I’ve had the unusual opportunity this year of finding myself interrupting a happy, fruitful retirement – 5 years in – to return to work for a year. I thought it might be useful to any of you who are presented with similar opportunities to be able to draw on some of my observations before making a decision. Especially if it’s not a life-and-death money decision.
1. The world is an angrier place than it was 5 short years ago. I guess one only has to watch the presidential contests in the U.S. to know that’s true.
2. When resources shrink, enlightened management practices that were embraced 10-20 years ago seem to go by the wayside. In the case of my world – universities – resources are largely defined by enrolments and government funding, but every world of work has similar shrinking resource issues. Just ask civil servants, or people working in the oil patch or with Bombardier.
Enlightened management, as I have always understood it, refers to empowering employees to be the best they can be, including them in decisions and harnessing their good ideas. But when management challenges move from managing growth to managing declining resources, the principles of enlightened management – of involving middle management and employees in innovative solutions – seem to disappear. For some reason cuts, regardless of whether or not such cuts may curb new potential grow, are easier to implement than options for investing in ways to reinvent ourselves. The latter takes time and commitment from all sides.
This is not just a management reaction; their reaction is fed by people just not wanting to give up their particular piece of the status quo. What follows, not surprisingly, is gridlock in decision-making, mistrust, and even less communication and consultation than there might otherwise have been. Nobody is having much fun!
3. Work is a 24/7 commitment. Actually, this was true 5 years ago, but it’s funny how one eventually forgets! One is always just an email away, regardless of day or time. And if your response to their issue is important to that person, it’s not acceptable to ignore it. I have absolutely no idea how people raising families cope in this crazy environment. Some of you may remember what it was like in the 1950s, or perhaps you heard it from your parents or grandparents. When I was small, fathers (mothers rarely worked outside the home, as stultifying as that must have been for some) worked on Saturday morning. Of course, they took the lunch hour off and they didn’t bring work home on the weekend, but they did work Saturday mornings. That ended, and as far as most people were concerned at that time, we would slowly become a society that worked less and had more leisure. My, my, my, how utterly wrong that theory was! Why have we created such a stressful world for ourselves? Is it so everyone can have more consumer goods? Is it really worth it?
4. Sleep is really important, at least to me. I waited a long time to be able to get up when I wanted to. Attaining that goal was right up there with collecting a pension. If you’re someone who isn’t a morning person and you’ve gotten used to not answering to an alarm clock, think twice before going back to work, even if it seems like one year should be manageable!
5. It turns out that being old can help in the workplace with respect to having history. We oldsters know what was done before, as well as why it was done and how. The reality is that what goes around comes around. Most challenges that we face today have been faced before. They were probably faced before there was social media, and before there was privacy legislation. They were undoubtedly faced before most mandatory retirement provisions were removed, when personnel planning was somewhat more certain. They may have been faced before there were so many grievances being filed and people being sued, but the underlying challenges are not that new. The people have just changed.
And that is part of the joy in being old. Maybe that is part of what people call wisdom. You realize that all the work you put into trying to make things work better is part of a continuum. You can help make it better for a while, but then the conditions change (new people, new legislation, new technology, changing global economy, demographics) and the underlying fragilities that we work so hard to manage and overcome, they come scurrying back. The hope is that with each iteration, things are left a little bit better. And for me the biggest hope is that employees and clients continue to feel empowered and proud to be part of their organization. Witnessing my own environment, and hearing recently that over 80% of public sector workers feel disengaged in their work, gives me grave concern. Nobody is having much fun indeed!
6. If you do go back to work, try to go on your own terms. Try to bring joy and fulfillment back to your workplace.