(re)Create Meaning

This is an expanded version of a blog written for @LinkedIn based on a provided prompt. The question asked focused on what advice managers should offer employees who are ready to move on, yet are unable to do so for financial reasons, lack of opportunities, etc.. How can manager’s offer inspiration to those employees who are no longer feeling the vibes where they currently sit?

Yes, I may have misunderstood the assignment.

Or perhaps I’ve just gone rogue.

Or, maybe, I’m an amazing outside-of-the-box thinker who doesn’t like to go with the standard, factory stamped, same-old-same-old, monotone answers.

The question? What’s your advice for people who want to make their current role or workplace more meaningful and inspiring? It’s a great question for sure. Its relevance is spiked because of that dang pandemic and the current push to get people back into their real offices, rather than the ones they’ve gone from hating to loving over the previous twelve months at dining room tables, corners of bedrooms, or hidden in closets. It may start with a hint or an email or a mandate – Come Back on Monday! – kicking of a feeling of oh, shoot, I just realized I don’t even like my job anymore. Or maybe that dislike is residual – formed prior to the pandemic but set aside for a year of hanging onto the payroll for dear life until opportunities opened up again.

Yet, as those opportunities do open up, not everyone has the luxury to job hop just yet. For every person who has scooped up one of those long awaited new positions, there are dozens of others who are facing a different reality – that they must stay put for a yet to be determined time. It could be due to the necessity of benefits, it could be due to the fear of change (exasperated by twelve months at home), it could be due to wanting to stay (within the company, just not within the role).

What advice would I give them to refocus? How would I help the to rediscover their purpose at work?

I wouldn’t.

I find that once one hits that wall of disinterest, it is very hard to recover them. It was one of my biggest fears as a manager – that moment when you realize that you’ve lost one; that moment when you know they have reached that point of no return. Suddenly your days together are numbered as your duckling turns into a person who is simply just buying time until they can move on. It’s awkward everyone. I also knew that if that gloom was present in one employee, it would not be long before it spread amongst the team. Employees talk – and they should. There is comradery in misery.

What I didn’t want was a comradery in resignations.

I learned that by acknowledging that career stalemate, we could often move forward together. I learned not to dig too deeply into finding reasons to convince them to stay. I learned that by being a part of their next steps, I could stay ahead of the surprises – offering myself as a part of their solution, rather than as part of their problem. I learned that if I could enhance their work week, I could create positive moments for them in the present and that they could take with them in the future. These moments were typically unrelated their actual job – living firmly in the other duties as assigned section of responsibilities. I have sent disgruntled paper pushers out into the field with sales teams to give them a view beyond their cubicle walls and to let them experience like on a different team for a few days. I have created pretend teams and placed them at the helm – such as heading a lunchtime walking group or organizing a holiday toy collection. As a manager, I tried always to remember that if someone was going to spend forty plus hours in one place, that the most critical piece I could provide was a reason for them to want to be there.

Sometimes, that want goes awry, though, and switches to a well, I have to be here, so….

Ironically, it was later in my career, when I’d given up my manager’s hat, that I discovered a better way to create meaning in the workplace, which was by creating meaning outside of the workplace. This was when carrying around an umbilical cord in the form of a smart phone was a brand new concept – it seemed so exciting! – except it caused a total inability to check out after hours. I found myself becoming so wrapped up in being available to everyone all of the time that I was the one burning out. It didn’t take long to realize that oh, it’s work again eyeroll coincided with earning a company provided cell phone.

Pre-tether, I was able to walk away from the doldrums of my 9-5 and jump happily into my regular life.

Post-tether, my regular life quickly began including a constant urge to check my voice mails, check my e-mails, and, eventually, check my texts. Colleagues knew they could reach me at all times because I could say the same for them. And we bought into the 24/7 availability because our companies were paying for our phones – what were a few midnight disruptions in exchange for a free Blackberry? A few years ago, after a merger, that Blackberry (well, an iPhone) was moved back onto my bill pay account. Because I am stubborn, I doubled down and took off all work items from my, now, personal device. Oh, the freedom! I had no idea how much of my days were spent starting at that little computer ready to jump immediately when I heard that little ding. Withdrawal? Uh, yeah. Is that bad? To feel anxious that I didn’t know what was living in my email box at 2am? Uh, yeah.

The pendulum has swung back a little – I do have my work email back on my still personal device, but I do not give out my mobile number to coworkers. This gives me a firm line in the sand and the ability to self-monitor through the adjustments of push notifications.

How does giving up that all-access-all-the-time mindset affect maintaining inspiration at the workplace? It doesn’t. But by allowing yourself the space after hours to enjoy activities that have been set aside may. Without that constant pull to be back at your desk, without that feeling of needing to be two places at once – you can back track to immersing yourself into forgotten hobbies or into taking a class or into reconnecting with old friends.

And what about time off? Not just after hours time off – but actual, go-away-from-work-for-days-at-a-time time off. I have spent the better of four years repeating the following statement to my husband: If you leave days (off) on the table at the end of the year, you did it wrong. Time off is meant to be used. Time off is a reward for time in. Time off is meant to be rejuvenating and used for refilling our tanks. I say this on a loop yet typically still lug two laptops with me when on vacation – my personal laptop and my work laptop…just in case. It wasn’t long ago that this was not even possible. Vacations meant leaving the work behind on a massive desktop with no ability for contact. There was a true separation between available and not available. Just in case…of what? I am not irreplaceable; I am not indispensable. There are really very few employees who truly are. Even brain surgeons have solid coverage when they take time off – people who exist in a world where decisions really are a matter of life or death. Take the days. All of them.

To this day, one of the best welcomes that I’ve ever gotten upon returning from a two week vacation was a note from my boss saying “Delete every email you received during the time you were out. If it wasn’t taken care of while you were away, they will ask again.” Uh, what? I was both terrified and excited to hit the delete button. I thought it was the coolest gesture but what if…? What if…what? I hit the button. I still hit the button. My vacations now include weeks of warnings (FYI, I will be out of the office blah, blah, blah) and an auto-reply directing nearly every potential question to its temporary home (If you need x, do y. If you need b, do f. If you need k, go to this website). I leave the execution up to both those covering me and to those looking for me. And if neither of those modes work, they will ask again.

Employees who cannot truly tap out for time off become employees who no longer want to tap in when they return.

We spend the bulk of our time at work. It makes sense, then, that the Sunday night dread that is auto-attributed to the start of the work week. Not many people think to analyze the rest of their lives. The question shouldn’t be about creating new meaning within our workspace, it should be about creating new meaning outside of it. If we have no reason to put down the phone or step away from our computer, will we? Or will we just stay stay tethered to the muck as if on a Joan of Arc type quest to win Unhappiest Employee of the Year? We should be encouraging those that are beginning to lag at work to look outside of work to rejuvenate their level of inspiration. Ask them what their hobbies are and encourage them to participate. Do some researches on clubs they might enjoy. Make sure they are taking of themselves as well as all of the other things/people/pets that they are taking are of. Encourage them to take a class. Offer them a few free hours off each week to volunteer somewhere that means something special to them.

No, none of this is meant to force those I’m over it employees into staying forever – and we shouldn’t want them to. But it may make their remaining days in the company nest a little more pleasant until the time comes when they can hop out. And if their stay is a little more pleasant, than their work results will likely be as well.

We work so that we can live. Everyone with a job has that right and everyone with a job forgets that at some time. It is critical for all – and especially for those circling the company drain.

Go Live.

Live with purpose. Find inspiration. Create meaning.


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