Friday, March 16, 2012

Brave new work world

It strikes me more and more that the work world has become a ’brave new world’. The future is now, is upon us. A myriad of changes sneaked up on us and suddenly were there. But they weren’t just small changes; they were life-changing and workplace-changing changes. Those of us who have been in the work world for a while are a bit more observant of these changes; or perhaps we feel the effects of this brave new world a bit more intensely than those just starting out. In any case, I’ve had the past two years to muse upon all of the changes, and I must say that they herald a new world of work that we can no longer deny has in reality arrived. 

Open landscapes, shared jobs, home offices, flexible time, team projects, and group thinking are just a few of those changes. But perhaps the biggest change in the past five years alone has been the move toward selling yourself as a worker. It is no longer possible to ignore this fact—that marketing yourself and your capabilities, selling yourself to a potential employer, has become de rigueur for average employees. It is no longer a matter of choice. Even headhunting agencies will tell you that now. It started with posting personal photos on resumes. That was never done when I was starting out in the work world; it is very common now. It moved on to the use of social media to establish your online presence; that has become very important. LinkedIn, Facebook, Google +, Twitter, and a myriad of other online social spaces help present you to a potential employer. The more hits you have on Google, the better. Of course they have to be the right kind of hits; it won’t do for an employer, potential or not, to find your drunken party photos on Facebook. But it strikes me that a potential employer might even overlook this if they see that you have a huge number of friends or followers. Because this is the age of networking. The more networks you have, the better. It shows presumably that you are a social person, friendly, capable of teamwork, of sharing, of listening, of communicating. It may be to your detriment not to have an online social presence these days. I cannot say for sure, but I have a very strong feeling that this is the case. And if it is, is this the right way to be doing things? It’s too soon to say, but for those people who are professionally competent yet introverted or even shy about ‘getting themselves out there’; it must be a nightmare to maneuver through this brave new world. How do you explain to a potential employer that you are fully competent to do the job but a bit shy about promoting yourself? And if your job doesn’t involve sales or marketing, why is it necessary to have to market yourself to an employer? Why isn’t an interview about your skills and competence enough to get you hired? But it’s not anymore. I think that some of this new emphasis on selling yourself is going to backfire. An employer may be impressed by a potential employee who has hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook; the employer may even think that this means that if this person is hired that he or she will be good at teamwork and group thinking. But not all jobs need this or require it. It won’t do to hire a scientist with hundreds or thousands of friends on Facebook if he or she can’t survive the loneliness of lab life. The life of a scientist is often lonely. If you are hired as a scientist, it is expected that you can tolerate alone time—in your office writing articles or grants, or alone in the lab doing experiments until all hours of the evening. And being social online doesn’t necessarily translate to being a better communicator or better networker in the workplace. I’ve seen that more times than I can count.

I couldn’t even imagine how awful it must be to work in an open landscape, to not have my own office or even to share an office but to be able to close the door on the rest of the workplace at times. I cannot imagine what it must be like to talk on the phone with no hope of privacy whatsoever, whether it be a work-related or personal call. I couldn’t stand the idea that I was to be monitored at all times. I also don’t like the idea of shared jobs; I don’t think it is right to hire a person to do a job and then to hire one or two more people to do the same job, so that all of them are sharing that job at the same time. I can understand sharing a job if one person does it 50% of the time and the other person has the other 50%--I call that splitting a job. The trend that I have seen recently is that one or two people are working simultaneously on the same project or job and are mostly just competing with each other instead of working effectively. I don’t get it in any case. I know a few people who have complained to me about this—that they don’t have their individual projects in the lab but instead are working on the same project as a co-worker, or that they really don’t know what is expected of them, or they don’t know what they’re really doing. That sense of vagueness that hangs over everything—the veil of vagueness, I call it. Who is my boss, what is my job, what is expected of me, am I doing a good job, what is a good job? The same vagueness is involved in group thinking—is this really the way we want to go in the workplace? Forcing people to brainstorm together in the same room for hours at a time won’t necessarily lead to new creative ideas; it may rather lead to boredom and inertia. Home office days work for me, so that is a change I like personally, but I know many people who dread this because of the lack of structure and discipline that the workplace provides for them.

This has been a long post, but one that I have been thinking about for quite a while. I will be writing more about the brave new work world in future posts. I am figuring it out as I go along, but I must say I am ever so glad to be closer to the end of my work life than to the start of it. 

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