This week, I’ve been thinking a great deal about what counts as a “civilized” corporate and workplace culture. That’s because I’m deep into the editing process with my new book, Slow Leadership: How to Civilize Your Workplace, which will be published this Fall. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that much of corporate America — much of the Western corporate world, if it comes to that — has taken a large step backwards in recent years in providing truly civilized working conditions.

Here’s what a typical workplace culture looks like:

  • Business demands have gotten steadily tougher. Organizations demand their staff work longer hours, often at a faster pace. The reason? To beat off competition from other businesses doing the same thing. It’s a vicious cycle — a no-holds-barred game where the stakes are constantly raised. No one seems to consider the alternative of stepping aside and allowing the lemmings to race each other off the cliff.
  • More and more roles are declared to be “professional” ones. Professionals don’t work set hours, they do whatever is needed to get the job done. Of course, the other side of this should be that they can ease up or take time off when there isn’t so much work. This doesn’t seem to happen; there’s always work piled up and waiting. It’s seen as being “uncommitted” to act like a professional used to act and let up on the effort, so the effect of “professionalization” on working hours is all one way: upwards.
  • Many workplaces present people with a continual, manic experience, full of rush, hurry, pressure, distractions and escalating anxiety. Professional and managerial-level staff skip meals and breaks, dash from one meeting to another and work hours even the unskilled laborers of the past would have felt were oppressive.
  • As a result, people have less time to spend relaxing or attending to family and friends. Fathers (and many mothers too) see less of their children, have less energy to devote to bringing them up as they would wish, and are too tired when they are at home to give their family quality time and attention.
  • The workplace has become more than central to many people’s lives. It’s become the place where they spend more time than anywhere else. The place that grabs at their attention, even when they’re supposedly having time off away from work. So they skip vacations, phone in to the office from those holiday beaches, carry cell phones everywhere in case someone — anyone — from work needs to call them at any time. Work has taken over their whole existence.

It seems to me this isn’t a civilized way to live. Sure, these people are prosperous (mostly) and many are genuinely committed to what they do. But can it be right, here at the start of the 21st century, for people to face working pressures far greater than any since the oppressed mill-workers of the Industrial Revolution?

That’s the question I’ve been asking myself. To me, a civilized workplace needs to meet these criteria, as a minimum. Anything less than this cannot, I believe, lay claim to being a civilized place to work:

  • It must operate in ways that ensure everyone is treated with the dignity benefiting a fellow human being.
  • It must recognize work as part of life, but not the whole of it. People who choose to set family and non-work commitments on a par with their work must not be penalized or devalued for doing so.
  • It must be free from discrimination, bullying, unfair pressures and any exploitation of the weak.
  • It must be a place where ethics are adhered to in deeds as well as words, and honest dealings are the norm.
  • It must recognize and honor values that go beyond the obvious financial and economic ones.
  • It must be a place where people make choices on the basis of what is right — intellectually, ethically and spiritually — not simply what is currently expedient.

How can we achieve progress towards making our offices, laboratories and manufacturing plants into places we can be proud of? By encouraging every leader, no matter how few are in his or her team, to accept these standards and implement them as best they can. Grass-roots movements are usually unstoppable, once they attain enough momentum. This one can be too.

As the anthropologist Margaret Mead said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

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Adrian Savage is a writer, an Englishman and a retired business executive. He lives in Tucson, Arizona. You can read his serious thoughts most days at Slow Leadership, the site for everyone who wants to bring back the taste, zest and satisfaction to leadership; and his crazier ones at The Coyote Within.

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