I #ChooseToChallenge but respectfully

Author and her daughter holding their hands high in solidarity for International Women's Day

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day. This year the theme is #ChooseToChallenge. The rallying cry is not just to celebrate women’s achievements, but to call out gender bias and inequality so “collectively, we can all help create an inclusive world. From challenge comes change, so let’s all choose to challenge.”

As someone who has witnessed gender bias and inequality and tried to advocate all my life for gender equity, I will hold my hand high to show my support with women across the globe but with one important caveat: I #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

We are living in very strange times indeed, times when even when you are trying to do the right thing and speak up, you can be vilified for your words.

Last month, actress Olivia Wilde praised her boyfriend, Harry Styles publicly on her Instagram feed for taking a supporting role in a film she directed featuring a strong female cast. She said “Little known fact, most male actors don’t want to play supporting roles in female-led films. The industry has raised them to believe it lessens their power (i.e financial value) to accept these roles, which is one of the reasons it’s so hard to get financing for movies focusing on female stories.”

The backlash was fast, furious and full of vitriol, accusing Wilde of praising Styles for doing his job or as one person said on Twitter, “the bare minimum level shit”.

What’s the lesson here? Damned if you do, damned if you don’t.

C’mon everybody. Speak up. Choose to challenge, but be damned sure you say the right thing.

I’m honestly getting really tired. Tired of people trying to do the right thing and being raked over the coals, tired of the haters, tired of the nastiness overshadowing the real, important conversations and hampering real change.

So yes, we must #ChooseToChallenge, but please, help make this world a happier and more productive place and #ChooseToChallenge respectfully.

My journey with repetitive strain injury

Blog post author in woods

I’ve often said it’s as important to know what makes you unhappy, as what makes you happy. For the past year, chronic pain has made me unhappy.

It all started a year ago when Covid hit and I began working from home. Those first few weeks were a blur. I worked long days on my sunroom couch in a bad ergonomic set up, putting in 55 hours a week issuing communications for my company.

In early April, I started to feel a pain developing beneath my shoulder blade. I quickly changed my workspace and set up a proper desk, but the damage was done.

As the pain intensified, to make matters worse, I stupidly kept working. I remember calling into some meetings lying on my bed sideways, because that was the only position where my shoulder didn’t throb. I couldn’t sit down for more than 10 minutes without searing shards of pain emanating up my back. At times the pain was blinding and I could barely concentrate.

I called my doctor, and he prescribed anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants. They helped, a bit, but it wasn’t until I was able to get in to see my physiotherapist that I started having success manage the pain. I was only one of three patients he was seeing during lockdown.

I also started heeding the advice of my health care professionals. I reduced my hours at the computer, took microbreaks, got a sit stand desk so I could work standing up half the day, and did eventually take 3-4 weeks off completely to let it heal.

It’s been a year and while my injury has still not completely healed, it doesn’t occupy my every waking thought now.

I wanted to share my story as a cautionary tale and to help others prevent injuring themselves while working from home. Here are some key things I learned:

  • People told me the pain should go away if you just change your ergonomic set up. This was not true in my case. I got a proper desk, set up a second monitor, got an ergonomic chair and sit-stand tabletop desk, anti-fatigue mat for when I was standing, and changed my set up several times. The pain did not go away.
  • With ergonomic injuries, if you start feeling pain, you’ve already been working too long. My physio and doctor both said you shouldn’t work more than 20-30 minutes sitting in one position and to take microbreaks throughout the day.
  • You need to give the injury time to heal. I didn’t. I stupidly kept working. I look back at it now and know I was crazy. I had lame excuses—now is not a good time, other team members were off on vacation or moving, it’s so busy. I thought of everyone before my own health. If there was one key thing (other than not injuring myself in the first place) I would have done differently, it’s I would have taken time off work immediately to allow my injury to heal.
  • The best advice I received was to keep moving. When I told my doctor, the pain subsided most when I was kayaking, he said I should set up my laptop on the top of my kayak. Any movement—walking, gardening, swimming, kayaking was the best medicine.
  • Get a hot tub. Seriously, if you suffer from any kind of chronic pain, a hot tub is so therapeutic. From April to June last year, the 30 minutes a night I spent in my hot tub was my only pain free time during the waking hours of the day.
  • Exercises are a must. Before I could even get in to see my physio, a good friend of ours who is a chiropractor set me up with a customized exercise program. I still do about 20 minutes of stretching exercises every day.
  • Be open to different types of treatments. In addition to physio, I went regularly for massages and also went to an osteopath for the first time. I didn’t know much about osteopaths, but in some ways, I think a few osteo treatments were more effective than any other paramedical provider. I tried every cream in the book, even marijuana cream.

It’s been a rough journey and I’m very relieved to say I’m much improved. One of the things I found most difficult was not knowing whether by continuing to work, I was continuing to injure myself, or just aggravating the already existing injury.

I have developed a newfound respect for anyone who lives with chronic pain. My heart goes out to you.

Finally, I want to recognize and thank all the people this past year who lent a sympathetic ear and who helped me more than you will ever know—friends who listened and sent me exercises to do, my family for their patience and concern, Latif Khoja at Sydenham Rehab Well clinic, Christina Marshall, my amazing massage therapist, Tony Barton from Barton Chiropractic and my wonderful doctor, Steve Ingo.

Let the sun shine in

While November is often thought of as a drab and dreary month, there is one redeeming grace. As a blanket of leaves forms on the ground, light floods into spaces that were previously dark or shadowed from canopies.

Let there be light. We need more light right now.

The psychological benefits of light are well-known. Increased hours of sunlight heighten the brain’s production of serotonin, which improves mood, alertness, productivity, sleep and mental wellbeing.  

Recently, we redecorated our sunroom. We love how the light fills the room. It is a very happy room in our house. But you don’t need to redecorate your house to find more light. Here are some simple things you can do to take advantage of the limited light in the darker winter months:

  • Go for a walk each day at lunch or rearrange your schedule to do at least some form of physical activity outside each day in daylight
  • Change your window coverings or clean your windows to let in more light. Using mirrors or rearranging your furniture can also result in more indoor light.
  • COVID is a perfect excuse to keep extending patio season. Visit a local brewery and have a pint outdoors or have your morning coffee bundled up on the front porch. On Saturday, we watched the sun go down sitting on a hay bale in front of a fire at Slake brewery, a new microbrewery in Prince Edward County. It was spectacular.
  • If you can, move your workspace to a place by the window or with better light. If no one is home, I often will dial into meetings from my sunroom.
  • Take Vitamin D during the winter months if you suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder or try a light therapy lamp.

This week’s #HappyAct is to let the sun shine in and keep smiling.

Always check all the boxes

Years ago, when I was applying to universities, Western University sent me a letter indicating I was on their waiting list to get into their teaching program. I had already received acceptances from the other universities I applied for, so I didn’t check the box to indicate I’d like to be kept on their waiting list and send the letter back.

What would have cost me five seconds of my time and a postage stamp was probably the biggest mistake in my life. And yes, if you read my blog from last week, this is one of my biggest regrets.

I would have loved to be a teacher. I once had a psychic tell me they saw me teaching small groups of people and to this day, when I get to run training sessions at work, I absolutely love it. Before I started my career, I seriously thought of going to China or Japan to teach English. Regret #2.

Instead, I wound up in insurance.

On career days at school, when they ask little Jimmy or Susie what they want to be when they grow up, nobody ever says “I want to work in insurance”. All of my friends in our industry say the same thing, we never planned to work for an insurance company.

But life has its own plans, and sometimes following fate’s footsteps isn’t such a bad thing.  

This has hit home for me several times over the years and especially this year during COVID.

I went to school for journalism, and even before COVID, most of my friends who went into mainstream media were forced to make career shifts as the industry became decimated and reporters and journalists were being laid off.

This year, I have been able to continue to work, and safely from my own home, while others in industries and professions that would have been thought imaginable are struggling.

Did I sell out? Maybe. Do I wish I had checked that box? Most definitely.

But I’ve been grateful to have a rewarding career and work with amazing, talented people who care about each other and the work.

Who knows, I may still teach some day. I believe it’s never too late to take on new challenges.

One thing I promise you, next time I’ll check all the boxes.

Go easy on yourself

inspirational saying

Each day since COVID hit, I’ve been sharing a daily dose of sunshine with my co-workers–a joke, a funny meme or just a thought to stay connected as we worked remotely.

Well, I’ve developed terrible tech neck and shoulder pain from working long hours due to a bad ergonomic set up, so I asked my friend Jessica Schonewille to send last Friday’s daily dose of sunshine. It made me smile and laugh. Here’s what she wrote:

“Happy Friday, friends! Laurie headed out early so I get the honour of brightening your day.

I’ve noticed some people discussing all the plans they had to get done during the quarantine–cleaning out closets, cabinets and cupboards–but they haven’t done anything on their list. A few even said they feel like a failure.

Well, that’s bullshit! (pardon my français). We’re living in unprecedented, unnatural times. Just the fact that you got out of bed this morning is something to celebrate! I realized an hour ago that I’ve been wearing my shirt inside out all day. It’s also the same shirt I wore yesterday. But who cares? Heck, my uncle used to say you could wear one pair of underwear for four days: frontward, backward, then inside out frontward and backward. Glass half full: I’m a day ahead of schedule. We’re winning, folks!

So my dose of sunshine is to remind everyone to go easy on ourselves. Don’t expect too much. If you don’t have the energy to tackle a home project, don’t worry–there’s plenty of time for that in the future. No desire to learn something new right now? Don’t stress about it. Something, someday, will fire up your passion and get you excited. Or not. And that’s ok.

If I don’t say it enough, I love you guys!

So…happy Friday! ❤

Play with happiness

Each one of us is struggling these days to stay motivated, find comfort, and stay happy during COVID-19.

On Friday, I participated in a group counselling session offered by my company. The theme of the discussion was dealing with self-isolation. It was interesting to hear how COVID-19 was affecting people in different ways and the strategies people were using to cope with self-isolation. If you’re as lucky as I am to have an employer who is proactively offering opportunities to take care of your mental health, I highly encourage you to take advantage of them.

If you don’t, the good news is there are many wonderful resources online to tap into. Last week, I shared Yale’s online happiness course. Another great resource is the Conference Board of Canada who has been producing short videos on mental health.

Here’s one to watch from Dr. Bill Howatt, Chief of Research and Productivity on the PLAY model to happiness. Dr. Howatt shares that while half of our happiness is genetic disposition, the other half we can directly influence through PLAY:

  • Finding something you’re Passionate about
  • Living in the moment
  • Finding one Awesome thing each day
  • And finally, Laugh, be silly, vulnerable and laugh often

Certainly COVID-19 has forced us to live in the moment, but the others may be a tall order these days. It’s still great advice at any time.

This week’s #HappyAct is to be proactive in taking care of your mental health and PLAY.

Coles notes on life

words hear me

Every time I come back from a conference, I’ve gotten into the habit of capturing key messages or ideas on one page that I hang in my cubicle. Usually it’s practical tips on how to be a more effective communicator.

This time, as I looked at my notes I realized the messages that resonated with me the most went beyond what I do for a living, so I thought I’d share them with you.

“We all need to be heard as humans, but there is a huge difference in who gets heard.”

 “Don’t go into every conversation thinking what you will teach, go in thinking what you will learn.”

“Stop repeating yourself—you’re just training people not to listen”

“Stop sharing everything you know in your head”

 “We should aspire for progress over perfection. If you’re not sure if something is good enough, ask yourself the question ‘Is this something only I would notice or care about?”

“Beware of HIPPOs: the highest paid person’s opinion in the room”

 “Never be constrained by your role”

I’ll add my personal favourite, “No stupid rules”. This week’s #HappyAct is to create your own Coles’ notes to live by. What would be on your sheet of paper?

How to make friends with the bots

talking to a bot

Let’s face it. Bots are going to take over the world. One day we’ll all wake up, and every online interaction will start with talking with a bot. Think of them as Walmart greeters for the internet (except that Walmart just announced they’re laying off all their greeters).

I’m fascinated with bots. In my work, I’ve been helping our bot team choose language that is friendly, clear and helpful. But herein lies the problem with bots. For communication to be effective, you need to understand how people are feeling, thinking, and what you want them to do. It’s called knowing your audience. And with bots, you’re not exactly sure what the frame of mind is of the person at the beginning of the interaction, and just as important, at the end of the interaction.

I’ll illustrate this by sharing my latest interaction with Koodo’s bot. Koodo’s tagline by the way is “Choose Happy”. It went something like this:

————————

“Hi Koodo bot. I need your help. My daughter has fried her phone a second time and I want to know my options for my contract.”

(Four options popped up for me to choose, none of them was what I needed help with.)

So I said, “I think it’s probably easier if I just called you. What’s your toll-free number?”

(The bot in its programming must have picked up on the keyword phrase “toll-free number” so it answered this)

“1-800 numbers are free of Long Distance charges, but the local minutes to connect you to the network are still billed at the local minute rate. The numbers you can call are (list of numbers). If you run out of minutes, you will be charged for additional airtime. You might get a prompt to a recording message if the toll-free number isn’t available in your area.”

Then it asked me if their answer was helpful. I gave it a thumbs down.

We went back and forth a few more times. At this point, I couldn’t believe how difficult it was to just get their stupid 1 800 number from the bot and the UX tester in me went into overdrive, so I wrote,

“OK, so what’s the number you stupid bot” just to see how it would respond.

The bot answered, “Now, now, let’s play nice!” and send me a GIF of Maggie Smith looking affronted.

giphy

OK, so I don’t know how you would react to Maggie Smith raising her eyebrow in a supercilious manner just because you wanted to talk to someone in customer service, but my emotional response went from a ha, ha, I don’t believe it said that, to incredulous, to how dare you, you stupid bot? I showed it to Clare who had been sitting beside me the whole time and asked her how she felt about it. She said the exact same thing.

Let’s just say, I didn’t “Choose Happy” from Koodo in that moment.

To end the story, I ditched the bot, found their 1 800 number somewhere else, called them and finally found a human that was very helpful and resolved my dilemma. I did have to wait on the line for about 10 minutes though to speak to said human.

So if bots are here to stay, how do we make friends with them? Here are some tips:

  1. First, go in knowing their limitations. Bots do serve a purpose—they can answer simple questions, freeing up customer service agents to address more difficult issues and concerns.
  2. Be aware if you are dealing with a bot or a human. Sometimes this can be hard to know. If you’re not sure, ask. You’ll know after the first few interactions when five lines of text appear instantaneously.
  3. If after the first few questions it’s clear the bot’s programming isn’t giving you what you need, ask to speak to a live person. Most bots that are programmed well with have a human offramp, where you just pick “speak to a person” and they’ll redirect your enquiry.

If all else fails, you can always derive some entertainment value by messing with it. Just be prepared for the Maggie Smith gifs.

52 walks later

Group of employees
Some of my co-workers who walked with me in 2018

For once, I followed through on a New Year’s resolution.

Last January, I posted this blog where I vowed to walk one day each week at lunch with a fellow Empire Life employee. My goals were to stay connected with my co-workers and what’s happening in the company, get in shape, and save money (as opposed to going out for lunch with people to catch up).

In full disclosure, I didn’t quite make my goal—work schedules, vacation, and a nasty gland infection in November meant I finished just shy of my 52 walks this year, but I figure I met it in spirit. Here is what I learned on my walks:

  • For some of us, a quick walk at lunch is one of the only times to ourselves. For instance, I learned one co-worker  has five kids under the age of seven, with two-year old twins. If I had five kids under the age of seven, I’d definitely need an escape now and then!
  • Every person has a story to tell. One of my favourite walks this year was with a co-worker who just happened to mention that her husband had received an invitation to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. She agreed to let me post a little contest on our company intranet to guess who the mystery wedding guest was. We had a lot of fun as people tried to guess which of us knew royalty.
  • People have many hidden passions and talents. Several guys I work with are beer aficionados and are members of the Kingston and Area Brewers of Beer club, I work with several “foodies”, and people love their pets!
  • Life is full of joy and challenges. Many shared their lives, struggles and challenges with me. It was a great reminder that you never really know what’s going on in people’s lives (despite Facebook and Instagram) and to always listen with your heart.

And finally, but I didn’t need 52 walks to know this, I work with some of the nicest, most talented people around. Thanks to everyone who joined me for a walk in 2018. I plan to continue my walks in 2019.

What’s your New Year’s resolution? Leave a comment.

Did Les Nessman have it right? My ideal office of the future

Les Nessman fake door sign

I’ve been watching with interest the discussion online about ideal office space and I’ve come to the conclusion Les Nessman had it right.

You may recall the classic episode from the 70s show WKRP in Cincinnati, where news director Les Nessman draws imaginary lines around where his office door should be and asks the rest of the office to respect his space.

There’s been a huge shift in the past five years to open, collaborative workstations.

The idea behind these workspaces was noble. Force people out of their offices and workstations, and you’ll foster collaboration, drive innovation and break down silos.

But as the saying goes, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and most employees who work in these cattle stalls report being unhappier at work and less productive.

They say noise levels and lack of privacy make it hard to concentrate and do “heads down” work and god forbid you try to have a conference call or hangout with someone. I was reading an article the other day where one employee said it’s actually hurt collaboration in their company, because most people now wear headphones all day and don’t talk to each other.

I have friends that work in some companies where they don’t even have a workstation any more. There is a space for their team and transient workstations for the days they are working in the office.

Now some may say, what’s the big deal, sounds great. People are working from home, they don’t need regular workspace. So what if it’s noisy?

Others say it is a big deal and we need to come up with a new approach that will achieve the original goals of openness and collaboration, but address the needs of modern work. I saw a design last week that had bizarre small desks that could move and looked like a honeycomb. It made me think of a hamster wheel. No thanks.

You see the problem is many of these so-called “experts” who are designing modern workspaces are overlooking some very basic realities and needs of office workers today.

The first is the importance of natural light. Number two is addressing the plague affecting office workers of the 21st century: inactivity. The third goes back to where I started this blog, Les Nessman and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs which states people by nature need to satisfy their physiological needs first (eating, drinking, shelter), then feel safe. It’s tough to feel safe in open workplaces.

So it got me to thinking if I could design my ideal work space, what would it look like.

Everyone would still have a desk or place to work with natural light. You’d sit in pods of four or maybe six with people you like. The pods would have chairs that are like ultramatic beds. Push a button and you are sitting up, or recline for casual conversation. When you didn’t want to chat anymore, you’d push a button and sound-proof glass would come up and you turn your chair like you’re on the Voice, and presto, you have peace and quiet for concentrated work.

There’d still be open, airy spaces where you could chat, have a quick meeting or just take a break. In every pod, or maybe in a separate area, there would be treadmills and exercise bikes fully wired so you could participate in a meeting or listen to a webinar while getting exercise.

There would be a Dog Café where you could bring your dog to work and visit with them over coffee or take them out for a walk at lunch. It would be street level and become a tourist attraction—people would come from miles to see the dogs in the window.

And last but not least, there would be a beer fridge and free beer for everyone on Friday afternoons.

Yes, that workplace of the future would make me happy.