Out of a certain economic need, there was about a year, now more than a decade ago, that I spent as a freelance economic consultant. I set up a small home office and set about networking to get contracts with slightly larger and more established firms. I had just finished my Masters degree and had limited experience, and yet I was able to pay the bills (albeit much smaller back then), undertake interesting work, and develop my skills.
However, there was a fair bit of uncertainty – you never knew when you would go through a dry spell and there would be no work to undertake, and being young and wanting to get established, there were several advantages to securing traditional employment. After all, getting a mortgage as a self-employed person can be daunting - and maternity leave for the self-employed is pretty much unheard of. Further, employment under the right circumstances could offer a kind of camaraderie and mentorship that is difficult in solo-practice. At the time I was offered the job with the Vital Statistics Agency in Victoria, the firm that I was primarily sub-contracting with in Vancouver was also ready to offer me a position. At that time, a government position in Victoria, seemed as though it would be the better choice for the foreseeable future – less traffic, cheaper houses, and the much coveted “government pension”.
I was lucky, the person who I worked with was bright and engaging – and fed me a steady diet of interesting work for years to come. He exemplified the kind of leader that inspires those he works with to do good work, the kind of leader who knew the skills of his people and leveraged them to their best use. The kind of leader who was adept at getting interesting work to do, sharing that work with others, and doing what he could to make the work of others better. A leader who embraced innovation, collaboration and communication – he took leadership seriously, it was not something done off of the side of his desk but was part of who he was, a way of life. Under his leadership, our group was reorganized into the main Ministry of Health, grew to the size of a branch and the scope of work was broadened. There was no fear of approaching him with a workplace problem – his door was open and he had invested the time to develop the relationships in the first place, he was not just empathetic but compassionate and did what he could to solve the workplace problems of others. Under his leadership our work group had some of the highest engagement scores in government. The years that followed were productive and largely happy.
It was truly a good place to work, a place with a soul, with a purpose, and a community.
Then there was a scandal – but the group survived. Then I went off on my first maternity leave. The experience of the birth of my daughter reverberated throughout the rest of my life – and was still having large impacts on myself when I returned to work. Then, shortly before my second maternity leave – our leader moved on to the next chapter of his career. I went on my second maternity leave in August, and another scandal broke in September. The following January, one of those involved in the scandal committed suicide. When I returned the following September, although I inhabited the exact same office – it was not the same place. In the time since the birth of my daughter, the workplace had transformed.
So now I can either work towards regaining what once was where I’m at, in the ways that I can (not convinced this is possible, given recent evidence of an incompatible culture); live with the way things are (unsustainable) – probably a recipe for depression, poor productivity and frustration; move on to another position in government and hope for a better place – but this would likely mean leaving health behind; or I can take a leap into a new direction – into a new context where the work I do is better aligned with who I am.
If I had the skills and experience (and Twitter, and LinkedIn and Facebook, etc.) that I have today, ten years ago – there is no doubt in my mind that I would opt to be a master of my own work environment – a fully collaborative partner in the work I do and how I do it. In truth, even while employed, I have been lucky to be a fully collaborative partner in the work I have done for most of my career. Perhaps to move forward, perhaps in my journey to strive for better – perhaps it is time to turn back the clock when I step into the next chapter of my work life.