In early 2015, Books@Work launched two prolific and ongoing community programs in collaboration with the Louis Stokes VA Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio. The first program gathers medical center staff members to encourage wellness and stronger workplace relationships. The second program focuses on residents in the VA’s Veterans’ Domiciliary, a residential rehabilitation and treatment center for veterans.
In both programs, participants meet for weekly one-hour sessions, facilitated by professors from local colleges including Case Western Reserve University, the University of Akron and Oberlin College. Professors facilitate in four-week periods, representing a wide range of backgrounds including literature, religious studies, history and sociology – thus, participants are exposed to various disciplines and facilitation styles.
Today’s interview features Karyn Newton, a three-time participant in Case Western Reserve University’s Books@Work programs. CWRU delivers Books@Work as part of a wellness initiative to encourage community and social connection between faculty and staff on campus. Karyn works in the Office for Inclusion, Diversity and Equal Opportunity. She is also pursuing her master’s degree in World Literature at the university.
We ask Karyn about her Books@Work experience – and why discussing books and short stories is a valuable use of company time.
Navigating our differences in the workplace is not easy. Learning to recognize and appreciate our diversity is even harder – especially when employees have few outlets to display their true selves at work.
A Harvard Business Review piece published in March explored this very idea with black women in the workplace. “A lot of women told me that they code-switched,” wrote author Maura Cheeks, “which involves embracing the dominant culture or vernacular among certain groups (like co-workers, for example) and switching to a more authentic self when around friends and family.”
How can companies create space for colleagues to unmask and discuss their unique experiences and differences?
A few years ago, an online debate broke out about relatability and its artistic value. After attending a performance of Shakespeare’s King Lear, “This American Life” host Ira Glass tweeted about the play’s “fantastic acting” and humor – and yet his biggest takeaway was that “Shakespeare is not relatable.” In a scathing response, New Yorker staff writer Rebecca Mead took issue with what she called the “scourge of relatability” and its recent critical influence. To demand that a work be relatable sets a troubling expectation, Mead wrote, “that the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.”
How much much do we need to relate to a text – or to people, new ideas, or even colleagues in the workplace – in order to accept and appreciate them?
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.
At Books@Work, we believe in the transformative power of conversation. A good conversation offers “a hospitable environment for creative thought.” Interacting with each other on a deeper level helps to dismantle exclusionary cultures and biases. We all know it’s tough to have difficult conversations at work – but they are critical to conflict resolution and trust-building.
We use narratives – fiction, nonfiction, poems and plays – to kickstart these conversations. We write frequently about the benefits of these discussions. But what exactly does a conversation around a literary text look like in action?
When Apple CEO Tim Cook appeared on NPR’s Morning Edition in June, interviewer Steve Inskeep posed a question about the uncertain future of artificial intelligence in the workplace: “Are you. . . scared by the prospects of AI getting out of control?”
“I don’t really worry about machines thinking like people,” Cook replied. “I worry about people thinking like machines.” The real cause for concern, he added, is the potential “absence of humanity” and “deep thought” in the corporate world.
Cook’s response immediately reminded me of Ken Liu’s “The Regular,” a short story that we have used in Books@Work programs and discussed together as a team. The premise is simple: police detectives in a not-so-distant future have been outfitted with devices that regulate their decision-making functions. If the regulator detects too much emotion behind a decision, it will nudge the brain to be more logical, no matter the consequences. In other words, what happens when people think like machines?
Today, we’re featuring an interview with Benne Hutson, the Director, Environmental and Deputy General Counsel for EnPro Industries, a global manufacturing company. Benne participates in Books@Work alongside leaders and staff from various departments in the corporate office. Together, the ongoing group has read and discussed over 15 short stories and counting.
When we asked Benne to share a little bit about his fellow Books@work participants, he said, “There were people from the legal department, internal audit, the payroll department, the tax department, the treasury department. So it was people that I would work with on a project every once in a while, but not on a day-to-day basis. Even if I worked with them regularly, I’m not sure I would’ve known them as a person in the way that you get to know them through Books@Work.”
At Books@Work, we are daily witnesses to the power of conversation. As our own colleague Karen Nestor wrote earlier this year, good discussion is “an incubator for the kinds of innovative ideas that transform our lives” and allow us to reveal our truest selves. Walt Whitman once proclaimed in a poem, “I am large, I contain multitudes.” Conversation draws out the multitudes within us – and putting two texts into conversation can lead to even greater revelations.
In honor of Independence Day, we’re featuring two American poems in conversation: Walt Whitman’s “I Hear America Singing” and Langston Hughes’ poetic response “I, Too.” Whitman’s poem appeared in the iconic 1860 collection Leaves of Grass, and Hughes’ poem was published over 60 years later in The Weary Blues at the height of the Harlem Renaissance. Both poets provide their take on America. What does America mean to you?