In the run up to the Quakers and Business Conference, Coping Ethically with the Challenges of the New Workplace, Co-clerk, Roland Carn explores the theme.
What is the New Workplace?
Workplace, in Quakers and Business’ glossary, is the place where our members work for a significant part of their day. Their business might be commercial, charitable, or public service. All workplaces and businesses are social activities that take place in one or more communities.
Workplaces are complex systems, communities, deeply embedded in human social evolution, and in our shared psyche. Each one is a unique and developing social organism. We think of workplaces as forming a spectrum or continuum from the traditional, hierarchical organisms to the robust, flat, self-managed organism of friends. Compare the hierarchical power and control structure found in most modern business communities with the open self-managed community of terrorist cells, Extinction Rebellion groups and religious communities, like Quakers.
A workplace should be joyful as well as efficiently productive: supportive and sustainable. A spectrum in one view, and an integrating holistic resolution of the paradox in another.
Coping with rapid change
Chaos, confusion and disarray is an opportunity for abuse, exploitation and vice. It’s also an opportunity for maturity, growth and creativity. Prayer and poetry not withstanding, the challenges of the workplace (now and in the future) are practical and down-to-earth.
The challenges are not just out there in someone else’s bailiwick. They are in out own business’ workplace, our own personal workplace and in our own inner persons.
Part of the problem is that the standard, conventional, traditional ‘business school’ methods and techniques are not working or not working as we expect. The technology that we used to use is no longer up to the job. We have been shown that the well-tried-and-tested hierarchical structures and controls perpetuate and aggravate the disruption.
We need a community and ‘technology’ that can cope with chaos and rapid change, evolve a new order and a new society, and sustain it for generations. But what would this look like? How can we achieve it.?
Convenience v Ethics?
Many business and business people believe — or behave as if they believe — that morality and ethics have little or no place in the commercial business world: convenience, self-interest, short-term results, power and money are the dominant values. Groups such as Quakers say equality, community, stewardship, happiness, integrity, long-term sustainability and ecological balance are important, and perhaps should be more dominant values.
Philosophers debate the ‘good life’ and how to live it. They have given us such helpful guides as rights and duties, human rights, ethical standards and so on. Professional organisations have ethical statements and require their members to adhere to them.
In the workplace, we experience the problems and conflicts of applying ethical guides to our immediate practical situations. ‘Alternative’ organisations, ‘new’ business models and business governance systems are evolving ways of applying ethics in the workplace — creating ethical places to work and live the ‘good life’ (whatever that is).
How do we apply these guides in the chaos of today? How do we evolve the good life in the workplace of the future? What does it look like, how do we achieve it?
An experimental approach
The imminent, vitally important issue in the our business workplace today is, dealing with the stresses, challenges and chaos of the workplace — with wisdom, both for today and for our future. It’s complex and involves many people — so we need to proceed cautiously, experimentally — but proceed we must.
There are many dimensions to the solution:
- It involves how we individually see our world, its values. How people behave in it deeply affects our ideas of who we are personally.
- It involves many people — usually and hopefully, with different values and abilities to ourselves.
- It involves new ways of organising, new ways of working, new relationships, new technologies as well as redeploying our old abilities.
- It involves re-thinking our values, our history, who we are and who we want to be.
- It involves working with risk, long timescales, changing relationships, and responsible people.
- It involves taking responsibility, taking initiatives, being open, being honest, being flexible.
Of course we’ve always done these things and we have always been like this — but now we have to rise to the new workplace — or sink, broken under the tide.
by Roland Carn