There's been some talk about what people will wear when they return to the office, whether it will go back to formal or be more like leisurewear. After months of not really thinking about what to put on, just whether it’s clean, decent and comfortable (and, let’s be honest, sometimes only the last one), we’re now confronted with the additional cognitive load of thinking about how other people will see us.
At the heart of this is how we want to present ourselves to the world. Most of us aren’t going to go out in the stuff we wear around the house. OK, I draw the line at going to the shops in my JimJams and slippers but I realise that not everyone recognises that boundary! However, we’d all dress up a bit to go out with our friends for a drink or a meal. So obviously, we’re going to do the same when we go out to work.
Whether we go back to formal wear, or we have some new form of wardrobe (Polo shirts, chinos and loafers were the ‘dress down’ items of choice in my day), we will have some sort of ‘Business Dress’.
My question is, does that Business Dress represent a uniform or a costume?
If it’s a uniform, then we are showing conformity. Obedience, even.
If it’s a costume, then we are playing a role. We can diverge from the norms but we are presenting a version of ourselves.
Either way, there’s no way we are bringing our ‘whole selves’ to work, or being ‘authentic’. Or are we?
Perhaps we’re just wearing armour. Which is why we put it on in the first place.
Out Of My Mind
Susan David, author of ‘Emotional Agility’, put out a post the other day saying that all emotions are normal and it’s normal to experience them, it’s only a problem when we get caught up in them (I’ve probably badly paraphrased what she said but I can’t find the original). However, it reminded me of a point she often makes, that our emotions are data and we should listen to them and use that information in our decision-making (or rather our sense-making, decision-making and action-taking as my mate Geoff would put it).
I have to admit, I have not found it easy to tune into my emotions, after years of suppressing and ignoring them. I’m still not great at naming them - David calls this ‘emotional granularity’ and my setting is still on ‘coarse’. But I do try to listen to them and broaden my ‘data set’.
Then I listened to an episode of the ‘Lead from the Heart’ podcast on ‘The Extended Mind’, a new book by Annie Murphy Paul, and found out that we have even more information to work with, the sensations in our body. We now know that we have neuro-cells all over our body and they are giving us information - what we often call ‘gut feeling’. Tuning in to these feelings is called ‘interoception’ and, much like with our emotions, we can learn to get better at it.
We tend to think about work in terms of the mind, how we think, the cognitive effort (I’m talking about knowledge work, really). We only tangentially think about our emotions (although well-being initiatives are indicative of a higher profile recently) and even less so about how we feel. These tend to be treated as ‘hygiene factors’ in service of our cognitive performance.
However, it seems to me that they are equally important and synergistic. If our emotions are pushed out of kilter, if a situation makes us feel off, then our ability to think suffers.
So when we’re thinking about work (and particularly work environments, physical and cultural), perhaps we should be asking how it affects our emotions and how it makes us feel physically, as well as how challenging it is mentally. We should create environments that enable people to be emotionally fortified, to feel good in themselves (literally), and to operate at a high intellectual level and we should explicitly attach equal importance to each.
It seems to me that such an approach would have a profound impact on how we design work and lead to some completely novel approaches.
I’m Still Standing
Resilience has become the latest buzzword to be used and abused in corporate-land. Resilience training has come to mean equipping people to cope better with all the toxicity and crap.
I came across another concept this week - durability (in my mate Mark LeBusque’s “The Simply, Practically Human podcast” episode with Derrick McManus).
If we take boxing as an analogy, resilience is the ability to get back up after being knocked down (or to use Ian Dowie’s immortal phrase ‘bouncebackablity’). Durablity is the ability to stay in the fight and not get knocked down in the first place. It’s the ability to roll with the punches, avoid getting hurt and keep your wits about you.
Resilience is a useful quality to have, no doubt. But it’s even more useful to avoid having to use it.
Durability is about developing your fitness for an environment, anticipating the situations that arise and being prepared for them, both with the skills and self-trust that will enable you to respond. It means that when a situation occurs, you don’t go into fight, freeze or flight because you have the wherewithal to deal with it.
Clearly, organisations should be reducing the level of toxicity rather than spending time and money on resilience training. Instead of handing out Wellington Boots to enable people to stand in the crap for longer, they should be cleaning the place up.
However, there will always be stresses and strains, testing times, ups and downs. That’s just part of life, in and out of the workplace. Teaching people how to be durable, as well as how to be resilient, would be money well spent.
Although if you teach durability to people in a toxic workplace, they’ll probably all respond by calling out the crap. Or leaving for somewhere better.
There’s a lot of focus on the ‘where’ of work right now but it’s a distraction, really (I posted about this on LinkedIN this week).
It’s the why and how of work that matter, and crucially, how we integrate work into our life.
Somehow, we got to the point where we were having to fit our ‘life’ around our work, and work was expanding into everything and crowding out ‘life’. We talk about ‘life/work balance’ because it’s the ‘life’ bit that’s suffering. Let’s be honest, if it was the other way around no-one would say a dicky bird.
The conversation about the ‘future of work’ is really a conversation about the ‘future of life’. We now know that we can be freed from the office and the 9-5 (or the 7-7, if you count the commute) and make more space for what’s important to us, for what brings us joy.
And life should be joyful. So, by extension, work should be joyful as well.
We don’t just need to de-crapify work. We need to en-joyify it too!