Humans are wired for the appreciation of beauty, harmony, pleasant patterns. Work can be beautiful. The entire experience can be pleasant in a similar way that we experience listening to good music, appreciate a sculpture or admire a well designed chair. It is not a standard thing for people to go to work and think about tasks they need to accomplish during the day as an opportunity to experience beauty. Sure enough, this can’t be a universal assertion because there are only certain professions and occupations that offer this opportunity and to some degree rely on our capacity to connect with our sense of what is beautiful. To us, that is.
Perhaps, this is what all work should be about. A platform where we can create value by integrating aesthetic values and principles. Now, this may seem like a ‘wouldn’t it be nice’ scenario and our critical selves might suggest that work is not about that. Maybe our time in the workplace has led to the belief that brutality is more likely to dominate our chances of survival in the marketplace. A dog-eat-dog world view is still the order of the day. Work is the place where we do our job according to an agreed employment contract, a place where we tolerate all kinds of things we would not wish on others. The majority of us do not dream of a work place but an escape place. The beach!
Then again there may be another way. I cannot shake the feeling that our work should be a supreme expression of who we are. It is one place where the sum of all parts, our history, present and future all juxtapose. In a world where western economies now have the dubious honour of claiming an unprecedented level of employee disengagement (hovering around 70%), the potential for collaboration could offer something new and sustainable. Collaboration as a mode of work, a way of creating value, a way of competing on the global stage may open the door to redesigning work as a place where beauty and harmony are like the salt and pepper ingredients of the main meal. Maybe value creation, be it for profit or pure social impact, is more likely to be relevant if it allows people, the value creators, to express more of their being and their sense of appreciation for what may be beautiful to them.
Two decades ago Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi opened our eyes to the ‘flow’ concept. Ever since, this concept has increasingly become relevant, however that is not to say that those in control of organisational performance have fully grasped the enormity of it, let along used it do make their businesses more resilient and competitive. The sad fact is that, by one calculation, the current rate of employee disengagement costs the US economy a whopping US$500 billion per year. Talk about smart business bordering on comical. I have observed firsthand the difference in the performance of staff that have been briefed and supported to collaborate internally. While increased levels of transaction between people who are collaborating also brings an inevitable increased risk of friction and misunderstanding, the simple fact is that when collaboration is the centrepiece of performance, people adjust well to it. The end game then increases to a higher value. What is equally true is that people working collaboratively tend to be more aware of each other and their desires to be both valued as a person as a whole and also treat others as such. It is in that context that magic happens. People start to compete with whole personalities, not just ‘professional personas’. In other words they start to share their broader selves. In the process of creating value they talk about their tastes in film, music or clothes. They tend to access parts of their inner life that allow them to impart it into work.
A group of people developing a project may then use their sense of appreciation for whatever interests them outside of work as a way of making their project more a reflection of who they are as people. That is where the expression of beauty, harmony and so on comes to the fore. That kind of experience is more likely to make people feel as if their work matters, even though the product they are working on may be mundane in itself. The process of working collaboratively is about drawing more of the ‘complete human being’ out and directly into the product they wish to share on the marketplace. When the globe went crazy over the iPhone, it was not the utility as such (there were already good products on the market fulfilling such needs) but it was the design and feel of the object that ‘spoke’ to us on an intimate level. The creators of that product, led by the famous Jonathan Ives, knew that beauty in the process of work had to translate itself into a value that can be shared. Profitably!