With Mobile Devices, Can Workers Ever Truly Enjoy Vacation Time?

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The following post was originally published on The Regal Writer three years ago. It seemed like a good time to re-post as most people begin planning summer vacations. RL

Some years ago, I spent one week at a health spa located outside Chicago for vacation. I had a glorious time meeting people from other parts of the U.S. who were there to relax and jumpstart their health routines. There were no phones in the rooms, so most guests brought their cell phones, though the spa advised us to keep them shut off as much as possible during our stay.

Among the guests was a heavyset, stressed out attorney in his 50s, who was there with his wife under doctor’s orders to reduce the stress in his life. Every morning at breakfast, he’d be at the table talking on his phone with someone from his office. It always seemed that he was constantly on the phone, or his phone would ring during meal times. As that attorney raced out of the dining hall one day to deal with yet another business crisis at the office, another guest, a manager of a retail store, shook his head in disbelief. “I can’t believe he doesn’t have someone who can take care of things while he’s away. I’ve got a manager at my store that I trained to take care of things so I don’t have to worry about anything,” he said.

With the long holiday weekend ahead, many workers are taking extended vacations. But how many of them will still check business emails and phone messages when they’re supposed to be enjoying a massage or swimming in the pool? How can any of us truly enjoy our vacation if we’re still conducting business via our smartphone?

Granted, some businesses need to be open for the holidays, and certain professionals, such as medical staff and news reporters, must work part of the time or need access to their smartphones in case of an emergency. But for most people who are enjoying some time off, limiting their use of mobile technology for work is a necessary part of the vacation experience.

According to research from Pew Research Center, 64 percent of American adults owned a smartphone as of October 2014, and I’m sure that percentage has increased since then. Of American smartphone owners, 7 percent are “smartphone dependent,” meaning their mobile device is their only connection to the Internet because they don’t have broadband at home. In addition, 90 percent of adults own a cell phone, 32 percent own an e-reader and 42 percent use a tablet computer. With so many electronic gadgets available, it’s getting harder and harder to detach from work, even while sitting on a beach in the Caribbean.

The U.S. is not alone. Other countries are beginning to realize how overworked their employees are and are relaxing demands on their time. A few weeks ago, for example, thanks to legislation passed by the French government, French workers are no longer required to check into the office or check business emails on the weekend. Their workers, they say, need to take a mental break from work to be more effective.

If you are about to embark on vacation this summer, here are several strategies to help you truly “get away” from the office so you can enjoy the beach, golf, picnics and other fun activities.

1. Set time limits for checking emails and phone messages. Give yourself 30 minutes in the morning, and maybe, MAYBE, 30 minutes at dinner time if necessary. Only respond if there’s an emergency. The less time you spend responding to business emails and calls, the more time you have to relax.

2. Send reminders to co-workers and business associates that you are about to go on vacation. Explain that you will have limited accessibility to email and cell phone, so it will be difficult to reach you except in case of an emergency. Outline what you mean by emergency too, because, as we all know, one person’s idea of a minor issue is a crisis to someone else.

3. Ask yourself, how important is this issue? Does it have to be resolved now, or can it wait until you get back to the office? See if you can barter for more time.

4. If possible, train someone in the office to deal with problems in your absence. If there is no one you can trust to handle business in your absence, you might need to shut down for a few days with a sign on the door and a message on your voicemail indicating you are on vacation.

5. If you really want to get away from it all, go somewhere with spotty Internet service. You won’t be able to check emails, phone messages or update social media profiles, but no one will be pestering you from the office either.

The last thing anyone wants to do on vacation is to think about work. Depending on your job, sometimes it can’t be helped. But by implementing a few personal strategies, you can relax and enjoy your vacation the way you are meant to.

 

Why Freelancing Appeals to Older Workers

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It may seem that the gig economy is dominated by millennials, but that may be only partly true. Perhaps their desire for independence and the necessity to make ends meet and pay down student debt necessitated their move toward project work. But increasingly, older adults over age 55 are easing into retirement by taking on short-term gigs and freelancing.

The Economic Policy Institute analyzed data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, comparing statistics for independent contractors and freelancers for 2005 and 2017. Older workers over age 55 accounted for 37 percent of all independent contractors in 2017. For those in the 55-64 age group, 22.97 percent were independent contractors, up from 18.8 percent in 2005. For those over age 65, the numbers were similar. The share was 14.1 percent in 2017, up from 8.5 percent in 2005.

Over the same period, the number of total workers employed as freelancers and independent contractors fell slightly – 10.9 percent in 2005 versus 10.1 percent in 2017. So while the pool of independent workers got smaller, the over 55 workers made up a larger percentage of it. And the folks at EPI expect this trend to continue.

So why are older workers gravitating toward freelancing? According to a recent Forbes article, there are several reasons.

1. The barriers to entry is fairly low. That makes it easier to enter the gig economy. Digital platforms like Freelancers Union, Upwork and Flexjobs have made it easy for anyone to tout their skills compared to traditional word-of-mouth methods. All they have to do is complete their profile, talk up their skills then wait to be connected.

However, as simple as all this sounds, there is no guarantee that there will be a suitable connection between the older worker and an opportunity. It’s a passive approach and there’s a lot of competition. It’s easy for their profile and resume to get lost in the pile of applicants.

2. There’s no apparent cap on what they can earn. As a freelancer, older workers can negotiate their rate more readily than if they were hired. This arrangement can appeal to older workers who may be frustrated by age discrimination that they might have faced in the job market.

3. Older workers’ expertise is more valued as freelancer. When companies hire freelancers, they search for the most qualified candidate. They WANT someone that has experience. They don’t want to train a new person or risk possible mistakes. Experience counts, which is why freelancing may appeal to older workers.

4. Attitudes about “idle capacity” are changing. Older workers don’t want to spend their later years doing nothing but gazing out their window and the world rushes by. They want to participate. They want to be productive members of society and do meaningful work. That’s why many older workers are staying in the workforce longer, and why many of them gravitate toward gig jobs and freelancing.

5. Older workers want to remain connected to the outside world. Without a part-time job or a freelance gig, many older workers would feel isolated. By working, they are more engaged with the world. They join groups and form friendships, which give their lives meaning.

If in doubt about the impact of older workers, consider this statistic by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. By the year 2020 (next year), one-fourth of the U.S. workforce will be over the age of 55.

Older workers are not going away any time soon. They want to work. They want to share their knowledge and expertise. They want to remain relevant and provide meaningful service in our communities. Many of them are choosing contract work and freelancing as a way to do just that.

Six Reasons to Dress for Success When Working from Home

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A growing number of people are working remotely these days, whether it’s from a co-working space or a home office. How dressed up should you be when you work from home? How much does your wardrobe affect your attitude or productivity?

Certainly one of the benefits of working remotely is being able to dress more casually than if you worked in a formal office environment. But just because you can “dress down” doesn’t mean you should.

Home Business magazine cites several research studies that show the psychological impact of clothing. Their conclusions? What you wear definitely can affect your mood, your ability to think creatively and solve problems, and how you present yourself to other people. While it’s tempting to stay in your pajamas and sweat pants all day, research shows that dressing more professionally when working from home has numerous advantages.

1. Professional business dress puts you in a work mindset. Numerous studies show that business casual attire increases creative and strategic thinking as well as increase alertness and attention. People who dress more professionally when working at home report feeling more authoritative, competent and trustworthy. When you feel more confident and authoritative, that attitude comes across in your performance too. Still not convinced? Check out this remote worker’s experiment to dress in business attire for one week.

2. People respond to you more positively. When you meet with clients, colleagues and bosses for meetings dressed in business attire, they are more likely to treat you with respect. You are perceived as someone who takes their job seriously despite working remotely. You are more trustworthy. If given the option between working with someone who dresses professionally and someone who dresses “down,”, most people are likely to choose the well-dressed colleague.

3. Clients take you more seriously when you dress professionally. Despite the fact that you work from home, there may be times when you need to meet with colleagues or clients in person. Those in person face-to-face meetings tend to have better outcomes when you dress for success. It sends a message to clients that you not only take your job seriously, you take their business seriously.

4. Professional attire helps you prepare for interviews. When you prepare for a telephone or video interview, dressing in professional attire shows you are taking the interview seriously. Professional attire gives you confidence, and that confident attitude is likely to come through the telephone or laptop screen. Be sure to dress all the way down to your shoes too. You never know when you may need to stand up or move around during a video conference call. You don’t want bosses or clients to see you in pajamas.

5. Business attire shows that you don’t have to give up comfort. It’s still possible to be relaxed and professional at the same time. Just because you can dress down for work doesn’t mean you should. You get to define what comfort means to you. If that means staying in your slippers or wearing flip flops as you work, so be it. If you insist on wearing your favorite T-shirt, make sure it’s clean and add a nice blazer over it to dress it up. If in doubt about what to wear when working from home, you can never go wrong with adopting the same dress code as your company or client has. Follow their leads.

6. Business attire can break up your day. By putting on dress clothes before you start your day and then changing out of them at say, five o’clock signals that your work day has ended. A shift in your schedule also shifts your mindset to one of work to one of relaxation. As the remote worker who experimented with business attire for one week discovered, without the changes of clothes, it may feel like the lines between work and play blur to the point that you feel you are always in work mode.

Here’s a great tip from Flexjobs. After you’ve started working from home, hang onto your business casual clothes and find other uses for them. Don’t donate them just yet. Add the business jacket to your weekend attire for date night, for example. Or combine items in different ways that you had not thought of. Be creative. Design your own dress code that allows you to mix and match and create a style that is all your own.

Working from home has its advantages. Dressing casually is one of them. Just remember that when you are on the clock, you are in business mode. And your dress should reflect that.

Is a Co-Working Space Right for You?

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Whether you work as a freelancer or a remote employee, sometimes working at home or at a coffee shop just doesn’t fit the bill. What other options are there?

For many, co-working spaces – where for a fee you can reserve a desk or private office – is the ideal solution. Co-working spaces have become a BIG thing these days. A new one seems to open up each week.

As more and more individuals gravitate toward freelancing and working remotely, co-working spaces provide a place to work away from home without the long-term commitment or cost of a permanent office. But just like anything else, co-working spaces have their pros and cons.

Amenities
Pro: Co-working spaces offer numerous amenities, similar to what you might find in a typical office environment. You’ll find open desks, wi-fi, complimentary refreshments, and meeting rooms. Some larger co-working places may offer support services, workshops and networking events to help you with your business. If you want to treat your business as a business, not as a temporary hobby, working in a co-working space can put you in the proper mindset.

Con: There may be a limited number of private offices available for use, and usually at a higher cost than an open desk. Because of the limited supply of offices, they may not always be available when you need them. Open desks are usually available on a first-come, first-served basis, which means you take your chances that one will be available when you show up. It also means sharing those desks with other people, and transporting your own materials back and forth.

Cost:
Pro:  Co-working spaces offer a range of cost options, depending on how much you plan to use the space and in what capacity – from monthly fees to hourly rates and packages. Co-working spaces are more affordable than renting a commercial office. If you’re established in your business or if your employer is willing to pay for part or all of your rental expense, a co-working space may be a solid choice.

Con: Even at the lowest price range, co-working spaces can still be costly, especially if you don’t have a steady income or you’re just starting your business. Which is why many freelancers and remote workers opt for the local coffee shop or library.

Commuting:
Pro: Many co-working spaces are becoming more localized. Because so many are popping up within local neighborhoods, there may be one close to your home, accessible by walking or biking.

Con: Commuting distance may have been one of the reasons you left your former job in the first place, so commuting to a co-working space may not hold much appeal. You have to allow for travel time, traffic and the cost of transportation.

Community/Networking:
Pro: Many remote workers seek out co-working spaces for its networking potential, to connect with other remote professionals. You never know who you might meet there – a graphic designer to help you redesign your client’s logo, for instance. Many members of co-working spaces appreciate the sense of community that the space brings.

Con: While co-working spaces are great for building your network, they may not provide a lot of privacy. Since you are surrounded by other workers, the lack of privacy may be detrimental to your work.

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Working Around Others:

Pro: It can be difficult to work alone at home without anyone to talk to. Many freelancers and remote workers claim that the one thing they miss is the camaraderie of the office environment. Co-working spaces replicate the traditional office environment in that respect. Many remote workers prefer working in public places like coffee shops and co-working spaces because they like having people around while they work. They claim it helps them be more productive. If you want to break up the monotony of work, there is usually someone around to chat with.

Con: Along with the occasional productive conversations in a public office space, there’s also the potential for loud talkers and chatty, gossipy co-workers. It can be tempting to get caught up in lengthy conversations with other workers, distracting you from your work. You might overhear conversations that you prefer would be kept private. Regular users of co-working spaces suggest bringing a set of headphones to block out the noise and let people know you are too busy to converse with them.

Schedule:
Pro: Many co-working spaces operate nine to five, offering the same set schedule of operations as a typical office environment. So if you’re used to working a nine-to-five job, you can work a similar schedule in a co-working space.

Con: If you work at odd hours, are on a tight deadline or are part of a start-up, the traditional nine-to-five office schedule may not benefit you.

Business attitude:
Pro: A co-working space may put you in a stronger business mindset. Knowing you have a place to go once a week or more frequently helps you treat your business as a business and not as an interim hobby until a real job comes along. Because the co-working space provides meeting space, it’s a more professional setting to meet with clients than a coffee shop or your home.

Con: Even in a co-working setting, you may still be faced with the same temptations – daydreaming, staring out the window, browsing your favorite websites, reading your horoscope. As long as there is no one looking over your shoulder or checking in on you, there will always be the temptation to take lots of little breaks to get through your day. You need self-discipline to accomplish your daily tasks, no matter where you work.

As the population of remote workers and freelancers continues to grow, expect to see more co-working spaces open up to accommodate them. But co-working spaces are not for everyone. Know the pros and cons before you decide to invest in one.

Relevant Articles
6 Pros and Cons of Joining a Co-Working Space
Before You Commit to That Coworking Space, Know the Pros and Cons
Pros and Cons of Coworking Spaces

Is Too Much Noise Hurting Your Creativity?

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How do you express your creativity? Does music put you in the mood, or do you need complete quiet to let the creative juices flow?

For years, scientific research has found that music played at a low volume can enhance a person’s creativity. A new study, published in Applied Cognitive Psychology and reported in Medical News Today, has debunked this notion however. Researchers from three European universities who conducted the study found that quietness or even mild background library noise is more beneficial to creativity than music. It didn’t matter if the music was instrumental, contained familiar lyrics or unfamiliar lyrics. Music of any form impaired a person’s ability to solve tasks involving verbal creativity, such as writing and conversing.

For the study, researchers asked participants were given three words and were asked to add another word to each one to create a new word or phrase. For example, for the words dial, dress and flower, the correct answer was the word sun which created three new words: sundial, sundress and sunflower.

This exercise is an example of Compound Remote Associate Tasks (CRAT) which scientists often use to assess creativity. CRAT demands creative convergent thinking which connects different ideas to determine one correct solution to a problem. This contrasts with Alternative Uses Tasks, which engage “divergent thinking,” meaning that multiple possible solutions are generated.

Researchers found that listening to music disrupted a person’s verbal working memory that supports creative problem-solving in everyday tasks, such as driving, decision-making, conversing, and of course, writing. Even background library noise was a better option than music, the researchers found.

This conclusion contradicts a study from 2012 that found that ambient background noise was an important factor in creative cognition. Research found that a moderate level of ambient noise – about 70 decibels, equivalent to a passenger car traveling on a highway – enhanced creative performance. However, higher levels of noise above 85 decibels hurt creativity by reducing a person’s ability to process information. As noise volume increases, so does one’s level of distraction.

What does this mean for writers, artists, poets and other creative types? It means quieter environments are likely to enhance your creativity outflow. Noisier environments are more distracting. If you enjoy music, perhaps keep it at a low volume so it simply hums in the background.

Other factors also should be considered, such as the type of creative work being performed. Does the task demand verbal working memory for memorizing lines from a play, practicing a speech or writing a poem? Or is the task related to alternative divergent thinking, which allows the mind to wander off in different directions, especially helpful for brainstorming.

If you want to stir your imagination and brainstorm story ideas, go ahead and play music. It will likely stir your imagination. But if you need to resolve a problem or need a fixed solution, like finding the best words to express yourself in a letter, you might want to turn off the music.

Another factor is the person’s personality. Some people, myself included, cannot tolerate high levels of outside stimuli. Others are not only not bothered by outside stimuli, they thrive on it. I admire any person who can zip off a short story while sitting at a local coffee shop with music blaring from the speakers.

There’s one final factor to consider: a person’s mood. Sometimes listening to your favorite music lifts your spirits. When you feel good, the ideas begin to flow.

As writers, bloggers and business communicators, we need to protect our creative resources. It’s one of the most vital resources we have for our work. Minimizing the noise in your environment not only protects your ears, it protects your creative well-being.

Which type of environment works best for your creativity? Do you like to work in a quiet environment, or do you prefer to work with music that inspires you?

Related Stories:
How to Use Music to Boost Your Creativity, Medium.com
How Listening to Music Significantly Impairs Your Creativity, Neuroscience News

Why Vacations Matter for Your Professional Life

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Yes, Virginia, you are allowed to take a summer vacation.

The long Memorial Day weekend marks the start of the summer, and the start of summer vacation season. But many American workers are likely to forego any summer plans. For some it is because it costs too much to pack up the kids and the dog and head to far-off destinations. For others, work calls for them to stay close to home and to their jobs. If you’re one of these workers skipping your summer vacation because you are tethered to your job, you are not alone.

According to a 2017 survey by employment website Glassdoor, 66 percent of American workers report working when they take a vacation, up from 61 percent in 2014. Fewer employees are able to completely “check out” while on vacation (54 percent in 2017 versus 63 percent in 2014).

Even when they were able to take time off, 27 percent of workers said they were expected to stay aware of work issues and get involved if a problem arose, and 12 percent were expected to be reachable by phone or email, deliver work projects and participate in conference calls while on vacation.

Much of this has to do with technology, which has enabled people to work anywhere and at any time. But it also makes it difficult to shut down and unplug ourselves, to truly unwind and relax. Most employers give their workers earned time off for a reason – to regroup mentally, emotionally and physically so they can return to work refreshed and avoid burnout.

But not everyone takes advantage of this employee benefit. We should though. Science says so. A 2016 study by the University of California-San Francisco and Harvard University finds that taking a vacation for one full week brings about genetic changes in our body that reduces stress and boosts the immune system, and the mood-enhancing benefits can last up to 30 days.

To get that mood-enhancing benefit, you have to take the time out for yourself. You need to give yourself permission to take a vacation. No one is going to force you to take it. It’s all about setting boundaries to your work life.

The key, say scientists, is to do it right. Yes, apparently, there is a right way and wrong way to take a summer vacation. According to small business expert Barry Moltz, here are a few suggestions for getting the most out of your summer vacation.

1. Make a plan. Put it on your calendar. Browse destination websites and brochures and learn about places you plan to visit. Just by researching and looking at travel images can boost your mood – before you have even begun your vacation.

2. Keep it simple. Don’t try to cram every activity into every day. Keep your schedule loose, and allow time to just “veg out.” There’s nothing wrong with doing nothing. That’s what vacations are for.

3. Break free of patterns. Try something different that can get you out of your comfort zone. For example, try disconnecting from electronic devices and talk to people you are traveling with, or sleep in until 8 a.m. if you are used to waking up at 5 a.m. When you change up your routine on vacation, see what creative ideas come up.

4. Seek out blue spaces, like bodies of water. Blue is associated with calmness and leads to lower levels of stress, according to researchers. I would also seek out green areas too, which is grounding and calming. Think public parks and golf courses.

5. End your vacation on a positive note. Enjoy a romantic dinner for two or plan a fun adventure, like sky diving or zip lining. People tend to remember their vacations more favorably if it ends on a high note.

With these suggestions, there’s no reason to skip a summer vacation. When you do it right, you’ll come back to the office more refreshed and energized. Your bosses will thank you, and you’ll wonder why you didn’t do it sooner.

Have a safe and relaxing holiday weekend!

Closing the Career Skills Gap

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This is a strange time for the job market. On the one hand, there appears to be a lot of jobs available, judging by the number of job posting sites I subscribe to. On the other hand, there still seems to be many qualified individuals who are underemployed or not working at all. The problem seems to be a gap in the skills required by employers. What job seekers have is not what employers need.  Employers are specific about what they want and are willing to wait for the right candidate to come along, even if it takes up to a year.

This is not an aberration. The skills gap is a very real thing, according to a new survey by staffing agency Adecco. In its 2018 Workforce Report, 56 percent of business leaders believe the skills gap is real, even though 96 percent of workers felt qualified or overqualified for the last job they applied for. What is more interesting is that business leaders said many candidates were lacking soft skills – communication, creativity, collaboration, ability to learn, and critical thinking, among others. These soft skills are just as important, if not more so, than hard skills, like writing and technology. Hard skills can be taught, while soft skills usually cannot. It might be beneficial to emphasize these softer skills on your resumes and cover letters. (Adecco recommends that hiring managers recruit for the soft skills and train for the hard skills.)

Add to this the fact that job titles and job requirements have changed significantly over the past few years. When I left the corporate world five years ago, communications manager meant one thing. Now the job description is more expanded with more and different responsibilities than before. It’s no wonder returning workers like myself feel cut off from the workplace. Employers expect a lot from their workers and job requirements reflect that.

So that leaves a lot of otherwise qualified individuals out in the cold. How does the person on the outside close the skills gap? Where can they go to get skills training that can open up doors for them in the job market? Here are a few sources to kick start your own skills upgrade program.

* Online courses. A quick Google search reveals a whole host of online course sites, such as Udemy, Lynda.com and Coursera, to name a few. Those in the public relations and communications fields might also check out Mediabistro, which offers more specialized courses for their industry. These courses are taught by industry experts who have real-world experience in their particular field. That said, the quality of information and teaching may not be up to par with what you need, but online courses are a great way to get up to speed on industry practices and terminology. Also, costs may vary, so check these sites often for special offers and discounts.

* Community colleges. For those on a budget or are looking for a quick, down and dirty training program, check out your local community college. Many of them offer certification programs from culinary skills to paralegal or medical assistant. This might be especially helpful if you are looking to change careers but don’t have a budget or time for a full four-year program.

* Business networks. Check out local associations for your industry which may offer workshops or one-day conferences about the latest practices. For example, here in Chicago, the Independent Writers of Chicago held an evening workshop about breaking into freelancing. Check out organizations in your own locations to find workshops in your area.

* Staffing agencies. Many of these agencies offer online resources, workshops and open houses covering topics such as resume writing, interviewing and writing cover letters. The job market is constantly changing so it’s helpful to learn the latest trends in resume writing so you can present yourself in the best possible light.

* Internships. Another option to explore, especially for those new to the workforce, is internships. Some are paid; others are not. Some are advertised on job sites; others you may have to dig deep. In any case, for a short period of time, perhaps as much as one year, you can gain valuable work experience and update your skills through an internship that you might not get anywhere else.

* Volunteer work. If you know you are lacking certain skills, such as sales or proposal writer, look around your community for organizations that might need someone to help with writing proposals or selling tickets for upcoming events. You’ll be acquiring new skills and helping your community at the same time.

These are just a few starting points for skills development, and there’s no guarantee that it will open the doors you hope will open for you. If anything, it will keep your brain and job skills fresh and ready to go when the right job does come along.