Make decisions that make you smile

Poster on decisions

A few months ago, I made a decision that didn’t make me smile.

The worst part was, I knew it right away. As soon as I made it, I had that sinking feeling in my gut, but I knew I needed a change, and I resolved once I had committed to a course of action, to make the most of it and apply all my energies to making it work.

Of course it was the wrong decision. The serious reservations I had going in transpired, and it took an immediate toll on my happiness.

Luckily, I was able to extricate myself from the situation and am now in a much happier place.

Sometimes the path forward isn’t always clear. But you will always discover the right path if you make decisions that make you smile.

Have a happy week…

Take a trip down memory lane

Author with friends at Kingston's waterfront
Our Welli Boot Toss team in 1999. Kingston Brew Pub used to host a charity event in support of Hospice Kingston where you throw a Welli boot as far as you can. I threw my back out shortly after!

I’ve been awash in memories these past few weeks. After 27 years at Empire Life, I am taking early retirement and will begin a new job as Director of Development with the United Way of Kingston, Frontenac, Lennox and Addington in May.

I’m sure most people on the verge of retirement find themselves taking a trip down memory lane, but for me, it’s been a constant flood of memories since I’ve also been going through my company’s archives these last few months.

I’ve found pictures of me doing crazy things for charity, like jumping in Lake Ontario on December 31, 1999 for Y2K in the Polar Bear Plunge, dressing up for skits as part of our annual United Way campaign, and uncovering every lame Halloween costume I ever pulled together at the last minute. (I was notorious for lame Halloween costumes; it became a bit of a running gag between Dave and me.)

Two girls jumping in Lake Ontario
Jumping in Lake Ontario for charity on New Year’s Eve, Y2K

I also came across photos of people who have passed away, friends young and old who I still think about and miss to this day.

What I didn’t find were any pictures of me working. While I had an interesting and varied career, it won’t be memories of work that I’ll take away from my time at Empire; it will be the memories of the different events, fun times and people who made work-life happy and rich.

This week’s #HappyAct is to rifle through an old yearbook, photo album or drive and take a trip down memory lane. Here are some more of the favourite pictures I found.

Acting in a play
Playing Dr. Evil in one of our United Way skits.
Serving cake at my company's 75th anniversary
Helping serve cake at our company’s 75th-anniversary celebrations almost 25 years ago
Dressed up to judge our Halloween contest
Judging our annual Halloween contest–our President Doug is wearing Dave’s kilt!
Dressed up as Queen Amidala from Star Wars
One of my lame Halloween costume pics, Queen Amidala from Star Wars
Dressed up as KISS for Halloween
One of my best Halloween costumes of all time, KISS with fellow bandmates Jon Begg, Chris Seymour and Tracey Hunt. Any time I had a good Halloween costume it was because my co-workers took pity on me and helped with my costume and make-up

My unscientific poll on work and happiness

happy co-workers

Recently I emailed a dozen friends and asked them three questions about how happy they were at work. The results were very revealing. The people who responded work in all sectors, government, private sector and self-employed. Here are the results of my unscientific poll on work and happiness:

My first question was, “Are you happy at work?”

More than half were not happy at work. Some said they were ashamed to admit it, because “they have a pretty good gig”; one person said they weren’t happy but planned to slog it out until retirement. A quarter of respondents said they were happy, and one person said at different times in their career they’ve been happy, and unhappy at other times.

When I asked what was the cause of their happiness or unhappiness at work,

On the plus side, the common themes were working with great people, loving what they do, and the variety of work. One person said they work in a low-stress environment and have an eight-minute commute, so they can come home for lunch every day if they want.

For those unhappy at work, here were some of the reasons they cited for their unhappiness:

  • Lack of involvement and inclusion and team camaraderie.
  • Being tired of dealing with some teams who don’t appreciate the work they do.
  • The inactivity associated with being on a computer eight hours a day.
  • One person said working within an environment where there are too many people in authority who “literally don’t have a clue what they are doing” and a “poisonous” atmosphere as a result of so many people being off on leave, creating more work for those left behind who are still working diligently.
  • One person who is self-employed said, “I’m bored, but I like the flexibility of what I do, so I stay at it. Also, the administration associated with being self-employed is a tough slog. I’m always behind on that, so that creates guilt that I’m not keeping on top of things.”

My final question was “What would make you happy or happier at work?”

  • Being valued and respected and having their work acknowledged was a common theme, along with being able to do more of what they love to do and having challenging projects.  
  • Better work-life balance, and being compensated fairly and seeing more transparency in salary grids were cited as other key factors.
  • One person said they’d like to have a friend at work and work with a diverse team.
  • The one person who was unhappy at work in the “poisonous” environment said they cope by focusing on their family, volunteering and sports and outdoor activities to remind themselves of what’s important in life.
  • On a lighter note, one person wanted a Keurig machine, a fitness room with a treadmill or exercise bike and another an office cat (for me, it would be a dog!)

So what does this tell us and what can we do to be happier at work? Scientific studies show having at least one good friend at work is a key contributor to happiness. Making sure we choose a positive environment where we work with good people and where our work is respected is critical.

As we emerge from this pandemic, we have a unique opportunity to redefine our relationship with work. At the core of the discussion should be these three questions.

Special thanks to the people who participated in my unscientific poll.

More reading on work and happiness

The key to job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world

I love my job sign

You can’t read a business article these days without some reference to The Big Quit or The Great Resignation. According to a report by Morneau Shepell, one of the country’s biggest HR consulting firms, 25% of Canadians are considering leaving their jobs. Companies are scrambling to try to figure out how to hold on to their top performers and lure the brightest minds to their organization. We’ve entered a new war for talent.

Flexible and hybrid work and employee wellbeing seem to be the two top themes, with competitive compensation and benefits programs now being table stakes.

I believe while providing flexible work and focusing on employee wellbeing will be important, they will not be enough to create true job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world.

There’s an obvious answer to this pressing problem that everyone seems to be missing: the key to job satisfaction in a post-pandemic world will be in the work itself.

Let me explain.

The Friday before my birthday, I started working on a project around 3:30 in the afternoon. Fridays tend to be quieter days for me at work: there are less meetings and interruptions. It was a project where I needed concentrated time to think and focus. I worked away at it, and when I looked up at the time, it was after 5 p.m. So much for knocking off a few minutes early on my birthday weekend. But for the first time in a long time, I felt good about work. I was able to think creatively, immerse myself in a problem and logged off feeling an immense spurt of satisfaction.

I had achieved what the work experts call “flow”. Flow is a state of focused attention so intense it doesn’t allow you to have cognitive bandwidth to do or think of anything else. It is an intersection of optimal being and optimal doing and when we achieve it, it creates inner harmony and happiness since we feel engaged, productive and in control.

Flow is like REM sleep, but for work. To be healthy and productive, our body needs to experience deep REM sleep every night. If you don’t, you feel tired, irritable, and you can’t concentrate or focus.

For many knowledge workers, work has become a constant barrage of emails, zoom calls and interruptions which is affecting our wellbeing and happiness at work. We are not achieving REM at work.

In this article in positivepsychology.com, researcher Mihály Csíkszentmihályi summarized it this way: “The happiest people spend much time in a state of flow – the state in which people are so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter; the experience itself is so enjoyable that people will do it even at great cost, for the sheer sake of doing it.”

One of the biggest benefits of flow is that it amplifies performance. Author Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his book Outliers that a person needs to do something for 10,000 hours to master a skill. In a 2014 study called the Flow Genome Project, author Steven Kotler estimated this time can be cut in half by achieving flow.

The interesting thing about flow is knowledge workers to some degree have control over flow. We can intentionally structure our workday to build in concentrated 60-90 minute sessions of work, we can turn off notifications, establish no meeting windows, and purposefully not check email. But I firmly believe companies need to wake up and create a more conducive environment to create flow in work and greater job satisfaction for their employees.

Some companies are already doing this. In my blog post The Future of Work, I talked about a Fortune 500 software company in India which tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The company experienced a 65 percent increase in productivity but also reported employees experienced an increase in work satisfaction. They discovered the most important factor in daily joy and motivation was a sense of progress.

Hiring more employees, and cultivating a culture that encourages time spent on creative and strategic thinking and innovation are two more things companies should be doing to help employees do their best work and achieve job satisfaction.

This week’s #HappyAct is to achieve flow in your work this week. Leave a comment. How did it make you feel and did it increase your job satisfaction?

I’m an Eeyore and I’m OK with that

Eeyore

When it comes to work, I’m an Eeyore, and I’m OK with that.

When someone proposes a new idea, I immediately begin to think of all the problems or things that would prevent it from succeeding. It’s not that I don’t support the idea, most times I do, but my brain kicks into logistical overload and I think through all the obstacles and challenges that would need to be overcome to make it happen.

It’s a blessing and curse…especially when you’re known as the happy act blogger.

But I’ve come to embrace my Eeyore and I believe it has helped me in my communications work.

It allows me to anticipate problems, think things through, and make better decisions.

It has helped me to develop emotional intelligence and a risk lens, so when the time comes to execute, we’ve done a good job planning and preparing for most contingencies.

It has also helped me to accept the things I cannot change, courage to try to change the things I can, even if I haven’t mastered the wisdom to know the difference.

Dan Rockwell in his Leadership Freak blog says you can be negative and still succeed. Overly optimistic leaders minimize challenges, fail to anticipate problems and are more likely to throw in the towel when success doesn’t happen quickly.

Being optimistic is great, but blind optimism is dangerous.

This week’s #HappyAct is to embrace your Eeyore but never lose the faith.

Serenity prayer

Hope for a better tomorrow

rainbow of children

Tomorrow we kick off our United Way campaign at work. Our theme this year is “A better tomorrow” to reflect, positivity, hope and to inspire change.

I’m hopeful our Empire Life campaign will be a success. Each year we raise more than a quarter of a million dollars for United Way programs and agencies across Canada, an impressive feat considering we have less than 1,000 employees.

But I’m hopeful for so much more. I’m hopeful that the worst of COVID is behind us, at least in Canada.

I’m hopeful that the lessons we’ve learned about the great divide between the privileged in our society and those less fortunate are taken to heart, and we take a critical look at our systems, supports and programs to make change for a better tomorrow.

I’m hopeful that companies will be brave and bold as they envision the future of work to provide a more holistic, balanced approach so employees around the world can lead richer, more rewarding lives.

I’m hopeful we can finally turn our attention to the greatest challenge we face: the climate crisis and saving our planet for ourselves, our children, and our children’s children.

These are big hopes, I know, but I can at least do my part by giving to United Way and help build a better tomorrow, one person, one program at a time in my own community.

This week’s #HappyAct is to give to your local United Way. Did you know the KFL&A United Way was recognized once by Charity Intelligence Canada on their top 100 Rated Charities list for 2021? They also recently announced a special Women United Challenge Grant. Under the existing Leadership Challenge Grant, supporters who give $1,200 or more and increase their donation or those who make a new $1,200 gift will see their donation matched. With the addition of the Women United grant, women donors will see their donation matched by both grants – tripling their impact through United Way KFL&A.

The missing ingredient in remote work

Work desk

The debate on the future of work rages on (you can read about my vision for it here). This fall, many companies announced they would start bringing people back in the office. With a fourth wave of the pandemic underway, many of those same companies have deferred their plans indefinitely, making remote work here to stay.

For those of us toiling away in our bedrooms and basements, we’ve had plenty of time to contemplate what’s missing in remote work.

The prevailing wisdom is what’s missing from remote work is the four C’s: collIaboration, connection, communication and culture. While all of these things have suffered a decline to varying degress, they are not missing from remote work. We’ve still managed to collaborate, communicate and stay connected with work colleagues.

No, the key ingredient missing in remote work is energy.

There is an undeniable energy in being around and working with people. When you meet or bump into people at the office or work together in person, you feel the energy level in the room rise. Ideas are born, connections are made. Energy fuels creativity, learning, innovation and propels action. We are driven to take action and succeed, which drives a sense of purpose and accomplishment.

It has been said for introverts, this pandemic has been a blessing. It has allowed them to work quietly on their own, focus on their passions and be happy. But for extroverts who rely on the energy of others to give them strength, and help them be the best version of themselves, the pandemic has been crippling.

The problem is introverts and extroverts alike need to be re-energized from time to time, and most remote workers are running on dangerously low batteries.

This week’s #HappyAct is to assess your energy level and needs. How are you doing? Share an idea on how to fill the void so we can all recharge.

Our emotional connection to work

Last week, I listened to an interesting webinar about our emotional connection to work, facilitated by Dr. Laura Hamill from Limeade.

For many of us, our relationship with work has been put to the test this past year. Some workers have grown closer to their employer, building a stronger relationship based on trust, some have struggled with feelings of separation, while others are considering breaking up with their employer.

While intuitively, we’ve always known we have an emotional connection to work, the pandemic has been a coming of age for our relationship with work. It has caused many people to reflect on what they want from their job, where they want to work, and how work contributes to their overall wellbeing.

Dr. Hamill talked about the factors that affect our wellbeing. There are some factors we have little control over: our genetics, underlying health conditions, personality, and socioeconomic status. The factors we have more control over include our mindset, habits and behaviours, social supports and relationships, and the organizational supports companies put in place for their employees.

While many companies stepped up during COVID to provide supports for employees coping with the stressors of the pandemic, Dr. Hamill maintains tools and programs are not enough. In order for us to be happy at work and have a positive sense of wellbeing, we need to feel like we belong, valued, productive and contribute to the organization’s success.

For this reason, culture, employee engagement, diversity and inclusion and employee wellbeing are inextricably linked.

As we reimagine the future of work, it will be imperative to put employee wellbeing at the forefront. If we don’t, we could be in for a nasty break up.

Graphic source: Limeade, 2021

Forgive me/she/her

Pride month poster

June is Pride month. A few weeks ago, I finally changed my autosignature to include my pronouns she/her at the end. I’ve been meaning to change it for almost a year now, but finally got a round tuit at the hardware store when I was on vacation last week.

I’ve always considered myself an ally of the LGBTQ community and am looking forward to seeing a rainbow-filled feed on my social media channels on Tuesday.

But I confess I sometimes do find it hard to navigate this world of diversity and inclusion. It will be only a matter of time before I make a mistake and will have to ask for forgiveness.

For instance, I was writing an email to my team last week. I have a small team and we all know each other pretty well, so our work emails are pretty informal.

I started out writing my normal, “Hey guys, I’ll need to move our regular team meeting…” But then I remembered reading an article that said “guys” is inappropriate since it implies men and excludes others. I say this to my family all the time so hopefully I’m not insulting Grace and Clare the next time I say, “Hey guys, what do you want for dinner tonight?”

I thought about “Hey gang” but was afraid it might be discriminatory against people in actual gangs or imply they were a bunch of miscreants or hooligans.

I tried “Hey folks”, but then wondered if that had southern connotations, even though we don’t live in the United States, or a rural connotation that might be offensive.

I’ve sometimes used “Hey peeps” which seems pretty harmless, but could be racist towards chickens.

In the end, I just went with “Hey team”. Whew, problem solved.

You see my dilemma.

I know I’m being cheeky and there is a good chance someone who is reading this has already taking offence to me making light of an important subject.

I believe people have a right to be called whatever they want, whether it’s he, she, per, ze/ziethey, or they. Addressing people the way they prefer to be called is simply a matter of respect and is no different than when women started challenging the use of Miss and Mrs. as part of the feminist movement.

Personally, I don’t care what I’m called as long as you don’t call me late for dinner.

I know I have a lot to learn. I will make mistakes. I just hope you forgive me/she/her when I make them.

And to all my LGBTQ friends, I love you just as you are. You are authentic, funny and strong, and I am proud to celebrate by your side, a true ally, this month. Happy pride month, everyone!

Ed. Note: The dilemma of how to address people was encapsulated perfectly in the Saturday Night Live skit, “It’s Pat” in the early 90’s. Here’s an episode where the friends of androgynous Pat throw a birthday party for them. SNL was always on the cutting edge of societal issues. While the character of Pat was a caricature, the humour was in seeing how people with good intentions tried to unearth clues as to how to address Pat.

The future of work

future of work sign

There is a raging debate going on about the future of work. Companies are considering whether to continue to let employees work remotely, return to the office or adopt some form of hybrid model when the worst of the pandemic is over.

As I said last week, we’ve learned much in the past year. But I fear that as a society, we will let a precious opportunity slip through our fingertips: the opportunity to finally redefine our relationship with work, to seek a greater work-life balance and truly imagine a brighter future, one where we don’t just spend our days making a living, but living our best lives.

Here is my vision for the future of work.

First, employees would be able to choose how many hours they want to work a week. Imagine if you could say to your employer, I want to work 24 hours a week, 30, or 32 hours a week so I can pursue my passion, whether it’s painting, writing, running a side business, or volunteering.

Employees would have more flexibility to choose when they work. 6 a.m. to noon? No problem. I was reading one study where 15% of workers said they’d prefer to work in the evenings or at night so they could do things outside during the day. Depending on the role, why not? It could also help with child care challenges for working families.

We need to discover how to bring joy and fun back into our work world. The reality for many office workers is their day consists of never-ending emails and meetings, distractions and interruptions that is making us unhappy at work. When you feel like your day consists of putting out fires and you haven’t accomplished what you set out to do, it’s disheartening. Even before the pandemic, people were habitually checking email 74 times a day and switching tasks every 10 minutes. 

There are many, innovative solutions to making work fulfilling again.

Let’s start by hiring more people. I believe too many companies are running too lean. There are simply not enough people to do the work. If some people opt for shorter work weeks, there could be the opportunity to hire people and distribute work a bit more equitably to help ease stress and workloads.

We also need to be smarter about how we spend our time during the workday. Companies could establish designated meeting times, and work times to help people concentrate and accomplish meaningful work, without disruption.

Several years ago, a Fortune 500 software company in India tested a simple policy: no interruptions Tuesday, Thursday and Friday before noon. The company experienced a 65 percent increase in productivity but also reported employees experienced an increase in work satisfaction. They discovered the most important factor in daily joy and motivation was a sense of progress.

We’ve also learned working from home this past year the importance of human connection. We miss our colleagues dearly.

The future of work needs to include being together again, but not dictated by arbitrary policies. Being able to collaborate, have fun together, celebrate successes are all great examples of when it will make sense to bring employees together in person. Training is another thing we’ve learned is a much more richer experience in person than remote learning.

Good workplaces will develop a do good culture. Providing opportunities for employees to get involved in their communities, and volunteer for worthy causes will add a new layer of purpose to work. Some companies already offer up to five days a year for employees to volunteer for local charities.

The future of work also includes more vacation. There will be a pent-up demand for travel when borders open up. North Americans could learn from other countries like the UK where residents get 28 days of vacation a year, France 25, and Germany and Australia, with 20 days.   

Finally, companies need to adopt the ner way of business. Ner is the business philosophy where the most important aspect is people and leaders only need to create an environment where people can excel. Companies have no hierarchy, just self-managing teams. Ner companies donate 3% of their profits and 2% of employee time to contribute to social projects and top salaries can’t be more than 2.5X higher the lowest salary. The ner philosophy creates more human, meaningful and entrepreneurial workplaces. And it works. Watch this video to learn more about ner.

Yes, we have a unique opportunity before us: to reimagine the future of work. Companies that are short-sighted will focus on one aspect: place.

Companies that are progressive and visionary will focus on outcomes and a new, more human philosophy towards work.

Who would you rather work for?