The great plague of the modern affluent workplace is boredom of the soul. Here's how to improve the qualitative human experience of working.

The recent downfall of WeWork, a “revolutionary” shared-workspace company valued at nearly $50 billion at one point, represents more than just another example of our dysfunctional worship of flashy entrepreneurs — it is also the latest stumble in the long and troubled project of the Innovation Class to “reinvent” work.

While WeWork provides hip office space in existing locations, Google is currently erecting its brand new, massive 600,000-square-foot Cathedral of Work in Mountain View, California. But despite nearly unlimited budgets and the most cutting-edge technologies, how equipped are the priests of the Googleplex to stir the inner worlds of the humans who enter their hallowed doors?

It is certain that many complex intellectual problems will continue to be solved in fancy high-tech offices, but the great plague of the modern affluent workplace is boredom of the soul, and this is what the Titans of Tech are completely unprepared to address.

The most revolutionary step companies can take to reinvent work is this: support employees in their inner growth and development — not technical, intellectual skill development, but rather meaningful emotional growth. This will engage your employees far more than any slick office building.

Are We Actually Making Any Progress?

While the outer work circumstances for many employees in developed societies are much better than unregulated factory working conditions of the early Industrial Revolution, far too many people in the world work in dangerous or de-humanizing environments — including right here in the US. We need to continue striving to make these types of jobs part of the history of work, and that includes addressing the ways that the posh WeWork offices and the Googleplexes of the world are built on an unjust economic system that keeps many in poverty.

The scope of this article is much narrower: for those of us fortunate enough to have decent (or even extravagant) outer work circumstances, for those of us at the supposed cutting edge of modern work — how much progress have we actually made in the quality of the daily work experience in the last 50 to 75 years?

For all the revolutionary innovation we see in the products and services of modern companies, there is shockingly little innovation in the way these companies require humans to work. Cool offices and new technologies have changed the outward appearance of work and have allowed us to work just about anywhere, but what of the qualitative human experience of working? This has been left essentially untouched.

We know this: the most persistent and devastating metric of the modern workplace has barely budged in the last 20 years. At a typical organization, only 3 out of every 10 employees are engaged in their work. Globally, only about 1 in 10 employees are engaged.

No matter how many organic, gluten-free snacks one packs into sleek office kitchenettes, no matter how much hipster furniture is scattered around converted loft-spaces, no matter how many cool high-tech perks are available for high performers, and especially no matter how many booze-drenched office parties you throw, if you’re not meaningfully addressing the inner, psychological needs of employees, you’re not going to engage them.

Theoretically, every company is in business to serve human needs. But the standard calculus of work is this: you, the employee, will set aside your needs during the workday to provide for the needs of others. In exchange, you’ll get money, with which you can meet your own needs outside of the workday. If the only needs employees had were basic physiological and safety needs, this would be relatively simple. As long as the workplace isn’t dangerous, and salaries are sufficient to purchase shelter, food, clothing, and other basic needs, employees would be satisfied.

But if you recall Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, humans also have psychological and self-fulfillment needs:

If we want to say we’re making some kind of progress in the realm of work — that we’re pressing forward toward a more fulfilling future of work — then we should be moving up this pyramid, right? But, honestly, are we? Even for those of us in affluent modern workplaces, it seems like we’re still stuck in the Basic Needs part of the pyramid.

Do you have time at your workplace to make meaningful (dare we say, deep?) connections with your colleagues? Do you have the support and psychic space at work to engage in emotionally satisfying personal growth? Is your work truly creative, and are you achieving your full potential as a human being?

Perhaps you think this is too much to ask from work. But since modern work takes up so many of our waking hours — including affluent countries and especially in prestigious fields such as medicine, law, and technology — when else are we going to get these needs met?

We are the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the history of the world. We have companies with revenue the size of many nations’ total GDP and CEOs with more money than any human has had, ever. If we can’t make work more fulfilling even under these affluent circumstances and even for our most privileged employees, then we should just give up on the project of improving work and admit failure.

Why does it have to be so hard to meet employees’ psychological needs at work?

A Round Soul in a Square Cubicle

Regardless of how much personal work you may have done, no matter how many yoga retreats or long vacations you’ve taken, it will only take a few minutes back at your desk — turn on your laptop, open up your email or Slack — and all that peace and tranquility will evaporate in a matter of seconds.

Work is a crucible and that, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad thing. Crucibles, if designed and used well, can burn away impurities and allow a stronger metal to emerge. The problem with our work environments is that they burn away a lot of the wrong stuff.

David Whyte, a poet and occasional corporate consultant, once commented in a talk that he realized the reason employees keep their car windows cracked in the parking lot at work is not to keep the car cool and save the upholstery, but rather because all those people left their souls behind in their cars as they went into the office. The cracked windows allowed their souls to breathe.

You don’t need to be religious to relate to the word “soul.” But feel free to use the word “heart” or “psyche” instead. What these words point to is a part of our human makeup that the work world neglects or even treats with hostility.

Outer Results at the Expense of Inner Wellbeing

If the modern workplace seems to be precisely engineered to frustrate our inner psychological needs, that’s because, in many ways, it is. Our concept of productivity is horribly antiquated. Posh offices bely the fact that we are still essentially chained to our work for 8 to 10 hours per day in the US, and many of us are expected to be available far into the evenings and weekends.

Much could also be said about the power structure of the American workplace, and Elizabeth Anderson does an excellent job of this in her book “Private Government,” in which she points out that most companies, even in ostensibly democratic America and even in the 21st Century, are still run as autocratic hierarchies. Dictatorships do not lend themselves to human fulfillment.

To satisfy the psychological needs in the upper portions of Maslow’s Hierarchy, human beings need to have the time, the space, and the support for activities that are not generally welcome in the modern workplace, such as:

Reflection

How can we have growth without reflection? Humans need time to unpack events and our reactions to them in order make meaning out of them. But the pace of the modern work day is so fast, the interruptions so frequent, and the mental tasks so demanding that many of us barely have time to complete our work, let alone reflect on our experiences. In the name of efficiency, the modern workplace squeezes out time for reflection. An annual performance review is better than nothing, but it is not sufficient, and if reflection is not built into the daily or weekly life of an organization, insights from an annual review are not likely to be followed up on in any meaningful way.

Connection

In a typical office, especially in our increasingly diverse workforce, you are bound to have people with fascinating life stories. Finding the time and the psychic space to connect with other human beings during the workday, however, is the challenge. When I worked for a financial services IT company, I attempted to take 15 min walks with colleagues to clear our heads and connect. When we were spotted by upper management, they sent a mass email warning against socializing on company time and implemented a clock-in/clock-out system even for salaried, full-time employees. This is probably an extreme example, but the implicit message of most offices is that talking with colleagues about non-work topics is a waste of time and money. And, again, given all the emails and work piling up at our desks, most of us are reluctant to fall behind in our tasks by engaging in social “chit-chat.”

Emotional Expression

As I have discussed elsewhere, the range of emotions allowed in the workplace is suffocatingly narrow. The business world is more or less terrified of emotions in the workplace, especially given legal issues of harassment. But there is no way around it: fuller human engagement in the workplace is going to require thoughtful, creative, and safety-minded expansion of emotional expression at work. The critical point is that emotions, including strong ones, are always present in the workplace — they are just repressed, and so they appear in passive-aggressive behavior from employees. 

Inviting the Soul to Work

The most profound business management book I have ever read is “An Everyone Culture“. The authors, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey, profile three companies that have built deep and meaningful personal growth into their daily work life of their organizations. In one company, employees pair up and provide emotional venting support for each other each morning. Another company has self-reflective check-ins at the start of most meetings. And all companies require that all employees, including the CEO, be transparent about their weaknesses and seek support.

These are industry-leading companies, so if they can do it, so can the rest of us. In fact, these businesses attribute their success directly to their focus on the inner work of personal growth. Importantly, while the companies might have very nice buildings, they focus their real attention and energy on crafting a culture that both supports and challenges everyone, in a very real and personal manner. These companies may still need to work on inviting a broader range of emotions and in creating work-life balance, but they’re making much greater progress in reinventing work than any “cutting-edge” Silicon Valley company.

For far too long, the business world, in its quest for efficiency and bottom-line profit, has tried to make people more and more like robots — Amazon’s warehouses are just the latest version of this dystopian vision. If we want to imagine and create a future of work that is more engaging and humanizing than our current one, we need to figure out how to move up Maslow’s Hierarchy and invite our souls into the workplace. The future of work is within.

Brian Sherwin

Brian Sherwin works on Smart Grid projects and is co-founder of InsideFeedback.com. He can be reached at bbsherwin@gmail.com.

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