In praise of boredom
This last week I’ve continued the first draft of my latest non-fiction, a guide to supervision for managers. I’ve finished a couple of audiobooks during my commutes and gym sessions, started reading a paperback of “Nudge”, and also continued reading the Witcher series (I started last summer, then sort of forgot about it as other things took over). I’ve been reading/watching YouTube videos on AI, which I am convinced is going to be as revolutionary as the Internet itself was. I’m also watching The Expanse, an excellent sci-fi that I put on hold whilst keeping up with The Mandalorian and Picard, and have been binging Brand New Cherry Flavor. And don’t tell anyone, but my son’s long-neglected Switch has been getting an overdue retro NES/GameBoy workout. Y’know, just to test it’s till working. And whilst I’ve not worked on any music in months, I do try and pick up the guitar occasionally. #DadRockRules. That new Metallica has been getting a lot of play also.
As the world becomes more and more fast-paced and digitised, we are constantly bombarded by stimuli that keep us engaged and occupied. Thankfully I’m not into Instagram and Tik Tok videos, or that would be another few hours a week my brain doesn’t rest. We rarely have a moment to slow down and breathe, let alone experience boredom. However, studies have shown that boredom is actually critical for creativity.
Boredom is often seen as a negative state that we try to avoid at all costs. We fill our time with social media, TV shows, video games, books, and other distractions to keep us entertained. But when we are constantly engaged and stimulated our brains have little time to wander and think creatively.
Boredom, on the other hand, allows our minds to wander and explore without any particular goal in mind. It gives us the opportunity to daydream and think outside of the box. It also allows us to reflect and digest information, which enables us to make new connections and generate new ideas.
Many inventions and innovations in history have been born out of boredom. The idea for the postal service was thought of while a man waited impatiently in a long line, and the concept of the steam engine was conceived while James Watt was staring at a boiling kettle. I know from experience the effects of a long walk, lost in my own thoughts, can have on my fiction. The idea for my novel ‘Swarm’ came to me one afternoon when I was sitting on the sofa, doing nothing in particular. I didn’t have any new books, there was nothing on TV, I had no ideas on the guitar. My wife had been in the garden, and as she came inside briefly she mentioned the wasp problem at the front of the house. Thirty minutes later I’d outlined almost the entire plot. Had I been distracted by a YouTube video or some other mental occupation the conversation (and therefore the idea) would have passed by without me giving it any consideration.
Research has shown that boredom can increase our ability to problem-solve. When we are bored, our brains naturally seek out stimulation. We begin to see our surroundings and problems in a new light, which can lead to breakthroughs and innovative solutions. How many times has a solution struck you’ve given yourself the time to relax and subconsciously reflect? I’ve generated more ideas and solved more tricky plot-points sitting in traffic than I ever have whilst my mind is concentrating on something.
Boredom can also help us to develop new interests and hobbies. When we are bored, we are forced to explore new opportunities and try new things. This can lead to a newfound passion or an unexpected talent.
In order to experience the benefits of boredom we need to embrace it rather than avoid it. This means setting aside time to be unoccupied and allowing our minds to wander. This could be as simple as taking a walk without our phones or sitting outside and watching the clouds go by. In a way I have found that post-pandemic remote working has stifled my creativity. I used to use the drive to and from work to decompress, giving my mind space to wander. The same thing would happen in between meetings, supervisions, and other ‘tasks’. Ironically I find that, working from home, when I’ve not got an immediately pressing problem or task at hand, I find myself work to do as I don’t want to feel like I’m not ‘working’ just because I’m at home; whereas during quiet moments in the workplace I don’t feel the same pressure - I’m already at work so there’s less to prove, right?
We can stimulate boredom by doing seemingly mundane tasks like washing dishes or folding laundry. By engaging in these mundane tasks, we allow our brains to focus on something routine and straightforward which can lead to a state of boredom.
Boredom is essential for creativity. While entertainment and stimulation are important, we need to make time for boredom to allow our brains to think creatively and generate new ideas. So, the next time you feel bored, embrace it and see where your mind takes you.
I've been thinking a lot about work over the past few weeks. This month, we have three bank holidays. Usually, we work a minimum of forty hours a week, not to mention picking up text messages outside of work, making hands-free calls on the way home, and responding to a few emails in the evening. I haven't done any of that over the bank holidays. Instead, I've taken the dog for a walk, played guitar, swapped the pickups out of my Telecaster (a mini humbucker in the neck, for those fellow guitar nerds who are interested), listened to some music, played card games with the family, planted vegetables and flowers in the garden with my daughter, and caught up on some reading ("Nudge" and "Sword of Destiny"). So, with a few shorter workweeks and protecting my personal time outside of office hours, I should be miles behind, right?
Nope. Not even close.
Alongside all of this, I've read two thought-provoking articles on our working culture. The first questions what productivity is and how we should measure it (https://www.vox.com/technology/23710261/productivity-definition-measures-remote-work-management), and the second, from the same website, focuses on the successes of the four-day workweek (https://www.vox.com/22568452/work-workweek-five-day-four-jobs-pandemic). Already, I can hear the out-of-touch complaining that people only want a four-day workweek because they're lazy, comparing the modern workplace to the days when one had to be chained to their desk to produce anything.
Those days are gone. We are far more efficient than any previous generation of workers, and this only becomes more true as AI advances. Granted, there are some jobs - care roles, for example - in which workers currently need to be present to do the job they are paid to do. In such cases, it is apt to pay people per hour. But an increasing number of roles are dependent not upon where you work, but upon the interactions you have and the decisions you make. If you are able to meet the needs of all the stakeholders to whom you are accountable in less than forty hours a week, then why shouldn't you, if you are being paid for the results you achieve? Working less than forty hours a week means you are more likely to arrive at work recharged, refreshed, and more able to provide creative solutions to the problems you may face. Contrast this with the tiredness of someone who fills the remainder of their week with busywork so they can meet their forty-hour quota, or someone who lacks the self-discipline to manage their calls and emails outside of work hours. It's been said before, but if you don't manage it, it manages you.
I think the call for shorter working hours will only grow stronger in the coming years as we understand the benefits to ourselves and our businesses of being better rested, alongside reaping the benefits of AI.
Or perhaps I’m being overly optimistic. Few households can live on a single income; inflation and our refusal to deal with the nations’ failure to ensure an adequate supply of good quality, fairly priced housing will see this worsen. Many adults juggle more than one form of employment, alongside a side hustle of some sort, just to get by. Added to that is our experience of automation in industry. Those efficiencies were supposed to free us up to pursue our hobbies and spend time with our families, since we could achieve the same outputs in a fraction of the time (sound familiar)? Instead we saw no reduction in working hours, but an increase in the profitability of large companies. AI could lead to the same problems, increasing the already worrying concentration of wealth in the hands of the few.
Dramatic words? Maybe. But if history is anything to go by, we risk sacrificing our health and relationships to work the same long hours to make the rich richer when we could be reducing our work commitments with no impact on our productivity. I don't think that working shorter hours will be a panacea for all our problems, nor that it's a one-size-fits-all solution. But as individuals and societies, we need to rethink our relationship with work. We should question why we work as much as we do, and what it is we're trying to achieve. We should reflect on whether we're sacrificing too much of our health, relationships, and well-being for our jobs, and whether the rewards we get are worth it. And we should explore alternative ways of organising work, whether it's through shorter working weeks, more flexible schedules, or more creative ways of measuring productivity.
Of course, these are not easy questions to answer, and there are no easy solutions. But as we celebrate the bank holidays, let's take a moment to reflect on what we really value in life, and whether we're spending our time and energy on the things that matter most to us. Perhaps then we'll start to see that working less, and living more, can be a win-win for everyone
As you may have picked up from my recents posts, AI is for me one of the most exciting and thought-provoking areas of human advancement. I genuinely think it will be as transformational to our everyday lives and our professional lives as the internet itself has been. It will improve our efficiency and effectiveness across a range of professions. It may even replace some. It will improve our use of spare time, freeing us up to spend more time with friends and family, or just engage in our hobbies. It also has the potential to make a huge impact on education, both formal and informal.
One of the ways I try to ensure I retain what I’ve read is to make notes as I go along. The use of AI has sped this process up for me no end. Generally these notes will now focus on how I can make specific use of what I’m learning, rather than a broader overview of the book's content. Currently I’m working through Thaler and Sunstein’s “Nudge”. I know that I can focus on the implications of any concepts for my workplace and think about how I will apply them; I can rely on AI to summarise the general content of the book for me. Grammarly is an example of how AI can be used to proofread and edit the first draft of a document; as programmes such as Microsoft Copilot and others come online we will see better and better proofing and editing implements in use.
Like any tool, it is only as powerful as how we choose to use it. If your goal is to write an essay or blog post on any given subject, AI can probably do that already for you. But to what end? If your goal is to learn, retain and (crucially) apply useful information, I would query the use of AI for this. Having AI summarise a book is not the same as reading that book for yourself. Sure, I could use Chat GPT to summarise every book relevant to whatever field I’m interested in. But can AI pick out the nuances of each book; can it think for me about how to apply what can be learnt to my life and career? No - at least, not yet. Despite this, the summary does fulfil another function. If I am about to read a book on a subject about which I know very little (if anything), then the summary acts as a useful precis. This then provides me with a scaffolding that can support my learning and understanding.
Our culture of education in Britain tends to focus more on learning facts by rote than understanding how to apply the concepts. Just think of the hours spent learning times tables rather than the application of multiplication in real life. Learning does not exist in a vacuum. Similarly, it’s very well ‘reading’ dozens of books by asking for summaries that you can digest quickly. But what you risk missing out on is the opportunity to pick up on those elements the AI missed, to reflect on how the learning applies directly and specifically to you. Our brains do not encode the important information if we are handed summaries of the information and fail to actively engage with it. Such shortcuts may indeed help your learning; but they are no substitute for understanding.
Throw away your iPads!
I'm sitting at my Macbook, which is parked on my desk near my Windows laptop. I have an iPhone 12 charging next to my Samsung Galaxy, whilst my iPad sits under my desk shelf. At some point or other I have used all of them to make notes, whether they are to-do lists or the notes I I whilst reading non-fiction. I've used countless note taking apps, styluses and even some voice notes. Im very interested in the potential of AI to take minutes during online meetings. Yet time and again in find myself coming back to pencil and note paper. Why is this?
In a world that is rapidly trending towards the digital space, it's easy to see why people would rather make notes on a phone or use a stylus on a screen. With the whole world practically being just a tap away, it makes sense that taking notes via technological devices is becoming the norm. However, there are several benefits to handwriting notes on a book that make it an experience that is irreplaceable. In this blog post, we will delve into the benefits of handwriting notes in a book versus making notes on a phone or using a stylus on a screen.
1. Handwriting notes in a book improves retention memory.
A study done by the Association for Psychological Science shows that handwriting notes enables an individual to retain more memory than typing notes into a digital device. When you write notes by hand, it strengthens the neural pathways within the brain, which leads to better retention memory. This means that if you write down notes in a book, you are more likely to recall them from memory vividly when you revisit the material. Hence why unwilling continue making my own notes during meetings regardless of how powerful AI becomes. The tactile nature of note taking has a similarity to reading a physical book rather than an ebook.
2. Handwriting notes on a book reduces distraction levels.
Writing notes in a book is a way of self-regulating your focus levels. When you make notes on your phone or on a screen, you are at a disadvantage because the temptation to check your messages or scroll through social media is high. Writing notes in a book is an intentional activity that requires my complete attention, limiting the chance of getting sidetracked off the task at hand.
3. Writing notes in a book improves cognitive processing.
Taking notes on paper improves cognitive processing, which is essential in analyzing and synthesizing complex information. Writing notes in a book allows a person to engage in the content in their own way, make connections, and map out the various themes, all of which informs their higher-level thinking skills. This is why taking notes whilst reading non-fiction is more effective than voice notes, reading a summary, or even highlighting the text.
4. Writing notes in a book encourages creativity.
Writing notes on paper is a creative process that frees the brain of limitations. The act of doodling or jotting down extra comments unconsciously stimulates the brain, making it more creative. Creativity is essential when it comes to how one visually represents ideas, categorizes material, and comes up with unique ways of understanding complex ideas that may not be possible with digital tools.
5. Writing notes in a book is a personal experience.
Writing notes in a book is a personal experience that is unique to the individual. Writing out your notes for a particular topic, using your own symbols, and visually organizing them in a way that works for you make the experience intimate. Handwriting your notes is an act of care for yourself, your mental capacities, and the knowledge that you are committing to learning.
Writing out notes engages the brain, enhances retention and cognitive processing of information, limits distractions, encourages creativity, and gives a personal experience that cannot be replicated by digital devices. While there are still benefits to having digital note-taking options, there is something special about writing things down by hand. The next time you have the opportunity to handwrite your notes in a book, go ahead, and give it a try; you might be surprised at how rewarding it can be!
Is AI coming for your job?
As a senior manager in social care I’m forever juggling multiple responsibilities at once. Over the last week or two I have been experimenting with chat GPT, a powerful AI language model, to see how I can automate certain tasks and improve efficiency. Here are the ten best ways I’ve found:
Producing documents: Chat GPT can be used to produce documents such as policies and procedures. By providing clear instructions and prompts, Chat GPT can generate a draft of a document, which can then be reviewed and edited as necessary. For example, asking “write me a GDPR policy for a children’s home in Wales” produces a useable policy within about 30 seconds. Not only that, but it can be used to produce sales copy or copy for websites.
Proofreading: Chat GPT can also be used to proofread documents, ensuring that they are free from errors and grammatical mistakes. This can help save time and ensure that documents are of high quality before they are distributed. Just city the document into the chatbot and ask the AI to proofread it. It can then be asked to offer suggested rewrites if you find you are unhappy with certain sections.
Responding to inquiries: Chat GPT can be used to respond to inquiries from staff, parents, and other stakeholders. By setting up chatbots that are programmed to respond to common questions and issues, you can save time and provide consistent, reliable information to those who need it.
Automating data entry: Chat GPT can be used to automate data entry tasks, such as entering information from forms or reports into a database. This can help reduce errors and free up staff time for other tasks.
Conducting research: Chat GPT can be used to conduct research on topics related to children's homes, such as best practices in child care or new regulations and policies. By providing clear prompts and questions, Chat GPT can generate a list of relevant sources and information. Chat GPT won’t conduct the research for you, but can be used to generate the questions you want to use. In the same way, Chat GPT can be used to generate staff/stakeholder surveys.
Analysing data: Chat GPT can be used to analyse data from various sources, such as surveys or assessments. By providing clear instructions and prompts, Chat GPT can identify trends and patterns in the data, which can then be used to inform decision-making.
Developing training materials: Chat GPT can be used to develop training materials for staff, such as quizzes or instructional videos that are engaging and informative.
Generating reports: Chat GPT can be used to generate reports on various aspects of your children's home company, such as financial reports or staff performance reports.
Personalizing communication: Chat GPT can be used to personalize communication with staff, parents, and other stakeholders. By analyzing data on each individual, Chat GPT can generate personalized messages and recommendations, which can help improve engagement and satisfaction.
Chat GPT can be a valuable tool for service directors of children's home companies in Wales. By utilizing its capabilities to automate tasks, generate documents, analyze data, and personalize communication, you can save time and improve efficiency, while ensuring that your children's home company is providing high-quality care to its residents.
As an example of how useful Chat GPT can be, the above post was generated in the chat. I have edited some portions of it (which I could have done in the chat if I’d chosen). I also find it useful for things like summarising documents (e.g. I can feed it meeting minutes and ask it to summarise the key points of the meeting with relevant actions). Currently the AI cannot as a matter of routine access documents on your PC/MAC and does not directly access websites. It cannot access data that has not been fed to it in “training” (development) and it does not access websites directly. As it stands, the AI is a hugely powerful tool for streamlining office and admin work. As it develops and is able to access the web, I see it changing the way we work as fundamentally as the web itself transformed society. If I was working in an admin or copywriting role I would be very concerned right now about the future of my employment. I think it would be wise for every organisation to make themselves aware of AI and conduct (at the very least) a SWOT analysis of its impact on them.
What do you think? Have you used Chat GPT? How do you find it? What risks and benefits do you see?
I can't run but...
…I can walk much faster than this.
Many staff are in jobs they have, or have almost, outgrown. This may be in regard to their knowledge, their experience or their skills. They may be looking to take that next career step, or simply to contribute more in their current role. A good example of this is the senior residential social worker who wants to do more, but doesn’t want the pressure and responsibility of a management role.
Ignore the needs of such staff at your peril. If they are bored their discretionary effort, that is the ‘above and beyond’ element of their work, will dwindle. And every workplace, especially in social care, requires staff to go ‘above and beyond’ in order to get by. In social care, this means helping the kids achieve such great outcomes. Quite what that says about pay and conditions in the sector is another matter, but I digress.
Another effect of not picking up on staff frustration is turnover. People who are bored, or feel unsupported to develop, will find employment elsewhere. The sector cannot afford to lose skilled, motivated staff. Your business cannot afford to lose skilled, motivated staff. Your children cannot afford to lose skilled, motivated staff.
How can you tell?
It’s difficult to tell when a staff member has reached the point where thy feel they have reached the limit of what they feel the job allows them to offer. Typical indicators can be apathy, doing ‘enough’, not picking up overtime, or a generally ‘low’ demeanour. These symptoms may have many underlying causes. No matter how skilled a manager you are, you have to accept there is a status barrier that may prevent the staff member approaching you with their problems. It’s up to you to notice and ask. “Hey, I’ve noticed things don’t seem right. Is everything okay?”. If they tell you they need a new challenge, or feel they are stuck in a rut, or however they express it, it’s important you thank them for being honest and then offer to sit with them to look at what you can change, what extra responsibilities you can offer, or how they can expand their role. Don’t ever mishandle the situation by telling them ‘they should be grateful to have a job in this economy’ or tell them you can’t give them further responsibilities/variety until they turn their attitude around (I have heard managers use both of those responses in the past). They’ve opened up to you, and now the responsibility is on you to help find the solution
Beware ‘enrichment activities’.
A while ago I found myself in this situation. Every day was the same, and I felt that nothing ever changed. I was trying to work towards a management post in a company that, as it turned out, reneged on its interview offer of training and progression. I spoke to my manager, told them I had achieved everything I could in my role, that I was struggling with my motivation due to the lack of progression and that I wanted to take on more responsibility in the home.
She immediately offered me more responsibility.
More staff supervisions? No. Inducting new staff? No. Delivering a broader range of training to new staff? No.
She put me in charge of ‘managing’ the towel cupboard.
Don’t get me wrong. Towels, as Ford Prefect will no doubt tell you, can be very important. But they are hardly an effective basis for career growth in the residential care sector (or for staff retention, as it turned out).
When a colleague asked, ‘how did it go?’, I laughingly referred to this new responsibility as an ‘enrichment activity’. I’d watched a documentary on Longleat (I believe; this was a long time ago) in which the keepers dealt with the problem of the macaques getting bored by hiding their food around the grounds rather than feeding them from a bucket. The monkeys didn’t pick up any new skills, they just used existing ones - essentially working harder and learning nothing for the same reward. Soon this term became widely used amongst the staff when given menial tasks and being told it was ‘good for their career’. Soon after, the manager overheard the phrase. Soon after that, I had another supervision. And during that supervision, well, let’s say words were had.
How can I help?
Sometimes, just asking the person how they would like to expand their job role can generate ideas for tasks they may wish to undertake. This could be an opportunity for you to lighten your workload also. Could they take on the first draft of your quarterly report? Could they take on induction responsibilities? Could they deputise for you in some meetings? Can they take the lead in an upcoming project?
Tasks aside, consider helping your colleague develop transferable skills in their current role. Can they develop communication skills - being responsible for translating reports and updates into easier-to-understand pieces of information to present at a team meeting, perhaps? What about their teamworking skills - can they coordinate a piece work work across different teams, or form new partnerships to reach a team goal?
What opportunities to they have to advise others, voice their opinions, or act as a mentor? This can help them to identify gaps in their knowledge they may previously have been blind to as well as develop their leading and influencing skills.
A little bit of listening and creative thought can do a lot to reduce staff turnover and increase satisfaction and engagement.
The dangers of target-setting.
I was watching a news article on economic immigration last night. With many sectors, including health and social care, struggling to recruit, the nation is looking abroad to fill the gap. Net migration last year was the highest on record.
Certain industries and occupations are on the ‘shortage occupations list’ (https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/skilled-worker-visa-shortage-occupations/skilled-worker-visa-shortage-occupations). Care workers and home carers are on the list, though not those working for sole traders or individuals. All senior care workers are on the list also, as are ‘residential, day and domiciliary care managers and proprietors’, and ‘health services and public health managers and directors’.
Looking a this from a manger’s perspective there are short, medium and long-term solutions to this crisis. I’m writing about all sectors, not just care.
In the short term we need people to fill roles and pay taxes. It makes perfect sense to encourage people to come to work in the UK. There are thirty-one categories on the shortage occupations list, with many other sectors such as hospitality desperate to get on the list.
In the medium term we need to look at retention. Yes, Brexit and the pandemic had a huge impact on recruitment and retention in certain sectors. Looking at the reasons why people haven’t returned to those roles is key. Salary, working patterns, competition for other industries, and zero-hours contracts, to name a few factors, all play a part. We need to look at how we can improve these to keep staff employed in these roles.
In the long term we need to invest in education and careers advice for young people. The list covers a wide spectrum of occupations, from health and social care to management to chemical scientists to engineers to musicians to IT… it really is incredibly broad. We need to highlight these careers and really nurture the talent we have in this country - which also means investing in education and making higher education accessible to all who have the ability to benefit from it.
What we can’t afford is weak, ill-informed, ideology-driven mismanagement.
In the same news article they discussed Suella Braverman. Her priority in all of this is to ‘get immigration down’ to the ‘tens of thousands’ it was ‘under Thatcher’.
What gets measured, get prioritised. Or, as Peter Drucker said, “what gets measured gets managed - even when it’s pointless to measure and manage it, and even if it harms the purpose of the organisation to do so”.
Immigration, in this particular instance, should be a side effect of measuring and managing the short, medium and long term goals I described above. The larger the number, the less effective our efforts at building and retaining home-grown talent have been. If we train people here to do the jobs we need, and if we treat them well whilst they are doing them, immigration will become a non-issue. Focussing on just getting the numbers down without any consideration for why the numbers are so high will only harm our economy.
I don’t want this to come across an an anti-immigration rant. It isn’t. I welcome those who come to Britain to work and contribute to the economy.
The point I’m making is this: when you set goals, targets and outcomes for individuals or for teams or the organisation you are defining what is to be managed. In this case rather than the important work that needs doing, the government appears to be focused on the end result. A parallel that comes to mind in social care is the company that focuses on occupation levels rather than the quality of care on offer. If a company sets the target (and a manager’s bonus) around ensuring 95% occupancy over the year rather than the quality of care on offer, will this affect the RM’s decision in whether to accept a referral or not? Not for everybody, but there will be a net effect overall. If we offer teachers a bonus based on standardised test results, or tie school budgets to the same, will the children receive a broad, challenging and interesting curriculum? Or will huge chunks of the term be given to going over the same narrow focus covered by the tests?
I know I’ve come to a children’s home to find the hoovering and dusting are left wanting as I’ve advised staff to ‘put spending time with the children first’. I didn’t mean to spend every minute with them on the PS4, playing football, on walks, engaging and interacting to the exclusion of all else (and then hurriedly completing paperwork in the last half hour of the shift). But neither could I complain; they’d done what I’d asked.
As managers the responsibility is on us to make clear, well-thought-out targets; and accept responsibility for the fall-out when the results aren’t what we intended.
Sometimes it’s much better to focus on the process rather than the outcomes
Today is International Women’s Day. Amongst other things, it should prompt all of us to reflect on gender inequality, how it affects all of us, and what we can do to combat it. Unfortunately it also is used by many to increase division. Within moments of this being uploaded I expect the usual range of complaints that a man is daring to give his opinion on this topic, or grumpy blokes complaining that there isn’t an international men’s day (Sunday November 19th, this year).
Many view International Women’s day as little more than a self-congratulatory back-slapping exercise. Whilst in some media and social media coverage this is true, www.internationalwomensday.com has this to say:
“Imagine a gender equal world. A world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination. A world that's diverse, equitable, and inclusive. A world where difference is valued and celebrated. Together we can forge women's equality. Collectively we can all #EmbraceEquity.
Celebrate women's achievement. Raise awareness about discrimination. Take action to drive gender parity.
IWD belongs to everyone, everywhere. Inclusion means all IWD action is valid.”
There is a world of difference between congratulation and empowerment - it’s a cliche, but a rising tide lifts all boats.
Looking at this issue from the perspective of a man and a service director, there are a few practical changes I’d like to see from the government to truly help empower women in Britain.
The first would be a focus early in education on emotional intelligence and empathy; respecting the rights of all, and keeping each other safe. Too many young boys aren’t given positive female role models, nor are they given enough male role models who treat and respect women properly. This is especially important nowadays with the easy access to online pornography and shameful characters such as Andrew Tate.
Children need professional role models also. My experience of careers advice in school (this is back in the 90s, so a lot may have changed - I’m happy to be educated on how this looks now) was one of ‘too little, to late’. I do wonder how many fantastic female scientists, engineers, and other traditionally “male” roles society has failed to benefit from, because girls weren’t encouraged to pursue these paths. The same thinking applies to working-class kids who weren’t encouraged to raise their ambitions and chase traditionally “upper class” careers. We had British Steel plants near, a 3M factory, and an air-conditioning unit factory near us when I grew up. I don’t recall us being encouraged to reach for carers in law, finance of medicine.
Society also needs properly funded childcare that supports women to re-enter the workplace after giving birth, should they want to do so. The private sector simply isn’t equipped to do this, particularly with the profit motive. We need comprehensive, 8am to 7pm childcare, from early years to 15-year-olds, accessible to all.
Although this has increased in recent years, flexible working conditions are another component which disproportionately affect women’s working patterns. Alongside this, we need creative corporate solutions to the problems flexible working conditions inevitably pose. In certain roles, flexible working can cause as many problems as they solve, but these problems, I’m sure, are not insurmountable. A specific example of this would be the residential childcare sector. If we give parents the flexibility to, for example, do the school run for their children that may leave the home short of workers to take our children to school and college. One solution is of course to ensure both parents have access to flexible working, meaning the task can be shared. Flexible working solutions are far easier to implement in some roles than others, but the concept is something I think about a lot when designing rotas and policies.
Accessible, meaningful, lifelong learning opportunities are so important. Up-skilling the workforce benefits everyone. In the contexts of this post, making learning available to women would help them keep pace with their male colleagues - for example, after a career break.
This is, of course, just one man’s opinion on a topic that affects everyone. I’d love to hear your views on this, especially those coming from a different perspective than my own.
I'm reading loads of posts at the moment on being "your authentic self". Many of these articles also raise the question of whether you should be your authentic self at work, and to what extent this should be allowed or supported.
My question is this: what the hell are all these people on about?
This may sound a little “old man yells at cloud”, but bear with me. A lot what’s written on the topic is vague and unclear. As with many things you read in business and management, the concept is part insight and part buzzword.
There appears no single dictionary-standard definition of what the phrase means. But a fairly comprehensive definition is, “who you truly are as a person, regardless of your occupation, regardless of the influence of others, it is an honest representation of you. To be authentic means not caring what others think about you.” (Read more here)
I'm a middle aged bloke who reads novels of pretty much any genre. I'm a heavy metal fan. I love getting tattoos. I'm a commuter who listens to self-improvement audiobooks. I'm a considerate father who relentlessly pummels his children with dad jokes. I'm a company director who always gives the best impression of the company when meeting other professionals. I'm a creative individual who writes, blogs, and plays guitar. I can't put up a shelf. I think the answer to "Best British band ever, Beatles v Stones?" is Led Zeppelin. Black Sabbath are a close second.
So which if those is my "authentic self"?
All of them, of course. We are multi-faceted individuals who show different sides of ourselves (or wear different 'masks') in different situations.
Here's another point. When you sit at my table I have certain expectations of you. Likewise, when I sit at someone else's table they will have expectations of me - dress, conduct, contributions. Our "authentic selves" are irrelevant. We come together to do a job, complete a task, or solve a problem. Cognitive diversity is an incredibly important element in effective problem-solving, and the best solutions are found, ironically for this post, by diverse teams unafraid to challenge each other, voicing opinions and ideas that others won't think of because of their own backgrounds. All of which should be filtered through the prism of the organisation's culture; of professional conduct and professional expectations.
If this sounds a little confusing and self-contradictory, then fair enough. A quick Google search brings up plenty of posts on the importance of being your authentic self, of the benefits of bringing your authentic self to the workplace, etc, etc - but the first article describes how "in order to reap many of the benefits of feeling authentic you may have to betray your true nature". Groupthink, in other words.
Then there’s the opposite. The loudmouth who thinks everyone should listen to them and that they should be able to say whatever they want as nobody should interfere with their right to be their ‘authentic self’. In other words, the phrase can be a shield behind which people hide from criticism or accountability. I’m not saying this is what the term means, just that some will use it this way.
You may have a job in a company or industry that aligns with your personal values. Good. You may find yourself a fantastic fit for your team. Good. You may find yourself working in a relaxed, permissive environment that allows you to wear band T-shirts and show your tattoos. Good. Your authentic self’, in terms of your values, align with the people paying you to do a job.
Or you may find yourself working for somewhere that restricts what you can wear, how you look, what you can say and how you can say it. And you may, rightly or otherwise, consider this short sighted and small minded. Either way, you're at their table. You can fit in, or flee. Remember that if you do leave, you should be leaving with all the experience and skills you are able to take from the place (otherwise, what are you doing there?). They, on the other hand, are losing an employee. A fantastic employee who could have brought a lot to the team they are now missing out on; or a disruptive entitled employee who thinks it's their place to change the culture around their own values; or a mediocre employee they've already forgotten about.
I know I have left companies in the past as it was apparent their values did not reflect mine. This was my choice, and I had no expectation that the company would bend itself around my ‘authentic self’.
To me, the whole notion of being authentic at work is overhyped. It really comes down to one thing; how and if you choose to fit in with the culture at work.
Picture the scene. I was a parent to a toddler and a baby, earning £10 per hour as a senior RSW and relying on tax credits and overtime to make it through each month. Actually, given the supervisory responsibilities, rota-writing, risk assessments, budgetary oversight staff induction and other duties I'd taken on, I was to all intents and purposes a deputy manager. But that sounds like a pay rise, so I was designated as a senior.
The company owned and operated a small number of children's home, and staff were frequently moved about between the homes to cover skills shortages and staff shortfalls. I’d been reassigned to a struggling home, and asked to come in early for a supervision.
"So, why are you here?"
This question wasn't on the supervision pro forma. My previous supervisor had been stickler for rigidly adhering to the script, and this display of original thinking from one of the company's homogeneous clump of middling managers had caught me off-guard.
"Well... I mean, we work for the company and they said you needed a strong member of staff, and so they sent me over here."
"No. What are you doing here, on shift. With your experience and qualifications you should be applying for management, not a senior post.”
At this point I was yet to complete any NVQ/QCF qualification. I did have some OU qualifications which were technically equivalent to the level four I needed to manage, but getting the right people to acknowledge this was a Herculean task.
"That's the goal," I replied. "When I joined the company I was told at interview they'd fund the level four. They never did, and now it's being replaced by the level five. They're dithering on whether they want to train seniors to that level, so I'm stuck on shift for now."
"So what's your goal? What do want to achieve?"
"Operations Manager, or equivalent. Eventually. Right now I'm focused on earning 40k a year by the time I'm forty."
I think the answer she was looking for continued with something like, "but since the company won't offer anything above mandatory training I guess I'll forego all ambition and focus exclusively on helping you achieve an improved OFSTED rating so you can impress the CEO and get your bonus”. Instead she said, “Well, everyone’s got to dream, haven’t they?”. Supervision ended a few moments later, and nothing more was ever said about support or development.
A bonus is a lovely thing of course, and can be used to set targets and guide behaviours (to an extent. But that’s a different article). And of course, we all want CIW/OFSTED to love what we do. Problems occur when we start chasing regulator’s ratings and good care becomes secondary to that. Ideally, we’d achieve great outcomes for kids and this would automatically be reflected in the inspection outcomes. But again, that’s a different article.
Or is it?
The problem with this employer was that their goals didn’t align with mine. And the problem with regulators is that their goals don’t always align with what we want for the kids. Great care outcomes with poor record keeping will not equal a great inspection, and operating with one eye on the regulators can lead to a lot of defensive practice or at least the sort of recording that screams “look how caring we are!!!” rather than demonstrating effective care through outcomes.
My goal was to use my skills, knowledge and abilities develop and progress my career; their goal was to use my skills, knowledge and abilities to improve their OFSTED ratings. Essentially they had set my goals for me, and weren’t interested in what I wanted. A few months later I left for an external promotion.
If you’re going to set targets for your staff… actually, scratch that. You can’t set targets for your staff, at least meaningfully. Especially not the sort of targets that have a long-lasting impact on someone’s career. You have to set your targets with the staff, and don’t be afraid to help those who aren’t in line with your vision to find the exit.
If you’re going to set targets with staff, ensure they are included meaningfully in the target-setting. Part of the appraisal process at that company was explicitly aimed at ‘ensuring staff and the company’s targets are aligned’. To do this you need to (a) understand your staff’s targets, and (b) work to help them align.
If they had said to me, “to achieve that you’ll need to gain your management qualification and hold a management post successfully for five years before looking at an operations management role” and helped me to do so they would have had a loyal employee for that time period, and a guaranteed manager for the next five years - and one who was willing and able to move into a senior management post. They went through at least one home manager whilst I was there, and shortly after I left the senior manager sought employment elsewhere. Instead they had the cost and disruption of replacing the senior RSW who left (me), replacing the manager who left, and replacing the senior manager. All of these changes are disruptive to any team, not to mention expensive.
For my part, before the supervision had even ended I’d thought “bugger this for a game of soldiers”. Instead of 100% commitment to the home and company, I did what I needed to get by and saved my energy for a job search.
Let’s say you set the target of maintaining 80% occupancy over the year and achieving a strong inspection with CIW. CIW don’t provide ratings in the same way OFSTED do, so targets relating to CIW are necessarily vague. But you’ve got the picture. You may have an employee who simply wants to offer the best care that can to the young people. Let them. Encourage them. Use their passion to give those kids the best childhood you can. You may also have an employee who wants to progress. Again, encourage them. Train them to deliver supervisions. Mentor them to manage inductions. Show them the paperwork, difficult decisions and the conflicting priorities that make up a management role. You might scare them off, in which case you’ll have a knowledgable senior - or deputy, if your company pays for them. Anything they can do well is one less thing you have to do. You might worry, like my ex-employers, that you are training someone to leave. They are my ex-employers for a reason. People who are going to leave will do so anyway. By training and supporting them you are cultivating loyalty and making use of the skills they can offer - and potentially retaining them for longer. By refusing to do so you are only hastening their exit.
Oh, and the target I set for myself? I missed it. I was 41 before breaking through the 40k barrier. But I landed on 43k, so I’m comfortable with that.
This is the page I'll update most often, with thoughts and opinions on management, writing, and what I've been watching or listening to. So dip in and see what takes your fancy.