What grownups can learn about work from a new school term

What is it about school that makes starting a new term after a long summer so easy? And what might the equivalent look like in the modern workplace?
Seven children run side by side down an open corridor towards school doors. Their feet are either one or both off the ground and they all wear a different kind of backpack on their backs. The light suggests the sun is shining.
Frits Paagman

Written by Frits Paagman

Canon EMEA Executive Coach

As we reluctantly leave the lazy holidays behind, our thoughts turn to our regular routines and getting back into the swing of work and school. You might have noticed that you’re hitting the coffee a little harder and perhaps feeling a bit jealous of how children seem to slip back into school so easily.

Of course, they are naturally full of youthful vitality, but as adults we often look back wistfully on the comparative ease of our school days. And in many ways, this is completely understandable – they were a time low on responsibility and high on sociability. But there are other, more elemental reasons. Ones that speak to the core of what we all need in life. If you are returning to a happy, productive workplace, no doubt you will experience similar feelings of ease as you head back into the autumn months. And if you don’t? Do you know why? During the pandemic, much was made of how necessary school was to our young people and to get them back in the classroom full time was a matter of top priority. A not insignificant factor of this was because school environment fulfils four psychological human needs ­ – safety, value, belonging and control. If we don’t have them, we may not express it in words, but we certainly try to look for them and we go to lengths to shield ourselves from their opposites. So, let’s explore why that might be – and how the equivalent looks for the modern workplace.

A place of safety

When our children go to school, we feel assured that they are in a safe place. However, safety is far from just a physical concept. In fact, the term ‘psychological safety’ dates all the way back to 1965 and was originally defined as ‘an atmosphere where one can take chances (which experimentalism implies) without fear and with sufficient protection.’ It was later updated to clarify that psychological safety allows people to ‘employ or express themselves physically, cognitively, and emotionally’. When our children go to school, they (on the whole) take their home identity with them. And, moreover, there are few to no surprises to be had at school, and very little risk. Basically – and this is particularly true for children in elementary school – they’re in a very stable part of their lives. School is a very constant given which, if a child is happy there, is just an everyday reality and makes them feel safe and secure.

What might this safety look like in the workplace? Well, you might have heard people talk about the importance of ‘bringing your best self to work’, and this does not just mean the highest performing, most motivated version of ourselves. In order to feel psychologically safe, it is necessary to feel we can be precisely who we are at work, without ‘masking’ or pretence. It is essential to feel appreciated and supported in our roles and unafraid to ask for help. Looking to the experience of children – does every day feel like a regular school week, or an exam week? Working in an atmosphere that feels like the latter all year round means that feelings of psychological safety may be compromised and there is a very real risk of burnout. Because even if there are times where deadlines are tough and the pressure is on, there must be balance.

A female teacher sits on a grey couch with a student, holding a worksheet and pointing at it. She wears white sleeveless blouse and black trousers. Her hair is shoulder length and dark. The student, who sits to her right, is wearing a black dress with a white collar and a pink cardigan. She wears glasses and her hair is in a high bun. There is a green leafy plant to the right of the couch.

A healthy school environment will give young people an opportunity to voice their opinions and have their achievements recognised. However, it is also development focused, creating a rounded sense of value.

Feeling valued

You might question how a sense of value shows itself to a child at school, especially when they are one in many hundreds, if not a thousand or more other students. But of course, children are there to learn and a structure is in place to ensure that they are reaching their potential. Teachers are trained to observe and should be quick to notice if a child is struggling or not their usual happy selves. Pastoral care plays a significant part in the school experience, and youngsters have access to counsellors and support networks. While none of this is an overt show that a child is valued, it is an atmospheric underpinning that matters. More obviously, students have their academic and athletic achievements recognised, their opinions heard and valued through student bodies and creative achievements are put on display for all to see. Equally, they have many opportunities to make valuable contributions, no matter how big or small, both in and out of the classroom. They are rewarded with responsibility and have an attainment reporting system that is development focused. And then they have their value within social circles, which we’ll move onto shortly.

Value looks different in the workplace, but it is no less important. The key words that spring to mind are ‘trust’ and ‘recognition’. It is a simple fact that we humans like to have our achievements acknowledged and organisations that enjoy a culture of trust and recognition are very attractive places to work indeed. The experience of Covid 19 taught us that the vast majority of people are self-starters, capable of successfully achieving their objectives under the most unusual of circumstances, working around caregiver responsibilities, home-schooling and more. In this respect, an organisation that values its people might not only celebrate their achievements, but recognise the discretionary effort needed to reach those goals. Then explore ways that they can be supported in the future.

Like our children, feeling like we have a sense of autonomy over how we work is inextricably tied to our sense of value, safety and belonging.

A sense of belonging

A child’s social structure is geared mainly around a school environment, especially when they are in elementary school, as the vast majority of their friends are there. If something goes wrong at school, it can be absolutely traumatising because school is only one of only two significant places for the child in most cases. However, their sense of belonging at school actually fits into a pretty fascinating network of ‘circles’ and an almost unbreakable loyalty baked into the school experience – your school is “the best”, Class A is better than Class B, your football team is, of course, better than that of the school down the road, your friend group is the most fun, and so on. The elements of safety and value are critical to this sense of belonging because they create the foundation upon which a strong and communal sense of belonging can grow.

As a social structure, work is slightly different. It is not our primary social circle, as we also have friends and family outside of the working day who we love and trust. That said, the social interaction of being in the office, and the creativity and collaboration that comes with it, have been cited as the main reasons for wanting to return post-Covid. Being part of that ‘office energy’ and the feeling of working towards a goal together can be a truly bonding experience for a team. Like the school experience, feeling safe and valued will only strengthen that bond. At a deeper, more organisational level, much is made of the importance of a corporate mission and vision, which shares a clear sense of the values of the business. When these values align with our own, it can foster our sense of belonging and loyalty. If they are unclear, or do not resonate with us, it can create a sense of indifference that is hard to come back from.

Three smiling people look at a computer monitor. A man in glasses, perching on a desk on the far left, a woman with blonde wavy hair and a white patterned blouse in the middle, pointing at the screen. On the right, a curly haired woman stands, leaning towards the screen. She wears a suit jacket over a white top and jeans.

Being part of the ‘energy’ of the office environment and working together on a shared goal can be a really positive experience that bonds teams and fosters a sense of belonging.

What is in your control?

As we’ve established, there are few surprises for schoolchildren in termtime. Everything is meticulously planned, school opens at the same time every day, clubs run to a schedule, the timetable rarely changes. While this might sound monotonous, it gives feelings of security to younger children and a sense of constancy to teens as they navigate a turbulent time in their life. By the same token, educators give young people an ever-increasing sense of agency and responsibility in their school life. How they choose to organise themselves, their study habits outside of school, what they choose to eat, who they socialise with, what they do at recess. How these things all fit in (or not!) with their attainment creates conversations and guidance.

On the face of it, control looks very different in the working world. Yet, like our children, feeling like we have a sense of autonomy over how we work is inextricably tied to our sense of value, safety and belonging. Why is this? Because at the heart of control is choice. The stay-at-home orders, for example, gave us the choice to structure our working days around our personal circumstances. We were able to make these decisions because no one really had any answers. However, by and large, it worked, and it is because of this we are entering into a new phase of industry, where hybrid working is commonplace and work/life balance is very often a key deciding factor when considering career moves. Of course, a pandemic is an extreme set of circumstances that rocked our world, but it came with many lessons and learnings, putting what is truly important in plain sight. In fact, you might say that, in the weeks and months since, every day is a school day.

Frits Paagman Canon EMEA Executive Coach

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