Maybe you fell head over heels. Maybe your feelings grew over time. All you know is that you have what everyone is looking for, but few seem to get: A job you love. And you are about to leave it. How do you even start explaining?
The work is great. So is the organization. It’s not them. It’s you. And it was not just a moment of temptation. You have been thinking about it for a while. Even if you might regret it, you must part now. It’s the right time.
After all, you keep telling yourself, you’d better leave while it is your choice. When you still have options. You are too young to get cozy and too good to be taken for granted. You have seen what happens to those who do. One day, they get dumped unceremoniously, and what for, new talent? Or their love slowly curdles into complacency, leaving them going through the motions. No, you won’t let that happen, and ruin the memory of a great modern love.
Because that’s what it is, admit it. Sigmund Freud is often quoted saying, a century ago, that to live a good life we need to be able to love and work. These days, it seems, we must be able to love to work. We no longer want just respect, security, or money from our jobs. We want passion, fulfillment, and surprise too. We want, in a word, romance.
Organizations take those wishes seriously, and do their best to win our hearts. They no longer attract talent with only the promise of material reward. Their recruitment pitches promise that you will find meaning. You will grow. You will be part of a community, and you will help change the world. If you are lucky, you might even get paid well. What’s not to love?
Scholars have spent decades studying what makes organizations win our hearts. It’s called identification. We fall for organizations that reward our efforts not only with good benefit packages, but also with a better version of our selves.
When we are “identified,” we become what we do. We come to think of our selves in ways that incorporate — literally, give our body to — the organization’s values. If my organization is open, rigorous, and entrepreneurial, I must be too. When our organization shines, then, we feel as if we shine. When it struggles, we struggle. Our jobs appear, like other romances, the healthiest and most sensible of addictions.
No wonder we can’t stop thinking about our jobs, and sometimes they make us lose our mind. That is just how romance works. It is demanding. It might consume you. But when it’s good, it makes you feel alive. While it lasts, that is.
I often meet people falling out with a job or an organization that they (used to) love. They often turn to executive courses as a couple’s therapy of sorts, looking for help sorting out their mixed feelings. I understand them well because I am one of them some days. I know the hesitation, the mild guilt, the fear. Am I just being impatient? Will I get over it? Will I find something better, or even just as good? And who will I become if I leave?
Sometimes those questions are signs that we are stuck in a dysfunctional romance with our jobs. Other times, that a fading romance with our job is transforming into a mature love with our work. Most often, it is a bit of both, but it is crucial to tell them apart. You must understand why you are leaving before you can think about how to leave well.
This is how to tell if you are in a dysfunctional romance. You give a lot, you don’t get what you need, and you are made to feel that it is your fault. Breaking up feels hard, even if abuse is involved. You feel captive, for economic and psychological reasons. You want to leave but feel that you can’t afford it and, to be honest, can’t even imagine it. Who would you be?
This is how to tell if your romance is transforming into enduring love. Your passion is turning into devotion, and you begin to discern what exactly is worth being devoted to. You are not sure if it is worth being devoted to a job. For all you might love it, a job will never love you back. But you love what you do, and who you have become, in that job. You love the work, and the people you touch through that work. Those deserve your devotion.
If you conclude that you’re in a dysfunctional romance, there is only one thing to do to leave well. Get out as soon as you can. Find what you need to support yourself — another job, a good group of friends — and make a clean cut. It will heal quicker than you can imagine. Even if only parts of your job are like that, draw a clear line between you and those. Once you realize that you are better off, it will free you up. Perhaps, even, to stay on different terms.
If you already have alternatives — an attractive offer, enough support around you — and you are still hesitating, however, you need to take a different tack. You may be shifting your love from your job to your work, and you need to honor the former and embrace the latter. So think twice before you leave. Once about what you need to let go of, and once about what you cannot leave behind. Then make sure you mourn the former, and take the latter with you.
Leaving a job that has made you who you are — even if it has shrunk, you have outgrown it, or both — cannot be quick and easy, and you should not try to make it so. It would be an insult, and a waste of learning. Take time to say goodbye to people and spaces, even to things. Acknowledge the last time you do a task, attend the all-hands meeting, or look out a certain window. If there is a party, make it full of stories. Let sadness be there alongside celebration. When people congratulate you, let them know that condolences might be in order. Feeling sad might make you wonder if you are making a mistake. It could be; you must consider that. But maybe it just means that you have been doing it right all along.
Let your job teach you one last thing: to savor loss. You will need it again. In the mobile workplace of our day and age, being able to move on is as important as being able to commit. We hardly seem talented if we can’t do both. It’s not enough to be able to love our jobs, then. We must also learn to leave them. And if loving well is hard, leaving well is harder still.
While you say your heartfelt goodbyes, remember that when you leave a beloved job there is no need to pack light. Take all you can with you, lest you leave yourself behind. Pay attention to the work that you will continue to do, even elsewhere, and make a mental note of how it might develop now that your job is no longer constraining it. Let the people you want to keep in your working life know that your relationship goes on, and might even develop in new ways. If you already know what those ways might be, it will make both you and them feel good to say it out loud. If you are the kind of person who enjoys making lists, by all means make one of the work and the people you are committed to taking with you.
Finally, turn to the organization. You might have chosen to leave it, but you can still keep the habits and values that you learned there. That is the beauty of identification — you do not have to give it back like your laptop and badge. Many people cherish their time at organizations that they left long ago, and remain loyal to them, because those places helped them discover who they were, what they could do, and where they could go next. Jennifer Petriglieri and I have coined the term “identity workspaces” for those organizations. The mobile talent of our day and age finds them attractive precisely because they make us feel portable. They stay with us long after we are gone.
Sometimes it is necessary to leave a job or an organization in order to love our work better. Because there is one thing that loving well requires that no job or organization can ever teach — the capacity to be alone. Once we can do that, love is no longer a necessity but a joy. We are more likely to set firm boundaries, which make it easier to get close to others and to our work without giving ourselves away. When we can be alone, we become less vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. We can really commit, because we are not captive.
I don’t think it’s worth loving a job, or an organization. Let me repeat it: they will not love you back. But if a job, or an organization, helps you find work and people worth loving, then it has been good, and it is worth honoring, both while you are there and after you are gone.
Employees around the world yearn for freedom and flexibility. The most common form of flexibility that companies offer is the ability to work remote. In a new study by my firm and Virgin Pulse, we found that a third of employees globally work remote always or very often. Compared to a decade ago, the number of remote workers has increased by 115%. I’ve personally worked from home for almost eight years and have benefitted from the independence, autonomy, and five-second commute time.
Despite these benefits, I often feel lonely, isolated, and less engaged with my team, since I rarely see them face-to-face and am confined to a 500-square-foot apartment. After interviewing over 2,000 employees and managers globally, our study discovered two-thirds of remote workers aren’t engaged and over a third never get any face-time with their team—yet over 40% said it would help build deeper relationships.
The study also found that remote workers are much less likely to stay at their company long-term. Only 5% always or very often see themselves working at their company for their entire career, compared to almost a third that never work remotely. When you don’t see or hear your colleagues over a long period of time, you can become less committed to your team and organization — and start looking for your next opportunity — since no one is looking over your shoulder while you job search.
While the population of remote workers is growing, some companies are simultaneously rolling back their remote work programs and forcing their employees to be at the office everyday with no exceptions. Companies that have already mandated this include Yahoo!, Best Buy, HP, Reddit, IBM, and Honeywell. They agree that in-person collaboration fosters teamwork, idea-sharing and quicker decision making. They believe that it’s the best way to build a strong culture, increase engagement, and fuel work relationships.
Kiah Erlich, Director, a senior director at Honeywell told me: “When our company eliminated working from home several months ago, it was disappointing and not fun as a manager to explain to some of my permanently remote employees. But as a leader who craves human interaction, it has been one of the greatest things we’ve done. People are actually in the office now. What once was a painful conference call is now a collaborative white-boarding session. Instead of more emails, people get out of their chair and walk over to my office. It is a beautiful thing to see, and it has not only improved productivity but brought the team closer together.” Leaders want their employees to have a similar experience has because it’s good for the culture and business.
Instead of saving money by promoting remote work, many companies are investing money in their office designs. A well-designed office, with an assortment of meeting spaces, gives employees the flexibility they desire but in a collaborative environment. Apple is spending about $5 billion for a 2.8 million square-foot office space that accommodates about 12,000 employees. Amazon will also spend $5 billion on their new headquarters to employ 50,000 people, and Zurich North America spent $333 million for a 783,000 square foot office for 3,000 employees. Clearly, design matters to these companies; they want a place where employees can freely interact to create breakthrough ideas.
These companies understand that employees’ proximity to each other matters. The closer we sit to our colleagues, the more likely we will interact with them and form the relationships that lead to long-term team commitment. Back in 1977, MIT Professor Thomas J. Allen studied the communication patterns among both scientists and engineers and found that the further apart their desks were, the less likely they were to communicate. If they were 30 meters or further from each other, the likelihood of regular communication was zero. Mike Maxwell, a senior category leader at Whirlpool, says: “Face-to-face meetings give you the proximity and presence that make collaboration more effective. I am also better able to read the room and pick up on the unsaid words. Reading the room is critical for knowing when things need further explaining or when to drop something that isn’t going over well.”
Aside from lacking proximity, there are often times a lag in communications with a remote workforce. Getting everyone on the same page, on the same call and in the same mindset is challenging when people aren’t located in the same place. “Whenever there’s a gap in communication across a remote and dispersed workforce, people fill that void with their own assumptions,” says Dr. Rajiv Kumar, president and chief medical officer at Virgin Pulse— assumptions that can result in work conflicts.
Although research shows that remote workers are more productive, and they’ll tell you that they enjoy the flexibility, they typically won’t reveal how isolated they are. Some companies have gone to extremes to either force everyone into the office or enable all employees to work remote, but very often, meeting in the middle is best. Give them the flexibility at the office, while an option to work remote part-time based on their position and needs. They need face-time even if they won’t admit it, and companies need an engaged workforce in order to retain talent and compete in the global economy.
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