Work life

  • The Soul at Work
    by Roger Lewin and Birute Regine (Simon & Schuster, 2000)
  • The Working Life
    by Joanne B. Ciulla (Times Books, 2000)

In the process of doing research for The Soul at Work, Roger Lewin and Birute Regine set out to explore how "complexity science" was being used to understand the way businesses worked. They originally thought that this discipline, designed to explore "complex systems in the natural world," described dynamics found in "operational problems, such as scheduling; in strategy; and in organizational dynamics." What the authors found was that complexity science was most usefully applied to the study of the relationships among people at work.

The authors describe complexity science at work in various companies (including VeriFone, St. Luke's Hospital, Babel's Paint & Decorating Store, and DuPont). Although The Soul at Work is a fascinating read and the authors talk clearly about complexity science, you might wonder where the "soul" part of the title comes in. Maybe it's in an observation the authors make early on: "When the individual soul is connected to the organization, people become connected to something deeper -- the desire to contribute to a larger purpose, to feel they are part of a greater whole, a web of connection."

True enough. But what the authors fail to explore deeply is how terribly awry such a larger purpose can go. You can see it now in some of the dot-com start-ups with a 24-7 work mandate -- which is not so much an ethic as an expectation, part and parcel of the Internet culture. Workers can allow this bigger purpose -- carried to its extreme -- to take over their lives. And usually when an employee looks to a company to fulfill all of his or her needs -- financial, physical, mental, or spiritual -- no good can come of it.

There are some who would argue that management focuses "more on trying to make one feel good than on creating a just workplace." Joanne Ciulla says as much in The Working Life: Working to Live, Living to Work. She notes that in order to build more stability into their lives, workers must "be connected to activities and organizations unrelated to work."

Seems like an elegantly simple solution for a complex world.