Books@Work: Measuring Impact

Books@Work: Measuring Impact

Open and respectful organizational cultures require people to feel safe to be themselves, to contribute new and different ideas, and to be truly heard and respected. Table stakes for inclusion and belonging, these elements are nevertheless elusive and challenging, taking time to develop and mature. Books@Work shows measurable promise in helping these conditions develop and deepen, among colleagues across every level of the organization.

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The Company We Keep

The Company We Keep

He died almost 100 years ago, but Franz Kafka’s voice remains oddly relevant today. He wrote such bizarre and affecting stories that he left behind his own adjective, “kafkaesque”, to describe strange and nightmarish situations embedded in everyday life. With no shortage of the strange these days, we were particularly excited to have Books@Work  featured in The New York Times – comparing Kafka’s iconic book, The Metamorphosis, with an powerful article on social isolation and loneliness, written by Dhruv Khullar, a physician and professor of healthcare policy at Columbia University.

Kafka’s stories feature disaffected characters who push the edges of the human condition – and often fail. The Metamorphosis is no exception. Traveling salesman Gregor Samsa wakes one morning to find that he has been transformed into a hideous bug. Unable to communicate, Gregor finds his sense of self and his relationship to his family and his work irreparably destroyed, with dire consequences.

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3 Reasons Why Books@Work Makes More Productive Teams

3 Reasons Why Books@Work Makes More Productive Teams

In the quest for workplace productivity, focusing on breaks may seem counterintuitive. But the research is clear: regular breaks provide a needed respite from the daily grind. But not any old break is effective. Evidence from a wide variety of Books@Work programs confirm that breaks that still engage the brain – albeit in different ways – provide outsized benefits. In a Books@Work break, colleagues engage in crucial conversations around important, difficult-to-discuss issues. They practice critical team skills and learn to connect on a more human level.

In a world focused on outcomes and accountability, we ignore the transformative power of time apart at our peril. Insights from hundreds of Books@Work participants reveal three concrete reasons why taking a break to discuss a piece of literature with colleagues is just the productivity boost your organization needs.

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Workplace Culture: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

Workplace Culture: What’s Love Got To Do With It?

I was stunned recently when a group of Books@Work participants zeroed in on love as a core theme in a story. The setting was powerful: a group of police officers, police academy cadets and city residents meeting in an urban day care center to discuss Langston Hughes’ story, “Thank you Ma’am.” The story centers on Luella, a large woman and a “force to be reckoned with”, who overpowers a young boy when he tries to steal her handbag. She drags him home (literally), cleans him up, feeds him, listens to him and sends him home with an experience far greater than the one he bargained for!

In short, the participants said, she showed him love. Tough love. “We have co-opted love to mean only eros,” said one participant, “but love is the most powerful force. Love grabs us by the throat,” but upholds dignity and respect and allows us to retain our voices.  

Love has a long and storied history – and it’s complex. The ancient Greeks had at least four distinct words for love: Philia (fraternal love), Storge (familial love), Eros (erotic love but also the love of beauty) and Agape (divine or compassionate love). But what’s love got to do with work?

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Social Learning: The Secret Ingredient for Successful Workplace Learning and Development

Social Learning: The Secret Ingredient for Successful Workplace Learning and Development

As workplace learning remains a high priority in global companies, nearly half of American workplace learning in 2016 was delivered electronically. The convenience of the digital platform makes tailored learning accessible: employees can learn the very specific skills they need right now, delaying additional training until they need it.  As companies allocate training dollars, continuous, on-demand learning provides the effective skill-development many seek.

This individualized approach may be efficient, but is it sufficient?

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Research in Practice: Learning from the Communities We Serve

Research in Practice: Learning from the Communities We Serve

In the world of the sciences – including the social sciences – researchers have long known that they need to be on the lookout for surprises in their data. When something unexpected repeatedly emerges, it is time to sit up, take notice and challenge the assumptions that shaped your research. In the early days of interviewing Books@Work participants, the surprises we observed in participant experiences sent us right back to our early thinking about the program.

The original concept for Books@Work came from a community effort (led by Ann Kowal Smith) to support individuals in the workplace to seek further education. The group speculated that building their interest and confidence as lifelong learners might help people across the educational spectrum develop new skills and attitudes as members of the 21st-century workforce. Steeped in the liberal arts, the designers of the program believed in literature as a way to engage worker/learners to discover their untapped potential. But over the course of hundreds of participant interviews, new insights beyond the original vision began to emerge.

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Grounds for Dismissal: Why “Liking” a Text Is Not Required

Grounds for Dismissal: Why “Liking” a Text Is Not Required

We are more than five years into the Books@Work journey and we learn so much from our participants, professors and partners as they share their personal and collective experiences with the program. But as we shape and evolve the program, certain themes persist – as if to remind us of how far we have come and how far we still have to go. We wrestle with one such theme often as we offer new books and stories to teams and groups: whether “liking” or “disliking” a particular text affects its ability to generate and support a rich and engaging discussion. In exploring this idea, we return to a post I wrote a few years ago on this very topic. In short, we at Books@Work want all of our participants to be enriched, inspired and transformed by a text and, more importantly, the discussion. We continue to believe that there are boundless learning opportunities in each and every text – even when it’s not your cup of tea. 

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A Culture of Inclusion: Challenging Paradigms and Deepening Connections

A Culture of Inclusion: Challenging Paradigms and Deepening Connections

The media is abuzz this week with Starbucks’ commitment to erase bias and foster inclusion within its ranks. This profoundly important step serves as a potent reminder that the majority of workplaces – even those that have begun to seriously address diversity – have not cracked the code on true inclusion. Sophisticated algorithms replace (flawed) human judgment to diversify hiring, and a wave of research on unconscious bias has created sufficient awareness to create pause before decision makers rush to judgment. Most companies would agree, however, that they have yet to find a good and scalable approach to create a culture of inclusion.

We designed Books@Work to help address this critical challenge. We define inclusion in the broadest sense: we encourage not only divergent gender, race and cultural perspectives, but also the unique belief-sets driven by our upbringing or the fact that we now are engineers, accountants, marketers or IT professionals. For Books@Work, inclusion is about creating and nurturing a culture that fosters mutual respect and invites the whole person to the table. But how exactly do we do that?

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Inclusion as Culture: An Ecology of Mutual Respect

Inclusion as Culture: An Ecology of Mutual Respect

Sometimes complex human questions become clearer when we go back to our roots – even our childhood roots. University of Chicago Laboratory School teacher and MacArthur Genius Vivian Paley addressed the universal human experience of feeling excluded after forty years of observing children in nursery school and kindergarten. Despite its unlikely source, Paley’s inclusion rule (and the title of her most popular book), “You can’t say you can’t play,” may be an important reflection for organizational leaders who have learned that hiring a more diverse workforce is only a baby step toward creating a culture of inclusion in which all individuals can flourish.

We aren’t advocating a return to preschool, or even the legislation of human interaction with a set of childhood “rules.” But there are important things to learn from the evolution of human nature – ideas and behaviors that have been hardwired into us since before our earliest sentient moments.

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The Moral Obligation to Think

The Moral Obligation to Think

The news is an adventure these days: cyber insecurity, racially-motivated violence, sexual imposition, the redirection of public funds for personal gains – the list goes on and on. Confronted with these varied and frequent stories, can we help but wonder if we aren’t experiencing a serious collapse in our collective moral judgment?

Philosopher and entrepreneur Damon Horowitz argues that our technologically-driven society has provided us with so much power that we have neglected the processes we need to deal with that power – to weigh its strengths and its weaknesses, differentiate between right and wrong and ultimately make effective decisions. In his compelling TED talk, “We Need a Moral Operating System”, he demonstrates that “we have stronger opinions about our handheld devices than about the moral framework we should use to guide our decisions.”

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