Saturday, February 11, 2012

The new and improved, spontaneous and creative modern-day workplace

Ran into a former colleague yesterday; he left academia a few years ago and moved into industry. Not necessarily because he wanted to; more because there were no further possibilities for him to get more funding at that time, so when his contract ran out, he had no job. That’s how it works in academia. The nature of academic jobs is transient; if you don’t like this aspect of academia, it is not for you. Most non-tenured academics work contractually for three to four years at a time. But my former colleague was telling me how tough it has become to work and keep your job in the private sector as well. Not easy there either. You must like constant change, and you must adjust quickly. If not, you’ll be left in the dust and possibly without a job if you don’t keep up. There is a lot of instability there too, and you can no longer rely on finding a ‘permanent’ job. The public and private sectors seem to have discovered that the offer of a permanent job to an employee may make that employee complacent and thus non-productive over time. Of course that can happen. But does it always happen? No. What they haven’t factored into the equation is that without some sort of stability, there can be no productivity because there is no time to relax and to produce. If you are always worried about whether your job is to be eliminated or if you will lose your job because your performance is constantly being measured, you cannot produce well. That is my contention at least. My former colleague talked about quarterly performance evaluations. That must be extremely stressful. I think annual performance evaluations are enough.

I’ve talked to many different people who work in the public and private sectors, both here in Norway and in the USA. They all say the same thing—the work world has gotten much harder and tougher. Modern-day workplaces are now new and improved. If you don’t measure up, you’re gone. If you don’t produce, you’re gone. If you’re not creative, you’re gone. If you don’t like constant change, brainstorming, open office landscapes, and teamwork, you’re gone. If you’re a loner type, a non-conforming type, a quiet type, there’s not much room for you these days. You’re expected to conform, to avoid conflict but to be creative, to network, to connect, to work together in a team but to be creative, to be constantly on but to be creative and so on. I don’t know how all of this is possible. I find it difficult to draw a direct connecting line between creativity and productivity. A creative idea needs time to take root, to blossom, to grow. It cannot be pulled out by its roots before its time. It cannot be harvested before its time. This means that there is a time lag between the birth of an idea and the birth of the product that may come from that idea. What if it takes a year or two? What if it takes five years? Is that allowed these days? All I know is that scientific research cannot and does not work like this. It’s hard to measure our productivity as scientists except to look at our publication records. And even those can be misleading. You may have one good article published during the past three years in a very good journal, and that article took several years to create. Or you may have several average-quality articles published in average-quality journals that took the same amount of years to create. If management only looks at the latter, then a scientist will be considered productive. But is this the correct picture? Is it the whole picture? I think not.  

Personally, it would be pure torture for me to have to perform on cue every single time I had a meeting with other team members—to come up with creative ideas on cue, to know just the right thing to say, to have a quip ready, to have advice in spades. I don’t work that way. I don’t tick that way. Heck, there are some meetings where I can sit quietly and just listen to others talk. I leave those meetings and reflect on what’s been said and accomplished. I respect others who can and who do perform on cue; who can ad lib and brainstorm at will. I am not one of them. I never was, even as a child. I am not very spontaneous. I respectfully request that others respect that all people are not the same, and that it will be impossible to create a society of workers who all think alike.

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