Want to Create an Inspiring Workplace?

Here are Four Tips to Make it Happen

Think about the biggest challenge in your life that you’ve had to overcome. It could be something like buying a house. Maybe you’ve gone through a divorce. Maybe you’ve started a business.  For Canadian author, speaker and workplace architect, Carolyn Swora, her biggest personal challenge became the impetus behind the concept of Purposeful Workplace Experiences.  She shared her story during a WorkTango lunchtime learning session.

“My challenge happened when I was 31 years old, newly married, six months pregnant. I was working in the pharmaceutical industry. I had big, big, plans to climb up that corporate ladder and –boom – my husband got diagnosed with stage-four kidney cancer.”

No one used the word terminal directly at that time, but it was.  For the following six years her challenge was to care for her husband whose illness was progressively getting worse, growing and raising a young family, and trying to balance a career.

One thing Swora quickly realized was that in amongst all the frustration, all the worry, all the angst, “you really can find happiness.”

As she faced her own challenges, she found different people or groups she was able to connect and collaborate with, and drew strength from their insights and support.

Over those six years, she also learned the need for agility.  “We didn’t let our plans for life get in the way. We learned to be agile and adapted to living in three month increments. We would still plan for trips. Still plan to do things with our family and if he had treatment in between that, we would just deal with it. This concept of agility was really, really important.”

The last thing Swora learned was the notion of equivalence. There are two things here she says: “equivalence in that there are all these different people that can help you through the system and, they all have an equivalent piece to play in overcoming your challenge.”

Swora didn’t have control over her husband’s illness. She didn’t have control over the system, but she could create experiences for her young family that would bring happiness.  After her husband’s death, she began to wonder about the impact of creating experiences for people in the workplace. That’s how her book Rules of Engagement and the idea of Personal Workplace Experiences came to be.

Workplace challenges are not small. Right now chronic stress is costing the U.S. workforce $190 billion a year. We also know that loneliness is becoming prevalent in the workplace. In fact, in a recent study, 85% of people said they felt lonely at work.  We’re dealing with a mental health crisis in our society that’s showing up in our workplaces. In Canada alone, 500,000 employees in any given week are unable to work because of mental health concerns. Fuelling the fire, just this year the World Health Organization recognized burn-out as “an occupational phenomenon” characterized by feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion; increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and reduced professional efficacy.

create an inspiring workplace - burn-out

What Swora posits is a shift from engaging the people you work with to inspiring them by creating purposeful experiences for them to thrive. She points to how hierarchy and structure – the very things that distance people from one another – are giving way to the emergence of more self-managed teams. Calling it a cultural evolution, she cites a quote from Ed Schein, MIT Professor emeritus and the father of organizational development who recently said “groups that develop their own cultures might be more important than the big corporate culture.”

But how can you evolve your team? How can you evolve the environment within which you work? Purposeful Workplace Experiences (PWEs) are rooted in the same four elements that buoyed Swora through her personal challenges: connection, collaboration, agility and equivalence. And this is what it looks like:

  1. CONNECTION as it relates to PWE, is about being human, prioritizing relationships, and creating a sense of belonging. Oftentimes communication is confused for connection. An open door policy may invite communication, for instance, but it doesn’t necessarily lead to connection.

Build trust through moments. Stop to talk to people on a personal human level. At the beginning of your meetings do a “check-in.” Ask how everybody’s feeling. Ask meeting attendees for a word they’d use to describe their energy level? Respect the fact that you’re going to have differences. Build up enough trust through these moments so that you can lean into some tough conversations and work through some of the challenges facing your organization. And most importantly, find appreciative moments to say thank you. Relationships are the currency that is going to drive your team, and your organization.

  1. COLLABORATION from a PWE position means focusing on group effectiveness to leverage strengths and be more diverse. It means building interdependency between teams, fuelling performance collectively verses competitively. This idea of collaboration is interestingly demonstrated through Google’s Project Aristotle (“the whole is greater than the sum of its parts”) and Margaret Hefferman’s Super Chicken, Ted Talk.

Project Aristotle

Project Aristotle came out of Google’s desire to understand what made a perfect performer and what made teams really successful. The interesting thing that came out of this study was that there actually is no perfect performer within a team. Teams that were really successful were high in two areas. One, they had high social sensitivity, a strong awareness of the social connections around them. The second was that each of these successful teams cultivated a space where everybody spoke equally.

Margaret Hefferman’s Super Chicken, Ted Talk

Margaret Heffernan’s “Super Chicken” Ted Talk illustrates the power of collaborative teamwork versus a bunch of individual superstars. An experiment was done to breed super chickens. The idea was that if producers could get high-performing egg layers to lay more eggs, they’d make more money and all would be great. Two groups were studied: a group of average egg layers and a group of top-performing egg layers. The process was repeated for six successive chicken generations. What happened is that the average group continued to consistently produce while the super chickens started eliminating each other from laying eggs by pecking each other to death. So forget the pecking order at work. Create an environment, an experience for everybody, not just star performers.

Techniques for collaboration can start with how your meetings are run. Are you giving space for everybody to speak? What decision-making methods are being used? Is it consensus based or autocratic? Introduce consent-based decision-making to be sure everybody gets a voice in what’s going on, and, as a way to leverage everybody’s insights and opinions. Use white boards to capture concepts and get people aligned. Use Brené Brown’s” paint done for me” method to get clarity on exactly what it is someone is thinking or trying to express. Reward team performance verses individual performance; team-based incentives rather than individual Incentives.  Ask directly or through feedback surveys for the “brutal facts” – a participative management concept coined by James Collins that’s a great collaboration tool. Collaboration takes time and it takes a noted, deliberate effort.

create an inspiring workplace - collaboration
  1. While AGILITY is certainly not new it’s a fundamental part of creating Purposeful Workplace Experiences. It involves expecting change, embracing the fast pace, iterating, and prototyping, and accepting that mistakes will be made.

Having lived in three-month chunks of time during her husband’s illness, Swora brought that quarter to quarter experience into the workplace for tactical and personal development planning as one aspect of agility.

Another aspect is the idea of learning from failure. To help people on your team feel comfortable with the mindset of failure, hold a huddle at the beginning of every week and ask people to bring an example of something that did not go as planned the week before. Instead of viewing it as a setback, use it to move forward, as a way of learning from each other.

And remember, as Barak Obama so aptly said when reflecting on his presidency, “You can’t change a system overnight but you can make incremental steps.”

  1. EQUIVALANCE is the last piece in Purposeful Workplace Experiences. It’s about understanding that you work within a system but recognizing that you can do something in the system to make things better. The idea is that everyone plays a role and everyone has unique contributions. It’s not about hierarchy. Don’t get hung up on job title. As an example, in a 700 person company, everyone, every employee is referred to as a contributor. Make it clear that every single person contributes to results; that you’re all equivalent in finding or creating solutions and meeting goals.

The idea of promoting accountability individually can also help decentralize all of the decisions landing on one person. The mindset is everyone is equal. Everyone contributes to the way forward.

Additional Resources

Check out our guides on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys. Learn about every aspect of a successful employee voice initiative!


Watch the webinar, Happy employees, happy customers: how Purposeful Workplace Experiences create inspired and empowered teams that drive results


Read great blog posts on workplace culture, employee engagement, and employee surveys.