Workplace Communities Suck But Coffee Makes Them Rock

I have this point I want to make, the point being that workplace communities are idealistic annoyances and ‘open workspaces’ really aren’t helping in any way.
Of course I get it’s all meant to be about collaboration and creativity. But isn’t it all ultimately about getting a group of people to form this shared vision, cohesiveness and amount of care about each other? Something that kind of looks like a community?
I was going to write about how small rural communities are able to prosper, despite the expansive distance between the members’ farmland. But then I thought about the mental health crisis in Aussie farm communities and the community’s characteristic insular nature. Ah yes, that one time I was asked “Why would you want to learn another language?! Everyone in Australia speaks English!” My childhood recollections of farm town living didn’t seem like the way to form a thriving and excellent community to prove my point with.
I wanted to show that jamming people into a small place wouldn’t result in community. I wanted to shout to the rooftops “cubicles and open workspaces are a cheap solution to a space problem, not an elegant answer to questions of workplace communities!” It soon became glaringly clear that small towns and work communities had a very strong common factor though in geographic constraints. Like highschool, they’re a group of people being forced to co-exist in close confines or a sort of isolation. A semblance of community may form, but I would tend to think of it as a way of doing things, a culture if you like – not a tight and cohesive social entity. In fact, being forced to participate in geographically defined groups based on residence, age or employer can be pretty fucking brutal.
So I decided this point was probably moot now, since it didn’t really matter how people lived (in apartments or farms) or were arranged (in offices or cubicles), they would still only create a weak community. Unless people believe in the cause bringing them together and are committed to the group that forms around it – the only pressure being applied to the formation of the group is external. Geography is one of the clearest external forces moulding groups into communities. But it isn’t the force that turns group carbon into community diamond. Not even the external force of time can create community diamond, unless the time allows for commonalities to be found. Because it’s when people meet over mutual interests of sports, faiths, hobbies, illnesses, support needs, politics – you name it – that a strong, vibrant and cohesive community forms. The interests form an internal suction, a magnetisation
of the group members to be together, an attraction and pull to the group which makes it a community.

In the end, I suppose my point has been made though. If you want a community in your workplace, hire people who all like coffee. Have a fancy coffee machine, beautiful coffee cups, and create a communal place for the making, drinking and sharing of coffee. End the torture of ‘open work spaces’ that supposedly foster interactive work and community. They just end up annoying the crap out of people.

Or maybe herbal tea?
Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.

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HR for Mental Health in South East Asia – An Easy Icebreaker

Alison Chisnell’s blog has sparked an awesome conversation around HR for Mental Health. I have followed it keenly, but felt rather powerless to participate in a meaningful way. You see, I work in South East Asia (SEA), and that presents some unique challenges to mental health. But I do believe there is something fundamental that HR pros can do in SEA to help break the silence.

The Context of Mental Health in SEA
Disability is still a terrible open secret for SEA families, with many a family member having spent their life in the back room while guests visit their house, so as not to be seen. I know this because I have been to a party and heard a voice I didn’t recognise from the kitchen but wasn’t allowed to go in since it was an aunty with Down syndrome who isn’t allowed out to see guests. With this attitude towards ‘being different’, it’s no wonder that mental health is a terribly feared, real secret.
Mental health in SEA is such an embarrassing subject that the true costs and difficulty in obtaining treatment are rarely open to public debate. Health insurance does not cover mental illnesses. It is a cost to be borne out of pocket. Singapore has a mandatory saving scheme that takes portions out of citizens’ salaries, but only from 2009 could this money go towards depression or bipolar disorders from 2011.  There does seem to be some development in mental healthcare affordability but it is very slow. Even if you have the money, the services may simply not be available to you in the lesser developed parts of SEA. And if you are a foreigner perhaps, there can be the added difficulty in seeking help that is culturally appropriate.
And then it gets really complicated when the silence around a mental illness is broken but the answer given is religion or black magic. SEA is a region known for its religious diversity and strength, perhaps it is not so know for its black magic though. Something that easily arches the eyebrow of a foreigner, black magic and possessions are a naturally accepted fact to SEA local. Mothers of my friends have been possessed, stories are passed about those who are cursed by previous generation’s bargains with bomohs, poor women will have metal plates implanted in their forehead to lure a wealthy husband. Putting this final layer over the mental health issue in SEA makes for a rather limited dialogue. 
Don’t Tell Your Colleagues
As a sufferer of anxiety, I recently sought professional advice in Singapore. I went to a private clinic and was so fortunate to have met a wonderful therapist, a Pakistani who migrated to the US, was a non-practicing Muslim, and had an inter religious marriage. I hit the jackpot of help and insight into my unorthodox intercultural, interracial, inter religious significant relationship and life. And that advice hit the jackpot with my credit card: $300 for one hour’s consultation. It didn’t matter how much they helped me, that kind of rate is simply unaffordable.
Apart from the great advice, one of the things I vividly remember from the session was being advised not to share my anxiety challenges with colleagues. The impact on my career and social standing would apparently be catastrophic enough that therapists remind foreigners not to share mental health concerns with SEA colleagues.
Mental Health In the Workplace
And this brings me to mental health in the workplace of SEA. A difficult terrain to negotiate is the concept of hierarchy, seniority and saving face. People in high positions who are respected seniors simply can’t be approached about erratic behaviour. Jobs are at the mercy of a boss’s self awareness and an employee’s remarkable skill to save the face of someone clearly ignoring significant mental health problems. Secondly, the power of a name and social networks in SEA make the importance of face saving essential to successful business. Mental health is not something anyone wants attached to their image in SEA. The fear from the top resonates right down to the fear of those on the bottom – the most vulnerable with the lowest likelihood of seeking treatment – and everyone suffers in silence.
HR in SEA is more involved in employee health than what I am used to, as we negotiate and manage the health insurance of employees. Surprisingly, for all this involvement in health, there will never be a mention of mental health. Sick days will be for a myriad of reasons, but never because of mental health. And one of the most difficult issues as a foreigner practicing HR in SEA is that despite all the influence and best intentions on your behalf, you’re not going to change the basic attitudes of the people in that country, change the government healthcare policies or create better public mental health services. 
So what can we do when we’ve got all the resources that we’re going to get, and it’s just not enough?
What HR Can Do
In my honest and very simple opinion, I believe one of the most important things a HR pro can do in SEA is to establish strict professional boundaries and partake in no gossip at all about employees. It’s sadly not a given for HR in SEA. Appraisals and employee’s life decisions will regularly be discussed mid-store or over lunch while the HR pro and colleagues wait for that person to arrive. How do I know? Because I’ve heard and seen these examples happen as I go about my daily life in SEA – a management meeting about a staff member in the pharmacy aisles, a discussion about someone’s maternity leave and career prospects with other colleagues at a restaurant table. If I’ve seen it, then so would have all the other people I work with, and they would have seen it for their whole lives in SEA.
Discreteness is not an easy image to cultivate against this backdrop, and it may be a solo effort in a team of HR pros in SEA as you come into a place with formed habits, or even cultural norms, that fly in the face of confidentiality. But it’s a worthy effort, and ultimately rewarding when a colleague finally takes comfort in the professionalism and understanding of your role that it’s no longer a ‘head cold’ plaguing them, but a very bad bout of depression. Anyone who has suffered from some sort of mental illness knows the power of just being able to call your infliction by the name it actually is – no-one takes comfort in excuses of being “blur like sotong“, a head cold, or tiredness, when the monster of depression or whatever other life stealing condition is haunting them. It’s a little bit like telling someone with a broken leg to get on with life by telling everyone they have a sprained ankle. It must feel so damn good to have someone to tell that actually, the leg is broken
Now, I agree, it’s not much. But it’s a start. And it doesn’t mean becoming the counsellor and hearing everyone’s problems. In fact, good HR will promptly stop conversations that are for real counsellors and therapists – we’re there for business. But HR is also about people, and people suffer from illnesses. Some discrete open mindedness is the least we can do, and could bring very real impact to organisations in SEA.
Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.

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Your Paperwork is Revealing Your Inner Secrets

It seems nuts that something so dry can be an expression of ourselves, but I honestly believe paperwork is a part of our personal branding. You know paperwork! That record keeping, desk work, filing, administration, typing, forms, reporting, correspondence, and documentation type of stuff that is freaking hard to give a crap about because it’s so much to do around what we’re actually doing
When Saul views a video of Estes approving a drone strike that
killed 82 children, he hears the official phrase required to
approve attacks in pursuit of terrorists that will also kill
civilians, and sighs “somebody wrote that wording.”
Homeland – seriously good TV!
Of course I get people hate it. There is Russian literature on the shittiness of paperwork. But hating it doesn’t mean dismissing it. In Homeland’s first season finale, Saul Berenson makes his abhorrence very clear at the wording of government paperwork (or in this case, verbal justifications recorded) but it doesn’t mean it wasn’t necessary. The record needed to be made. He used that exact record he recoiled at to find the truth. 
Paperwork isn’t just a sign of respect, it’s a vote of confidence in the fabric of an organisation. As people participating in an organisation (be it employment or social) the very act of completing paperwork reveals our character. People that require chasing for every form, those that never take the time to fill it out properly, those that can’t meet deadlines or like to reverse engineer processes – it says so much about them. As I said earlier, I believe it reveals so much that paperwork is part of our personal branding. It exhibits our true thoughts of whether we are really engaging with the whole of an organisation, or are in a personal project we perceive as separate to that organisation. Basically, do we give a damn? If we return that book club feedback sheet with suggestions and an encouraging note on the back for the organiser, it says “yes, we give a damn, and we’re grateful to be here!” Well that’s what my crazy deductions brought me to anyway.
However, if my theory is true, not many people have caught on that paperwork is a part of their personal brand. It seems the more powerful people get, the less they can be damned with paperwork. The less they can be bothered with what they perceive as the ‘little things’, and probably the ‘little people’ dealing with it. Who is going to question them? Who is going to challenge their laziness with some basic documentation? I mean, what a shit personal brand to have! How arrogant, short sighted and small minded. But really, who is going stop their best player on the sports team from playing because of incomplete sub forms?
So yes, paperwork does say something about us, but does it matter? I mean, does it really matter whether we diligently complete paperwork or not? (Although I will say, YES it matters if your paperwork is open to Freedom of Information Acts!) Does it affect our personal brand? Does anybody care other than the ‘little person’ chasing after that paperwork?
I suppose sloppy paperwork is generally not a reputation deal breaker. But neither are things like perpetually running five minutes late, using people as Google, and having neglected greasy hair. No, they’re not habits or characteristics that precede a person, they’re more like the drops of water that seep through our smooth limestone perceptions of each other. We can’t tell where the drops come from, but we can certainly see the stalactites that form over time – just like we can’t tell where it came from, but we can clearly sense that doubt about someone’s reliability. Not giving a shit about paperwork seems to be just another one of those long term self sabotages we can do to ourselves. Probably nothing to get stressed over, but neither is sitting at a desk all day – and we all know what the outcomes of that can be.
What are you like with paperwork? One week ahead of the deadline, or half completed after three reminders? Tweet me up at @whippasnappahr!
Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.

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When We Leave Crap Jobs It’s The Uncertainty, Not The Loss, We Grieve

I’ve recently had a falling out with a girlfriend. We weren’t best friends, but she was one of my girlfriends in a city I can count all my girlfriends on one hand. And she was beautiful, knew me from my hometown and was more intelligent than me about most things not involving academia. But she was also someone you socialised with on her terms. Plans made in advance would change to accommodate other plans you weren’t aware of, parties were visited for the connections and prestige rather than fun, and tantrums regularly stirred at normal occurrences normal people have to deal with.
Joan Didion’s passage on self respect has been on my mind lately, particularly the line:
“We flatter ourselves by thinking this compulsion to please others an attractive trait: a gist for imaginative empathy, evidence of our willingness to give.”
The Famous Alan Statham Recorder Dance from Green Wing
I suppose I got sick of this delusion in myself, like I could maintain the friendship by being so easy going. I am an easy going person, but I’m not a groveler for friendship and attention. So after yet another set of plans changed during our night out, to accommodate other plans I wasn’t aware of, I decided not to pursue the friendship anymore.
This was a couple of months ago and I still feel sad over it. I miss that friendship – somewhat. But mostly I wonder whether I was too petty, whether I should have tried harder. I regret not having a huge incident to peg my decision to, the accumulation of small annoyances seems like such a cop out when I try to justify my actions. 
Because it’s a loss of such a personal nature, of course I take it more to heart. But I have experienced very similar severing of ties with crappy jobs. And what I have linked between this personal loss, and the quitting of a crappy job is: We aren’t grieving the loss itself. We knew it was crap most of the time and weren’t really invested for the long haul. But we are grieving the uncertainty of whether we made the right decision at the right time. Unfortunately not every situation has an Alan Statham handy to announce the official time to depart.
It’s just like Gretchen Rubin’s question “will one coin make a man rich?”
“If ten coins are not enough to make a man rich, what if you add one coin? What if you add another? Finally, you will have to say that no one can be rich unless one coin can make him so.”
Where is the line? When is one crappy occurrence on the heap of crappy occurrences enough to decide it really is a pile of crap you are comfortable leaving?
I can never tell. But I do know when I take action to leave that pile of crap, that I don’t really want to reverse that action. I don’t even want to reverse that action because it’s a matter of pride. No it’s not pride, it’s self respect that drove me to the decision. And although I may question my timing and method of departure, I will hopefully always cling on to that sense of self respect that keeps me away from big steaming piles of crap I haven’t noticed accumulating around me.
So I guess the point of writing all this was to offer encouragement to people wanting to break a tie but feeling frozen by indecision because Alan Statham isn’t coming to their announcement rescue. I hope  we can all take action to distance ourselves from some crap in our lives as soon as possible. Because the pile of crap has probably been added to since we started to notice it. And even though the departure is hard and we have feelings of doubt afterwards, we can take solace in the fact that it’s not the crap we’re upset about leaving, it’s the fact that there was nothing telling us we were right in doing so.
But that’s up to us, and our self respect, to know for ourselves.
Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.

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Write the HR You Want the Next Generation to See

When the next generation of HR pros are finishing their HR degrees at univeristy, they are beyond mad keen to be entering this profession. For a few years they have listened to professors talk, researched, written essays and engaged in debates over the subject of HR. They’ve done Occupational Health and Safety, Industrial Relations, Organisational Behaviour, Strategic HR, and random crap like Knowledge Management. For those of us who were actually engaging with the business world, we were probably reading a shite load of business magazines, going to networking events with local professionals and attending career seminars too. 
During my three year degree, I spent six months in France studying in a business school with students from around the world. Somehow I was studying with European kids doing their masters, in my 3rd semester of university as some 19 year old punk. My nickname was Baby Sarah. And I got a fire lit under me as my fellow students were talking about internships they completed last summer that were beyond my wildest career ambitions.
I returned to Australia, aced Microeconomics, became a Microeconomics study assistant paid by the university, won a few business student awards, did a Global Experience Program and learnt skills like network mapping, resume writing and career management.
And during my last semester at uni I started a part time HR job that became my full time HR job after graduation.
At no point did I ever think HR sucked, needed improvement in its general definition, or was an inferior profession to train in than any other course available at the university. Yes, I do want to complete financial training but that reflects on my personal skill set preference, not on HR as a lacking profession.
So quit the whinging you role models!
You people writing with years of experience, wisdom and insight that I can only aspire to have – get over what HR ‘should’ be.
Talk about HR as it is, the challenges, the pitfalls. Talk about your skill set as it is, your future training ambitions, your weaknesses (not the profession’s). Talk about why you chose this career, why you’re staying in it, what future you envisage for it that encourages and complements our profession. Talk about our profession as a real profession.
Who cares what our professional bodies are like? They’re filled with people who are losing sight of what the young generation see. 
Who cares what our peers say about HR? They’re as intelligent on our practices, and expertise, as we are on other professions in the company that can be disruptive to our work (i.e. property maintenance).
Who cares what anyone says about us except ourselves?!
So write the HR you want the next generation to see.
Because the next generation are already highly trained, switched on and ready to go. They just need that opportunity to get in and do it. And when they arrive, let’s not piss on their party with all our misgivings over the profession. Let’s show them that they have arrived at a party with people happy to be there, and not at all intimidated by the parties being held by the kids across the road.
They’ve just been waiting to bring the salt and lemon to your very tasty tequila, and give a big cheers to doing something they see as worthy of a huge student loan debt with future career prospects.

Btw, if you’re wondering how I can be employed in HR, and write about HR – here‘s my explanation.

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