Yahoo! Now We Have To Re-Vamp the Work Wardrobe

Marissa Mayers in her work uniform...

Marissa Mayers in her work uniform…

Me at work, and the guy in the next cubicle.

Me at work, and the guy in the next cubicle.

This week I read two disturbing bits of news. One is that Yahoo! and Best Buy are rethinking their policy on letting employees work from home. The other is a column in the New York Times’ “Booming” section about how middle-aged people have begun to fret about looking old the same way their 23-year-old selves once obsessed over looking fat.

The two stories are interrelated, which I will get to in a moment. But first, the changes at Yahoo! and Best Buy, if it starts a trend, is bad news for anyone who works from home. I remember reading about Best Buy’s highly celebrated “ROWE” (Results-Oriented Work Environment) policy a few years ago and feeling very encouraged…the stories shared how Best Buy employees with young children could work from home, and even mentioned a vice president who closed deals while duck-hunting. Technology has given us ways to stay connected and meet face to face from wherever we are, and metrics for tracking our productivity; why not use these tools and help people keep balance in their lives?

I feel sorry for all the productive employees at both Best Buy and Yahoo! whose lives are now disrupted; who need to deal once again with commuting, child care, parking costs and how to get dinner on the table. As somebody who has done both face time jobs and work-from-home arrangements, and who is far more productive working from home, I can’t tell you how much this news makes me shudder, for two reasons.

One is that I can no longer imagine having to dress up for work every day. Fred Allen, one of the editors for Forbes.com, said recently that anybody with a pair of pajamas can be a blogger. That is also pretty much the truth for people who work from home. I took a look at my own closet to figure what I would wear if I were forced to show up in person for work every day, and the choices were not anything like Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayers’ couture suits or chic little bolero jackets. The few wardrobe items remaining from my last corporate job (I have hung onto them only because they were expensive) have those scary “Working Girl” shoulder pads. Above is a photo of what I usually wear today when I have a work project requiring serious thinking. I am not showing you the top half because I have not yet combed my hair. Also shown is the very noisy guy in the next cubicle, the biggest threat to my productivity.

The second reason, the more important one, is that returning to the office re-introduces all the bullshit that many of us thought we were past – not only how you dress, but also whether you project the right image for the company and whether you suck up to the right people. The New York Times story focused on how people in midlife increasingly worry about whether they “look old.” Appearance should no longer matter for people in midlife who paid their dues for years and whose wisdom, experience and hard-won credentials have earned them respect, trust, and freedom to work from anywhere. But having to do “face time” means that the superficial once again matters.  Marissa Mayers said so herself, saying that she now wants a more youthful vibe for “Yahoo.”  But what happens if you are not youthful? Face time means having to deal with your face, and whether that fits into the image that your employer wants to project. Any middle-aged person who has tried to look for a full-time job recently will know exactly what I mean. I know personally of a few 50-ish job seekers, all extremely qualified and with strong work ethics, who’ve made it past the resume screenings and scored interviews, only to be mysteriously dropped after that, without even a word of explanation.

What will happen if work-from-home jobs are harder to find, especially when the more progressive companies hit hard times and want all hands on deck? What will happen if older people need to return to the office when they are accustomed to working productively from home? Can you imagine squeezing back into career clothes and working for an impossibly driven, impossibly perky boss named Courtney or Josh? How many of us Donnas or Bills could stomach that?

Don’t Get Too Comfortable

hibernationI think that there’s a reason that most animals hibernate during the dead of winter. After the holiday merriment and the whirlwind of celebrations and obligations, January stretches out before us like a vast polar plain, and it doesn’t look that bad. It’s a time to unplug all that brightly blinking gaiety; lay on the couch; slip directly from your TV coma into bed; and just enjoy being a load.

Yet while the idea of a long period with little to do sounds great when you are busy and stressed out, living it can actually be scary. Maybe it’s just January, but I’ve been brooding. I’m wondering if anyone else goes through the same thing in winter, especially those who don’t work full time.  Does January’s emptiness always bring a creative funk?

Until 18 months ago I always had work, school and/or small children to order my day. At times it was brutally stressful, especially when I was a single mother in a demanding corporate job and had to give up time with my kids and ask other people for favors I could never return. During my last career, as an editor of two weekly newspapers, I had a wonderful boss and more control over my time, but I still felt stressed. Poor pay, new demands (more record-keeping, less writing and more parsing of canned information between print and the web) and other factors all made the job frustrating and not worth it.

So I left full time work in July of 2011 for the uncertain life of a freelancer. I was fortunate that my husband’s business was doing well so I could do this. And as someone who always worked from young adulthood through my 50s, even when my children were small, I felt I had earned it. My unfettered life stretched out before me, as ripe with possibility as a three-week jaunt to Italy. I had lots of plans to create just the life I wanted – I would finally write wonderful features, become a better piano player, learn Spanish, help Bob with his business, have more time for hobbies and friends, visit my children and siblings more often, blog.

But putting those dreams into action has been hard. It takes even more discipline than waking up at 5:30 to get the kids and house in order before going off to work. It takes being a self-starter, being organized and strategic, and being able to sell yourself…better not suck at any of these. The idea of unlimited free time – of being able to chart your own course — is as tantalizing as the idea of a tropical vacation, but unless you are very focused and deliberate it is as scary as being in the wilderness.

I see many people in jobs that sap their spirit, even people who could probably afford to retire or at least go part-time, who stay in there because they are not sure what they would do otherwise. I know of a few people – my mom included – who’ve retired comfortably and miss work every single day.

How do you carve your own path when up until now something else always carved it for you? You woke up, showered, had breakfast and knew where you had to be at 9 a.m. You did your best and pleased who you had to please. Sometimes you grumbled; sometimes you resented it; but you at least had your work cut out for you.

I still go through stressed-out days when I am grateful that my freelance status ensures I can take a breather later. I enjoy occasional periods of indolence that consist of little more than making coffee, cleaning up after breakfast, reading the New York Times, phoning my mom or a friend, taking a walk, planning dinner. But after a few days of this I feel restless and bored and start to brood. Then I panic as I worry about losing my creative mojo.

So now I look forward to digging into a freelance work project with the same thrill of anticipation I felt when a vacation neared. I’m happiest when I have a problem to solve: editing a 12,000-word interview into a succinct 1500-word article, helping my husband find business insurance or figuring out the programming for our Roku box. Being on your own means constantly looking for opportunities to test and prove your competence; to keep your skills burnished; to stay useful and relevant; to matter. Striking the right balance between comforting routine and discomfiting challenge is very hard, but you feel such a sense of well-being when you achieve it. Every day the pendulum can swing between being bored and being overwhelmed. At my happiest it swings gently back and forth in a small arc, with carefully-calibrated measures of stimulation, challenge and relaxation.

One of my favorite bloggers “On the Homefront and Beyond” tackles the subject of whether predictable routines are comforting or constraining. “Like many of you, I am ready to get back to work, ready to take on the day, ready to return to routine. But not the routine of the rote or boring, but the routine that keeps chaos at bay,” she writes. She says the best days “allow for a little magic and miracles.”

January, a time to keep warm and get comfortable, is when I’m the least comfy. Do you ever feel the same?

Is Career Passion Overrated?

In a column in the New York Times on Sunday, Georgetown University Professor Cal Newport put forth a daring concept: that most people should disregard the conventional wisdom of “following your bliss” when it comes to choosing a career. His words ring true not only for young people deciding on a career, but also for older people at a crossroads in their professional or personal lives.

Newport, a gifted student who had three career paths open to him once he graduated, proposes that it doesn’t matter which path you choose; what matters is how hard and creatively you work once you make the choice.

“To other young people who constantly wonder if the grass might be greener on the other side of the occupational fence, I offer this advice: Passion is not something you follow,” Newport wrote. “It’s something that will follow you as you put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

While Newport’s column was meant for young people, it struck home with this middle-aged woman who left a paying job a year ago for the uncertain life of a freelancer. It can also resonate with other midlife folks who’ve left careers and dream of reinventing themselves and making money doing something they love; with women who’ve traded a job for motherhood or vice versa; with someone contemplating a move to a new part of the country or the world; or with anyone considering beginning a relationship, or ending one.

His words are a wake-up call for anyone who thinks that they’ll never be happy unless they “follow their passion.”

“To a small group of people, this advice makes sense, because they have a clear passion,” he wrote. “Maybe they’ve always wanted to be doctors, writers, musicians and so on, and can’t imagine being anything else.

“But this philosophy puts a lot of pressure on the rest of us — and demands long deliberation. If we’re not careful, it tells us, we may end up missing our true calling. And even after we make a choice, we’re still not free from its effects. Every time our work becomes hard, we are pushed toward an existential crisis, centered on what for many is an obnoxiously unanswerable question: ‘Is this what I’m really meant to be doing?’”

As I write this I am thinking of my brother Dan, who is celebrating his 53rd birthday today. More than a decade ago Dan traded a six-figure corporate job for more fulfillment and a dramatic pay cut as a private school physics teacher. He has never looked back and regretted his choice. But his stories tell me that his work can sometimes be exhausting and thankless. He deals with a few difficult people, including students, parents and coworkers. He takes on extra assignments, including teaching at a local college, to earn extra money. He does all his own repairs around his home. Yet despite being exhausted, Dan gives his best, whether he is explaining a complex physics law to a befuddled freshman or re-doing a bathroom. As a result Dan has won many admirers and much respect on the job and in his community. He has truly followed Newport’s advice and “put in the hard work to become valuable to the world.”

So what we can all learn from my brother and Cal Newport is that passion for what you are doing can only take you so far. What matters is choosing a path, making a commitment, working hard, and not expecting a bed of roses. What matters is less focus on what the new path will give you and more on how you can make yourself more valuable to those around you. For those of us in midlife, trying to find our way in the world as we leave behind our primary careers and the child-raising years, this is great advice.