Helen Wilkinson - working@life

Helen Wilkinson - working@life - Organisations used to be measured by their productivity and profit margins. Well, no longer.

by HELEN WILKINSON is founder and CEO of elancentric.com(hwilkins@netcomuk.co.uk)
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Organisations used to be measured by their productivity and profit margins. Well, no longer.

New-economy evangelists are redefining organisational value. In an economy where knowledge, creativity and innovation are prized assets, people are the new bottom line, according to Roger Lewin and Birute Regine in their book The Soul at Work. The buzzword on every organisational consultant's lips is: does your organisation have spirit?

Such an organisational ethos is sweet music to the ears of today's new workers. They are actively seeking meaning in the workplace and looking for work that resonates with their being, their passion and their values.

Now there is the potential for a fit between new organisational forms and the needs and preferences of workers as traditional hierarchical work environments give way to networked organisations and as the locus of control shifts from outside ourselves to inside.

Although most books focus on unleashing soul and spirit in the corporate workplace, it may be small and medium-sized enterprises that have the most insights. For someone involved in building my own fledgling business this year, these issues have been very live, and the tale of my business is in some ways an example of bringing soul to work.

To Lewin and Regine, organisations with soul develop three common practices: they promote a style of leadership that guides without being controlling; they actively create dynamic teams; and they develop strong relationships among workers, customers and the community, as they embed themselves in their society.

I'd like to think that we have actively walked their walk, as well as talked their talk.

Having been involved with a start-up before, I understood the need for transparency and for harnessing the team behind a clear mission, and the imperative of living the brand.

I used those insights as I set about creating the company culture that embodied the values of the community we were planning to serve, and I strove to pay as much attention to the internal culture and to the team's sense of cohesion as to building the business, because for me there is no real separation between the two.

From the outset, we recognised that the success of our business depended on the extent to which our organisational ethos and culture reflected broader changes in the world of work. Only then could we truly service our customers.

Most of us at elancentric don't fit into the traditional workplace cultures of large organisations; indeed, we have actively opted out of them. Others - like our students - cannot imagine ever opting into them. More often than not, we have arrived at our own notions of success, seeing working life as a journey of discovery and personal development. This we share with the elancers whom we are dedicated to serving.

Although we've had to work horribly long hours during the start-up phase, we're driven by a passionate belief in the virtues of elancing as a solution to the tug-of-war between work and life. In our efforts to meet our own superhuman deadlines, it was perhaps appropriate that we brought the home into the workplace, filling up the fridge, bringing in pillows, mattresses, a sofa bed and futon, our work and personal lives blending seamlessly as we returned to the lifestyles we'd led as elancers to birth our baby.

The boundaries between employee, contractor, supplier and elance designer became porous as our fledgling community shared pizzas, beers, Cokes and Red Bulls, while our elance writers worked invisibly and electronically behind the scenes, to bring our community and our values to life.

Now when we meet people who'd like to work with us at elancentric, we are only partly interested in their skills and core competencies. Of course, we want to know that a bean-counter can count beans and that a web mistress knows how to weave the world wide web. But, above all, we want to know that the person we are talking to is ready to bring their soul as well as their skills to work.

On a personal level, this year has been like no other. I have had the chance to experiment with and co-create the kind of workplace culture that many people can only dream of, and that remains a daily source of inspiration, innovation and creativity. And in my darkest moments I hold on to one simple truth: even if the business dies through under-investment, or market forces, or simply because we have a vision that is ahead of its time, its spirit will live on among those who have shared the pleasures and the pain involved in bringing it into the world. That for me is soul@work, and bluechip plc cannot even begin to compete.

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