At some point in everyone’s career you may have found yourself in an operating environment where your work is cut off from others and you are in a proverbial vacuum. Sometimes it may be because you have a specialty others do not, sometimes it may be because you are embarking on a pilot program or “stealth” project that very few know about. A professional vacuum may also occur because of logistics - you are a remote employee working from home or you are singularly responsible for matters in another time zone that is off-set from the one where you live/go to work and you are not engaged as fully as you would like to be. The potential for isolation is great if we are not mindful, and it may encompass you or your team. Silos are another great example of a vacuum, ever more frustrating because it is happening with the organization all around you/your team. Sometimes we create our own vacuum because we prefer to work alone. Professional vacuums are present when you feel you are responsible for the majority of the decision making, and you are doing it separate from the rest of the organization (or separate from your team).
Vacuums in a professional context share something in common with the scientific definition in that there is no air movement. Both versions are also very quiet and devoid of any remarkable characteristics. In a vacuum you are not being jostled by the needs and opinions of others and you are not being asked to contribute to things peripheral to your work or capabilities. These particular hallmarks of vacuums also make them self-perpetuating; the less involved you are the less you will be called upon to be involved. In some cases this may suit you perfectly, and we can likely think of examples where we willed this to happen (toxic work environments are good examples, where often people indicate they want to be left alone, avoiding involvement in the drama unfolding). Sometimes it occurs by happenstance; this is often highlighted as a concern for sole proprietors and other singular entrepreneurs who by the very nature of their work act independently. Vacuums may feel very constricting, limiting our impact and ability to be productive or meet desired outcomes (they are, by nature, devoid of matter, devoid of having meaning). Vacuums may also become comfortable for us, scientifically referred to as “free space” something you may crave and work hard to protect. It can be a bit of a paradox.
What vacuums do not offer are opportunities to learn, exercise personal growth, test new skills, benchmark behaviours, ideas or approaches in a meaningful way. They do not give you visibility to what is going on around you, nor allow you to fully be seen. And they can sneak up on you. Sometimes we create a vacuum around us by taking on accountabilities we should not because others are busy, we allow them to minimally participate because we feel for their heavy workload and we have our time allocated to work on a project that is important (or we just want to keep moving things forward). However, it can lead to the creation of something that is not relevant to others and is devoid of meaning. Because you and you alone have made decisions (well intentioned decisions) – you are the only one with “skin in the game” and no matter how important the initiative is to the wider organization, no one else will believe in it, support it, or use it to it’s fullest potential.
So how can you assess if you are sucking the air out of your work? The level of involvement of others is a good indicator – relevant to the work you are accountable to accomplish. Yes it feels good to get things moving and to produce, but if others don’t care, or haven’t fully understood the need for their attention and involvement, you are at risk of creating something in a vacuum. If you find yourself in a professional vacuum “break the seal”. Give your work air; give it life by building relevant things through the participation of others and eliciting the involvement your work deserves. In this way you will be exercising your full potential and keeping your skills relevant.