Recently I was invited by a company to deliver my “innovation talk.” I love doing these types of lectures because typically, I start by asking how many days the people actually responsible for innovation work in the office. This always starts a fun and lively conversation. So when I received this last-minute invitation, I rescheduled a bunch of things to accommodate it.
In the course of rearranging my own schedule, however, I failed to keep tabs on whether other people with whom I had appointments might be doing likewise. Hustling to print a bunch of crazy business plans I had put together for my last meeting of the day, I decided not to answer the phone or look at my e-mail.
Instead, I put on some rousing country music to get me in the mood, then took off on the 30-minute drive to the company whose CEO and senior leadership team I was meeting with, only to be given a profuse apology by his administrative assistant for his having had to cancel the meeting due to an unanticipated crisis having arisen. And, yes, they had tried calling, e-mailing and texting me repeatedly to let me know, so I really had no one to blame but myself. But I was still a little upset because I was actually looking forward to this particular meeting. But I returned to my office determined to make the best of having some unexpected free time.
Whenever something of this nature happens to me, I always ask myself why, and what I should learn from the experience. This time, however, no answers really came to me until a couple of days later, when I remembered the vast office full of tall cubicles I had glimpsed while talking to the administrative assistant, There seemed to be hundreds of them, done in an off-color scheme that appeared to be from the ‘80s. No plants or sources of natural light were anywhere in sight. The air felt stale, and my throat started feeling scratchy even during the brief time I spent there.
At that moment the lesson came home to me—actually, a two-tiered realization.
First, I began thinking about all the companies that need to knock down these walls – and I don’t mean just the ugly cubicles themselves, but the ugly command-and-control models also associated with these type of office environments that, for many employees, make just going to work seem like a daily crisis. And then it occurred to me that I would have to significantly expand what I planned to discuss at the upcoming innovation session. In short, I would need to focus more than ever on finding and promoting ways to improve the well-being of the countless individuals who have jobs in offices like that one.
Then I remembered something I had on my desk — a book written by Doctor Esther Sternberg called The Balance Within: The Science Connecting Health and Emotions. Dr. Sternberg’s specialty is the direct role that stress and emotions play in physical well-being, and how our immune systems and brains interact. In fact, it’s something I’ve learned about directly from Dr. Sternberg herself, whom I sat next to on a train from L.A. to San Diego. At the time, she was repurposing slides from a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk about how human health is affected by our immediate environment, whether in an office, home, hospital or whatever, and I couldn’t help sneaking a look at them. Finally, I felt so guilty about observing what she was doing that I changed seats. But when we arrived at our mutual destination, I felt compelled to tell her that I moved because I felt guilty about peering at her slides.
That conversation proved to be a real ice-breaker, and we have since connected on a few issues. But my visit to the office where my meeting was unexpectedly cancelled has suddenly made me acutely aware of just how relevant those slides were to my own service as a counsellor and consultant to the business community.
As a result, I am now more focused than ever on the importance of eliminating the kinds of stress factors in the workplace that Dr. Sternberg writes and lectures on. And my starting point would be that innovation talk I had scheduled — because how can anyone be innovative in an environment that undermines their basic health and well-being?
Let’s just say that my “environmentalism” is now about to go indoors. And in this effort, Dr. Sternberg will be my guide and guru.