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Why are millenials workaholics?

Millenials are workaholics, research suggests. They are more likely to give up paid leave, and to see themselves as “work martyrs”, than previous generations, and the research seems to stand up to removing the variable of age from the equation. But why?

The HBR blog reporting on this latest piece of research ties the trend to an increase in narcissism, in a belief that one is an important person, as well as increased economic vulnerability: higher levels of personal debt, unforgiving housing markets, etc. So, it’s a combination both of a sense of self-importance and a fear of irrelevance? I guess millenials have got a lot of issues to work through…

I don’t really think of myself as a millenial, but technically I am (1981 feels like a really early start-date, demographers!). So I thought I would write something about loving work, and how we learn to love it.



What do you do? Or, How do we talk about our profession?

I rather like The Book of Life, which is part of The School of Life, founded in 2008 by philosopher Alain de Botton. The School and the Book both offer a secular approach to making our emotional lives more fulfilling. In particular, I was struck the other day by their piece on how our work shapes our entire lives
Given the number of waking hours that our work consumes, and the prevailing culture of overworking (be it real or perceived) in many sectors, it is worth interrogating what our jobs mean for us. The question, “What do you do?”, although tedious, is a common one, particularly at networking events or events with friends of friends who might not share our own interests. For those of us who spend much of our social time with work colleagues, like I do, work-chat more generally can consume much of our free time.
When talking about work, we often link it to objective events and activities, day-to-day tasks and connections with things that are in the news. To focus on the psychological requirements and consequences of our work, as the article suggests, offers a radical shift away from seeing ourselves as tools that produce action in the world to see, instead, the equally real but more intangible human elements of our work. 
The question that the article poses is: “What is the psychological character of your work?” To answer requires deeper thought about elements of our professional lives that perhaps we do not think about very much at all. Except in my most cynical moments, I tend not to think about the emotional toll of my toil, or indeed the emotional rewards of it. Yet, of course, my work encourages certain of my traits and weakens others. The article suggests a set of possible traits to consider in formulating our answers to these questions:
  • Patience vs impatience: is the job ‘fire-fighting’ or strategic planning?
  • Suspicious vs trusting: does the job require getting at the hidden truth, or working with people who are upfront?
  • Speculative vs concrete: are you focused on innovation and what-might-be, or carefully attending to practical details of the here-and-now?
  • Consensus-seeking vs independent: is the ability to take a collective view more important than taking a personal viewpoint or offering an unusual approach?
  • Optimistic vs pessimistic: are you encouraged to focus on the positives, or to tackle dangers, pitfalls, and looming disasters?
  • Financially focused vs sheltered from finance: does status in the profession vary hugely with wealth, and the work encourage thinking in terms of profit-and-loss?
  • Fragile dignity vs solid status: are workers subject to deep rebuffs, with work in which they are heavily invested emotionally being easily and frequently rejected? Do capacity or qualifications dictate success?
  • Better nature vs worse nature: does the job remind you of the best in life, or introduce you to the worst of human nature?
  • Logical vs haphazard hierarchy: is it clear how progress and promotion are earned, or is there a strong element of chance, leading to anxiety and distrust? 
  • A declining vs growing industry: does it feel as though the golden age of your profession is past, or is it emerging into new arenas?

It might be possible to establish a generic profile for work, such as in academia. I am not, currently, an academic, but I am a PhD student, as well as holding down a full-time job in an organisation with some clear homologies with academia. I often think of whether or not I wish to jump ship and move into academia. Perhaps the way to make the best decision is to think not of the tasks that the job requires, but to think of the psychological profile of the career path. It would be easy to construct an ideal image of academia, founded on trust — a meritocratic, rational set of peers — and solid status, but that is clearly not the experience of a large number of people working in the industry. So, for those currently working as academics, how would you sum up the psychological profile of your job, and its impact on you?

Image used under a creative commons licence

When tech companies can do good in the world

‘How it Works’, #385 from the brilliant XKCD.com

Tech companies are renowned for eyes-bigger-than-their-belly mission statements. Facebook, no exception, has the mission: “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected” (taken from the Investor Relations FAQ section, or you can go to their oddly meta Facebook page…)

I’ve never been quite sure about whether Facebook was doing good with this mission. In the main, it has meant Facebook pushing at the norms of ‘sharing’, seeking to transform sharing — our thoughts, our information, our data, our time — into a default mode of behaviour online. (For more, see my review of José Van Dijck’s Culture of Connectivity).

However, sometimes, making the world more open and connected means working to change norms that really do need to be changed. A few weeks ago, Facebook  made public some of its training videos about an issue that affects everyone’s daily experience and makes some of us less equal than others: unconscious bias. For Facebook, propelled in no small part by Sheryl Sandberg, making the world more open and connected is supported by a subsidiary mission: “building stronger, more diverse and inclusive organisations”. Facebook has always been bold about being the change it wants to see in the world, and often that can come at the expense of individual users, with data being exploited, users tracked wherever they are online, etc. But, in this instance, Facebook is actually trying to do an unequivocally good thing. Let’s suspend speculation about precisely why and take them at their word when they say their goal is “to achieve broader recognition of hidden biases” and offer a “framework for action” by all organisations. 

Tech in general is rightly criticised for drawing the bulk of its staff from certain groups: mainly male, mainly Caucasian or Asian. #ILookLikeAnEngineer, arising out of sexist commentary about software engineer Isis Wenger’s (@IsisAnchalee) appearance in ads for her firm, demonstrates perfectly just how far we still have to come, not only in tech but in society generally. Consequently, Facebook is not the only company looking to tackle this issue. Google has also been striving to tackle unconscious bias in a public way with anti-bias workshops and coaching sessions, as it has repeatedly been called out about its biases, including in the seemingly innocuous Google Doodles: Spark Summit did an interesting report last year about the rate at which Doodles honour white men. Google Ventures even positions itself as leading the research in this field; this is rather cheeky, given that unconscious bias has been studied academically for decades…. It will be very interesting to see whether Alphabet manages to do better at being more diverse and representative across all levels of the organisation(s), at any rate.
Although tech companies might not be breaking new ground, then, they are opening up the issue, popularising initiatives that tackle unconscious bias at organisational level, and making more readily available resources that can help educate and inform everyone. It’s also an interesting corrective to the increasingly pervasive sentiment that being mindful about everything is all we need to make improvements. David Sze at HuffPo wrote recently about the limits of what introspection can achieve. Research challenges our self-images, suggesting that we are poor judges of the sum of our behaviours, and how to correct flawed patterns of thought or behaviour.

As well as large tech firms trying to lead the way in airing these issues, there are start-ups expressly designed to act as correctives. Textio, for example, promises software that will spot gender biases in job adverts. This is an area that lends itself well to the start-up culture because the landscape is constantly changing. As certain biases are exposed — such as male candidates being more likely to apply for a job that requires a “proven track record” — others will take their place. A constant cycle of close observation and innovation are needed, and this is where re-inventive tech companies and new start-ups can offer most hope for keeping up with and tackling new problems. 

For those interested in exploring their own unconscious biases, it’s worth taking a look at Project Implicit, which is a Harvard project founded in 1998 that studies unconscious bias and offers a range of implicit association tests. The tests are completely free online and seek to measure attitudes and beliefs that one wouldn’t consciously express.

Marketing MOOCs for the CV arms race

Male-female gap among higher education and MOOC student rates in developing countries (c) New Republic

I’ve been taking MOOCs for years, watching sites like Coursera and EdX develop from a small handful offerings into something decidedly and globally on-trend in the higher education sector. At first, in 2012, the motivation for many of the courses that sprang up seemed to be love of learning, and providers seemed to offer liberal arts education at the far reaches of the word ‘liberal’, a utopia of free access to knowledge that could democratise education across the globe. However, MOOCs have so-far proved a bit of an echo chamber.

Although it only covered EdX, a recent MIT-Harvard study found that 40% of MOOC participants are teachers, an astonishing statistic. 70% of all participants already have BAs. An earlier study, which focused on UPenn Coursera students, found that students tended to be young, well-educated, and employed. MOOC participants are well-educated people who value learning and education. Those without access to tertiary education, particularly in developing countries, are under-represented. Meanwhile, philomaths with relatively high levels of privilege flock to subjects that can bolster their CVs and enhance their careers, choosing computer science over the humanities at a ratio of nearly 4:1, and MOOC sites are developing ways to monetise their offerings: verified certificates, ‘nanodegrees’, and ‘specialisations’.

This suggests that, without further efforts to deliver on the oft-quoted democratising aims, MOOCs will become a new tool in the increasingly frenetic CV arms race, often starting at undergrad level, which already sees students throwing thousands at professional qualifications (the UK legal profession is a prime example and has been for years…), and those with masters degrees taking entry-level jobs.

At the moment, MOOCs’ pay-off for participants is still unproven. Whether they will prove valuable on CVs will depend on how employers across industries respond to verified certificates, ‘nano degrees’, and ‘specialisations’. However, the increasingly professionalised offerings (a course on Public-Private Partnerships starts imminently on Coursera) suggest a wholesale divergence from what many had initially hoped would be the result of the MOOC explosion. Capitalising on the insecure labour market with career promises is the clear intention of some sites. Udacity’s front page recommends “pick which programming language to learn first based on salary, geography, application types and recent trends”. There is no particular love of learning here. Even the suggestion that the decision is based around the “lifestyle you want” is suspect. Salary comes first. It’s all about the ££.

To me, one of the most worrying elements of the MOOCs-in-an-arms-race is the gender disparity, in developing countries, between male and female participants in MOOCs (30%) versus in traditional education (10%). We already know women often have to appear more qualified than male competitors in order to land a job. Taking a MOOC in one’s spare time to boost one’s CV, particularly a paid one one leading to a verifiable certificate or the completion of a particular ‘track’, might become another hurdle to women participating on equal terms with men in the labour market. Advantages and disadvantages will continue to accumulate on either side of a MOOC-divide, and those with more free time and free cash will push even further ahead.

So it is with a rather heavy heart that I must confess to having succumbed to the lure of Coursera’s ‘signature track’. I could say that it was all because of the allure of the Leadership specialisation that might be coming soon, which course announcements have taken care to mention. I could point out that I’ve taken a few leadership-related MOOCs before, and I’m particularly passionate about women’s leadership roles. I could claim to be investing in MOOCs as a whole (or Coursera, at least). All of these things played a part in the decision. However, what tipped me over the edge was something incredibly petty: the ‘signature track’ badge in the Coursera forums.

I don’t even particularly like the forums. They’re badly designed, leading to many repetitive discussions/comments because submitting something is more valued than contributing to a good conversation. But it was the marketing of the ‘signature track’ within them, seeing the little badge repeatedly, that reminded me of the reasons one might pay for the signature track, proving effective on me in a way that the countdown for signing up had never been.

The first time I posted in the forum after I’d paid up, the badge came up next to my name, and I felt immediately suspect. I looked again at the badge, one of the few on display on that particular page. And it occurred to me, rather too late, that in fact those little badges are more questionable than the direct positioning of MOOCs as weapons in a CV arms race, because they make inequality tangible in the day-to-day space of the course. Why should fellow students know that I am on the ‘signature track’? That information is imposed on my fellow students because I have chosen to pay up. Within a course, signature track students might have access to additional resources, and will have a different certificate at the end of it, but the forums, where posting is often mandatory, are a digital space that now explicitly privilege some participants over others. Coursera’s marketing proves more effective by virtue of creating a hierarchy of students. If an arms race between MOOC participants starts within the pedagogic space, then the education on offer is ‘liberal’ in only the shallowest sense of the word.

I’m really rather ashamed of myself for signing up to it.

To diarise or not to diarise, that is the question

Wired has published a gently critical article about Timeful, Google’s recent acquisition, and the very premise of a calendar that not only logs formal appointments, but draws together your personal and professional meetings, tasks and goals into a time-efficient daily schedule based on your instructions.

To me, it sounds like an excellent idea, but Kyle VanHemert’s (@KVanHemert) article warns that “We quickly get into some weird territory” with the prospect of apps gaining control over not only our actions but also our behaviours. I thought it would be worth exploring the rhetorical questions he raises at the end of the piece:

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid? Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

VanHemert wrote about Timeful back in September 2014, when he asked “How much scheduling is too much?”, although the feedback from Timeful’s user testing was apparently in favour of ‘more app’ rather than less.

On the one hand, I share the implicit concerns about the social and leisure aspects of life all becoming structured around or mediated by technology. On the other hand, VanHemert’s latest article has a dismissive undercurrent that seems to belittle those who aren’t superhuman, who can’t keep on top of everything through sheer willpower while spontaneously producing perfect ‘quality time’ moments with friends and family.

I don’t use Timeful (although I’ve now downloaded it, so I can test it out myself). However, for about two years I have been using a set of calendars and various to-do list apps to achieve the same goal as the app from Jacob Bank, Yoav Shoham (@YShoham) and Dan Ariely (@DanAriely, whose Predictably Irrational I enjoyed, but sadly didn’t get around to reviewing). I have a group that (right now) looks something like this:

Of these apps, I use three daily: Balanced, Wunderlist and Calendar.

  • I use Balanced as a gentle reminder for regular health/wellness activities that I have a lot of time flexibility about doing (e.g. running and yoga). It’s freemium, so I only have five items on my list, but it suits me well for this small niche, and I like the gentle nature of its reminders.
  • I use Wunderlist to-do lists (in the app and browser version) for work and PhD tasks, but also for personal activities, like a monthly reminder to do online banking, and, yes, although this might fill VanHemert with horror, my list includes reminders to call relatives or speak to people.
  • I have (as a second calendar in my work exchange account, no less), a ‘health and wellbeing’ calendar that marks out when I aim to be in bed, mealtimes, the days when I plan to do long runs, etc.

These apps and diarised items are cues for me to be mindful of my goals, aide memoires that draw me back from the next work/academic task. Timeful’s punning name puts mindfulness up high on its list of values, and I appreciate that. It is an invitation to use the tools available to help me, but not to abdicate responsibility. If decision-making, even about trivial matters, is fatiguing, then why shouldn’t we use these technological prompts?

So let’s return to VanHemert’s questions.

What does it mean if I give my calendar domain over the rest of my time? 

It means I am according social activities — and personal goals — the same respect and attention as more professional and academic ones. By doing so, I prevent my professional and academic diarising from slowly flooding out from the 9am to 6pm, Monday to Friday ‘work window’ by granting other times of the week parity of esteem and using them in the calendar accordingly. They are not simply ‘free space’ into which my work can spill.

Can you schedule leisure or spontaneity? 

This question is leading. It clearly privileges spontaneity as a valuable trait in and of itself, setting it in opposition to the verb ‘schedule’. But unscheduled does not necessarily equal better, more enjoyable, or more valuable to the individual.

So let’s focus instead on leisure. This, one can certainly schedule. Think about the lunch-hour. I have had colleagues who, despite being very senior and very busy within an organisation, always eat lunch between 1-2pm. They use the time to decompress, meet more junior colleagues, socialise. They are protecting that time for themselves. Sometimes the conversation might be boring, and perhaps they would have better spent that leisure hour at their desk instead. But they don’t, because the principle of having an hour for colleagues and oneself is more important.

Do you want to have to set a reminder to spend time with your kid?

This is another leading — and loaded — question. Making time for quality family time is not inherently bad. It’s not about setting a reminder. It’s about carving out and protecting time. I set reminders to call my family because otherwise I might not remember until my brother is putting his baby to bed, and then either I would interrupt him (and her), or he and I wouldn’t speak to one another.

I include such things in my to-do because I value them and they are time-sensitive. I am not embarrassed about diarising them. The damage done by missing moments of connection is far worse than being seen to rely on to-do lists.

Are you really living life to the fullest if you only do so when your artificially intelligent calendar blocks off an hour labeled ‘live life to the fullest’?

I work full-time (until recently commuting between two countries to do so), am doing my PhD part-time, have great relationships with my friends and family, and my partner and I just got married (co-organising a fairly large wedding in a city where neither of us live). I think my life is pretty delightfully jam-packed. If Timeful can make it even better than my combination of tactics and apps, then all the better, and Slate’s reporting of the possible future for Timeful within Google is very promising!

The purpose of line management

As well as it being that time of year again (i.e. annual appraisal rounds), I am just returning to a role with line management responsibilities, so the function of line management was very much on my mind when I ran across a blogpost on Medium (@Medium) about how they run their review processes: MadLibs. Okay, that sounds at first like an off-the-wall, ‘only in California’ approach, but Gabe Kleinman makes a persuasive case.

I think almost every organisation that surveys its employees regularly will find that complaints such as ‘better line management’ and ‘more focus on learning and development’ crop up routinely and persistently. It sounds like Medium has come up with a way to break the cycle of complaint –> HR ‘innovation’ –> patchy implementation –> complaint. Rather than laborious soul-searching assessments or ‘off-the-peg’ feedback, their approach sets out some key issues that should be addressed in any feedback process and makes it easy. Those feeding back (including as part of ‘360’ appraisal) answer questions like:

  1. I can count on [x] to ___
  2. When things are going badly, [x] does/is ___ and ___
  3. Some areas for growth include ___ and ___
Gage’s post describes in more detail how Medium implement their approach in practice, but what I think is key is the values that are implicit in this approach: that the heart of line management is developing staff. On a day-to-day basis, there is the assignment of work, and there’s always management by exception, being able and willing to intervene when things within the team or with an individual’s work is going poorly, but these are really the manager fulfilling their responsibilities to the company or organisation; where managers can really add value is in how they fulfil their responsibility to direct-reports: facilitating learning and development. An appraisal system like the one Gabe describes puts this front-and-centre, instead of systems that focus on how well the direct-report has done in serving the company, ticking off objectives, which essentially opts the manager out of the most challenging but important element of the line-management relationship.
I am definitely going to be giving some thought to how the principles and ideas behind Medium’s approach could be integrated in my organisation, and in my own line management!

Career progression and careerism

I think I am not too much of a careerist. I enjoy having a lot of pans in the fire; I did better in my liberal arts degree when I had more courses, rather than fewer; I have a history of studying on the side of whatever I am doing ‘full time’ (work or, indeed, other studies). I have a certain admiration for those at work who are blatant careerists, successfully manoeuvring themselves into various prestigious posts, sometimes at quite a lick, because I find it impossible to make the prestige of the job itself my sole focus. Nevertheless, I wonder whether this might harm my career.

I’ve spent the last few weeks applying for promotion and preparing for an interview to that effect (hence the silence here), and I want to reflect on some of the questions and insecurities that chasing career highs can throw up in some sectors. This post was prompted in part by Presmued Incompetent (well worth reading), and in part by a junior colleague asking one simple question about the promotion process: ‘Do you think it really all comes down to whether they like you?’

I don’t work in higher ed (the focus of Presumed Incompetent) at the moment, but my public-sector employer is similar to a HE institution in some respects: a relatively small organisation staffed by a small corps of ‘lifers’ and others who float in and out, giving rise to a constant undercurrent of ‘churn’ (and of being overstretched); ostensibly professionalised and yet not quite there; and vaguely militaristic in its culture of duty and service. And because it is small and relies so heavily on a culture of behaviour to which everyone is expected to conform, ‘whether they like you’ lurks beneath the surface of career progression ostensibly based on ‘competences’ and ‘people strategies’.

As a person who can be task-focused, my immediate (slightly paranoid) reaction to the question of whether it’s all about likeability is, ‘I hope not!’. I spend less time sizing up my senior colleagues to identify which of them might be ‘useful’ than some of my peers. Liking someone and judging whether they meet the required competences are, however, so often intertwined, that the question needs exploring.

I have some faith in the objectivity of our HR function. If one were failing badly with respect of a competence, one would know about it sharpish, and any interviewing panel would not be swayed by personal preferences. But what about if one is failing/passing arguably? This makes me uncomfortable. I am happy to argue for myself, but if, in the closed room, senior colleagues are arguing for or against me, then does it all really come down to whether they like me and my attitude to the job? And is that why, instinctively, knowing that I am not really ‘clubbable’ (I can sometimes be mouthy about my feminism and atheism, and terse when over-worked, and erratically dressed…) I come to rely on my willingness to work hard, taking on the things that need doing but are lacking in prestige, hoping that this will be a saving grace in terms of ‘like’.

This approach has its Type-A resonances. It still has the sense of careerism about it, with decisions about resources being made on the basis of hoping to progress, but it is the (discredited) flip-side of careerism that many women find themselves trapped by, when in a number of workplaces saying ‘no’ to certain tasks (and pursuing certain others) is really valued, rather than contributing heavily across the board.

I am suspicious that, even when trying to play my career the way that my most careerist male colleagues do, I can still fall into the trap of letting myself be sucked into ‘service’. When I do think that I am acting in a careerist fashion – such as applying for, and taking, a role that involved temporary promotion – later experience leads me to wonder whether I have shot myself in the foot. Far from being a wonderful stepping stone, taking that role benefited the manager who advised me to apply (no one else applied!) and prevented me from taking part in a number of development and learning opportunities that might (I’ll have to wait and see) have helped me achieve a permanent promotion more easily. Perhaps I lack the discernment necessary to be a successful careerist. But what if that is (secretly) one of the competences for promotion?

Whatever happens, this promotion round might be revealing in terms of how careerist I need to be in order to progress in the organisation. I’ll need to take stock of how (typically) careerist I want to/can be, how ruthless in accepting or refusing tasks based on their clear connection to a further promotion rather than how much I personally enjoy and value the tasks (e.g. induction training for new colleagues). Whether I succeed or not, this is a litmus test for whether my values match up with my organisation’s, at least at the upper levels.

At the lower levels, I sort of already know the answer. Because what gets to me is a sense of paranoia, thinking that my careerist peers will be shaking their heads at my foolishness and chuckling because it helps them. If I were to stop approaching my job on the basis of my own values, passion and enthusiasm, it would be not because I want to beat everyone, but because I fear being (and appearing to be) beaten, particularly as a woman, knowing that female careers are often stalled by a willingness to take on too much, spreading ourselves too thinly.