New Aspects of a Perfect Workplace

In this article I’ll touch on three fundamental aspects of a good working environment: Wholeness, Self-organization, and Multidisciplinarity.

As you may know, Knowledge21 is a company which offers Agile training and consultations to organizations and knowledge workers who want to be more efficient and grow sustainably.

Over the past fortnight, a few unusual and unexpected things have emerged in our day-to-day business, which have a high impact and low predictability. I’ll deal specifically with the last of these, something which took place a few hours ago, but with immediate effects which tell us a great deal about us, K21, as an organization: my grandmother was taken seriously ill and rushed to the hospital right at the beginning of the working day.

The immediate effect of getting this sort of news at 8 a.m. as I was heading to the second day of training, is to review priorities. So, is it more important to maintain the training program or go and see for myself what is going on with my grandmother?

In traditional organizations, defining the priority between these two items generally makes no sense, given that they belong to completely different contexts, each of which already contains an absolute priority of its own: “First family, then work, whatever the situation!” This line of reasoning, although broadly accepted by society, brings with it the classic consequences we’ve all seen many times over, such as letting work know and leaving everything to blow up in the hands of whoever’s around that day. “No one at work is going to come and solve my grandmother’s problem, so let them figure things out while I sort out my life!”

The problem here is that this is the tip of an iceberg. And it is based on this sort of behavior – “no one has anything to do with my life, the company will just have to manage” – that opportunities for telling little lies emerge, about that conjunctivitis which never existed but allowed for a week at home. Or that distant uncle who “passed away” and gave you that extra day at the beach after the bank holiday weekend. And before you know it, an environment of mistrust is formed.

“You can assess an organization by the number of lies which need to be told to be part of it.” Parker Palmer quoted in the book Reinventing Organization, by Frederick Laloux.

People who are workaholics, who would never miss work, even for a funeral (again, applying absolute priority), nearly always take part in this game, but from the other end, immediately suspecting the truth in the claims of those who always put work aside and prioritize family, without considering the consequences. Especially when this ends up happening more than three times in three months as, unfortunately, was my case.

In both situations, the root of the problems (suspicion and negligence) probably lies in the absolute separation between our professional and private lives. Systematically, when we try to completely isolate two contexts (personal and professional) which have a meeting point (you), the consequence is a lack of visibility (yours and others) of the system as a whole (your life).

Wholeness

Separating one thing from another is no simple matter. Human beings are by nature complex.

Wholeness means treating people as human beings “with more care and delicately,” valuing and respecting them and, above all, their necessities, in other words, taking care of the whole. Some studies derive care from the Latin, used in a context of relationships of love and friendship. Others derive care from cogitare, the meaning of thinking, giving attention and applying thought to something. Wholeness and care point towards dimensions of human living which include particular spaces, conditions, and expressions which allow us to reaffirm the complex human unit. (Viegas and Penna, 2015)

Wholeness is a fundamental aspect of a good place to work. The minute I call a colleague and explain my grandmother’s situation, this person and other colleagues at work will immediately help me to find solutions to solve the problem, and I feel more human. I feel less helpless. Once again, the Ford logic applied erroneously to knowledge workers makes absolutely no sense.

I’m a human being and, consequently, I live in a complex environment. Complex systems presuppose unforeseen, random circumstances. Don’t treat a complex system like a simple one. Don’t treat a knowledge worker like a machine.

Or rather: don’t treat anyone like a machine! Machines, being part of production lines in linear systems, have little variability and no capacity for adaptation, essential factors for any worker in the 21st century.

Self-organization

What emerges from the capacity to adapt is what we always dream of: self-organization. Or perhaps it’s the other way around: it is from self-organization that we get the capacity to adapt.

The paths to solving a problem such as mine in a traditional and rigid organizational structure are very simple, but perhaps not so efficient: tell the boss about the problem and ask to be excused from work for a day. Or, if the boss is an idiot, simply tell him you won’t be at work today (if that), without bothering about what he may or not think about it.

If we think about these possibilities, we inevitably end up comparing an employee asking for the boss’s permission with a child asking its parents to be allowed to not go to school. It’s absurd seeing this parents-and-children drama being played out by two participants mature enough to take major decisions in their personal lives such as buying an apartment, car, marrying or even having kids. The power game of traditional hierarchies prevents you, the father or mother of three children, from taking a decision and the actions necessary to absent yourself from work without getting your boss’s blessing.

In this case, empowerment is perhaps the first step in putting an end to this depressing game.

“Empowerment means someone at the top must be wise and noble enough to give up their power.” Frederick Laloux, in Reinventing Organizations

But pure and simple empowerment isn’t enough. In the absence of hierarchy, self-managed teams must have all information available in order to take the best decisions.¹. Structure and clarity regarding responsibilities are also two important attributes².

Happily, in my case, I did have power within our horizontal structure and enough information to know whether I could take the decision to absent myself or not without having to ask anyone’s blessing. Seeing my colleagues mobilize themselves and make last-minute changes to their schedules for that day, just to allow for my absence, was magic. That’s self-management for you!

Multidisciplinarity

On the other hand, I confess that for a time, even though everyone at the company had enough power to take this kind of decision, the actions necessary for my schedule to be freed up without major disruption weren’t actually viable. Consider, for instance, that I was the only one with the skills and knowledge necessary to lead the training scheduled for that day. In this case, no amount of self-management was going to make someone, however willing, able to substitute me.

So, self-management and wholeness alone aren’t enough. Luckily, as good disciples of Peter Senge and systems thinking, learning as a team is among our organization’s values. We’re building a company with solid and dense foundations. Having organized trainings with various colleagues, we all develop in some way and on some level the skills necessary to support or cover each other in moments like this, where someone needs to be absent.

Multidisciplinarity is a key factor in creating anti-fragile organizations. However much wholeness and self-management there is, when a black swan appears (a rare occurrence with high impact and low predictability) and no one is being a hero (using superpowers no one has) in saving that person, one thing is certain: something’s gonna give.

Which in my case meant spending the whole day working without being able to go and help my grandmother; or, conversely, canceling the second day of an extremely important training for our organization and for our client. It doesn’t matter: either of these options would have left me perplexed.

Luckily, I can say now: I’m in a good place to work.

It’s curious, but after seeing my grandmother (who is getting better, thanks), I found out that the hospital where she went wasn’t a good place to work. Can you imagine the service by doctors and nurses in an environment which definitely isn’t a good place to work? Would you like to be admitted to somewhere which isn’t a good place to work?

So what about you, do you spend your 40 hours a week in a good place to work?

Luiz Rodrigues
Luiz Rodrigues

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