How A Shared Purpose Fosters a More Effective Workspace
By Basma Humadi
This week’s office meeting is just as mundane and repetitive as the last one. An upcoming networking event feels staged and inauthentic. The annual end-of-the-year party at work doesn’t leave its staff with a sense of optimism or accomplishment. The spaces created to unify and connect do just the opposite: feel distant and unfulfilling.
The workplace should be a place where people feel unified in a shared goal, but often they can leave employees feeling stifled and uninspired. However, when a company shares a mission and is committed to breaking certain professional norms, it fosters stronger and more impactful work from its employees.
Workplaces are one of the most common and recognizable gathering places: it’s a designated space where individuals are able to come together to complete a unified task. Workers in a hospital strive toward helping patients, government employees serve the public good, and journalists inform the public by reporting daily news. The assumption is that as people work to achieve a goal together, it would only be natural they find meaning and purpose with each other and their work.
Yet, more often than not, many feel stuck in the hum-dum of unproductivity and overwhelmed by unfulfilling organizational dynamics or office culture. The workspaces that are cultivated tend to be based on ideas of tradition and established norms.
“When we don’t examine the deeper assumptions behind why we gather, we end up skipping too quickly to replicating old, staid formats of gathering. And we forgo the possibility of creating something memorable, even transformative,” Priya Parker writes in “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters”.
Transforming our workspaces helps people feel more connected to each other, their work, and their company. The lack of defined purpose in shaping the dynamics and operation of the workspace seems to be the bigger issue at hand that fails to get addressed.
Parts of the Problem
A report, “A Force for Impact: Millennials in the Nonprofit Sector”, from ProInspire found that millennials seek development for themselves and their company. ProInspire is a non-profit organization dedicated to cultivating leaders for social impact-minded organizations.
“When looking at their career goals, today’s millennials are just as interested in how a business develops its people and how it contributes to society as they are in its products and profits,” said Barry Salzberg, a Retired Global CEO of Deloitte on The Deloitte Millennial Survey 2015.
The report also noted that “[Millenials] believe the biggest barriers to innovation are management attitude; operational structures and procedures; and employee skills, attitudes, and (lack of) diversity.”
Addressing these listed issues requires organizations and individuals to further outline their values and mission. Organizations can easily become entrenched in status quo models of operating which makes them resistant to changing their workspaces. Designing a more cohesive vision for the workspaces helps drive a company toward long-term innovation and make its staff feel more connected to each other, work, and their company.
An organization’s mission is important as it should act as a guide to all decisions a company makes as they shape their workplace. Once this purpose is decided and clearly articulated on, it can inform other decisions about how to shape workplace culture or specific meetings, workplace retreats, get-to-know-you events, or other gatherings that are organized by the workplace.
Similarly, working for a mission-driven organization is the best way to not get caught in certain workplace patterns. When there is a shared purpose and drive, a company is more likely to be a united space that is capable of being more productive and meaningful. When searching for what workplaces to be a part of, millennials should factor in the mission and atmosphere.
Books like “The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters” by Priya Parker and “Community: The Structure of Belonging” by Peter Block tackles this issue and lays out concrete steps for how group dynamics can be shifted. Transforming the workplace can be done, all it takes are more concerted efforts to do so.
Shifting the Tides: How to Craft Purpose
Conflating Category With Purpose
Parker’s book “The Art of Gathering” offers steps to outlining purpose in fostering meaningful spaces. Parker explains that gathering places range from the small home dinner parties to the everyday workplace. One of the biggest mistakes made in designing workplaces and meeting spaces within them is conflating category with purpose.
“We outsource our decisions and our assumptions about our gatherings to people, formats, and contexts that are not our own,” Parker writes. “We get lulled into the false belief that knowing the category of our gathering – the board meeting, workshop, birthday party, town hall – will be instructive to designing it. But we often choose the template – and the activities and structure that go along with it – before we’re clear on our purpose. And we do this just as much for gatherings that are as low stakes as a networking night as for gatherings that are as high stakes as a court trial.”
The assumption that individuals show up just to do their work or that this week’s meeting will merely discuss logistics for how to carry out a task harms people in the long-run and can leave people feeling disconnected from the spaces they take up. Planning based on categorization leads to lackluster outcomes because intention is left behind.
Take A Stand and Be Specific
In order to commit to coming together about something, an organization must take a stand on what the collective aim is. Having a better-specified event leads to purposeful outcomes. The example Parker gives is a company offsite retreat. A misattributed category-type purpose would be labeled as “getting out of the office together in a different context”. A half-hearted attempt would be “to focus on the year ahead”. Parker mentions that a successful purpose is specific and disputable - meaning it can take on multiple alternatives. An example of this would be “to revisit why we’re doing what we’re doing and reach an agreement about it” or “to focus on the fractured relationship between sales and marketing, which is hurting everything else”.
Crafting workspace meetings and events based on specific and disputable purposes creates value and works against status-quo organizational structures. Millennials noted that barriers to innovation are lack of diversity, structure, and employee and management attitudes. Using that as possible guidelines to create specified workspaces would allow for better spaces come to fruition. The purpose must be tailored to the individuals at hand. Being specific about who is and is not included also helps to form better specified work environments. Parker says that “purpose is your bouncer”. There is a tendency to have an open-door policy and welcome everyone which can easily take away from core groups of people establishing relationships and authenticity between others. If a workspace wants more cohesion between their finance and advertising departments, for example, it’s best to not allow individuals from other departments attend the event.
Don’t “Be Chill”
The tendency to be a “chill host” likely means the workplace’s intended purpose will not get carried out. Creating a space and leaving people to mingle to themselves or not structuring the space in alignment with your purpose leaves people ill-equipped and without guidance. Though the people in charge of creating these spaces would not like to admit it, being in these positions means having power. Handing that power down to guests and allowing them to do as they please can actually be a disservice to them. Parker says that this attitude “doesn’t consider that you may be doing your guests a favor by having a focus.” It ensures the agreed purpose is being carried out.
In terms of the workplace, the same goes. Setting up spaces, creating structure, and checking in will help to foster stronger relationships and drive that would not otherwise come about had the workspace be “chill”.
Reframe Questions and Problems
Asking the superficial or unimaginative questions can lead to the wrong conversations. This keeps workspaces stuck and unable to fully address their problems, as Block describes in his book “Community: The Structure of Belonging”. When forming a better vision for itself, individuals involved in steering the conversation should critically think about asking smarter questions.
“If the conversation is not set up clearly and intentionally, the old conversation will occur,” Block writes. “To initiate a new conversation, we have to give a reason for it, and we have to warn people against bringing forth the limitations of the old conversation – namely, to guard against solution finding and advice giving.”
Questions should not place blame on the individual or community at large but rather should be be ambiguous, personal, and stressful. Creating a new framework that restores workspaces and fosters possibility within them is crucial for change. When starting conversations about purpose in the workspace, reframing questions leads to more insightful answers that likely have not had the chance to come into development.
“Questions that have the power to make a difference are ones that engage people in an intimate way, confront them with their freedom, and invite them to cocreate a future possibility,” Block writes.
Resources to Check Out
Meeteor - “Meetings with Impact” - Dedicated to changing meeting culture in workspaces. They offers online courses, online coaching and training programs, and the founder, Mamie Kanfer Stewart, wrote a book “Momentum: Creating Effective, Engaging, and Enjoyable Meetings”.
Peter Block “Community: The Structure of Belonging”
Priya Parker “The Art of Gathering”
ProInspire “Millennials in the Nonprofit Sector”