Why I can’t get myself to write an article on employee wellbeing

The request to write a blog post on employee wellbeing sat in my inbox for a few weeks, and somehow I just couldn’t get myself to write about the topic. It got me wondering: how come?

We all know most people hate their workplace. Something is profoundly broken with "management" as it’s being taught in business schools – and it’s not just in the world of corporate America. 

It’s doctors and nurses leaving hospitals in droves, teachers leaving the teaching profession in massive numbers – so much so that we can’t seem to hire enough nurses or teachers any longer – because our schools and hospitals have become inhospitable places to our minds, heart and souls… just as much as large corporations.

And so what do CEOs do? They task the head of HR to come up with some "employee engagement" or "employee wellbeing" plan. Most of the time, it ends up with some large posters on the wall, or free beers on Fridays. Perhaps even a meditation room, free sushi at lunch and a Ping-Pong table in the lounge – if you are lucky.

For the last four years, I’ve been researching truly disruptive companies that decided against simply creating some "engagement" add-ons. They also didn’t invest in creating a great company culture – however valuable that would be. Instead, they radically changed the fundamental management structures and practices on which they operate. Everything from getting rid of the pyramid, budgets and targets (replacing them with much more powerful forms of distributed authority), and changing how meetings are done (to start with: much fewer of them!), to how we relate to one another (creating a space where we can fully be ourselves). 

It’s hard to describe how extraordinarily vibrant these organisations are. Take Burtzorg for example: despite being an organisation of 9,000 people, there is not one single manager. The organisation has replaced traditional pyramids of heirarcy with more powerful systems of collective intelligence and distributed authority.

Burtzorg and similar companies are creating workplaces where employees are powerful because the organisation is self-managing (not because bosses decide to "empower" you) and where you are invited to show up in the full glory and quirkiness of who you are. If organisations feel lifeless, it's because we bring so little life in to the organisation. By bringing in soulful practises, creativity gets freed and we can be ourselves. And when the work you do serves a noble purpose – it is then that there is no need for posters and sushi. (Just as well, as most of these organisations have no head of HR to dream up these things anyway).


Now that I’ve seen these organisations, I find it painful to see how traditional companies function. I’ve seen the future, and it makes the present seem terribly outdated. 

I’ve come to see how demeaning – however well intentioned – most engagement programs are. We all feel this intuitively, I think, and that’s why so few of us believe the posters any longer. You can’t buy happiness. Happiness and fulfilment are always the by-product of feeling ‘in the zone’, or feeling that we can bring in all of who we are, in service of something noble and important.

Free beer can do a lot of things, but it can’t buy that.

"As the rate of change escalates exponentially, the old ways of organising and educating are dying. Laloux is one of the few management leaders exploring what comes next. (His work) is deeply different." 

- Bill Drayton, Founder, Ashoka: Everyone a changemaker

If you want to know more about the extraordinary, pioneering organisations that have stumbled upon a whole new management model, you might be interested in one of these videos (7 minute version, 20 minute version (the talk is 20 minutes, the rest is Q&A) and 1hour 42 minute version)

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.


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