Embracing work can be a fix for trying life events

In school, one of my favorite teachers introduced our class to Garrison Keillor’s concept of a storm home. It’s a place—physical or otherwise—where you can go when your life feels surrounded by difficulties and challenges. When you’re caught in the rain, struggling to deal with stress or trauma, or if you’re just having a bad day, it’s a place where you can feel safe. People can be part of your storm home. Anyone who helps you feel safe and whole and hopeful can contribute to your storm home. We all need a storm home at times—when we feel overwhelmed by stress and uncertainty, or when we lose hope.

There have been times in my life when work served as my storm home. After my father’s death, I was sad and overwhelmed with loss. Friends encouraged me to take time away to grieve and recover. However, it was work that supplied the structure I so badly needed. Work prevented my mind from a spiral of negative thoughts. It challenged me and offered respite from the loneliness I felt after his passing. I had support from my family at home, but work provided something else. When your experience as an employee is positive, your job becomes much more than a paycheck. Recognition, a sense of accomplishment, community, added purpose, even sanctuary—that’s what work can be.

In an age of doubt and mistrust, where people have lost faith or confidence in core institutions, one’s job and workplace can bring a welcome sense of purpose and meaning. This is a critical moment for leaders to examine what’s genuinely beneficial for the worker and the organization—and what’s not. Perhaps my single greatest motivation for writing this book is to argue that what is good for the company can never again be separated from what is good for its workers.

Work is always changing. In the 1920s, The most common job in America was dairy farming. By the 1980s, it was secretarial work; 30 years later, it’s retail. What constituted work in 1870 looked far different from a 40-hour week in a 20th-century factory. What about a 60-hour week in an office today? Is work better now? By how much?

It’s a challenge, of course, because not all industries (or companies or jobs) are created equal. But I would contend that things have changed for the better. Technology has taken over the most tedious tasks. Access to continuous learning is far greater. Companies that take effective advantage of the technology and platforms available can develop their people like never before. The dreadful and often lethal working conditions of years past have been eliminated or significantly improved in many industries and parts of the world (though by no means all). The expectations of leadership have broadened. Vulnerability is no longer considered a weakness, but a strength. Authenticity matters more than perfection.

I’m not trying to paint an unrealistically rosy picture of work today and in the near future. I know that there are dying industries. Jobs are disappearing. Certain skills are fast becoming obsolete. There will be workers who are left behind. Creative destruction is required to move ahead, and globalization is great, but also incredibly complicated. If we are to be about what lies ahead, then we need to be as honest about what we have lost as what we have gained. The late cultural critic, Neil Postman, author of Amusing Ourselves to Death, noted that every time we adopt a new technology, we make a Faustian bargain: Something is gained, and something is also lost. The telephone allowed us to connect with others far away like never before, but also altered our notions of intimacy and privacy. The automobile made the world smaller, shortening distances so that travels that took weeks now took mere hours, but it also hurt air quality, choked our cities, and degraded the beauty of our natural landscape. The same scrutiny can and should be applied to the computer, the internet, the smartphone. The modern day organization and office, as with all innovations, brought with it consequences that were good (eg, connection, access to mentors, brainstorming) and not so good (eg, inequity, burnout, sedentary conditions).

Once entrenched, society acted as if these new facts and behaviors were sacred and unchangeable. They’re not, though. Many of these beliefs and behaviors are dogmatic and dated, doing as much harm as good—to the individual employee, to the business, to the larger society.

What have we lost that we might want to restore?

Consider “death by spreadsheet.” Any tech or businessperson will have heard it, and probably used it. It means to have your productivity and decision-making overwhelmed and eventually generald by data, the very thing you thought would help productivity and decision-making. It suggests that analytics are driving every decision, even those that it shouldn’t.

Don’t get me wrong, I love analytics. Numbers give you guidance and identify trends. They help determine what customers are buying and how they’re using your products; which markets are expanding, and which are contracting; and inform decision-making and future strategies. I would not be where I am today without a genuine appreciation for analytics.

As we move toward a more human-centered work experience, we must trust in people and their capabilities, their ability to work together, and some qualities that can’t be captured in a spreadsheet or database. Human understanding, relationships, and connection are cornerstones, not afterthoughts.

Is it unrealistic to wonder about the business impact of everyone caring about each other a little more? It costs nothing. It produces actual results—greater collaboration, a willingness to go the extra mile, a reduction of fear and the courage to try new things. It fosters the psychologically safe environment employees have come to expect.

All this requires leaders who empower their employees. Deloitte’s Jen Fisher says that “everybody should be the Chief Well-Being Officer of their own life.” She also says, “We have extensive evidence that when leaders who are empowered and who have achieved success talk about the things that are hard, it makes it easier for everyone else to do it because they realize that it’s not a sign of weakness.”2

Business leaders must never forget what a good working environment can do for people. When that work is dignified, challenging, and connected to purpose, it allows individuals to become a better version of themselves.

Leaders can future-proof their company by focusing on employee experience. Work is not a place to get wrung out so that we have nothing left for our real home. To make work work—be it the literal, physical space or the cultural spirit—leaders must remember that work is a virtual home. It’s a place of learning and growth, community and connection, meaning and purpose and value.

A business that is invested in the people who make it go, appreciating each and every person’s whole self: That’s a place we all want to be.


Excerpted with the permission of the publisher, Wiley, from Experience, Inc.: Why Companies that Uncover Purpose, Create Connection, and Celebrate Their People Will Triumph by Jill Popelka. Copyright (c) 2022 John Wiley & Sons. All rights reserved. This book is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

Jill Popelka is a senior executive for global software company SAP. A believer that purpose drives people, and people drive business performance, Popelka studies the impact of employee experience on organizations and how to maximize potential for both employees and employers.

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