We all must deal with constraints on our choices — in our personal lives, at work, and in our communities. How well we deal with constraints can profoundly affect our happiness, the happiness of those we lead, and the happiness of those closest to us. One way of categorizing our fundamental choices is the title of this post. We can comply with the constraint, doing whatever the constraint seems to be encouraging us to do. Or we can resist the constraint, circumventing it or even undermining it, by whatever means we feel are appropriate or necessary. And then there is the third category: we can exploit the constraint, using the constraint itself to empower us and advance us towards our own objectives.
What follows are two examples of exploiting a constraint to achieve an objective. By coincidence, and for timeliness, both examples pertain to exiting situations related to the Covid-19 pandemic. One is ethical and one is not. I've included an unethical strategy not to endorse its use, but to provide an example for people who might be targets of organizational ruthlessness.
Never go back to the office again
The Covid-19 pandemic has constrained both employers and employees. And some have learned to exploit that constraint. During the pandemic, many organizations deployed a work-from-home policy for those employees who could work from home. Some of these organizations are modifying their policies by requiring a return to on-premises work. These new policies require on-premises work either full time, or on specific days, or for a specified minimum number of days per week or per month. Some employees aren't prepared to return, either because of fear of continued contagion, or because of irreconcilable demands for their presence at home, or for other reasons. Some are determined never to go back to the office again, even if refusal leads to termination.
There is an alternative. How well we deal with obstacles
can profoundly affect our happiness, the
happiness of those we lead, and the
happiness of those closest to usSome organizations have successfully transformed themselves to support virtual work for many roles. They expect virtual work to provide significant benefits, including increased employee satisfaction, reduced need for office space, and insulation from disruption caused by future pandemics. An employee who prefers virtual work is a perfect match for such organizations.
People who are concerned that they might be required to return to on-premises work can consider searching for positions that are 100% virtual, or nearly so. Compared to previous job searches that were strongly location oriented, a search for a virtual position offers a wider array of employers and roles. This shift is so prevalent that job search sites now offer services aimed at virtual searches, and some career coaches offer services specific to virtual job search.
Use pandemic policy to accelerate workforce attrition
Another pandemic exploit strategy is, in my view, less ethical. Some employers have a need to reduce the size of their workforces, either globally or at specific locations. Reasons vary. The pandemic might have caused disruptions in the supply chain, or business volume has contracted, or market entry has been delayed — any number of reasons.
There are numerous conventional means of reducing workforce size, but one strategy for controlling the cost of workforce reduction involves various methods for accelerating voluntary termination. The "buyout" is perhaps the most popular among these, perhaps because the payments to employees help to minimize friction and hard feelings. But if the employer is willing to accept some of those negatives, mandating a return to on-premises work can be even lower cost than buyouts.
Some employers who require return to on-premises work do so as a means of enhancing workforce attrition. They are projecting that employees who cannot return to on-premises work, or who have strong preferences against doing so, will resign, reducing the overall cost of workforce reduction. They have thereby exploited the pandemic constraint to achieve a possibly unrelated goal of workforce reduction at what they believe will be low cost.
Although short-term costs might be lower for this tactic, the long-term costs can be substantial. Long-term costs appear in the form of possible loss of capability in the workforce that remains after the reduction. The attrition that takes place is driven by the mandated return to on-premises work, which might not be correlated with the skills profile the organization requires. The people who have options, with the more desirable skills, are the people the organization most wants to retain, and they are also the people most likely to depart.
These are but two examples of exploiting obstacles to advance to one's objectives. Both of these examples involved using an obstacle that was directly affecting the ability to achieve that objective. But sometimes we can use an obstacle to achieve an objective unrelated to the obstacle. Perhaps the most familiar example is the learning experience. Learning experiences occur when we encounter an obstacle that teaches us a lesson that's widely applicable. Example: "Why didn't I pay attention to all those red flags?" Another example: "What makes me think this is the last pandemic of my lifetime?" Top Next Issue
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