illustrations by FreeLance

A Caring Organisation

feelings, magic & gendered work:
processes & structures of a collaborative workplace

A Facebook friend asked this question on Friday:

“What do you think are the most critical things (I’m talking specific processes, policies, and structures rather than values) that make up non-competitive and more collaborative and caring workplaces? Spaces where people are encouraged to really praise and acknowledge someone else’s work rather than hide someone else’s contribution, where people want to spend time on the collective good rather than next personal gain, and where the often invisible and gendered work of caring and ‘organisation culture’ is prioritised and publicly valued as critically important? What are some practical things you can implement, aside from the destruction of capitalism? Ideas, you wise group of souls?”

I’ve spent the last couple of years working with an incredible bunch of people to build an organisation that is exactly like that: caring, collaborative, and non-competitive, a space where we praise and acknowledge each other, where the work of caring is shared equally, regardless of gender.

Cripes I am a lucky dude, it rules. It is a total privilege, so I’m trying to figure out if there’s something about our organisation that we can share with others.

It’s a subtle thing, so I’m not sure if I can totally nail it down with words. Let’s try something…


How an uncaring workplace feels

Let me describe a situation, and you tell me if you recognise it.

You’re at the pub, you’ve just met up with a friend after work. You’ve just hugged and shed jackets and scarves, ordered a drink. What’s the first thing you talk about?

So often in my experience, the first topic of conversation is about a workplace grievance. The first couple of wines are accompanied by tales of frustration, annoyance, insensitivity, even sometimes stories of abuse: I’m furious because my idiot bosses just imposed this ridiculous process that makes my job ten times harder for no reason… I’m anxious because there’s rumours that we might get restructured out of a job… I’m feeling hurt because my colleague totally trampled on me in this meeting…

I don’t know about you, but for me, these conversations are so common they are almost invisible. It’s like a cultural norm, a ritual we have to go through before we get to the interesting conversations about weird dreams and new lovers and weird dreamy new lovers.

I think those conversations happen at the pub because there is no place for them to happen at work. They are maybe not articulate enough to form an agenda point in a meeting, not serious enough to become a formal complaint. So you either bottle them up, and they become a little turd you carry around in your tummy, or you inflict them on your friends at the pub.


‘Bring your feelings to work’ day

I have a hunch that maybe one of the things that is different about the place that I work, is that we don’t need to have those conversations at the pub: we have them at work. Those conversations are the work.

Having spent the last couple of years working in an organisation that values this kind of emotional expression, I now reinterpret those conversations in a completely new light. Hiding within each of those frustrations is a process improvement, a breakthrough in thinking, a strategic realignment, an organisational innovation, a new role description waiting to happen.

But to uncover the nugget of gold, you need to make space to hear the negative emotion. You need to be allowed to have feelings at work! This means rejecting the notion of “professionalism” as a mask you put on when you walk into the office. It means creating a space where everyone is safe to bring their whole selves to work. A space where people can be present.


Presence

Presence is an incredible thing. When people are present with each other, when somebody speaks, they are heard. And oh! to be heard is the most gorgeous thing! When I say something and I get confirmation that you heard it, my brain gets a squirt of oxytocin that is just so delicious! And oh! when I hear from somebody else, then I get an insight into a whole other universe.

Presence is the magic spark that bridges the infinite vacuum of empty space between the rapidly dying dust mote called me and the dust mote called you.

It’s not just that it feels good. It’s even more than just a mystical moment of cosmic connection. The hilarious thing is, it is good for business!

In my experience, when you listen to someone who is having a bad time, when you genuinely listen to them rather than hurrying past to the official order of business, you will invariably find ways to improve not just the wellbeing of the individual, but the wellbeing of the organisation as a whole.


Presence is a rare thing though: I’ve met people that have travelled the world looking for it. You can spend half your life just trying to be present with yourself, and then another half of a life trying to find just one other person to be present with you.

So the question is, what are the critical preconditions for presence?


Arrival

To be present implies that you have arrived somewhere. First off, you won’t arrive if you haven’t received an invitation.

A good invitation tells you where you need to be and when. It tells you how to get there. It tells you what to bring, and what’s going to be expected of you. If you’re going to make decisions together, you need to be prepped with the relevant information. If you get around in a wheelchair, you’re going to need to know where the meeting room is in relation to the elevator.

Delivering a proper invitation is incredibly important work.

It’s more than just turning up at the right time and place though. To arrive properly, people need to be given time to settle. If you’re in a room full of people that haven’t arrived, there’s nobody there, so your meeting is a waste of time!

Inviting and settling is incredibly important work. The majority culture we live in has decided that particular kind of work is gendered: it’s women’s work. This means it is systematically undervalued and made to be invisible. When I do it, it’s called leadership. When a woman does it, it’s called admin, if it is noticed at all. That’s fucked!

Oi men, seriously! I’m talking to you! It’s your job too! Send out the meeting invitations, tidy up the room beforehand, get a tray of water or a plunger of coffee on the go! And read this.


Settling

I’ve been introduced to lots of different settling rituals in different contexts.

In Te Ao Māori there is the practice of pōwhiri, an incredibly rich collection of rituals for settling people.

You could call it a “welcome ceremony”, but the English word “welcome” is an incredibly insipid translation. “Welcome” doesn’t mean anything at all to me, but “pōwhiri” — now that is a potent thing! Even as a skinny pākeha with barely three words of te reo in me, I can tell you that.

The pōwhiri is a precise sequence of events designed to weave together two groups. Through movement, speech and song, through the sharing of genealogy, gifts, food, even breath, the pōwhiri weaves together the guests and hosts into one coherent whole, preparing them for the work ahead.


A settling ritual doesn’t have to be so comprehensive though. It doesn’t have to be a big deal.

If you come to my house, I will offer you a cup of tea or something to eat. When you come to my office I will give you a quick tour of the space: here is the kitchen, the bathroom is there, those people are working on such-and-such, our meeting is in this room… It’s all part of the work of orienting and preparing people to collaborate.

A settling practice that we employ in almost every single meeting is the “check in”. People arrive, find their seats, and quiet down. Then the host will trigger the “check in” round with a simple question: What brings you to this meeting? or How are you? or What’s on your mind?

Laptops close. We take turns to answer. One by one, each of us speaks, and each of us is heard. Now all our voices are in the room, we are present, and we are ready to work.

That single practice is my absolute number one piece of advice for anyone trying to develop a more collaborative workplace culture. The actual words that people say might be mundane or inarticulate or awkward, but I’m telling you, the experience is profound.


Going on together

Once you’ve stopped having “meetings” and started having “productive encounters”, then you are most of the way done I reckon.

An effective collaborative organisation is just a series of productive encounters: a group of people comes together to exchange information and agree next actions, then they break off to do the work, then they come back together again.

On and on, like respiration.

Inhale, exhale.

Converge, diverge.


Back to the pub

Backtracking to those original conversations I mentioned. You’re at the pub sympathising with your friend who has just had a shitty day at work.

Those after work conversations are therapeutic, but unfortunately they only anesthetize the wound, they don’t actually go any way towards addressing the underlying problems.

The problem is, when my friend downloads all these irritations and concerns, I have no stakeholding: beyond sympathy, there’s nothing I can do about it!

So that’s how we get to structure.


Structure

Choosing a structure is a vexed decision. Every organisation is absolutely unique, but there are only a tiny number of legal structures to choose from. You have to pick one and force yourselves into it.

For our organisation Loomio, we chose a co-operative structure: i.e. the workers are the owners. I think Karl Marx or one of those folks had some gripe about the divergence of interests between owners and workers: well you can resolve that tension if you make the workers and the owners the same people.

Being in a co-op is awesome. I’ve seen it change the lives of more than a dozen people now. Seriously it is amazing.

I’ll give you an example: at the end of the work day today I had the unbelievable privilege to finish a meeting with this: “Mary, all the co-op members made a consensus decision last week. We decided to give you a special invitation. We want you to be a member too. You’ve been contributing for a year. You’re amazingly talented and generous and there is no way we can afford to pay you what you’re worth yet, but we want you to be an equal owner with the rest of us now.”

Loomio co-op members Mary, Mix, Chelsea, and me: absurdly happy

That decision to be a co-op is more than just a boring legal decision. It’s the container that creates amazing magical moments like this over and over. It’s the thing that sets our workplace apart from the ones you rant about at the pub. We own it together, so we get to fix the crappy bits.

A caring workplace is one where everyone has the opportunity to help to make it work better for themselves and others.


Process

Inside that legal container, we’ve evolved a bunch of processes. I’m not going to name all of them in this article, but I can leave some hints: rhythm, noticing, talking, listening, supporting, improvising, acknowledgement, visibility, perspective taking, turn taking, praising, reflecting, manaakitanga, kaitiakitanga, creating space, holding space, sharing power, ritual making…

It’s hard to put this stuff in words because so much of it emerges from an oral culture, as opposed to a literate culture. Capturing it in a shareable form is one of our big challenges at the moment. There’s a few scratchings on this wiki that might help.

I think there are a couple of simple important things though that might be useful:

Our shared purpose is the first priority: that is the glue that holds us together. We take time to articulate our shared vision for the positive social impact we want to achieve together, and that is our number one guiding principle.

Next comes the wellbeing of individuals: continuously hold a space that feels good to be in. Listen for when it feels bad, and adjust accordingly. Sometimes I am feeling bad because I have a personal issue at home, so I need additional support at work that day. Othertimes I feel bad because I’m not being given growth opportunities at work, or I think the strategy is dumb. All the feelings are useful valuable information!

Once again, this is a vexed issue, because there is no such thing as a perfectly inclusive space. If you try to include everyone, you’ll include people whose behaviour excludes others. Community is defined by its boundaries, so the question becomes, where do we want to draw our boundaries? What behaviours do we want to include? If someone is getting close to a border, how do we want to treat them?

I can’t tell you the answers to these questions, but I’m pretty sure I can tell you that you need to answer them. If you can create space for you all to answer them together, if you can co-design the policies and process and structures of your organisation, then I’m hopeful that your organisation will be caring, collaborative, non-competitive too.


Richard D. Bartlett is one of the co-founders of Loomio: an online decision-making tool for caring organisations.

He’s @richdecibels on Twitter