Company Culture

How a 'Romantic' Workplace Culture Brings Out Employees' Best

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Are your employees in inner exile or ready to exit? Only 13 percent of employees worldwide are “engaged” at work, according to a recent Gallup poll. And even when they are, loyalty is fickle since talented professionals have become the serial daters of the job market: A 2013 Georgetown University study noted that the typical millenial switching jobs some 6.3 times between ages 18 and 25.

So how do you create a company that people love to work for? How do you make them stay and give their personal best? 

Related: 5 Ways Work and Love Can Be the Same Thing

Ideally, employees bring their complete selves to work beyond a transactional, benefits-driven relationship with their employer. In return, the workplace must meet their full emotional, intellectual and even spiritual needs.

For today’s knowledge worker, Maslow’s pyramid has turned into a flat hierarchy of needs that all apply at once: material rewards and meaning, recognition and impact.

Sure, benefits and perks can’t hurt. But they don’t really touch the hearts of employees. They don’t make them truly care and give the creativity and initiative that, as management thinker Gary Hamel has pointed out, can’t be coerced. Neither does purpose alone, which many consider to be the ultimate intrinsic motivator

The noblest purpose will remain shallow without the accompanying intensity of emotions. You can be passionate about your company’s mission but still flame out every day. You can do good, but not feel good. 

Companies are underserving a third dimension that lies between bold and bowling, between big, lofty mission statements and small, fun outings: I call it the romance of work.

No, I don’t mean to encourage anyone to start flirting with their colleagues! Rather, what I refer to lies in the realm of day-to-day emotional attachment based on moments that feel weighty, significant and worth waking up for. It is less about “loving what you do” and all about doing something for the love of it.

As workers find themselves trapped in the valley of routine, these romantic moments can help keep the flames alight in the “middle,” between the magic of the beginning and the deep satisfaction that comes with mastery. 

Romantic experiences challenge conventions and introduce otherworldliness into corporate culture by replacing transparency with mystery, consistency with unpredictability, and convenience with thrill. As small “hacks” of the workplace, they give workers the feeling of doing something for the first time, thus making the familiar feel new and exciting again. 

Here are some examples of what you can do to create them: 

Related: Create Momentum When You're Stuck in the Middle

1. Design slightly uncomfortable, disruptive experiences.

Swap desks or roles for a day so your employees are forced to change their perspective. Summon them to an ad-hoc “mystery meeting,” where they’re asked to present to colleagues they’ve never met, possibly members of another department or even the CEO.

Use something like the "Dialogues in the Dark," social-enterprise workshops conducted literally in the dark, to foster empathy. Or simulate unlikely events such as an “alien” crashing an offsite meeting (exactly what the World Economic Forum did in Davos with a group of global leaders).

Ask yourself, What is your company's Burning Man?

Related: The 21-Day Desk-Free Challenge

2. Launch secret gatherings to cultivate subcultures, rebels.

Employees who challenge the formal structure can become your company's most important innovators.

My former employer, Frog Design, ran a secret email list for years that organized events for those in the know. Call it the occasional flash mob at work. At my current company, NBBJ, managers formed a “secret society” to help move the architecture firm into new thinking and market territory.

And ePrize even created a fictitious archenemy, run by some employees, to simulate and anticipate potential market disrupters. This effort included intercepting internal memos and other dramatic actions. While secrecy can often run afoul of empowering employees, all these stealth formats were catalysts for organizational change and transformative for participants. 

3. Create spaces for building intense experiences.  

Hackathons are the most common example of creating an exhilarating experience of hyperperformance in an extreme social setting. You can also take cues from the arts:

Think of Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” performance at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, where she sat silently across from one visitor at a time for some 716 hours. Consider the 24-hour interview marathon at London’s Serpentine Gallery or #IAmHere Days in New York. 

#IAmHere Days gather a group of friends to spend a whole day together exploring New York City without any digital devices or other distractions. They commit to just being there together, "thickly present," as Anand Ghiridharadas, one of the founders, has explained.

Similarly, rather than convening 10 employees for a “thin” conference call that results in undesired multitasking or tuning out, run what I call “thick" days at work that bring together two employees for a full day each month.

4. Host small, intimate gatherings.

Against the backdrop of hyperconnectivity, companies have a growing need for authentic human-to-human encounters where knowledge and vulnerability can break bread. Use a format like the 15 Toasts dinner series (created by Thrive Labs founder Priya Parker and I in collaboration with the World Economic Forum) to bring together strangers to toast a specific topic. Or try a Wok+Wine-like event, when the food leaves participants no choice but to genuinely connect with one another. 

At a time when consistency is the default, transparency the norm and predictability the Holy Grail, romantic experiences such as these are an object of desire. Automation, big data and the "quantified" self movement are all but engineering the romance out of work lives. Sensors and tracking technologies that monitor people's performance (and increasingly also emotional states) threaten to engineer the romance out of work lives.

This new “digital Taylorism” threatens to deskill and dehumanize workers, and there's a real risk that companies are turning their employees into mere data points that are constantly monitored for optimal performance -- and increasingly happiness and well being -- while being starved of unexpected moments. 

Indeed, the best experiences can’t be optimized, and people must instead create spaces for our elusive “unquantified selves.”

In their most alluring form, companies are like cities -- nonlinear, serendipitous and intimate. They are places where people can be strangers and meet strangers, where employees can be comfortably uncomfortable, firm in the saddle but always on the edge of their seats.

Celebrate business as the ultimate romantic adventure. Create cultures that prompt employees to rise in the morning because they can’t wait to see what’s going to happen next. 

Related: 6 Ways to Foster More Happiness in the Workplace