The first week of my corporate job after leaving my post as a high school principal, I was stunned by what felt like a wall of silence.
Our location employed about 15 people, configured in six rooms. I expected the daily bustle of a school. I mean I knew that it wouldn't feel like working with 200 people every day, but I was looking forward to some adult collaboration. I was eager to learn everything I could about this business, and excited to engage with a different kind of mind. Instead I found myself working quietly at my desk most of the time.
It was a quiet contradiction: there was noise, but it created a hush everywhere else. My desk was in a room with our sourcers, whose job was to screen potential tech employees before sending the appropriate ones to the recruiters. They spent most of their days on the phone, and at times there were three phone calls happening at once. In order not to disturb a recruiting phone call, those who were not on the phone generally worked quietly at their spaces. I found myself tip-toeing around. I asked my questions in a whisper.
When I needed to stretch, I got up and walked around the office, hoping to chit-chat with a colleague. I wanted to get to know them; I was fascinated by their jobs and their perspectives; most of them were nearly 20 years my junior. Many days I would wander the office and find everyone fiercely engaged in their tasks at their desks, not ready to take a break. I began to wonder if this was just how a corporate office ran. So different than my experience of school, where you could walk down the hall and share an idea with a teacher, who would often take a second to riff with you, then ask you a few days later how the idea was working out. In the corporate office, socialization took place in designated areas and times; a planned Happy Hour, the fridge at lunch. I felt like I was breaking the rules if I wanted to walk over to someone's desk to brainstorm. I got hungry for art, for messiness, for collaboration. One day, I stood at the Human Resources Director's desk and wouldn't leave until she heard my idea. She listened, and then said: "Yes! And what if..." I was finally collaborating! How fun! God bless her!
I've always seen "school" as a creative place. Teachers end up creating an experience for their students every single day. For good teachers, the process of teaching a course places us in a constant state of iteration and revision. "This didn't work today; I'll tweak it for next week." "Hey: how did you teach this concept? I wonder if I could modify it for my subject." Ideas build on each other; different perspectives inspire new, more effective practices.
Thoughtful teaching also puts students in a creator position: "Which way of studying works best for this material?" "How can I demonstrate best what I've learned?" "Should I try out for that team?" Good high school students are always reinventing themselves, discovering who they are and what they're good at.
Then we go to work.
From small, moveable desks to large pieces of furniture created for one person. From sharing an "office" with 20 other classmates to our own separate workspaces. From dozens of extracurricular options with classmates to scattering after work. Lunches alone. I think that in many ways school should be more like work, and I also think there are many ways work should be more like school. I know that companies like Google and Etsy are doing "work" differently already. I'm saying there aren't enough offices functioning this way. And I'm calling on EVERY business to reimagine itself with more creativity, more collaboration. In the old-school view of work, where we keep to our desks and become more isolated as we get busier, I believe we're not getting what we could out of our employees.
What is the difference between work, school, and play, anyway? We're expected to learn in both work and school, and we can't help but learn in play. If the word "play" makes you uncomfortable in the same sentence as "work," go back to the '80s. Whoops! I mean call it "experimentation." Neuroscience has been screaming at us for a while now that your brain needs periodic breaks in order to be more productive, but we hesitate to put that into practice. "My boss will think I'm lazy." "I won't be able to keep up with the others." "I'll never get this done." If we would all acknowledge the science, think of how much more we'd accomplish!
Employers can start by encouraging friendly chat instead of automatically interpreting it as being off-task. Getting to know each other, so that we can trust each other with our crazy ideas, is the
work. Stop equating quiet with getting work done; collaboration can be loud! (Dare I say, fun?) Recognize that when the deadline is on and the pressure's up, our brains may need even more breaks. Organize spaces and schedules to promote more organic collaboration. Get out of your workspace and ask a colleague's opinion. Acknowledge the science. Because after riffing with the HR Director, we became partners in our project. We worked together, made it happen. Need to get shit done? Play a little.