Bringing the Romance (Back) to Work
This new year, if you are bored or unhappy with work, know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
The New Year means an opportunity to start fresh. But despite the new page on the calendar, you may simply dread going back to work tomorrow.
Work isn’t typically rated as a favorite activity; in fact, one study found that it is as far down the list as being sick with the flu. Only 13% of employees worldwide are “engaged” at work, according to the findings of a recent Gallup poll. Even people who have started new jobs with great enthusiasm may flame out as soon as the initial thrill fades after the first six months.
And yet, people with jobs spend 70% of their lives at work. Our careers shape a large part of our identity and significantly affect our levels of happiness and satisfaction in life. If we seek greater meaning, work is our primary arena. It’s “where we make or break ourselves,” as the poet David Whyte once wrote.
So why do we separate our business lives from large parts of our humanity? At work, we track, quantify, analyze, maximize, and optimize performance with increasingly sophisticated technology. We strive to minimize risk and eliminate emotion, ambiguity, and subjectivity. In other words, we have stripped any semblance of romance from our workplaces.
I’m not suggesting that you make it a mission to star in your own personal office rom-com. Rather, I’m advocating that 2015 become the year for more moments of awe and wonder, unexpected beauty, and doing something “for the love of it” in what might otherwise be called the daily grind. Make this a year for the romance of work.
We can take a cue from the old romantics—Wordsworth, Keats, Lord Byron!—and their revolt against the supremacy of rationality and reason, using their tactics to counter today’s business doctrines of efficiency and pragmatism that shoehorn us into a mechanistic, metrics-driven mindset of work.
Romantic experiences subvert the usual routine; they give us the feeling of doing something for the first time, making the familiar feel mysterious and intriguing again. They point to something greater and help us keep the flame alight when we find ourselves journeying through the rut of routine and the valley of boredom.
When you go to work tomorrow, try some of the following romantic principles to stir up some enchantment in your work life:
Talk to strangers
A couple years ago, researchers in Chicago conducted an experiment: one group of train riders was asked to keep to themselves during their commute, and the other was encouraged to engage with fellow passengers. Those who interacted with strangers reported more positive emotions than the commuters who kept to themselves. Encounters with random strangers can have a positive impact on our wellbeing. Commit to connecting with someone you don’t know, every morning.
Be a stranger
Extend the sense of strangeness by sitting in a new spot around the office—as often as you can. If your workplace has an open floor plan, all the better. If not, swap your desk or cube with a colleague. It’s a simple move that gives you a chance to view your organization with fresh eyes. Take this a step further by switching roles with co-workers for a few hours (including your boss!). Send a small gift or extend a lunch invitation to someone in your company or in your building with whom you’ve never met—then follow up and revel in the new connection. Pledge to make the first move once a week. Or schedule a “slidebattle” tournament in which co-workers compete to provide the best impromptu voice-over to PowerPoint slides they’ve never seen before. Be a stranger and an amateur, and enjoy the thrill that comes from doing something out of character and outside of your comfort zone.
Hold “Thick Days”
Thrive Labs founder Priya Parker designates one day a month to explore New York City with her husband and friends—without phones or other distractions. They meet for eight long hours and commit to being “thickly present,” pledging to be in the moment with each other during their time together. Now, apply this thinking to work. How often do you hang up after a conference call or leave a team meeting only to feel that it was a complete waste of time? Imagine spending a “thick day” with just one colleague instead: Lock yourself in a room and work on one task for one full day a month rather than spending two “thin” hours every week with several colleagues on the phone. You will not only be happier, but also more productive.
Cherish the pressure of deadlines
In our modern work lives, deadlines are what evolutionary psychologists call “critical events,” or experiences that spur in us a primal need to “survive.” Deadlines are not necessarily life-threatening, but they direct us to what is essential and serve as powerful vehicles to stretch us so that we fulfill the immediate task at hand. Intense work experiences make us suffer, but when they are over (nothing lasts forever), they can also provide a sense of elation and satisfaction. Cherish the intensity of dying (a little). Nothing is more romantic than the feeling that in this very moment nothing else matters.
Take a different approach to email
Our epistle-loving ancestors would likely be horrified by the way we compose our emails. We live in an email culture in which we might sign off with our initials, if at all, and use abbreviations as if we would be penalized for writing out words in full. What we are conveying is that we are just too busy. But we are not hyper-efficient, productivity machines—we are human beings. Marriage researcher John Gottman contends that “small moments of attachment”—a warm tone and subtle gesture—are more important factors of healthy relationships than frequent communications. A loss of written etiquette means we lose out on countless opportunities to build relationships through the very medium we are inundated with almost every day. A 2012 study by the McKinsey Global Institute revealed that office workers spend almost 30% of each day writing and responding to emails. I suggest trying a new approach: Start every email you write for a week with “Dear” and ask a non-work related question first. Watch what unfolds.
Sit still and do nothing
In his new book The Art of Stillness, Pico Iyer writes that in an “age of constant movement” going nowhere is “the grand adventure that makes sense of everywhere else.” But allowing yourself to take a time-out for stillness is not easy. It means hushing your ever-present FOMO (Fear-of-Missing-Out) and being alone with your thoughts (a recent study found that most people would rather be doing something than nothing). In allowing ourselves to be still, the blinders of hyper-productivity we are conditioned to wear on the job fall away so that we can see what really matters.
Between purpose and perks, romance is an under-served third dimension of our modern workplace experience. It’s up to us to create it, not our employers. When we revel in romantic moments on the job, and commit to generating more, we are effectively building a “delight surplus.” This surplus builds up day after day, month after month, until we’ve borne witness to a full year of enchantment that had everything to do with what we do for a living.
Our work lives would be more fulfilling if we embraced the idea of romance as a valuable and critical ingredient of business. Romantic experiences allow us to bring our full selves to the office, meeting others and ourselves in unexpected, more meaningful ways, beyond a simply transactional framework. If we manage to create space for these moments in our packed calendars, business can be the ultimate romantic journey. And, by the way, this will benefit our companies, too, because nothing beats an intrinsically motivated, wholeheartedly committed workforce when it comes to productivity.
Let’s go to work!
A shortened version of this article was first published by the Sunday Times.
Photo credit: Etsy.com