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Grief in the Workplace

workgriefWhen I was moving up through the ranks of the tiny IT world in Saskatchewan I had the opportunity to work for some heavy hitters in the industry at that time: EDS, CGI and IBM to name a few.  Working for the big dogs there was always a common mantra: Always be professional.  Three simple words that are so very complex because “being professional” doesn’t always come naturally and it’s not always common sense.  Professionalism is truly a skill that needs to be learned and I see very few University graduates that come into the industry with any hint that they understand what it means to be professional.  That’s OK because no matter what your degree tells you, when you enter the work place for the first time you really don’t know anything at all… but that’s a topic for a different post.

Part of being a professional, especially as a consultant, you had to have a separation of your personal life and your professional life.  If you’ve got problems outside of the office, they stay outside of the office.  Your clients pay a lot of money for your services and they should get every penny’s worth while you are working.  That’s what I was told and it did make sense.  When I pay for something I expect it to work as advertised all the time otherwise I feel a bit cheated.  That certainly applies to things like electronics or computing hardware but this can never apply to people.

As some of you know, I recently lost my wife and it has been devastating for me.  It’s one of those things that you don’t think about and can’t possibly comprehend until you go through it yourself.  I work for a great company and they were incredibly supportive.  My clients were also very understanding and supportive and as a result I am still employed today.  Other people are not always so lucky.  I had a lot of time away from the office after my wife died and after about a month of not working I started to work a few hours each day from home but I think it was almost two months before I could put in a full work day.  Even then it wasn’t a typical 8 hour day.  I would be awake at 4:00 AM and I would work for an hour or two, then something would distract me and I would be away from the keyboard for a few hours… sometime around midnight I would have had a full 8 hours of work and this cycle would repeat each day slowly getting better as time went on.

I’ve heard tales of companies that allow employees one or two weeks of bereavement leave and anything beyond that they need to apply for short or long term disability.  I can tell you first hand that this practice will do nothing but exacerbate the problem and create even more stress for employees.  Imagine a situation like mine where you have lost the love of your life and you are having to deal with funeral arrangements, life insurance, medical people (organ donor program, the coroner, various doctors and administrators), federal pension paperwork, three separate tax returns, emotionally supporting your children, etc… then your employer tells you, “Hey I know you feel like like you’ve lost pretty much everything and we feel really bad.  We know you have no idea how you’re going to pay all the expenses but we just wanted to let you know that if you’re not back at work in a full capacity by next week you’re not getting paid.”  Really?  In what twisted world does this make any sense at all?  Well, it’s the same world that tells us we need to be professional at all times.

As I said, this is not my situation at all.  I am incredibly fortunate to be associated with a group of people who are not only professional but they are human and compassionate.  They understand the value that I bring to the organization and our clients and even though they may not be able to comprehend what I’m going through they do all that they can to help me get back to full working capacity.  Well over a year and half after my wife’s passing I still struggle every day to focus and be productive.  Some days it’s easier than others but I’m still working to find a new normal in my life.  It isn’t be easy to sort things out and it will take time but with the support of my employer, co-workers and understanding from my clients I have found a way to be productive again while still coping with grief and regaining a life.

Here are a few tips for employers in dealing with employees who are coping with grief:

  • Remember that your employees are a valuable part of your organization but don’t treat them like inventory.  They are people with feelings and even if you can’t understand you need to be aware of that fact.
  • A show of support will earn a respect and loyalty that the can never be matched by a pay increase.  People will have a tendency to remember those who go above and beyond what is expected expecially when their life has been turned upside down.  When your world crashes down around you the people who help you get the pieces back together really stand out.

Making Steel

OK, time for a little bit of business talk.  Part of what I do is called IT Service Delivery.  In fact, that’s my specialty if I have to have one.  I help companies improve their Information Technology Services.  Quite often companies have the right products for the job but somehow they just don’t seem to be getting the job done.  Well you might have a claw hammer but if you’re pounding the nail with the wrong end of the hammer head it’s not going to work very well.  That’s essentially what I do, I examine what companies do with their IT solutions and sometimes I point out that they might be using the wrong side of the hammer head.  Today, I’m thinking about the communication process.

I asked a lot of questions when I was a kid.  I guess I must have had a lot of questions about where babies came from because when I was about 5 years old my Dad felt the need to take me for a drive and tell me about the birds and bees.  This was a very basic and high level version of “the talk” but it was “the talk” regardless.  When he was finished with his awkward monologue my Dad glanced at me and noticed the puzzled look on my face.  “Do you understand all that?” he asked.

“Yeah.  I just have one question.” I replied.

“What’s that?”

“How does God make steel?”

I still take a ribbing from family members over that question to this day.

Trying to explain service delivery to an organization is often like trying to explain how god makes steel.  You really don’t know where to start but it’s clear that the question asked cannot be answered.  The question shows that there is an obvious lack of understanding in a few areas.

When we approach service delivery within any organization we are met with questions very similar to “How does god make steel?”.  We need to be able to recognize these questions because they help to define the line between understanding and confusion.  Part of developing the service delivery fabric is weeding out the areas of confusion and laying down a base of clear understanding.

The problem is that we have a tendency to ignore these questions and focus on developing processes.  We draw flow charts showing how to do things but we need to ensure that people understand the idea around the process.  Why do we do this?  What happens if we don’t do this? How does this help us reach a goal or desired result?

Successful service delivery is dependant on people not process.  The base skills of the people need to be developed before you can even think about a process.  The process is only as good as the people who use it.

Pay attention to the questions asked and find those points where your people lack a clear understanding.  Address those points before you spend too much time on detailed processes.  Smart, well-informed people will fall into the right process naturally.  Ill-informed people will struggle with any process and they will not delivery the way you need them to.

Dreams

We all have dreams and goals.  I’d be surprised to hear someone say, I have no dreams.  Perhaps that’s why it’s so disturbing when we see the dreams of others get swept away by the torrent of life.  We don’t typically like to see other people’s dreams dashed because we know how important our own dreams are to us and we can feel the pain and loss that others go through when their dreams don’t come to be.

When I told people that I was shutting down TikLogic Ventures, Inc. there was a lot of concern and I think it’s because people associated this entity with my personal dreams of escaping the corporate world.  I appreciate everyone’s concern but the dream is not dead.

I have been in the IT industry for a very long time and when I made the decision to leave my post as a senior manager with an international software company I took a couple of months off just to refocus and decide my next steps.  The fact that I was able to advance my career and have the opportunity to work for a great company and with some truly talented people would have been a dream come true for many people.  And it was for me too.  Things got to a point where I felt that I had achieved as much as I could but I was unsure what I wanted to do next.  I had always thought about what it might be like to strike out on my own and consult but I didn’t want to be just another IT consultant so I had to figure out what would set me apart.  That’s probably a story for another day.  The truth is, I had been planning my departure from the software company for about a year before all of the pieces started to fall in place.  My decision to leave was not made overnight, it was a planned move.  The decision to start TikLogic came during my 2 months break form the working world.  There were a number of options available to me and it was just a matter of choosing a direction.  There were no right or wrong answers just a choice to make.

At some point in our lives we have all looked back and said, “I wish I had made a different choice” or “That was a mistake”.  Maybe it’s because of my advancing age and maybe there is some sort of wisdom emerging but I really don’t think that any conscious choice can be a mistake.  Every choice that we make can bring with it some good and some bad.  Even the most seemingly devastating choices can help us grow as individuals if we allow ourselves to learn from the experience.  It was the same with TikLogic.

Being in business for yourself is always an interesting experience.  I’ve done it a few times now and have learned something new every time.  In this case, closing the business was not because it was failing or the dream was dead.  When people go through a divorce things change.  Things have to change; change is part of the process.  Throw a lawyer or two in the mix and suddenly, your infant company that barely makes enough for you to manage a modest living as it’s sole employee gets touted as a multi-million dollar international conglomerate and the dollar signs swirl in front of your ex-wife’s eyes.  So to make it easy and to eliminate any confusion about what it really is, you have your accountant deliver the financials to your ex so she can see for herself that there is no huge fortune tucked away somewhere and to shut up her lawyer who contends that the company is infinitely valuable and probably the next Google you go back to work for someone else and close the company doors and carry on with your life.  OK, that might have sounded a little bitter because certain humor tones don’t translate well to blogs Big Smile.  The truth is I’m not bitter at all and shutting down my company didn’t impede my journey to achieving my dreams.

In fact, I am still moving toward my dream of putting the 8 to 5 work day behind me.  I work for a great company that understands the importance of treating its employees as people.  There are no clocks to punch and as long as the work gets done I have all the freedom in the world.  But this was also a choice.  I had the option to work for a number of organizations some even offering a significant pay increase but at the end of the day I couldn’t put a value on the flexibility that my current employer offered.  The pay might be a bit lower but the freedom is priceless to me.

So, for those of you who were concerned that my dreams had died, don’t worry.  I’m closer to achieving them than I thought I would be at this point 😀

Hey! What’s Going On?

Yeah, I know, you guys are probably wondering what happened to the TikLogic business web site.  Well it’s a long story but after a year of trying to negotiate a divorce settlement I finally had to shut down my company.  It’s funny how people change and become something you never thought they could be.  Sometimes the change is positive and sometimes it’s negative and many times the perceived change in people  is neither positive or negative but it is simply a matter of individual perspective.

I’ve been told by a number of people that because I have a professional image to maintain that I shouldn’t talk about my personal life on my blog.  I completely disagree with this idea.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that this kind of thinking is exactly what is wrong with the corporate world today.  Like it or not, every one of us is a person with a life outside of our work environment.  The events in our personal lives affect us as and act as catalysts for our physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual development.  Is it realistic to ask people to put aside their very being for the sake of a “professional image”?  If I am doing my best to be a good person, wouldn’t I want that to be part of my professional image?

Our daily interactions with people are much different if we fail to see others as human beings with hopes and dreams and problems and successes.  If we take a myopic view of people and consider only a professional facade we miss out on the very core of what makes each of us individual, unique and truly interesting.  We will also lack a true understanding of the skills and capabilities of others and from a pure corporate perspective, isn’t it important to understand what our co-workers are capable of?

If there is one message I want to get out in this post it’s that I choose to embrace who I am and even though it may make some people uncomfortable to hear me mention my divorce, it is an event in my life that has caused pain but has also helped me to discover new things about myself and re-evaluate the limits I have placed on myself.  Shutting down my company doesn’t mean that I have lost anything.  It’s part of my personal evolution.

For those of you interested in my business philosophy, stay tuned because I will be talking about those ideas.  But I will also be discussing some more personal topics that may seem out of place for a business focused blog but I assure you, its all relative.