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Interning in a self-managed organization

Image : Photo by Esther Tuttle on Unsplash

 

5 things that made me forget about the prestigious corporate names

and opt for better learning and well-being instead

 

An unpaid internship is daunting, even in the best of circumstances. In my case, I needed to complete one as a requirement for my undergrad degree; a Specialization in Human Relations.

As I searched for a potential site, I was wary of falling into the trap of being exploited as free labor rather than gaining rich real-world experience and knowledge.

After interviews with a recruiting agency, an engineering firm and a not-for-profit organization, I still hadn’t found a match that felt right. Either the work was monotonous or their constraints left too little room for me to maneuver and fulfill my learning goals.

But time was running out and I was worried I wouldn’t find anything worthwhile. I still needed to fulfill the required credits to graduate.

Then, I got a response from Percolab Coop. A self-managed organization that works as a living lab; experimenting and embracing horizontal practices. At first glance, their ways of working are unconventional yet, once immersed, they bring out the best in the team and allow space for each of us to take care of our personal needs while engaging in great work.

From January to April, this year, I worked with Percolab Coop as an intern. Here is some of what I learned from that experience. 

 

  1.   Integrating into a self-managed organization requires a shift in mindset

When I first arrived, I found myself lost in what I initially thought of as underlying chaos. During the first few weeks, confusion reigned. So many things were in constant flux and the fluidity of their work practices left me unsure as to how it all fits together.

As I continued asking questions and observing interactions, I began to dig deeper into what it meant to be a part of a self-managed organization and how their practices play a role in their culture. Once I began to realize the advantages, I was able to get over the hump of adapting to something completely new.

Self-management is a way of life or, in this case, way of running an organization where horizontal practices shape the way teams work together. By default, no hierarchies exist. For Percolab, it meant open data flow, transparency, shared decision-making and tending to relationships together.

Being part of a self-managed team means taking initiative and claiming one’s personal leadership in our professional lives. We gain autonomy and more decision power regarding when and how we decide to work.

Self-management is based on the premise that it is natural to us as human beings. We make decisions every day about our needs and desires and how to prepare for our lives. Bringing that ability into work is not only natural but healthy and beneficial for our well-being. It allows us to be present with our full selves and let our intuition guide us in the process.

As an intern, this meant that I was able to be as involved as any other member and take full responsibility for shaping my place within the team while working with them. I was able to put my learning needs at the forefront of my experience and know that these would not be overlooked by the team but rather embraced by all. It also allowed me to choose which projects I wanted to be involved in and decline those that didn’t fit with my needs or interests.

 

  1.   There are clear networks for support & feedback

The welcoming and inclusive culture in Percolab helped me push through the swirl of unknowns to continue showing up with an eagerness to learn more. Team members made themselves available to answer questions and show support.

When I joined meetings or projects, I was always asked to share my perspective. This practice took me by surprise, I was not expecting to receive such genuine interest and respect for my thoughts, questions or ideas.

Moments like these encouraged my participation, helped create a sense of belonging and built trust. All of these elements played a role in creating a healthy climate that made asking for help and feedback a comfortable and rewarding process.

Being a part of a self-managed team does not mean having full independence but rather it means being part of an interdependent network of fellow professionals that can act as a source of inspiration and as a support system at the same time. Knowledge and tools are freely shared within the community.

Working in a team with shared purpose and vision creates a valuable interconnected web of people with diverse skills that lead to wider and more interesting possibilities.

As I joined projects halfway through or picked up projects that hadn’t been touched in a while, it was essential for me to rely on my abilities and find ways of gaining feedback.

The support from the team was incredibly helpful. Being able to freely ask questions, share my reflections and offer my skills encouraged me to further develop my agency and explore my interests in unexpected ways.

Being challenged to take on an entrepreneurial outlook and learn how to thrive through the process of applying my skills in a real-world context allowed me to have a whole new experience in seeking guidance and self-regulated learning.

 

  1.   It’s an opportunity to be a part of work that matters

One of my fears when originally contemplating my internship experience was that I would only be asked to complete throwaway tasks; cue the coffee runs and mindless printing assignments. Or I would work on a report that would then be stashed away in someone’s desk waiting to be discovered by an archeological dig in a few years.

But to my relief and great pleasure, in Percolab, I was able to be a part of work that held meaning.

My goal to be a part of something greater than simply completing credits or learning about an organizational setting was fully achieved. I was able to join the team during city consultations where the findings would impact the lives of Montreal residents and storeowners. Being able to talk to people on the ground about things that affected their lives in-real-time was fascinating.

Reality struck me in those moments. It conveyed to me that what we decide to do with our lives matters. I decided then that I needed to be directly involved in work that helped people thrive rather than excusing myself to simply having a job with a paycheck attached. Following my passion for people led me to work that matters and in a whimsical way to Percolab.

Self-managed organizations provide the opportunity to be a part of work that has an impact and self-determining what that means for you. Being passionate about the things I took on increased my motivation and, in turn, gave me a shared pride in the outcomes. It let me evolve my interests and grow beyond what I thought myself capable of through the support of a team that focuses all their energy on creating a difference.

Photo by Jamshed Khedri on Unsplash

 

  1.   It allows for a thriving work-life balance

Having autonomy in how and when you complete your work opens a world of possibilities. While juggling my internship, I was also taking three classes and working four university-level teaching assistant positions. Looking back, I’m still shocked that I survived.

Yet what helped me get through it was the flexibility granted by a self-managed system. Being able to make my own schedule and work from a variety of places allowed me freedom and ease to fit work in when it felt right for me, whether it was at Percolab’s office space or on the bus while on my way to class. The team’s belief in my capacity to self-organize and complete work as needed was a refreshing alternative to the micromanaging often seen by top-down approaches.

While this openness has enormous benefits, it can also be a challenge when transitioning from a traditional 9 to 5 workplace. Self-management requires a perceptive level of self-awareness so that we don’t take on too much or feel overburdened by responsibility. Strong and clear boundaries are needed so that we don’t become over-committed and, in turn, overwhelmed.

Even if each project represents passion and joy individually, things can easily add up to the point of burnout. Time management and the art of a tactful “no” became valuable skills that I won’t be giving up anytime soon.

In the end, self-management leads to a greater sense of control over what we want our professional lives to look like and how we achieve those goals. All without sacrificing other areas of our lives in the process.

The openness and sense of personal autonomy allow us to be more motivated, effective and productive in our work because we set the terms that best suit our lifestyle. This, in turn, gives us the freedom to have rich and fulfilling personal lives that we can enjoy guilt-free while also doing work we love.

 

  1.   Self-managed organizations offer an alternative path

When I speak to friends and other recent grads, I’ve picked up on a few trends. Many don’t feel ready to enter the workforce and have decided to continue studying. While never a bad option, it is concerning when that decision is derived from fears of not being enough to enter the workforce.

Another trend, getting the job that looks great on paper but in reality, isn’t fulfilling or further advancing career learning and development. A friend of mine once described this experience as feeling like another cog in the machine; he knows that his work is useful yet feels that he doesn’t hold any importance in the greater whole of his workplace or even community.

On the other hand, many others have begun freelancing and have turned their passions into creative ventures. They want to have full freedom and dread the possibility of being held back by top-down hierarchical organizations. Yet their career path is often siloed as a result and they sometimes lack the support system and knowledge that a community can bring.

None of these options felt right for me.

I wanted to begin my career and do work that I felt proud of, all while being surrounded by people who cared equally about my personal well-being and professional growth.

Too much to ask for? Not if you look in the right place.

Photo by Alexis Brown on Unsplash

 

Let’s recap those five points;

  1.   Integrating into a self-managed system requires a shift in mindset
  2.   There are clear networks for support & feedback
  3.   It’s an opportunity to be a part of work that matters
  4.   It allows for a thriving work-life balance
  5.   Self-managed organizations offer an alternative path

My experience with the Percolab team has shined a light on the benefits of self-managed organizations and how these practices lead to a greater sense of belonging, support and success. It was an ideal placement to continue a learning journey and further develop my skills.

Following my intuition and stepping away from firms that might have left a prestigious name on my CV led me to have a better experience than I ever could have imagined.

If you’re looking for an internship or even a new job, self-managed organizations can be an option where you can co-create your learning objectives along with the organization rather than being subjected to life-draining delegation. Together, you can explore the sweet spot between ongoing work and your interest so that it can be a valuable experience for all involved.

My internship experience prepared me to move away from siloed task-accomplishment and embrace the rich and interconnected world of work where creativity, autonomy and individual interests thrive.

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