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Wednesday, January 18, 2020

Wry Thoughts from Down Under

I should soon be able to report some results from the Slow Leadership survey. To provide some early context, you might be interested in a long opinion piece from a New Zealander, Finlay MacDonald (some Scots ancestry I guess), bemoaning the annual rash of "back to work" and "time to change your life" stories that flourish in the media during January.

There's a sour attitude about his article: a sense that the places where people work are not just bad but filled with futility; that working life is pointless and there's no escape. That may have been true of Mr. MacDonald's experience, but it is not true of mine. There are serious flaws in the way organizations operate, without doubt, but none are beyond cure. To present a viewpoint that decries honest people's efforts to improve themselves and their places of work seems to offer only fashionably resigned despair.

Here's how the article begins:
When I edited another weekly periodical for a living, this time of year often called for a "back to work" feature. This hardy perennial of the media garden could be reliably plucked during the usual news drought and rubbed in the faces of every poor wretch contemplating another 12 months of labour. The idea was to appeal to the worker/reader's aspirations for change or improvement. There was the "how to beat the back to work blues" version, the "how to get the job you really want" version, the "how to attain a better work-life balance" version, the "what are your chances of a pay rise this year?" version... all timed with sadistic precision for that moment when people step collectively and resignedly back through the door of the office.
Mr. MacDonald is obviously no fan of " … self-improvement manuals about working smarter, getting ahead, finding your inner entrepreneur—the fad diet books of the workplace…" Since this is high summer in the southern hemisphere, the return to work after Christmas and New Year coincides with the best weather for spending time at the beach. Those of us north of the equator are spared this added twist of irony. For Mr. MacDonald, it's the final straw in a long litany of complaints about the typical New Zealand workplace.

His view of the office environment is unreservedly negative. Referring to the British comedy series The Office (it later spawned a US version too), he says:
But what is it about the modern office that uninspires so? Ricky Gervais obviously had the answers when he satirised it in his transcendently funny series The Office: the torpor of memo-culture, the inane diversions people invent to make time die, the insanely finely-balanced and intense yet outwardly banal relationships, even the deadened acoustics of cheap carpet and ceiling tiles. Conceived as a mockumentary, it was closer to truth than any documentary could get. While Gervais relied on his own character, the knuckle-whiteningly gauche David Brent, to mine the big laughs, it was the desperately docile Tim who played the everyman—us—hideously conscious of the pointlessness of his work and his own paralysis in the headlights of a potentially wasted life. Ah, the cruel laughter of recognition.
All this may make a tempting approach for an article, but there's surely something missing. If office life—or maybe working life in general—is so bad, why doesn't he offer some suggestions to make it better?

The survey I launched recently has produced an amazing response—much greater than I anticipated. It seems the readers of this blog aren't giving up in the face of workplace craziness. They have plenty to say about facing the problems of today's frenetic environment. They're bright, intelligent people seeking practical ways to create a lifestyle with a sensible blend of work and play. What's becoming clear is that the major issues circle around having time to live a life that makes sense; not "the torpor of memo-culture," gauche superiors, or anything as literary as "paralysis in the headlights of a potentially wasted life." It's far too easy to poke fun at the workers—and their bosses—while ignoring the real causes of our stressful workplaces: the "audit culture" that reduces the heart-stopping complexities of human life to simple numbers on a balance sheet; methods of leadership that originated before the time of Julius Caesar (and haven't changed much since); and the stupendous greed of people already too rich to spend what they have.

Slow Leadership won't produce smart articles to rival Mr. MacDonald's offering, but we will try to offer practical advice—not clever essays on the supposed stupidity of other people. In that spirit, those of you who read my weekly guest posting on lifehack will have seen I've started a short series there called "Fight The Flab!" It's about dealing with the most immediate sources of workplace distraction: e-mails and Instant Messaging, cellphones and pointless meetings. If you haven't read Part 1, you might find it useful to take a look.

Mr. MacDonald's article eventually reaches this conclusion:
There really is no solution to the great work-life balance conundrum other than to tip the balance firmly in favour of life.
Hurrah for that, anyway. Maybe his heart is in the right place after all.

There's still time to add your voice to our survey. Just use this link.


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