Remember those heady bull-market days when people could pick and choose among a multitude of job offers?
To attract new employees and get the most out of the ones they had, companies spent lavishly on human resources and guru-led workshops emphasising time management, creativity and getting in touch with one's inner child. No matter that in most offices creativity was feared and inner children told to mind their manners, the message employers were sending to employees was that in a world where you could work anywhere, they were committed to making their company the place where you wanted to work.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the recession. With budgets now a slender fraction of their former fat selves, employers have cut a swath through corporate training programs worthy of Sherman's fiery hut-two-three through Georgia. But though the gurus are gone, employees still need skills like creativity and time management. Only this time around, it's not a question of personal enrichment; it's ammunition against a pink slip.
Luckily, expertise in all these skills is closer than you think. Just ask employees who double as parents.
Planning for success
Last November, as I bid the workaday world adieu to prepare for the impending arrival of my first child, the economy seemed to be humming along nicely. While I was out, the economic mood turned decidedly grim.
Every few days or so, I'd pick up a newspaper and get sideswiped by the latest dire financial indicators. As Cisco Systems and Charles Schwab & Co announced sizable layoffs, the new economy got old pretty fast. If only my waistline could contract so quickly.
Now that I'm back, the air of austerity is palpable. As companies look for ways to nip costs in the bud, one of the most uncreative (and therefore most popular) methods is to lay off employees. As a consequence, those employees left behind have to work harder, both as a function of need as well as fear. "Doing more with less" is no longer a catchy slogan; it's a reality. Skills such as time management, multitasking, improvisation and creativity -- while always nice buzzwords with which to pepper one's résumé -- may now spell the difference between hanging on and hanging out at the job fair.
In a case of serendipitous good timing, nothing has taught me the survival skills needed for a lean and mean economy like motherhood. Tried and true time management techniques, such as composing to-do lists, prioritising tasks and turning off email, pale in comparison to caring for a newborn. After about three weeks at home, I learned that the key to successful time management is reverse engineering.
Start with the goal in mind and work backward. For example, the goal is a midmorning trip to the supermarket to pick up wipes and dipes. In order to buckle the little sapling into the car seat at 10.30am, it's necessary to begin with the 10.30pm feeding the night before. That ensures that three feedings will precede the 10am feeding that will render the sap nice and sleepy and tractable when I buckle him into the aforementioned car seat at 10.30. It also ensures that there will be time for the critical pretrip diaper change, as well as my pretrip shower, not to mention that oh-so-crucial pretrip moment when I get out of my I've-given-up-on-life sweats and put on real clothing.
By beginning with the end goal in mind and working backward to the present and adding an hour for the inevitable contingency -- I've managed to hit my target windows fairly consistently. Why I've now mastered the time management conundrum is hardly worthy of a Eureka!; I've simply eliminated procrastination. With an unpredictable entity like a baby suddenly taking over your life, you learn fairly quickly not to put off doing anything when given an opportunity. Give me 15 minutes, and I'll organise a pantry shelf, pay a few bills, scoop the litter box, or read a couple of newspaper stories. (I am woman! Watch me multitask!)
While such stop-and-go pacing could make a person crazy after a few weeks, it does whip one's multitasking muscles into shape. I've learned to divide tasks into those that you can do with an eight-pound human thrown over your shoulder and those you can't. Vacuuming the living room and putting clean dishes away belong in the former category while cleaning shower grout and refinishing a table fall into the latter.
Getting creative in a hurry
In addition to time management training, I'm a graduate of those touchy-feely creativity workshops. You know the ones I mean, where you sit around in a circle with your colleagues making mobiles out of construction paper, pipe cleaners and a stingy length of string. While such exercises are fun (of a kind), I confess that the long-term effect on my creative juices has been negligible. Again, it was recent parenthood that gave my creative inclinations a jump start.
It was deep in the heart of a snowy February, and I was confronted with one of two options: drop two dress sizes worth of weight by April or go shopping for a new wardrobe that would complement my collection of sweat pants. Being the tightwad that I am, I chose the slim-down program, which required turning my garage into a makeshift gym so that I could work out during baby's nap time.
Two 14-pound boxes of kitty litter became barbells. I held a seven-pound box of grout over my head while I did knee bends. I cleared enough space to jump rope doing five sets of 200 jumps was enough to get my heart rate going respectably. Of course, not everything proved successful. Jogging in place is about as exciting as mucilage; I never lasted more than a minute or two. And I'm embarrassed to say what I tried to do with the forty-pound bag of cedar mulch.
Real training for the real world
We've all heard about (or worked at) places where onsite massages and doggy daycare became de rigeur, and where creativity gurus armed with arts and crafts supplies descended in response to competitive pressures (not to mention all that extra cash sloshing around in the budget). Now that money is tighter, all those gurus will have to invent new careers for themselves as their steady gigs go the way of the dotcoms.
It's just as well. I suspect that playing with paper doilies produced nothing more lasting than paper cuts. As I found out while on leave, nothing breeds productivity and creativity like the necessities imposed by real life.
Of course, encouraging parenthood as a corporate initiative is a bit radical. But perhaps your company has a few new parents on staff. They just might be able to teach you something about creativity, multitasking and other really useful stuff. And if you're wondering how to spot them, they'll be the ones with the raccoon eyes and persistent yawns.
When not at home nursing a cold or catching up on sleep, opinion editor Megan Santosus is checking email at firstname.lastname@example.org.