As offices begin to reopen, you might be one of the many people who are feeling an increasing sense of dread. After finally finding a sustainable work-life balance, a return to the old office schedule no longer fits the paradigm of what you know can be possible. To have this situation yanked from under you might make you feel sick to your stomach.
Well, believe it or not, that knot in your stomach is actually an incredible opportunity: it’s the chance to learn and practice self-advocacy.
Listen, I know the thought of having to ask for what you want and need, especially in the context of what appears to be an overwhelming corporate power structure, may feel terrifying. I’ve certainly been there myself – and I’ll share my story in a moment.
But this moment right here? It’s about you and your chance to build a roadmap to a better future. For the past 15 years, I’ve been coaching executives and employees on how to have courageous and sometimes-uncomfortable conversations to create positive change in the workplace.
You can do this.
Fear of other people’s perceptions
Long before Covid existed, I was one of those high-performer types on the fast track up the corporate ladder. But the people around me didn’t realize that my life was going off the tracks.
I had a child with a rare disease who was struggling in the school environment. Multiple times a day, I’d answer calls from her school only to hear “Mrs. Omoqui, we don’t know what to do.” I’d have to step away from whatever meeting I was in and spend five minutes coaching the school staff through the situation.
But things kept getting worse. The calls turned into, “Mrs. Omoqui, we need you to come now because your daughter is trying to escape the property and we had to call 9-1-1.”
Something needed to change. But the last thing I wanted was to be seen as one of those work-from-home people who “take the easy path.”
One day, as I was falling apart in my office, away from the eyes of everyone else, I had a realization: I was an expert in advocating for my child. What if I used those skills to advocate for myself, as well?
Then the fear kicked in. “What will they think of me if I admit I need support and an alternate setup? How will this affect my career? What if they ding me for my performance because they don’t see me working? What if they say no?”
After some tears, I got clear on my message and practiced it. Then I put on my big-girl pants and had “the call” with my manager. It was one of the most uncomfortable processes I ever went through, but I ended up getting what I needed. Best of all, it helped me grow into a more courageous version of myself.
And now, reader, it’s your turn.
The first person you have to convince is yourself
Make no mistake: this situation isn’t just about where you work. It’s about your sense of worthiness. Situations like this trigger our deepest fears and our intense worries about being marginalized and left out, or left behind. That’s why part of preparing for the “big talk” involves sitting down and having a big think about what you really want and why you want it.
There’s a simple but powerful self-mastery exercise that can help you define these things. (I adapted the following steps from Emiliya Zhivotovskaya’s Certificate in Applied Positive Psychology training program at The Flourishing Center.)
You’ll need a pen and paper to work through the following prompts. You may be tempted to skip the writing part, but don’t. Getting your thoughts down on paper or typing them out will help sort out the “spaghetti mess” of thoughts and feelings in your head. Plus, it may help you bring up your emotions privately so you can get them out before you talk to someone else.
Step 1: Get clear on what you want
If you could ask for what you truly need and want, what would it be? Set a 10-minute timer. Without too much thinking, jot down the answers to these questions:
- What do I need?
- What do I want?
- What do I feel?
- Why do I feel the way I do about this situation?
Step 2: Make friends with your inner bully
As the answers emerge, you might find that you’re experiencing self-judgment. It usually sounds like this: “You don’t deserve that… who are you to think that could be possible? What’s your problem? What will everyone think of you when they hear what you want? Why can’t you just suck it up like everyone else?”
Sound familiar? I’ve spent thousands of hours listening to employees just like you say these exact things. And I used to think this way myself. But now I’m going to show you how to replace those self-torturing thoughts with some self-compassion.
Write down all those taunts from your inner bully. Naming them truly does begin to tame them! Then, ask yourself, “If I were to talk to myself like I would talk to my best friend, what would I say instead?” Cross out each judging thought and replace it with words of kindness.
Writing these new thoughts of self-compassion will create new neural pathways in your brain. This lays the foundation for creating a healthier, empowered inner voice as you move forward to achieve your goals. (Note: once you write down this new thinking, you should practice it daily until those new paths in your brain turn into super-highways and become your go-to way of talking to yourself.)
Step 3: Identify your ideal scenario
This step is all about self-care, but we’re not talking about bubble baths or facials. This is about the practical self-care that can take the form of creating your ideal work situation.
Now, write out the answer to this question: What circumstances do you know you need to be the best, most productive worker possible in this return-to-work scenario, while also keeping yourself and your loved ones happy as well?
Make a bulleted list of exactly what you require. Do you need to start your work day an hour later to ensure your kids get launched properly? Do you need to limit your office time to twice a week or twice a month so you can effectively schedule and manage nonwork appointments? Do you need to work from a home office, away from the chatter and distraction of the workplace, so that you can focus appropriately and do your best work?
REMOTE WORK AT ATLASSIAN
Atlassian has instituted a Team Anywhere policy, which allows Atlassians to work from anywhere in the world. Here’s how it works:
– Offices are available to employees if they want to use them, but no one is required to work in one.
– Team members must have at least four hours of overlap with their team during the work day.
– Teams should have well-documented communication and collaboration expectations.
– All meetings are virtual by default. If one person dials in remote, everyone dials in (even if they’re in an office).
– Teams will have quarterly offsites to help promote communication and team bonding.
How to have “the talk”
Many people know what they want and need, but they never get around to speaking up boldly to ask for it. Here’s how to buck up your courage, frame your request, and have the talk.
Remember: this isn’t personal. It’s a negotiation and a business transaction. You were hired for a job and you are there to create the best win-win scenario possible – so the company gets the best of you and you get the best of your life.
- Study your audience. Yes, step into your boss’s shoes for a few minutes. Ask yourself what this fellow human might be going through? What organizational dynamics might this person be experiencing? If you were this person, what would you need and want to hear in this kind of a conversation? Then, go higher up the chain: What might your boss’s boss be thinking, feeling and needing in this situation? Try to understand the point of view of the organization and the leaders within the organization. They, too, are humans and they work within a system.
- Grow your political savvy. Draft your key points for the conversation with this context in mind. Consider mentioning the tools and software that have allowed you to collaborate from a distance. Show the person you are going to talk with that you truly care about the success of the group you are in and that you have thought through how to ensure the highest quality of work and teamwork possible.
- Practice delivering the message with trusted friends or colleagues. Make your pitch out loud, to other humans. What words did you stumble over? What emotions welled up in you as you tried to articulate your message? A blubbering or volatile approach may not get you the best results, so practice until you’re able to work through any remaining anger, fear, insecurity, or discomfort.
- Anticipate the organizational push-back. What are all the reasons you have heard from your company that could get in the way of your request? What key messages will you need to deliver to proactively address these concerns? Make a list of the positive ways this new arrangement could help you show up for the team with more of your best self.
- Think through your communication strategy. Most likely, this is not going to be a one and done conversation. You will need to draft the email to open the door to the conversation. Then, you will have the actual conversation with the boss. Then, you may end up waiting for some time as it goes up the chain of command to the powers-that-be who review the requests. It may take days, weeks, or longer to get a clear answer.
As you sweat it out and wait, work on practicing mindfulness and inner peace. Be proud of yourself for being a bolder new you. Remember, all this work of getting clear on what you want is going to help you for your future. If you truly can’t work it out in this situation, remind yourself that you are never a “stuck” victim (unless you choose to see yourself as such). You have the power to know the type of work situation you need – and you can, if needed, get your search started if you truly can’t work it out with your employer.
When you get to “yes”
Working from home allowed me to continue working, to continue progressing in my career, and it opened up new ways for me to be there for my family. It’s not an understatement to say that it also saved my sanity.
Were there any downsides? A few. Some of my colleagues were angry and made snide remarks about me not being in the office. Those “zingers” pierced my spirit, yet I knew they had no clue about what I was facing. I eventually learned to get past worrying about what others thought because I knew I was doing what was best for my family and my life.
While I maintained my high performance, I had to find creative ways to “stay visible” with the bosses to reassure them I was committed to delivering at work. I maintained my work-from-home status for three straight years and it was truly a win-win. My company got the best of me and I felt incredibly loyal to them for allowing me the setup my life needed at that time.
What do you need? Self-advocacy is a vital skill that everyone can choose to learn and practice. Trust me, the impact will be worth every ounce of effort you put in to master speaking your truth and asking for what you need in a politically savvy way. You got this.
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