Should Your Workplace Be Your Family?

I’ve read more books on the workplace and creating a healthy sustainable work-life than almost anything else. I believe it’s a key to a successful and happy life and I also think there are direct ties to schools and classrooms. In recent years there has been a clear shift in attitudes towards the workplace environment. Coming out of the industrial age, work was seen as a necessary element of survival and not necessarily a choice people would willingly make if it weren’t for the money. Barry Schwartz talks about the historical context in Why We Work. In essence, the industrial and factory age shifted people from individuals pursuing a craft to mass production which was less satisfying and thus figuring out how much to pay people to do menial tasks became the driving focus of the economy. As we move into the information age, we begin to see work as something that shouldn’t just be a means to survival but that work itself should bring us joy and purpose. As a society, we’re not all the way there but it’s certainly a more prevalent attitude today than it was even 30 years ago.

Part of that shift comes from companies like Google which have transformed the workplace. They have tried to make the workplace less like work and more like home or your favourite coffee shop. They have inspired many other businesses and workplaces to copy their approach. Even schools are paying more attention to space in an effort to make learning better for students.

Much of this shift is designed to keep employees at work more and get more productivity out of them. That’s not necessarily bad but no one likes to be manipulated and it’s important to recognize when something seems off. Part of a new perspective about work is the use of words like “family” when it comes to your co-workers. I’ve always been wary of this idea.

The ideas of the past where work was something you dreaded and only did for a paycheck is not desirable. Neither is the start-up mentality where work is life and family and everything else comes second. For most people, those are not great choices.

I have been blessed in my life to strike what I think is a wonderful balance and a conversation I had recently with my daughter had me thinking about what that balance can be especially when it comes to the relationships you have with your co-workers. During my 23 years working in schools and at the district level, I always had a couple of people that I just clicked with. The ability to kid each other, ask questions and laugh together made going to work fun. At the same time, these weren’t people that I spent much time with outside of school. I was a husband and father of 4 children so our lives were busy and revolved around the activities of our kids. When I started work for Discovery Education, I began to spend more time with my co-workers since we were traveling together. Spending 100+ days a year on the road meant evenings and dinners would often be spent with colleagues. Almost to a person, I enjoyed all of these people and while they were always co-workers, they were also friends. We shared much more of our personal lives and interests and truly enjoyed one another’s company. My new role with ALP is similar, however, because travel has been limited, I’ve not had the opportunity to spend that much time outside of work with my new team. That said, I know already, that I’m looking forward to our time apart from work.

My daughter works for a small company with only a dozen or so employees. Like many organizations, it’s shifted to remote learning and this is a big reason why she chose this work. She loves her boss and has a great relationship. By her accounts, he is honest, forward-thinking and a great coach. On the other hand, she does not really like her co-workers. She gets along fine with them but she said she would never see herself spending any time with these people outside of work. It might be easy to suggest that maybe she is the problem. My bias as a father would naturally argue against that but objectively she is pretty self-aware and has a fairly diverse friend group. In fact, there was a colleague who was at the company for a short time that she really did enjoy and it was after that person left that she realized how much they meant to her and her job satisfaction.

My immediate reaction to her sharing this was that there was an HR problem. Her business is one that requires people with specific skills and certification so it may be that the pool of candidates was small in some cases and skills were chosen over personality. ALP just went through a hiring process with over 150 candidates. Both with ALP and Discovery, I saw that hiring good people took precedent over specific qualifications. Sure experience, skills and background are important but knowing that you’ll be spending significant amounts of time together also matters. Whether explicitly stated or implicitly implied, knowing you’ll fit in with the team is critical.

I understand that not all working environments require this. I think specifically about schools and teachers. Not only is our profession highly isolated, but hiring is often done at the district level and given teachers are not hired by the school, they can and do work for multiple schools in their career. While I”m sure they care about who you are as a person, they likely do not always consider how they will or won’t fit in with the staff they are joining.

Teacher retention is a challenge. There are many reasons teachers don’t stay in the profession. I think a couple of them at least have to do with how much they enjoy their colleagues and how much they get to work with them. I know that co-teaching is a fairly rare occurrence but in the cases where it happens, it seems to be a big factor in job satisfaction. Teachers who previously spend the vast majority of their day by themselves suddenly have a colleague to truly collaborate with. Collaboration is a major buzzword in education and yet happens so little among its professionals relative to most other workplaces. Teaching is such a difficult job and doing it alone can make it more so. Having trusted friends so at least help shoulder some of the load can be the difference between someone staying or leaving.

Let me leave you with a few questions and I’d love you to share your thoughts.

  1. Do you think of your workplace as a family? Is that dangerous or helpful?
  2. Should HR consider personality and team chemistry when hiring or is that not their role?
  3. What can schools and districts do to provide more opportunities to co-teach?