Why You Need to Help Employees Find Romance in Their Work, According to Tim Leberecht

October 10, 2018

85% of employees are not engaged at work—costing companies $7 trillion in lost productivity, globally.

In the eyes of Tim Leberecht, one of the keynote speakers at Talent Connect 2018, the drive toward productivity and optimization is what’s at fault. To make work meaningful in an era of automation, he believes leaders need to focus on enhancing the beauty and romance of business.

“We need a new romantic revolution,” Tim says. “Because romance is what makes us human against the backdrop of AI and automation. And romance is also the ultimate differentiator, when everything else is just scaling, efficiencies, optimizing, maximizing.”

A self-proclaimed romantic, Tim is the co-founder and co-CEO of The Business Romantic Society, a management consultancy that aims to help companies put the romance back into business. He argues that companies that help their employees find romance in their work will have a distinct advantage over those that don’t—fostering innovation, boosting retention, and creating a sense of purpose.

What does romance at work actually mean?

It’s important to note that when Tim says it’s critical to find romance at work, he means poetic romance, not red roses and love letters. “Romanticism” emerged in the 18th century in reaction to the Enlightenment. The Romantics—including poets like Wordsworth, Shelley, and Keats—felt that modern science was too limited to explain the human soul, and wanted to find more meaning.

“They espoused virtues such as emotion, mystery, transcendence, serendipity, ambiguity in response to that,” Tim says.

“I believe we are on the cusp of a new Romantic Era. This time, it’s in response to the disenchantment caused by the datafication, the optimization of everything—including ourselves.”

To overcome this disenchantment, here are Tim’s three rules for creating a romantic culture at your company.

Rule 1: Do the unnecessary—add purpose and meaning through gestures that align with your values

Earlier in his career, Tim found himself in the middle of a merger between two companies with radically different cultures. To align them with one another, Tim’s team had an idea: to give an orange balloon to every employee. Since this included 10,000 team members across two continents, the gesture was designed to help them all feel united under the umbrella of the new, orange-branded company.

But since this expense was viewed as unnecessary, the balloons were nixed. This small decision, and the mindset behind it, marked the beginning of the end, Tim says. The two cultures never truly became one, and the merger ultimately failed.

“You might not always realize it, but when you kill the unnecessary, you kill everything,” Tim cautions. “To lead with beauty means to rise above what is merely necessary.”

The “unnecessary” can look different for every company. At Apple, Steve Jobs famously insisted on putting as much care into the computers’ interior design as they put into the exterior, claiming customers could “feel it,” even if they couldn’t see it. At Patagonia, customers can get their clothing repaired before it needs replacing, which promotes sustainability, a core company value.

One thing connects these examples: they align with the values of the company making them. And since studies show that today’s job seekers want to work for mission-driven companies with values that match their own, these seemingly “unnecessary” gestures can actually be powerful recruiting and retention tools.

“So do not kill your orange balloons,” Tim says.

Rule 2: Create intimacy—break down barriers and help employees feel connected to one another

Modern technology might keep people connected, but it also creates distance that can lead to loneliness. With the rise of remote work, this is a big concern. But even the efficient, formal way employees might communicate in person can be distancing.

Tim says the solution isn’t simply getting people in the same room. It’s finding ways to build intimacy into workplace interactions—even if they’re unexpected.

Food company Danone achieved this during a strategy retreat in Évian, France. Every member of the 200-strong leadership team was instructed to wear silly costumes, wigs, and hats for the entirety of the three-day meeting—including the CEO. This encouraged people to let their guard down. The retreat proved a huge success, revitalizing leadership enthusiasm and leading to great decisions.

“Wigs or masks allow us to show something true about ourselves, in the disguise of the false,” Tim explains. “And it’s these moments of intimacy and truth that really matter at work.”

You can create intimacy and truth without a silly hat or three days to spare. Frog, a design firm where Tim served as CMO, took inspiration from speed dating in its onboarding process. New recruits would speed-meet current employees, an efficient but fun way to help them settle in and get to know everyone.

“People are craving experiences like that,” Tim says. “They want to be treated like unique, individual, subjective human beings—not as the objects of algorithmic recommendation engines. They don’t want personalized experiences; they want personal experiences.”

By breaking down the barriers that distance employees from one another, you can help employees feel more connected to each other and to the company. This reduces loneliness, helps employees feel understood, and may lead to more effective and productive workplaces.

Rule 3: Suffer a little—balance instant perks with delayed gratification to increase commitment

Whether it’s Amazon’s two-hour delivery or Uber’s cashless alternative to taxis, convenience rules customer experience. That’s also where workplaces are heading. Just look at the perks and benefits that many companies offer; candidates are sold on the promise of an immediate reward for joining the team.

While these perks are enticing (and sometimes downright awe-inspiring), Tim argues that this drive toward instant gratification might prove dissatisfying in the long run.

“There’s one thing that trumps the value of convenience for humans, and that is experience,” he says. “We say we want more time, but what we really want is more memories.”

Tim points to customer loyalty programs as a great example of this. They involve patience, perseverance, and maybe even a little frustration. But that delayed gratification—like finally getting your 10th coffee free—makes the reward more exciting.

You can apply the same approach to candidate experience. Zappos has done just that. To become eligible to apply for a job at the online retailer, candidates must first register for their network, Zappos Insider, engage with current employees, and learn more about the culture.

“What they’re doing is actually making it harder to apply,” Tim says. “By asking people to suffer a little, they foster commitment and make it more meaningful.”

Experiences like this inspire passion and build a brand following. So don’t be afraid to make candidates work a little. By adding meaningful and engaging steps to your hiring process, you’ll find that candidates become more invested in your company and in their job.

Getting started: let romantic principles guide you, and find more meaning at work

In the words of the great romantic poet William Wordsmith, “to begin, begin.” Start looking at the workplace in a different way, searching for meaning in everything you do. Tim also recommends “hacking” your workplace, applying romantic principles spontaneously in meetings and work processes to see what happens. The results might surprise you.

“There is an ROI of romance,” Tim says. “First, innovation. If you don’t have romantics in your organization, you’re not going to be truly innovative. Second, customer and employee loyalty. If you want your customers and your employees to fall in love with you again and again, you have to give them more than just solutions to problems. You have to give them a sense of purpose, and activate that through emotional experiences.”

By following Tim’s three rules of romantic business, companies can make their workplaces more human and more beautiful. This, Tim says, is what will help companies stand out and succeed in the age of efficiency, automation, and AI.

“It’s going to be exactly those romantic qualities that are going to be the fabric of jobs that thrive in the future,” Tim says. “It’s the sweet spot of empathy, intuition, agility, and imagination—all very romantic traits, and the jobs which have aspects of them are future-proof.”

For more romantic inspiration, you can apply for membership to Tim’s not-so-secret society, The Romantic Business Society.

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