I am not someone who easily fits into office life (or at least what might be called “traditional” office life). I like to take my shoes off when I work. I sometimes need to lie down at strange times and simply stretch (or moan). It is impossible for me to wear one face at work and then wear another face when I am not at work, as if I were two separate people – a worker and a person. To me, I need to work in an environment where I feel whole and can express my wholeness.
Twenty five years ago when I started Sounds True, it wasn’t that easy to find what I would call a “groovy workplace”. And for me, such an environment was a necessity. I knew I would be spending most of my waking hours at work (in an office no less), and I wanted those hours to be enjoyable, love-filled, interesting and rich.
With that in mind, back in 1985, I articulated three bottom lines for the company. We would be successful as a business if we could:
1)Fulfill our mission (defined as “disseminating spiritual wisdom”)
2)Maintain a groovy workplace
3)Generate a profit
To this day, these remain the three bottom lines that matter to me most. The first two are non-negotiable and are within our control (we decide what we publish and how we treat each other). The third bottom line allows us to pursue the other two.
When it comes to maintaining a groovy workplace, the employees at Sounds True have taken over this bottom line as their own. What is mostly required of me is to stay out of the way. Here are a few examples:
- A few months ago, our Art Director curated an all-employee art show. For several months, the hallways of Sounds True were filled with employee-created works of photography, sculpture, painting and collage. People even brought in art by their children (and one of our conference rooms was dedicated to children’s art). The exhibit was called “Many Artists, One Show,” a take-off on our new company tag line.
- Last Friday was Pajama Day. For the past several years, during the first snowfall in March, people are invited to wear their pajamas, booties, and sleeping hats (who really wears a sleeping hat?) to work. The idea was introduced by someone in our art department several years ago. At first, I thought it was ridiculous, and I was one of the few curmudgeons who wore my clothes to work on Pajama Day. This year, I wore my pink cotton pajamas and a cashmere grey robe and finally got the hang of it.
- A new employee in our marketing department recently asked me how I would feel about him gathering people once a month for a lunch-time discussion group to talk about a Sounds True title. “Will it cost anything?” I asked. “No, but it would be wonderful if you wanted to join us.” That’s the kind of initiative I can roll with. Now, a group of ST employees bring their lunch and gather once a month to share their experience of listening to a ST title.
These are just a few recent Sounds True happenings. The point is that NONE of these ideas came from me or the management of the company. Even our meditation room exists because an employee wanted it to happen. The idea was brought forward about 15 years ago by a copywriter who worked in an open cubicle. He wanted to meditate during his morning and afternoon breaks and felt uncomfortable meditating in public while people walked past (understandably).
So, what makes a workplace groovy? I believe each person will have a different answer to that. As the founder of ST, I believe my role is to be open and receptive and to let people act on what is important to them. Grooviness does not require a policy or plan. It requires creating the space in which people feel safe to enact their inspiration.
Now for me personally, the absolute grooviest part of the Sounds True workplace is the fact that people can bring their (well-behaved) dogs to work.
When visitors come to Sounds True, the number of dogs in the building is one of the first things they notice (on any given day, there can be anywhere between 10 and 20 dogs sleeping in offices, sitting on people’s laps and walking through the halls). The “bring your dog policy” began about two decades ago when I lived with a dog named Toby. Toby would give me the most woeful look when I would leave the house each morning, and I couldn’t bear it. So one day, I decided to bring him with me. And soon, Toby was coming to work with me every day. After about a week, an employee asked me if she could bring her dog as well. Believe it or not, I never considered that bringing Toby would mean that everyone else would soon be bringing their dogs too (I clearly didn’t think through the implications). But I have always believed in treating people the way that I would want to be treated. And clearly I wanted to bring my dog to work. How could I not let others do the same?
We now have an entire page of our Employee Handbook dedicated to the Sounds True dogs (three poops and you’re out!) along with dog free zones in the building (if only there was compliance). Yes, there are challenges (we have a large supply of stain remover on hand) and there are occasional turf wars and barking attacks during conference calls. But overall, the dogs humanize Sounds True. And I mean that quite seriously. They connect us to our natural warmth and softness. They break our trance of busy-ness (if you bring your dog to work you need to take it out on a regular basis, similar to taking a smoking break but without the smoke). They provide a dog-lover like me with over-the-top grooviness (a bit of smelliness is a small price to pay).
I never thought I would spend my life working in an office building. I associated office life with something stale and staid. But it needn’t be. What is mission critical for me is that every day I can come to work and be genuine and connect with other genuine people in an authentic way. Can that happen in an office building? Well, of course it can. It can happen anywhere.
About 5 years ago, the culture of Sounds True was studied by two researchers from “The Center for Contemplative Mind in Society.” Their goal was to study various businesses to see if contemplative practice (the practice of prayer, meditation, and other forms of reflection) had an impact on the culture of a company. Did such businesses embody “spiritual” characteristics? If so, how are those characteristics expressed in business? After spending two days at Sounds True and interviewing our 80+ employees (about one-third of whom identified as being contemplative practitioners), they came to the following conclusion: Overwhelmingly, the people at Sounds True feel like they can be themselves at work.
Maybe that is the ultimate grooviness.