Why It’s Time to Change the Way We Work

There’s a global shift in the way we work, and it’s gaining momentum.

To be “a driving force for social, environmental and economic benefit.” That’s not something we normally associate with the business world, but that’s the purpose of a group called The B Team, a nonprofit founded in 2012 by Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz, with the mission “to catalyse a better way of doing business for the well-being of people and the planet.” Normally, being assigned to the “B” team isn’t something to be happy about, but I’m thrilled to be a part of this one, along with business leaders, healthcare experts, academics, NGO leaders and entrepreneurs. As part of the effort, I formed a Well-Being Committee, and last Tuesday several members, along with a host of others, met as part of Virgin Unite’s People Innovation Gathering. The purpose was to share stories about what’s working, learn from each other and come up with ideas on how to move forward, scale up successes and broaden the effort. I came away truly inspired, amazed by how much remarkable work is being done by companies and research institutions.

The day made me more convinced than ever that the global shift in the way we work is gaining momentum. All over the world, more and more businesses are realizing how deeply connected the health of their long-term bottom line is with the long-term health and well-being of their employees. In the United States, the portion of large and midsized employers that now offer their employees access to stress-reduction programs of some kind stands at 35 percent and growing. Well-being is no longer some new-agey concept we hear about only from lifestyle outlets. It’s now a daily presence both in sports pages and in business magazines. Well-being has migrated from marginal to mainstream, finally coming to be seen for what it is: the best way, indeed the only way, to maximize not just happiness and fulfillment but productivity, creativity and, yes, profit. It’s the only sustainable way forward, not just for individuals but for companies, communities and the planet.

Though change is afoot, we are still paying a heavy price for conducting business as usual. According to a study by the Milken Institute, the cost, in terms of lost productivity, to the U.S. economy due to chronic, stress-related conditions like cancer, heart disease and diabetes comes in at a staggering $1.1 trillion. On the flip side, a study out of Harvard found that for every dollar a company spends on wellness programs, it makes back $3.27 in the form of lower health costs, and the equivalent of $2.73 in reduced absenteeism.

So we know what the problem is, and we know the solution. The goal now is to accelerate the journey from awareness to action, from knowing to doing. And that’s what Tuesday was all about. In addition to sessions on well-being, there were sessions on making the business case for change, increasing diversity, changing the language of business and new approaches to work, like how to bring more joy into the workplace.

Making the business case was based on the fact — increasingly supported by study after study — that when companies invest in their employees’ well-being, everybody, including the company, wins. And there is no limit to the ways companies can do this; to paraphrase Tolstoy, every happy company is happy in its own way. For instance, Rich Sheridan, CEO of the software company Menlo Innovations, told us how Menlo employees are encouraged to communicate with each other not via Gchat but via “high-speed voice technology … hardware pre-installed at birth”: the human voice. And Virgin Hotels spends as much time and money on its employee app, where employees can be seen and heard, as it does on its consumer app.

“Most researchers study negative, deviant behavior,” said Sheridan, but “let’s not try to figure out what’s broken and how to fix it; let’s see what’s working and replicate.”

Part of preparing the way to change how we do business is changing the way we talk about doing business. The session on this topic, led by Jim Carroll, the chairman of the advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty, questioned why our business language is dominated by war metaphors. This is no trivial matter. Language, of course, allows us to express ourselves, but it can also limit us in subtle ways, and the menu from which we choose the language to talk about an issue can guide how we act and how we interact with others. So why do so many business leaders choose from a menu of violent military and war metaphors, the prime example being, as Jim pointed out, The Art of War by Sun Tzu, who famously wrote that “all warfare is based on deception”? Writing on The Huffington Post, Carroll took issue with how useful that is in the modern business world. “[I]n the era of transparency is it helpful to characterize commerce as deceit?” he asked. “Surely army analogies are somewhat anachronistic in the age of fluid partnerships and constant collaborations; at a time when we are seeking to demonstrate the social value of business; in a culture that yearns for sustainability, that wants to leave the planet better than it found it.”

And he also pointed out in the session that for millennials, this language is particularly dated. They want “creative, collaborative, innovative, inclusive, joyful, diverse … thoughtful” work environments, he said, and they want to work at companies that value “teamwork, diversity … ethics and responsibility.”

So this is a way we can all change business in our own individual way: by changing the way we talk about it. For example, how about we stop congratulating colleagues by exclaiming, “You’re killing it!”?

I moderated the well-being session, and it was inspiring to hear about the many ways that companies around the world are investing in their futures by investing in their employees.

Lori Hiltz, the North American CEO of the Paris-based advertising firm Havas and a member of the Well-Being Committee, described how Havas employees can have lunch anywhere except at their desks.

Jenn Mann, Vice President of HR at the software company SAS, talked about how committed SAS is to helping their employees experience meaning and happiness at work. “When employees leave the office,” she said, “we expect them to be with their families. We don’t expect them to be on email.” The result is a turnover rate of under 4 percent, well below the industry standard of around 15 or 20 percent.

Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy and another member of the Well-Being Committee, said he took inspiration from the nation of Bhutan and their famous”gross national happiness” index. Working with researchers from the University of Pennsylvania’s Positive Psychology Center, Etsy administered a happiness survey to all its employees. As Dickerson put it, “once you start measuring, it’s easier to improve.” The results were included in Etsy’s Values & Impact Annual Report, which has been cited by numerous employees with competing job offers as the reason they chose Etsy. I also love how Etsy is reimagining work and helping people turn their hobbies into careers. And as Dickerson said, “reimagining commerce means reimagining the way companies work.” Etsy employees have access to a “breathing room” and can attend “Etsy School” or teach a course on one of their passions. Classes have included juggling, meditation, screen printing and — my favorite — “therapeutic doodling.” And they’re even given a stipend to spend on Etsy to personalize their workspaces!

Felix Stellmaszek, Managing Director at the the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), talked about the temptation in his industry for people to work very long hours — especially for women, who don’t see enough role models of sustainable worklife at the top. But BCG could see the direct connection between this kind of burnout and suboptimal results for clients, so the firm launched the “Red Zone Report,” which gets issued to an employee’s manager when the employee puts in more than 60 hours a week for five straight weeks. The manager can then make the necessary adjustments. At the beginning of new cases, project teams discuss their goals — in terms of client impact, personal growth and sustainability. Employees are given predictable time off, and those employees on their way in can delay their start date by six months and volunteer at a nonprofit, for which they’ll receive $10,000. The firm invested $14 million in worklife initiatives in 2013. And BCG consultants can be assigned to social-impact projects; there’s actually an associate working with The B Team. Now BCG is often ranked as one of the top companies to work for. “It helps both with recruiting and retention,” said Stellmaszek.

There are also more and more initiatives, often housed in universities, devoted to encouraging changes in the workplace and shining a light on what’s working. Eileen McNeely, who was at our gathering, is the co-founder and director of theSustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (or SHINE) at the Harvard School of Public Health. The group helps businesses measure the ways they contribute to personal sustainability. She told us about the well-being index SHINE is working on and hoping to pilot in some companies this fall just as ways have been developed to measure a company’s environmental sustainability. And Caitlin Weaver, who just launched the NYU Mindfulness in Business Initiative — a collaboration between NYU’s Stern School of Business and Global Spiritual Life at NYU — shared how 130 students came to the launch event, and how there’s been an outpouring of interest for a faculty mindfulness program as well.

To capture all this work being done, we’ve launched a dedicated section on The Huffington Post, ReWork: Rethinking Work and Well-being. Here you’ll find success stories, news about what’s working, innovative programs, case studies and the latest data about the many positive business effects of well-being and sustainable work practices. And we hope you will share your stories with us. Does your workplace enhance or hinder your well-being? How could it be better? If you’re an employer, what steps have you put in place to make your own workplace more sustainable for your employees?

Since our workplace culture is driving so much of the epidemic of stress we all feel overwhelmed by, it’s going to be our workplaces that will accelerate the changes already underway. More and more people are realizing that they don’t have to put their humanity on hold when they leave for work, that they’re more than their résumés and that a sense of well-being and success doesn’t have to come at the cost of burnout. And more and more companies are realizing that investing in their employees’ well-being is also good for business.


Originally published at www.linkedin.com.

Image courtesy of Unsplash.