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One of the most-read FT articles of 2022 is a column headlined “How to handle a narcissist in the workplace”. A lot of us, it turns out, want to discover the secret to dealing with a terrible boss. Spoiler alert for those who haven’t read Michael Skapinker’s excellent piece: in many cases, the best thing you can do is leave. Don’t expect a narcissist to change.

Narcissism is a particularly corrosive issue to deal with, but your manager does not have to conform to the clinical definition of a narcissist to make your life a misery. Those of us who are both managers and managed understand how hard it is from both sides. We are all flawed (hello to my patient team members who appreciate my ideas but don’t love my poor attention to detail). Management is an impossible thing to do well all the time, however pure your intentions. 

There are many reasons why it’s often not possible to leave a bad boss. I once stayed far too long in a job where the team leader’s micro-managing behaviour was making me ill. I thought I could handle it — but the negative impact on my career and mental health lasted for years.

So I am keen to see how others do better — what can we do about intractable problems with our managers or colleagues?

We will record an episode of Working It on toxic work dynamics and will use your experiences and questions to inform our discussion. Please email your thoughts to me to at isabel.berwick@ft.com.

Read on for more from Sophia about the tricky dilemma that workers face, caught between the security of a full time job and the flexibility of the ever-growing gig economy.

See you next week. Reach out to me or reply to this email with your thoughts and feedback on today’s newsletter.

Join former United States secretary of state Henry Kissinger, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and more at our inaugural US FTWeekend Festival in Washington, DC this Saturday. As newsletter subscriber you can claim an exclusive limited time offer of 50 per cent off your pass using promo code FTNewslettersxFTWF22.


The hidden downsides of freelancing

Skilled freelancing (that is, services like programming and marketing rather than Uber driving) is becoming a growing portion of the gig economy. From 2019 to 2021, freelancers offering skilled services grew by 8 per cent.

Satisfied freelancers enjoy greater flexibility and control over their careers, and younger workers have come to view freelancing — with its potential for diversified clients and income streams — as more stable than a full-time job, per Fast Company’s recent conversation with Upwork CEO Hayden Brown. Yet almost 40 per cent of freelancers say they’d prefer to have a traditional job, according to a survey conducted by freelancing platform Upwork. Many skilled professionals opt for freelance gigs not because they are running toward something — but because they are running away.

A BambooHR survey found the top reasons people left their jobs included dissatisfaction, mental health, poor compensation, or unethical leadership. Additionally, Harvard Business School found that 32 per cent of workers left a job because they had to prioritise caretaking responsibilities. If these working conditions improved, would we still see highly skilled workers flock to freelance platforms?

The self-employed lifestyle does not come ready-made with benefits like a healthcare plan and family leave, which raises the stakes for would-be freelancers. Is freelance flexibility so attractive that those perks are worth giving up? Or is full-time work just dismal enough to justify it? Freelancers also miss out on “soft” benefits like free office snacks, subsidised gym memberships and corporate discount programmes.

For executives, utilising freelancers could provide economic benefits. Three out of five business leaders said they would increasingly prefer to “rent”, “borrow” or “share” talent, and that their full-time staff would be smaller as a result. Those surveyed by Harvard Business School cited lower costs — such as the expenses associated with healthcare plans, sick days, vacations, and training. Plus, leaders who are angling toward a more freelance-heavy business model feel they are giving workers the flexibility they want. But why does “flexibility” translate so readily into “hourly worker with no benefits”?

Many workers are getting what they need from the gig economy: the flexibility to choose their own hours and location, the control and autonomy to choose their own projects, and the leeway to devote their energy toward caretaking responsibilities. But a better future exists in which full time employees are afforded these conditions, too. Workers shouldn’t have to choose between stability and flexibility — we deserve the best of both worlds. (Sophia Smith)

Would you prefer to be a full time employee or a freelancer? Or, perhaps you enjoy picking up gigs as a side hustle outside your day job? Let us know by taking our poll.


Listen in: The war over returning to the office

The tussle between bosses and workers about the return to the office is likely to be the big workplace story of the summer. Occupancy in many buildings is nowhere near 100 per cent, even on days when staff are mandated to be in.

This week on the Working It podcast, I talk to FT colleague Josh Chaffin about the very best in-office design and perks. We wonder whether a stellar workspace (with or without gelato and coffee carts) is going to be enough to lure back reluctant staff.

We also hear from Rick Cook, an architect who brings nature inside — “biophilia” is the term — to create workspaces that awaken all our senses and improve wellbeing. Rick is a fan of the walking meeting, and says the best offices should have big, open staircases to make chance encounters easier.

Next week we are talking about post-pandemic business travel. It’s back (big time) — but given the climate emergency and the ease of virtual meetings, can we really justify flying to a conference? (Isabel Berwick)


Elsewhere in the world of work:

  1. Eat your own dogfood: Using your own product or service, aka “dogfooding”, has been common in software development for decades. Now, the practice is finding its way into all sorts of employee initiatives for executives and salaried workers to spend time in frontline roles, such as fielding customer service calls or hitting the road as a delivery driver.

  2. Just say ‘no’ to office chores: Women are more likely to be asked — and more likely to say yes — to “non-promotable” work tasks like organising a colleague’s leaving present. A new book, The No Club, explores how women can navigate this gendered problem, and how managers can more equitably address it at an organisational level.

  3. How to lead: Peter Kern was suddenly propelled into running Expedia after the abrupt departure of his predecessor in 2019. Months later, he found himself bringing the travel company through the turmoil of the pandemic. He’s found that the best way to keep staff on his side is to “be straight with your people about how you feel”.

  4. Silence is golden: It’s okay to be quiet in meetings, writes Pilita Clark. Some of the smartest people and most powerful leaders rarely speak in work gatherings. They wait until they actually have something valuable to add — and when they do, everyone listens.

  5. Advice for the job hunt slog: If you’re losing confidence in a fruitless job hunt, advice columnist Jonathan Black advises that you get someone in your corner to help you strategise, seek out informational interviews, target organisations of interest, and don’t forget to invest in personal and family time to keep your spirits up.


A word from the Working It community:

Gabriella Braun, a psychoanalytic coach for business leaders, responded to last week’s newsletter asking for tips on how to combat loneliness in the workplace with this thoughtful observation:

Loneliness is such an important topic, and ‘building resilience’ so inadequate as an answer. It makes me angry as it suggests the problem is with the employee, not the organisation. It’s a way of outsourcing the organisation’s responsibility.

Loneliness causes significant damage to mental and physical health, so the starting place is to take it seriously and put mental health at the center of the workplace.

Tackling loneliness is also about seeing our workplaces as communities. That means taking care to generate community by, for example, allocating staff to projects on the basis of building community, not just on competence and professional development. 

And let us know . . .

Just before a draft opinion was leaked on Monday revealing the likelihood that the US Supreme Court will overturn Roe vs Wade, Amazon announced it would reimburse employees for travel expenses incurred by seeking out-of-state abortions. At the risk of stepping into the culture war, companies may feel it’s worth it to take a stand.

Do you think companies should take a stance on social issues? Why or why not?

For a future story, I’m also interested in hearing about your experiences. Has access to abortion (or lack therof) affected your life or career? You can share your stories with me at sophia.smith@ft.com (and let me know if you’d like anonymity).

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