limited and we need to be extremely discerning in how we expend this finite resource. Why? Because when we get too busy our attention gets hijacked. Then we end up making terrible decisions on how to spend our time
Unfortunately, it’s still commonplace to find workers very busy but not necessarily productive. That’s why shapers work in bursts, rest often, reassess on the regular, cultivate support networks, remain sensitive to their circadian rhythms, and are honest with themselves about how they can be, and work, at their best.
Finally there is no more work-life balance, there is only the blend. And if you’re too busy to see this then you really need to stop and take a look around.
This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.