Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Working for a Living

They say that if you love what you do, you'll never work a day in your life. I am not sure I ever believed or even understood the meaning of that quote until I started working for myself. As a freelance writer, I finally know what it means to love the work I do. And to be proud of the work I do. I have gotten so much positive feedback from my clients, which makes me feel great. I know that I am really helping them. And I enjoy the satisfaction of creating something out of nothing. Or even improving on what someone else has already written.

I also have to admit that I love working for myself. I work at home in my yoga pants, or sometimes my pajamas, every day. Occasionally, I might have a conference call with a client to discuss a project, or I might interview someone for a story that I am writing. But that only happens a few times a month. (I always set an alarm on my phone to remind me of conference calls because they are so rare that I am afraid I might get in the zone and forget to call in!)

Most of the time, I am left on my own to just think and write. Even as I stare at that sentence, a sense of calm washes over me. I am left alone. To think and write. What could possibly be better than that.

Of course, there are challenges associated with my line of work. I have to pay for my own health insurance, which seems to be getting more expensive every year. And I never know exactly how much work is coming or when. I just need to have faith that when I run out of work to do, something new will come along. It has been working that way for the last two years.

Unfortunately, not everyone gets to live and work the way I do. In fact, most people don't. It seems like everyone I talk to lately has been complaining about their job and how unhappy they are at work. Even Mark Johnson, who is usually pretty easygoing, has been struggling at his job. And I completely understand where they are coming from. I know I wasn't happy when I had a corporate job. In fact, I was so unhappy in my job that it made me sick.

After hearing all of these stories, I have to wonder if these companies have any idea that their employees are so unhappy, or why they are so unhappy. I would like to believe that if companies really understood this, they would want to try and make things better. And yet, if you do a quick scan of your LinkedIn feed on any given day, there are tons of articles about what makes good employees leave and what makes them stay. There have been hundreds of studies and books written about these topics too. There is certainly no lack of information out there.

And here I am, writing about it too. Not because I believe that companies will read this and decide to change their ways. Companies, in fact, can't read this. Which is part of the problem. Only people can read this. And even though companies are made up of people, they do not think, feel or behave like a person. And they do not have the powers of perception or empathy that people have. Companies are institutions, just like so many other institutions I have written about in the past, like the healthcare system or the education system.

As an outsider looking in to the corporate world, I see the same patterns repeating over and over again. These are the things that make people unhappy at work:

1. Dealing with bureaucracy. Too much paperwork. Policies and processes that make no sense. It wears people down and leads to frustration.

2. Working with difficult people. Just like a family, people do not get to choose who they work with. Dealing with people who are negative, competitive, obstructionist, passive-aggressive, narcissistic, dishonest, or a variety of other difficult personality traits is emotionally exhausting.

3. Working with a difficult boss. Everything I said above is even more challenging when the person is your boss.

4. Companies making bad decisions. Leaders in companies seem to be out of touch with how things really work. When companies make bad decisions, employees start to lose faith in the company. Over time, it results in a lot of eye rolling. It is hard for people to work for a cause that they do not support.

5. Unreasonable expectations. People are being asked to do more with less. Their bosses pile on the work and they do not take anything away to make room for the new tasks. People feel pressured to work nights and weekends just to keep up. And they feel like it would be a sign of weakness to ask for help, or even say no to a new assignment.

6. Meeting overload. There are way too many meetings. And most of them are not productive.

7. Lack of personal space. With all of the open concept and pod designs for offices, no one has any privacy at work. It is hard to concentrate when the person next to you is coughing in your face and you can see what everyone else is eating for lunch.

I am sure there are other things you could add to the list. It is definitely not all-inclusive. But it hits a lot of the highlights. I used to be unhappy at work just like everyone else, until one day I wasn't anymore. Even though I knew at the time that something was wrong, I am not sure I could articulate it as clearly until I started working for myself and had a different experience to compare it to.

Working at home, I don't have to deal with any of those things that make people unhappy at work. Generally, I am given a task to accomplish, along with a timeline. Other than that, it is up to me to decide when and how to get it done. I don't waste a lot of time in my day. I usually work for 4-5 hours per day unless I am on a big project for a client that requires more time. Working in a quiet space and not having all of those unnecessary meetings allows me to focus and get my work done, with time to spare.

Most of the people I work with are super nice and they are happy to have my help. On the rare occasion that I encounter someone who is not so nice, at least I don't have to meet him in person. Since most of my jobs are short term, I only have to deal with that person for a limited time. It is a lot easier to handle those types of situations from a safe distance, sitting at home in my yoga pants.

As a freelancer, I am my own boss. I have a lot of clients that I am accountable to, but none of them have the power to make me work over the weekend if I don't want to. Sometimes I might choose to work over a weekend if a client needs something urgently. But I get paid by the hour, and sometimes with an enhanced rate for overnight or weekend jobs. And my clients respect my time enough that they generally don't ask me to do that unless they really need it.

When I consider all of the things that make people unhappy at work, it really boils down to one thing. In order to be happy, you need to feel like you have some control over your life. And in the workplace, there are so many things that are out of your control, whether it is your work hours or having to sit through unnecessary meetings or listen to an angry rant from your boss or a co-worker. If there was a way to give employees more control over their work time and location, it would make a huge difference.

If people could choose their co-workers, that would make an even bigger difference. I know there are things like 360 degree feedback, but that never really gets to the heart of the problem. What if employees were given a chance to vote one person out of the office each year? The person that got the most votes would lose their job, even if it was the boss. I know it sounds crazy and it probably violates a ton of employment laws. But if everyone knew there would be a vote like that, it could help to clear the crazy people out of the office and keep the good employees. Maybe it would make people behave better at work, even if it was just out of fear of being voted out.

More realistically, what if there was a survey that went out to all employees every quarter that asked one simple question: Is there anything or anyone that is making you unhappy at work? If so, please explain who or what is making you unhappy. I think that companies could get some really great data just from asking the right questions.

Working as a freelancer has changed my life. Even if the pay is significantly lower, I make up for it with all of the other benefits of living life at my own pace. Working in my pajamas with the balcony door open and the air flowing through the apartment, and generally not having a negative interaction with anyone during my entire day.

If all of these negatives were taken out of the equation in the workplace, people would be able to get their jobs done and still have time in their day to focus on the things that matter. Even if companies don't really care about whether their employees are happy, they probably care a lot about whether their employees are productive.

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