Journeying into the business world... one undiscovered culture at a time

Welcome to [Per]Suit of Anthropology, a blog dedicated to the exploration of modern business trends and perspectives from the view of anthropologist, with a special emphasis on cultural understandings of work-life balance and disability rights in the workplace. This blog is a way for me to connect two sides of my professional self that I see in constant dialogue. Though the business world and the anthropological world may not believe it - they have more in common and more to learn from one another than readily acknowledged. Topics covered include: Western business practices and the impact of those decisions on socio-cultural institutions worldwide, invisible disabilities, Ignatian spirituality, work-life balance, and some discussion of issues of tourism and its impacts on culture, and common human capital practices in private industry and government.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Of K-Cups, Coffee Pots, and their impact on the exchange of ideas

Over the holidays I drank way too much coffee.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive.  I had the chance to sleep in, I was visiting with family and friends, and just enjoying the happiness of the season.  So why the need to caffeinate more than I do during work?

The answer has nothing to do with being sleepy or worn down, but rather has to do with a social phenomenon that is quickly disappearing: brewing a pot of coffee and drinking with others. In my own family, with roots in the Midwest, always seem to have a pot of coffee on. Relatives always just popping by, sometimes with a call to let us know, but usually just a knock on the door. Coffee was made, snacks are set out and conversation ensues, even if just for a half hour.

From speaking with my parents, it seems that up until recently breaks rooms in places of work served the same purpose. I remember visiting my mom, who worked at a high school. In her department there was a little break room, withs fridge, microwave, and yes a coffee pot. Usually whoever wanted coffee would out on the pot to brew, my mother often being the one to do so. However, once the aroma permeated the office, nearly everyone would pop by, taking a break and chatting about the business of the day, or even nothing at all.

The social phenomenon of the coffee pot break is not limited to just coffee, either. It's counterpart, still alive and well in the UK is the notion of 'tea time.'While pursuing my graduate studies in England I recall my college had tea-times, one at eleven and the other at half past two if I am not mistaken.

While I often missed the morning tea time due to classes, I was often back in college for the afternoon break. It, for me and many others, came to be a much looked forward to time where we could all, even if for fifteen minutes, could break the monotony of the day, come up for air and rejuvenate our minds and bodies with tea and a few chocolate covered cookies!

So why the nostalgia for communal coffee pots and tea pots. I was thinking about this when reading an article in St. Anthony Messenger's December issue about the rise in the individual serve cups, or even the permeation of coffees hops and Starbuck's all designed around the purpose to make coffee "just the way you like it.". But what, the article asks, are we loosing at the cost of the individual coffee, the single serve automatic, convenience?

Well think about it, if your workplace has one of these single serve coffee pots, when was the last time you took a break with another, just to have a few moments respite? When you refill your coffee, and head back to your desk, you may speak to someone, but it's always back to work, cup of coffee in hand. The one thing missing as we lose the idea of the break room, or the tea time, is a space where it is culturally acceptable for employees to stop, chat and have a bit of coffee before going on their way. What is missing is the exchange of ideas that occur when people come together for dedicated time each day to replenish their bodies and awaken their minds.

Unfortunately, I do not see workplaces going back to the notion of pots of's not cost effective. Nor do I see US workplaces having a tea time, since it is not quite a part of culture here as it is in the UK. But within my household, friends are always welcome for a pot of coffee... No invitation, no texts, no call needed. Just some water, coffee, milk and sugar, stories and ideas. That gets me through the day.

Monday, January 7, 2013

What can Yoga teach us about work-life balance?

This evening, for the first time in about two years, I entered my Unity Woods yoga studio to take a class. I was so nervous that I misread the time and arrived nearly an hour early. I shyly introduced myself to the teacher, notably the same person I had two years ago, who asked, "Are you certain Level II is ok for you?". Not wanting to admit maybe I was a tad rusty, I quickly replied yes. I am rarely one who back down from a challenge anyway.

I entered the dressing room where piece by piece I took off the strippings of corporate life. I replaced my hair piece and jewelry for an unadorned ponytail, my skirt and blouse for a simple T-shirt and shorts, and my heels for bare, slightly chipped painted toenails and feet. As I walked into the studio, I breathed deeply, feeling incredibly grounded and connected to the world around me as my feet softly padded through the dimly lit space.

"Om!"...the words escaped my lips as the memory of the days work slowly faded into the background. I slowly progressed through the poses, surprised at both how difficult the simple stances were, yet slightly surprised that my body remembered the movements from the past decade of on and off again Iyengar yoga practice.

At the end of the session, while meditating in in shivasana pose, I started to recognize the lessons anyone can lean from yoga that relate to work life balance. It seems that with the prevalence of new technologies and ways of working there are an incredible amount of articles dedicated to the idea of work-life balance. On one end you have more traditional persons decrying how people being connected at all times is causing serious detriment to not just our work, but our society as a whole as we forget how to relate to one another I face to face conversations. On the other hand people argue that the ability to connect remotely allows people to have more time at home, as they have time with family and friends and can still get on the computer at various times to complete work.

For the record I tend, to the consternation of my fellow colleagues in the Millennial generation, to go for the more traditional route that we all need time to unplug everyday. And here's why...

Yoga is based, from my limited understanding, on two principles: strength and flexibility. Today at my first practice in two years, I saw both principles in stark reality. To begin, the first ten minutes or so of the class today was focused on deep forward bends. For this runner's body, the stretches were a harsh reminder of how inflexible I can be. Both literally and in how I segment my day. As my muscles loosened I reflected on how regimented I had been in the course of my workday; and how that regimentation may have prevented me from a conversation or insight into a problem I had.

During my experiences of flexible work arrangements I have been so protective of what little time in the office I have that I have been accused of being cold, snobby, or overtly professional. This is not the way to be... But that feeds into the second yoga principle of strength.

Did I mention that i went to a Level 2 class today? That meant that in today's class we were already doing head and hand stands. As I lifted my legs up to the wall to do a modified hand stand, I could not believe how much my arms started to shake, and my knees felt weak. I just ran 10 miles this weekend... And a simple yoga pose was kicking my butt! That was when I realized that though yoga seems to outsiders as a flimsy thing for a bunch of hippies to do on a weeknight, holding some of the inverted (upside down) poses requires incredible strength of the entire body. And when it comes to work life balance the same is needed. It is not easy to leave work early to attend to a health issue; it is not easy to be the one person who does not answer emails because you are taking care of your kids; it requires incredible strength to stand up to a boss or a client and let them know their demand are just plain crazy.

And what is more is that this strength doesn't just happen. It is the result of months, if not years of careful reflection and study. There is no way I could do a free standing hand stand today... In fact it could take me years to master the pose. The same is true for mastering the politics of a flexible work arrangement. It takes a lot of time, patience, discipline and practice to get it "right ".

And that brings me to a final thought about yoga. It is different for everyone who practices. Some people can bend over and touch their toes immediately. Others can balance on one foot with their hands up in the air. And still others can tie themselves in a pretzel knot and still carry on a conversation. But only the very rare can do all three.

The same is true for work life balance. Not all of us can do everything. Ok yes there are the rare individuals who seem to be the energizer bunny, for whom three hours of sleep a night is plenty, who can be the best parent ever and the best worker, oh yes and who can run a foundation in their "free time," but for most of us the reality is somewhere in between.

So go ahead and let the practice meet you where you are. Don't focus on what others around you are doing, just practice within your limits. Don't force your body or kind to bend in ways in which you are not ready. If you do, you could wind up getting hurt.... Both literally and mentally. Like yoga, recognize the place where the stillness of the mind meets the action of the body, and recognize you are exactly where you are meant to be