Latest Ramblings

Work-Life Effectiveness Part III: A Personal Perspective

April 3rd, 2014 | Comments Off on Work-Life Effectiveness Part III: A Personal Perspective

This is the last in a series of three blogs on work-life effectiveness. In parts I and II I talked about the context for work-life effectiveness and the role of human resources practices and employers. 

As an employee and team member I think I’ve experienced some of the range of what is possible. I’ve had jobs that were 60 hour average work weeks and others where I worked 9 to 5 on the dot.

For example, the first year after my maternity leave with my twins, I worked in a job with a fabulous boss who knew she wouldn’t see my face before 9 am or after 5 pm despite the fact that the job was in a high intensity department at a senior level.  But she trusted me to get things done–and I did (luckily those babies were great sleepers!).  The craziest job I ever had included being glued to my Blackberry 24/7. One Sunday I never got out of my pyjamas because I couldn’t get off my phone and computer long enough to change! The job itself was incredible and exciting and a wonderful learning experience, and unpredictable and ultimately, for me, it was time limited. I identified the point when I wasn’t willing to work at that pace anymore, and having learned a tremendous amount and having had real impact, I moved on to something else that gave me much more flexibility (having already put in place an effective succession plan).

As a leader, what do I do to encourage a culture of work-life effectiveness? I work to discipline when I look at email and when I use technology with my team. There’s no technology at mealtimes in my family. On weekends I will only email staff if it is truly time-sensitive –something that is pretty rare. That doesn’t mean I don’t sometimes need to work on weekends, but I prioritize, and when it comes to email, I schedule what I write so it doesn’t arrive in people’s in-boxes until Monday (Boomerang is a good tool for gmail users). The same goes for email to my peers and my boss. You can’t reduce your inbox if you clutter other peoples–inevitably there will be a reply!

For ourselves, and modeling for our teams, it’s critical that we each create our own definition of successful work-life effectiveness. That jigsaw puzzle isn’t the same for all of us and over the course of a career it will change for each of us. We need to have empathy for individual priorities and choices rather than judge. Whereas for me, family may come at the front of the line, for someone else that big priority might be high-performance sport. What was important as a mom of infants is different once those same kids are teenagers or away at university. Elder care obligations inevitably come “too soon”and as a surprise, no matter how old our parents are. Exciting jobs may show up at the least convenient times and shifting priorities can make what you want possible even if it at first doesn’t make sense. In my case I had a promotion during one pregnancy and committed to a new bigger job during a maternity leave!

Ultimately, there isn’t a perfect life, but you can be thoughtful about what matters to you and what degree of imperfection you can live with.

I’ve set some key priorities:

Health: Staying healthy and fit is important to my overall mental and physical well-being so I carve out a chunk of time dark and early in the morning for a workout before my family is out of bed.

Loved ones: Friday night dinner is family dinner in my house with 10-12 people at my dining room table every week. I frequently turn down speaking or other invitations for Fridays and am not shy about telling organizers why.

On the other hand, there are things where I am prepared to  accept what’s less than ideal:

Housework/Cooking: My housework begins and ends on our main floor. I don’t even want you to guess what the rest of my house looks like.  And I’ll admit that we’ve gone through too many stretches where “making dinner” has meant dialing our favorite pizza or Indian restaurants.

Work travel: While I could travel more for my job, and I enjoy it, at this time in my life the logistics make much travel too challenging. I know the day will come where the demands on my time are different and I’ll be able to squeeze that travel in.

I’ve read that President Obama wears only grey and black suits to reduce the number of decisions he needs to make each day. We all take shortcuts where we can!

As individuals, as leaders of organizations, as managers of teams, we need to bring our whole selves to achieving work-life effectiveness. I try to model what I believe are good work-life fit examples, and I’m open with my team about the challenges I face and how I succeed (and sometimes fail) to manage them. And ultimately we will be successful if we walk our values and figure out how to put people first.

Work-Life Effectiveness Part II: The Role Human Resources Plays

March 28th, 2014 | Comments Off on Work-Life Effectiveness Part II: The Role Human Resources Plays

In Part I of this blog series I talked about the context for thinking about work-life effectiveness. In Part III I’ll share my own personal reflections.

While HR policies aren’t sufficient to build an organizational culture that supports work-life effectiveness, they are absolutely necessary.

Policy Needs Culture to Achieve Change

It is critical that organizations put in place those policies that give employees greater choice and freedom within their roles. These policies aren’t just for moms either. Elder care is coming at us like a demographic tsunami and it is one of the most understudied areas of public policy–governments haven’t figured it out–and relatively unexamined by employers.

Flexible work arrangements aren’t just about working from home. There are lots of other examples including flexible work schedules, reduced or compressed work weeks, flexibility around personal time off, self-funded sabbaticals, to name a few. All of these require that both employees and employers be patient and thoughtful. Things won’t always work out perfectly all the time. In some cases arrangements will have to be cancelled by employer or employee. Critically important though is adopting an employment culture that doesn’t see different work arrangements in terms of “keener” and “slacker”! A critical success factor is a culture of acceptance–something leaders need to model in their personal behaviour and respond to their own life needs.

By focusing on some of the basic management skills we know are important, but can lose track of in the mad dash, we can help employees be more effective and we can be more effective ourselves. For example, by measuring performance by clear objectives you can get away from valuing face time. Clear communication practices can help us to lead more effectively and even reduce the burden of the ubiquitous email. Some employers have experimented with prohibiting email evenings and weekends.

The Team Approach

The most effective approaches to cultural shift revolve around whole teams. For example, Dr. Leslie Perlow’s research with the Boston Consulting Group on “predictable” time off,  showed that when the team, rather than an individual, rallied around a work-life effectiveness goal, it was much more likely to be achieved. In that case the team committed to each member getting one evening off no matter how much work the team had or what the deliverable. While individuals were initially reluctant to take their time when their turn arrived, the team supported them and ultimately as a whole was empowered and all individuals benefitted.

Workplace flexibility, when supported culturally, is a benefit to the individual, the team AND the employer. Not only because happier employees are more productive more engaged employees, but also because we can achieve specific business goals and sometimes at reduced cost. For example, if you  have staff who work a 7 am to 3 pm shift and others who work a 10 am to 6 pm to manage child care and commuting, the result is a 7 am to 6 pm coverage without the expense of overtime.

The business case is there for making work and life more effective.

Good Food at Ryerson

March 26th, 2014 | Comments Off on Good Food at Ryerson

One year ago, I first met Joshna Maharaj. Today she is Ryerson’s Executive Chef and Assistant Director of Food Services. Back then I knew of her as a local food advocate and someone who was working on hospital food reform. Joshna and I originally connected on Twitter and followed up with a meeting in my office. By the end of that first meeting, I knew I’d found the perfect “partner in crime” to create a revolution in food at Ryerson.

From that moment on, Ryerson’s journey to a university where food matters went from a small question (can we make food on campus less expensive and taste better?), to a great idea (can we embrace a politics of food that is not only about great taste and accessibility but also about local production and sustainable sourcing) to execution on a plan that is nurturing the Ryerson community every day.

Working closely with students, faculty, Rye’s HomeGrown, the Centre for Studies in Food Security, University Business Services, the phenomenal Food Services team, Ryerson’s OPSEU leadership and Chartwells (our food management company), Joshna has built Ryerson Eats: a healthy, sustainable food program across campus. Food that is delicious, healthy and sustainable? What a People First way to solve a problem. What a Ryerson way to create an opportunity. What a city-building change making approach to a university service.

The new Ryerson Eats is still in its early days and there is much more to come. But our successes to date are a reminder to me of an expression I first heard used by the late David Pecault: the strength of weak ties–how the connections we make with people can end up propelling us to make changes in our organizations and our world… in this case one cup of soup at a time.

What’s the Big Deal About Ryerson’s Diversity Self-ID?

March 24th, 2014 | Comments Off on What’s the Big Deal About Ryerson’s Diversity Self-ID?

What is it?

The Diversity Self-ID is a brief survey all Ryerson employees are being asked to take through the eHR portal (for detailed instructions go here).

Why is Ryerson asking these questions?

At Ryerson we take pride in the diversity of our community and we should. But in order to achieve our goals of inclusion and equity we need to look at who we are and ask ourselves serious questions about how reflective we are of our context (Toronto and the GTHA) and of our students. But without adequate data, we can’t undertake this self-reflection and determine where and what changes we need to make. The Diversity Self-ID will help us build the data we need. As our website says: “It is critical to Ryerson’s success to remove barriers and promote the inclusion of all Ryerson employees, including those from equity-seeking groups. We want to find out where we are in terms of equity, diversity and inclusion to help us determine the best path to where we want to be.”

Why now?

It is axiomatic that what gets measured matters. Collecting employee equity data isn’t new at Ryerson — we’ve been doing it for 20 years or more. However, in the past we have captured the data based on categories driven by rules set by the federal government. In addition, we weren’t sufficiently clear with employees about why we were collecting the data and why it mattered. Not surprisingly not all employees were motivated to answer the questionnaire they were provided when they joined the University.

Over the past several years at Ryerson we have expanded our values around equity, diversity and inclusion beyond what the rules tell us we must ask. For example, in the new Diversity Self-ID survey we have added LGBTQ* to the list of groups. We have also nuanced the definition of different equity categories.

Why should you care about diversity?

I believe that reflecting diversity of our students and community makes us a better university.  Diversity can contribute to increased participation in post-secondary education for groups that have not traditionally been able to access higher education and the opportunities it creates. Exposure to diverse role models help shape aspirations in young minds. Students who experience diverse perspectives are better able to understand new ideas and solve problems, and will be better prepared for the challenges they will face after graduation. These are the city-builders and global citizens of the future: people who will leave Ryerson empowered with the knowledge, creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship to engage in social justice and making our world better, both locally and globally.

As the Ryerson Taskforce on Anti-racism told us in its 2010 report “As a downtown institution at the heart of one of the most diverse cities in the world, Ryerson must pursue its mandate to ‘advance applied knowledge and research to address social need’ with the realization that diversity and difference now define such a place of learning and knowledge production.”

Also, as an employer we care about diversity. A diverse workforce contributes to employee engagement. The more diverse and inclusive we are the better our  responsiveness to an increasingly diverse student body, our relations with our multicultural city, and our ability to cope with change, and expand creativity, innovation and intrapreneurship at the University.

Want to learn more?

Our Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost Equity, Diversity & Inclusion and our Assistant Vice President Human Resources have put together a terrific video:  Check out the video and the associated web site for everything you need to know about the Diversity Self-ID.

The Final Word

At Ryerson we Put People First. We can’t do that without your help! Stand up and be counted. Fill out the Diversity Self-ID survey so Ryerson can have the full picture.

Work-Life Effectiveness Part I: Some Context

March 19th, 2014 | Comments Off on Work-Life Effectiveness Part I: Some Context

In this three-part blog series I’ll be taking a look at the issue of “Work-Life Effectiveness,” a topic I was delighted to recently be invited to speak about at a two-day conference on Women and Leadership in Technology. Part I will focus on research, part II on HR practices and some Ryerson experience, and in part III I’ll share my own personal priorities and reflections.

The Intensity of the Modern Workplace

There has been an enormous volume written on work-life complexity. Some recent research I found to ring particularly true comes from Linda Druxbury of Carleton University’s Sprott School of Management and Chris Higgins of the Richard Ivey School of Business. The two have been looking at workplace culture over the past 20 years. Their latest research focuses on work intensity–the “unremitting” quality and quantity of work many of us face or observe around us.

As Druxbury observes “We look at workload in two ways: Total time commitment, and the unremitting nature of work. As you rise in the organization, there are no breaks from work. You are not only expected to donate your work day to the organization but also your nights and weekends.”  According to their research more than one-third of those studied missed a day of work because they were emotionally or mentally fatigued and just couldn’t face going in. Arianna Huffington talks about her own struggle with this phenomenon of extreme burn-out. Sharing her story is important because many of our workplace cultures operate as if only wimps need sleep and time away from work!

The Technology Factor

What are some of the causes of this situation? According to Druxbury a major contributor is the proliferation of technology. How many of us can relate to the feeling that we are chasing our inbox and spending more time focused on what to do with email rather than thinking? According to Druxbury and Higgins the average person spends four hours on email each work day and two hours on off days. How do employees interpret the actions of a leader who checks her smartphone during a meeting? Or who sends out information for an 8 am Monday meeting Sunday at 11 pm? If that’s a description that sounds oddly familiar you might think you are projecting how busy and important you are. On the contrary, according to Druxbury, those leaders are seen “as someone who can’t get their act straight.”

The Too Lean Workplace and the Productivity Gap

Another contributor to the phenomenon is what Druxbury calls (somewhat unfortunately) “corporate anorexia”:

We have taken most of the fat out of the system. Most organizations I deal with are anorexic, and anorexia is lethal in the long term. So is not having enough staff to do the work or meet the expectations, or having too many expectations and number one priorities for the number of people you employ, both of which are huge predictors of work intensification.

We may have thought that technology would make our workplaces more efficient and reduce the number of people we need to carry out administration, but Druxbury’s research suggests what many in our workplaces have been telling us–we may have gone too far.

In their book Getting to 50/50: How Working Parents Can Have It All Sharon Meers and Joanna Strober make the argument that smart bosses will tell their employees to “go home.” They rely on countless examples, from nuclear to trucking accidents, the healthcare professions and Fortune 500 companies to demonstrate that working exhausted doesn’t lead to good quality work.

Similarly, Harvard Business School ethnographer Leslie Perlow has identified in her book Finding Time that the employees who work the longest hours don’t necessarily contribute more to corporate productivity. Her conclusion is that no one benefits from this behaviour–least of all the corporation. Her research led to an interesting experiment at the Boston Consulting Group where she successfully was able to work with teams to implement “predictable” time off, defined as time off at a known time regardless of whether the team’s work was done. The results were impressive and BCG implemented the approach across its global practice.

The Challenge

How do these employment practices impact happiness at the individual and national level? I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of happiness at work, and the United Nations’ World Happiness Report makes the case that the world needs to include human well-being as a component of economic and social development.

Intuitively we know that quantity and quality of work don’t equate–and there’s research that backs up this intuition. As individuals and leaders what can we do to see the difference and manage teams to excellence rather than volume despite the fire hose quantity/quality of the work we all seem to be doing?

Reclaim the B

March 13th, 2014 | Comments Off on Reclaim the B

I remember a conversation I once had with one of my teenaged daughters. She said something along the lines of, “I know I’m bossy and sometimes when I’m doing group work I’ve got to tone it down, but I just like things done right.” I feel you sister!

The latest shot across the bow from Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg and her Lean In organization is the crie de coeur to ban the word “bossy.” She (rightly) bemoans its sexist use to describe girls and complains that boys with the same behaviour get to be called leaders. She’s enlisted an all star cast of supporters including Condoleezza Rice and Beyonce (among others). Not surprisingly, they put together a great PSA.

Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t stray away from controversy. Her book Lean In and its eponymous foundation garnered its fair share of criticism. I liked the book and much of it rang true for me, something I’ve blogged about before.

But I think the #banbossy movement is a serious misstep. First of all it is trivial. There are lots of big problems women and girls face in North America and around the world. If I were to have Sandberg’s capacity to pull together celebrity clout to influence solving a problem the dangers of “bossy” wouldn’t be on my top 1000 list. Secondly, it suggests girls and women are such tender flowers that being called bossy is enough to torpedo their nascent feminist selves. Being called bossy as a girl doesn’t seem to have held Sandberg back. In fact in the book, I got the feeling she was owning her bossiness.

Maybe it’s just because I AM bossy and it hasn’t held me back much, but I’m simply not fussed about bossy. In fact, I don’t mind being called bossy.

Or as I wish Beyonce had said, “I’m bossy AND I’m the boss.”


Photo by K.Romero

Celebrating Strong Black Canadian Women: Viola Desmond Day at Ryerson University

March 10th, 2014 | Comments Off on Celebrating Strong Black Canadian Women: Viola Desmond Day at Ryerson University

On March 3, 2014 Ryerson University held its sixth annual Viola Desmond Day Celebration and Awards Night, an event beautifully organized by the Ryerson Black History Awareness Committee. I was honoured to be invited to speak at the reception preceding the awards celebration.

Viola Desmond is a remarkable Nova Scotian woman who defended human dignity and rights against racial segregation. We often refer to her as our Rosa Parks. Ryerson celebrates Viola Desmond’s legacy with a suite of awards instituted to celebrate strong Black Canadian women who are members of the Ryerson community: students, faculty and staff. These awards help us celebrate and remember the contributions of the women for whom these awards are named: Anne Greenup, Andrea Lawrence, and Zanana Akande.

We, as the Ryerson community, are honoured to celebrate and recognize the contributions of this year’s award and bursary winners: Dr Nicole Neverson, Faculty member, Department of Sociology; Ms Keitha Prospere, Staff member in the Department of International Student Services; Ms. Anisa Hassan, Student in the Department of Criminology; Ms Hoda Abdel, High School Student; Ms Omnia Abdorbo; Student, School of Social Work.

They, like Viola Desmond:

  • forged their own path when they had few role models
  • pursued their belief in the promise of an equitable society
  • worked tirelessly in their communities to help alleviate poverty and need
  • believed in equal access to education and opportunity for all
  • put service before self

They are an example to younger generations of women and men that it is possible to overcome barriers.

I read a blog recently by Dr. Mae Jemison, the American NASA Scientist and the first African American woman in space. In her blog Dr Jemison says that everyone has something in them to contribute. She tells us of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela…no one told them that it was okay for them to do what they did. Instead, they realized that

  • they should make a contribution,
  • they had something to contribute, and
  • they took the risks making that contribution

Mae Jemison has herself launched an ambitious program called the 100 Year Starship project that will push the boundaries of what we know about space travel today. As she says: “It is my dream that in aiming for the distant stars, striving for the seemingly insurmountable, as we begin the first of many steps of this inclusive, audacious journey, we will transform life for the better on Earth all along the way.”

Many of us were moved at this year’s Oscar’s when Lupita Nyong’o, a Kenyan actor and first Black African woman to win an Oscar (best supporting actress) concluded her speech by saying that the Academy Award would, “remind me and every little child that, no matter where you are from, your dreams are valid.”

Why is it important to celebrate strong Black women? Often we think of leadership in terms of the titles bestowed on us in our jobs or the boxes we “inhabit” in an organizational chart. But women like Viola Davis, Dr Mae Jemison, and the winners of Ryerson’s Viola Desmond Day awards show what real leadership is.

On Viola Desmond Day we at Ryerson celebrate the catalyzing efforts made by Viola Desmond in achieving human rights for Black Canadians. I hope you draw inspiration from her work. I look forward to honouring more stars from the Ryerson community as staff, faculty and students work towards blazing yet more trails of equality, diversity and inclusion.


March 4th, 2014 | Comments Off on KISS

No, this isn’t a Valentine’s Day blog!

We’ve heard the expression before, “Keep it simple Stanley” (the Stanley comes from one of my kids’ friends–much politer than the version of this expression you and I probably grew up with!).

I’m thinking about the KISS principle because in my daily work I’m finding complexity–lots of complexity. I’ve heard myself say over and over to various people “why can’t this fit on one page?”

Arguably, things simply are complex. Big organizations are complicated if for no other reason than we are…big. We exist in complex regulatory frameworks so we have to care about the laws, policies and guidelines that govern what we do. Technology introduces system complexity into much of the work that we do on a daily basis. Our client needs (regardless of what sector, private or public) are more multifaceted than ever before.

So all these challenges lead to layers and layers. We complain about this in our public policy. Governments add more laws and regulations than they repeal. When we find a new problem we introduce a new policy, procedure or committee to address it. Where our technology falls down we often succumb to the temptation to layer another system on top of it. Where something doesn’t work we may add another person into the mix to fix or at least do the additional work created by this complexity.

And so there is more and more and more.

Often policies are long, begging the question, who reads them anyway? Procedures can be multilayered leaving decision-makers and applicants equally confused about roles and responsibilities. We layer training on top of the complex policies and try to convince people to shoehorn that training into already busy work lives.

So try this on for size. Consider the first step of development of a new policy (or even more importantly, amendments to an existing one) the “can’t we fit this on one page” step. Try a flow chart if your mind works that way. Rather than grafting an extra layer onto your policy, practice, system or structure, consider peeling away and perhaps, when you can, starting from scratch to get it as simple as possible. Ultimately, we know every policy or practice can’t be described in one page, but our thinking, our understanding, our compliance and enforcement will benefit by making everything only as complex as it absolutely needs to be, and not even a tiny bit more.

Saying Thank You–Creating a Culture of Recognition

February 18th, 2014 | Comments Off on Saying Thank You–Creating a Culture of Recognition

One of the things employers typically learn when they conduct employee “engagement” surveys (like Ryerson University’s “People First Survey” two years ago) is that employees crave more recognition. We knew this at Ryerson before we even held our survey, which is why we had already launched an extensive recognition and awards program even before we received our survey results. We wanted to be a proactive employer, wanting to demonstrate tangibly to our employees a People First culture. Since that first set of awards, we’ve expanded our program launching newer awards for equity, diversity and inclusion and for leadership as we’ve tweaked the existing program. So are we done?

Arguably, all that, and it was a lot of hard work, was the EASY stuff.

So what’s the hard stuff?

The ultimate recognition culture, part of the ultimate People First culture, isn’t about annual awards, service milestones or performance review. To achieve what your organization truly needs to embrace recognition is to build a culture of gratitude. This isn’t a program, it is an attitude that permeates management and peer interactions. At its simplest, it is ensuring your workplace is one where sincere thanks happen all the time, related to the day to day work that takes place all over by all employees whether at the front line, in operations, or in leadership roles. But cultural change is the epitome of the HARD stuff. As the cliché goes, big ships turn slowly…

So push for the hard stuff. Work to create great programs of formal recognition, but work harder, and model sincere gratitude for the actions of the people all around you every day.

How a Focus on Digital Can Push to a Very Non-Technical Conclusion

February 11th, 2014 | Comments Off on How a Focus on Digital Can Push to a Very Non-Technical Conclusion

Why do organizations have trouble executing a digital strategy? A recent Spencer Stuart publication pointed to a very non-digital answer. But before getting to that, where does the push to digital come from? Or putting it another way–what do I irritatingly ask members of my team all the time? Why can’t x, y or z work like the Starbucks app on my iPhone? We, all of us as consumers, have become spoiled. We want seamless, effortless experiences across all platforms in all areas of our life. If I can buy my grande nonfat latte carrying only the phone in my pocket why can’t I submit a vacation day on e-HR on the Go Train from my android device? Or register for a class? Or book a doctor’s appointment? Or check the results of bloodwork? Our desire for an ever more integrated frictionless experience is relentless. And who can blame us?

The biggest challenge to effectively meeting this demand is collaboration. True collaboration. What is collaboration? The VP Administration & Finance set of values includes collaboration. I find over and over again that talking about collaboration and really making it happen are two different things. Really collaborating requires breaking down cultural barriers, rethinking preconceived notions of what other departments are capable of, giving up budget and other forms of “turf” to benefit other departments, and sharing credit. Collaboration–when really effective–may paradoxically cost more, take longer, and be more frustrating!

Take advantage of the digital imperative to deeply dive into collaboration. It is the only way to execute a digital strategy and also the only way to build the organizational culture we need if we want to be the best.