Why You Should Apply Zen Principles to Workplace Design

Workplace design is not just about the physical space, says Charlie Grantham. It must include and integrate talent leadership practices and build upon a technology infrastructure if it’s going to support the whole person in his or her livelihood. Here’s how you can do it.

Image courtesy of Death to Stock.

Would you like to reduce your clients’ cost of workplace provisioning by 40 percent ? In this article, I’ll explain the “Zen design idea”, how  purpose and work are interconnected, and wind up giving you a set of process guidelines to achieve that 40 percent reduction.

Last year, I wrote “Design Better Workplaces with These Three Zen Principles”, wherein I isolated three central Zen tenets — simplicity, enclosure, and completeness — and translated them into practical guidelines for designing workplaces that promote these principles in thought and action.

This article takes that a step deeper and examines how a Zen philosophy of life relates to a person’s realized purpose, and the expression and practice of that at work. I’m calling for a new ontology of the workplace — that is, a greater understanding of how people’s “being” is supported by the place where they earn a livelihood.

Zen tells us there are eight pathways to finding liberation from the suffering of the mundane world:

  1. Right view
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Underlying all of this is the idea that the physical workspace influences us all. It symbolizes what we believe; it influences our sense of well-being; and, ultimately, it sets some shared understanding about right thought, action, and effort — our work.

Why work?

Because work is not working anymore.

We live in an increasingly purposeless world filled with purposeless work. The Old Story and its attendant social institutions, which have risen over the past 500 years, were designed to promote continuous growth, first through extraction of non-renewable resources, later by industrial efficiency, and now through manipulation of financial systems and cronyism. These institutions are no longer life-affirming, nor are they supportive of personal well-being (integration of spirit, mind, and body), let alone human wholeness (integration of individuals into a greater social whole).

But as we transition from Old Story to New Story, work remains a central human activity, which provides sustenance, community, meaning, identity, and — we now realize — well-being and wholeness. I like to focus on it because it is universal, irrespective of political affiliation, religion, or culture. And, shamelessly, the sociology of work has been my professional focus 30+ years. It’s not that these ideas cannot be used in other settings such as the home or even in our communities, it’s just that readers of this magazine are primarily concerned with workplace issues.

Why is it important now? Because humankind has reached a point in its evolution where it can consciously choose its pattern: creation or destruction? Is it going to be global warming, warring, or warning? Work is evolving into a place where meaning is experienced instead of merely being a revenue generating activity.

Why purpose?

Shared purpose is the social-psychological glue which binds humans together. It is the commonly held belief which informs our attitudes and ultimately our behavior. Purpose is the “why of our whys”. All humans are in and on a purpose quest, whether they know it or not. Our sole purpose of human existence is ultimately our soul purpose, which begs the questions Why are we here? and What are we to do?

Zen philosophy tells us that the answer is to find our purpose and the corresponding path to its fulfillment so that we may become better together. We are not human beings nor are we human doings: we are “human creatings”. Life is about that which we are becoming and have yet to become. It is about turning this into that, and what matters most is not the “this” or the “that”.

Image courtesy of the author.
Image courtesy of the author.

It is my contention that the Western world is on the verge of a major transformation that will impact all aspects of our lives, including right livelihood (or work). That shift will be driven by discarding the Old Story of a consumption-based economy and be replaced by a New Story of shared purpose, because the very nature of work as we have known it for several hundred years is changing, and that is driving other profound changes in the rest of our lives.

Right now we are entering the chasm of change. We have been designing workspaces (not necessarily “places”) based on the Old Story. We need to jump to the New Story. And that New Story is about purpose in the context of work.

When personal purpose and organizational purpose are not aligned and supportive of one another, doubt, despair, and dysfunction begin to set in. And that is exactly where we are today. No story, no purpose, no alignment; fear, uncertainty, and doubt (FUD) ensue.

This is the “why” of a new workplace design paradigm. So?

Why Zen?

Zen is a philosophy about being present in the “now”. Clarity, focus, and service to something larger than the self. And that is exactly what the New Story of work demands of your business to be successful. Compare the Old Story themes with the New Ones:

Table courtesy of the author.
Table courtesy of the author.

Dilbert stayed calmly in his cube because he was living the Old Story. That is only of marginal utility today, and won’t even be an option in the future. Put another way, you could say that the design paradigm is shifting from being about function (as in form always follows, right?) to being about “being”.

The broader meaning of being is rooted in one’s social psychological status. It is located in the present and is about synthesis and right brain processes. Being is the experience of the workplace. Whereas knowledge is the subjective aspect of function, consciousness is the subjective aspect of being. Historically, function has been the hallmark of workplace design. Now, being is starting to merge as we realize the connection between subjective experience and at least well-being, if not wholeness.

The playbook to get you started

I began this article with the audacious statement that following a different design philosophy (the New Story) could yield large cost savings, up to 40 percent. There is a very simple formula to follow:

Zen design = FM + HR + IT

Workplace design is not just about the physical space. It must include and integrate talent leadership practices and build upon a technology infrastructure. The leadership is about the what, the space is about where, and the technology is about how. What’s missing now is the “why”. I submit a Zen philosophy can help us understand the “why” of work. That drives everything else. So how, specifically, do you do that?

There are four parts to the way I practice Zen design in the workplace:

  1. Leadership commitment. It is imperative that the top leadership of the organization is committed to following through on the process. It also follows that their prime motivation needs to be about the people first, profit second.
  2. Process. There are myriad processes that can be employed, each with its own structure. The one you use is dependent upon the ultimate purpose of the re-design. Are you trying to reconcile some cultural differences? Do you need to move to action quickly? Are you aiming to extract the maximum potential? Is your purpose promoting harmony between organizational cultures? Or are you seeking fundamental transformation? Each purpose will point you towards a different ordered tactical design process.
  3. Membership. The design team should be composed of several people each representing a different perspective on the workplace. This can prove to be difficult because each usually only see himself responsible for a narrow range of interests. They need to be united on “purpose”. I recommend you start with this group as a minimum.
  4. Practice. As a team, they will need some facilitation to practice Zen. I don’t mean 20 minutes of Zen meditation before each meeting (although that would be very nice!), but simply keeping some principles in mind and being present in the now. Here are my five favorites:
    • Detach from their silo interests — you don’t represent a part of a org chart. You have a gift that is informed by a discipline, use it.
    • Focus on bringing purpose and work together, be conscious of this and set your intention to this end.
    • Be present in the here and now, forget the past.
    • Let go of my ego. This is the hardest. Everyone is connected to everyone, so be part of the larger whole.
    • Find the flow and follow it. This takes practice. Quiet the mind, pay attention.

The results

Following this Zen based design process, your design team can reasonably expect to produce results which research shows can yield:

  • 40 percent return on investment of funds for the program development and deployment
  • 38 percent reduction in cost of workplace support
  • 18 percent increase in productivity
  • Reduction in provisioning time from 12 weeks to three days

The central theme of this article has been the examination of how workplace design principles, derived from Zen philosophy, can help connect workers and their work environment through shared purpose. Among other things, Zen philosophy emphasizes aligning one’s intentions with action, speech, livelihood (or work), effort, and concentration. This alignment, through mindfulness, helps people to become more engaged with their work, their satisfaction with it, and their effectiveness with the tasks at hand.

I began with purpose because that sort of encapsulates the larger philosophy of matching what one does for a livelihood with people’s quest to answer Why are we here? And what are we to do?. In today’s world, this seems to be gaining importance because of an oncoming shift in attitudes about work and life in general. We are quickly moving from the Old Story of profit to the New Story of purpose as the prime motivator for people’s behavior in a social setting. Fear turns to love; space to place; house to home; and scarcity to abundance.

This implies that the experience of the workplace needs to reflect, and reinforce, those shared values if we are to move forward and design and construct a future in which being better together is what gets us out of bed in the morning.



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