Many years ago, I left a secure, well paid job in a large retail company in search of something I had no idea how to describe. I had a strong but vague desire to create a new business model that had a completely different working environment. I didn’t know what that would look like, or how it might work.
All I knew was that when I left, I was exhausted and disillusioned on every level. I was a wife and mother of 2 young children, although the company had been generous with maternity leave and half day options, nevertheless, the daily grind of managing a home, family and office job became unbearable. I had not achieved the great dream of successfully ‘having it all’. Instead, I was ill, unhappy and confused. There had to be another way. I know this isn’t a new or unusual story for many women.
I yearned for something radically different. However my problem was this: after years of feeling I was running on the wrong operating system, like Apple, trying to work on Windows, I didn’t have the language to articulate a new way, I couldn’t present a compelling alternative and workable model.
I started to imagine work as an integrated part of life as opposed to being separated from personal life. No one knows better than women the constant manic juggling act we perform between work, home, raising kids, running a household and managing our many family and social relationships. What if it were all inter-related, that we lived a lifestyle of seamlessly transitioning in and out between work, child care, home care, relationship care and there was time for everything throughout the day?
What if women in business could work in completely different ways that were in tune with our fundamental natures, how they truly operated and yet still be successful, effective and flourish?
I started a new business and began to observe my own behaviour. I noticed when I felt most alive, when I thrived and enjoyed my life most. To my dismay, I discovered that I loved my life most when I engaged in highly questionable behaviours that were contrary to and inconsistent with every responsible time-honoured standard of good business practice in corporate life:
It made me feel terribly, terribly guilty. Strangely enough, I got all my work done and seemed to please my clients, but I was engaging in these irresponsible behaviours furtively, I was secretly shamed by my lack of a proper work ethic.
Still, as I continued to observe my aberrant behaviour, I began to notice recurring themes come up. It seemed that I favoured connecting with people important to me over being efficient and getting my tasks done as quickly as possible, I couldn’t help but feel that a good heart-to-heart with my daughter was at least as important as getting my work done.
And then I had a startling thought. What if this was how women were MEANT to be working? What if this was the way it needed to be in order for us to thrive, flourish and find joy in our lives? What if these were in fact PRINCIPLES upon which we needed to base our working lives?
As these ideas percolated through me, I began to get an imaginative picture-sense of what it could be like if I were to work in a way that expressed everything I valued: relationship, connecting, bodily rhythm, flexibility, process, intuitive tuning-in instead of trying to fit myself into what seemed to be most important in the business world: structure, rules, achieving goals, driving efficiencies.
Today, I'm seeing that, what would make my old corporate hierarchy's toes curl and which I couldn't imagine all those years ago, is now a reality in my life.
Life Fluidity: there’s far less artificial separation between my work life and my personal life, now everything I do is simply part of my whole life. The 9-5 construct bears little resemblance to how our lives actually flow. If we stay fluid, work finds its place woven in between childcare, cooking, shopping, leisure, self-care and rest.
This enables us to breathe because it allows space for everything in our lives. Having flexibility means we're less likely to work at the expense of our families or special interests or our friendships and relationships. It means being able to set our own pace in achieving results even if that means working odd hours, perhaps later in the evening or in differently-styled ‘offices’ like quiet cafes.
Being At Peace With Time: rush, hurry, urgency, stress. It’s a badge of honour to be super-busy and constantly on the run. In a world where speed is so highly valued, to slow down doesn't make the least sense until we find ourselves ill, in crisis, gasping for breath trying to survive our manic lives. Giving ourselves longer lead times, slowing things down to an easeful pace, takes us from panicky running to a relaxed walking adagio.
The CEO of an organisation I work with insists we will not meet deadlines if it means stressing ourselves to death to do so. We've found ourselves elegantly sidestepping deadlines as they go whooshing past, and then we simply set new ones that suit our collective lives better. We're still achieving big things that matter. This level of self-care is a radical counter-culture act when 'faster' is seen as essential to success.
Valuing Connection and Efficiency: when we work solely in the interest of maximising efficiencies, we begin to lose humanity, we become more machine-like, pushing for ceaseless productivity. By making space to share our life stories during our business meetings, we let others see what we're bringing to the table on this particular day, what challenges we may be struggling with; and feel the relief of once having expressed what is going on for us, being able to focus better.
Another CEO I work with, values connecting as human beings and sharing our personal lives so much, it’s a de facto part of our marketing team meetings. She believes there’s alchemy in doing business this way; we focus better on business when the personal is given an equal hearing. A beginning round of a simple check-in is a good way to do this; yes the meeting is longer. And we have connected on a deeper level and feel kindly and warmly towards each other at the end. Worth it? I have no doubt.
For those of you who may be thinking this is all very well, but it’s simply not realistic, ask yourself what kind of life so-called ‘realism’ has given us, is giving us, right now? Many of us are feeling an urgent need for life to be very different on multiple levels, including our relationship to nature, our world and our future.
Yes, it takes courage and trust in your own inner knowing to counter the inexorable forces exerted on us to conform to the structures that are currently in place. However, pushing against something only builds resistance in what you're opposing. I've always liked Buckminster Fuller's notion that:
"You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete."
We can seed bold, new ideas by committing to what we truly value in our lives. How we express our values and share them in words, gives them life and a protocol to follow and live by. We can choose to use language that resonates not just with our present, but perhaps more importantly, with the more alive and vibrant future we sense is possible. To do this, it’s vital to pay attention to what we say we value; how we use language in our businesses matters.
Words are powerful agents of change. Send them out to work.