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Business is business!

Or is it?

To our dearest readers,

This article is our first actual step on the road to the business of tomorrow, meant to explore initiatives that are already unveiling their intentions and characteristics: experimental (sometimes visionary) companies that go against the established stereotypes of how businesses should be, and dare to rethink the role and organization of a company. So, why is the About Work project essential?

Let’s get started with an expression commonly heard in the conversations we have about our jobs and our employers: “this is all upside down”. This perfectly translates (and admittedly, even more perfectly in French) the vision we have of labor. It’s built upside down because the way we think and act in a company is the opposite of the way we would want to. The top of the hierarchical pyramid is elevated from its base and dominates, while the base represents the majority on which the top fully relies.

Before digging into research papers, studies and expert opinions, we do feel at our ‘own little level’ that something is off with the way we handle business and companies, and has been for a while now. The gap between what employees want and what their work environment offers them has become too significant to be ignored, and for most the mere notion of work rhymes with toxic and burden. The problem is, we are less and less inclined to settle with this situation. The new generations entering the workforce refuse to take part in this scam (or at least many do so half-heartedly) and leave as soon as they can to see if the grass is greener on the other side. As a reaction, new organizational models have emerged and seem to play by new rules, emancipating themselves from the established mindsets of how businesses should be run. However, these models remain rare specimen, and the companies of the future are taking their first steps.

But what do these “companies of the future” look like? What is the company we have today, and in what condition is it? Why would the company of tomorrow be any different from what it is today? And why should it?

Here at About Work, we choose to ignore the good old saying stating that “business is business my dear”. We choose to study carefully and objectively the current situations in the corporate world today, the problems and expectations related to our current organizational systems, and present to you the solution we have found at our level to move forward and take part in building the company of tomorrow instead. For our greater pleasure.


We work in organizations with hybrid ways of thinking

in a nutshell

Five different organizational and associated ways of thinking, inherited from human evolution, coexist today in our companies and society, creating a patchwork of intentions and tools derived from these ways of thinking. Most so-called ‘classic’ companies’ way of operating follow the Orange paradigm, and try to incorporate some notions from the Green paradigm, and sometimes even the Teal ones. But this wide gap between the humanist values that are said to be followed and the rigid and profit-oriented hierarchy often leads to disillusion and disengagement from employees, more often than most expressed through the (in)famous “BULLSHIT!”.

more specifically...

Let’s start by understanding what are the different organizational modes, and thus work philosophies, coexisting in our companies today. According to F. Laloux in his book Reinventing Organizations, mankind has developed five main organizational modes throughout human history and evolution. We moved from the first stages of development dominated by ego, violence and present-centeredness, within authoritative tribal societies (Red paradigm) on to larger civilizations organized around superior authorities in the form of states, in which people accessed security by sticking to the place that had been defined for them and through blind obedience (Amber paradigm). Then came large corporations based on innovation, responsibility and meritocracy, in which each person can reach success and achievement depending on how productive and efficient he/she is (Orange paradigm). All of these three stages are characterized by pyramidal structures, even though criteria to access the next layer vary from one paradigm to the other: egocentrism and violence (Red), ethnocentrism and social status (Amber) and merit (Orange). Next appeared organizations appalled by the individualism, cupidity, inequality and stiffness observed in the previous organizations, and which therefore decided to center themselves around humanist values, seeking for equality in more or less extreme proportions. They introduced empowerment and corporate social responsibility (Green paradigm). Another way of looking at it comes from Isaac Getz and Brian McCarney, who published the best-seller Freedom, Inc: they observe two kinds of companies. The “how” companies focus on telling employees how to do their work, consistently using authority and control over them, while the “why” companies focus on the ultimate goal, which is making the customer happy. This gives way to a high level of autonomy and highly motivates employees, thus boosts profitability and the company’s sustainability as a whole.

The idea that “Businesses have a responsibility not only to investors, but also to management, employees, customers, suppliers, local communities, society at large, and the environment.” (F. Laloux) begins to spread. Which leads us to the fifth emerging development stage, the Teal paradigm, in which each organization is viewed as a living organism or living system, where all members are linked and operate for the common good of the organization. (cf partie III)

These five paradigms coexist today in our companies and society, creating a patchwork of intentions and tools derived from these ways of thinking. Most so-called ‘classic’ company's way of operating, especially in medium and large corporations, follows the Orange paradigm, and try to incorporate some notions from the Green paradigm, and sometimes even the Teal ones, more or less successfully. But this wide gap between the humanist values that are said to be followed and the rigid and profit oriented hierarchy often leads to a desillusion and a disengagement from employees, more often than most expressed through the (in)famous “BULLSHIT!”.

Evolution des organisations_EN


Generating a crisis of meaning in corporations

in a nutshell

So it comes down to this “crisis of meaning” that has been thrown around in the media as the one great corporate evil of our time, and that seems to first impact people at an individual level. More and more employees within companies assert that they find it difficult to find meaning in their work, not really in regards to their function as it appears, but rather to the purpose of what they are producing through and for their work.

more specifically...

The numerous studies that have been conducted since the seventies on motivation and wellness when applied to the workplace have shown that the evolution of our work has led to develop many symptoms resulting in this global “crisis of meaning” - an increasing lack of motivation and engagement, a global deterioration of the well-being at work, and the development of psychosocial illnesses (bore-out, brown-out, bullshit jobs, stress, harassment, burn-out…). Must we mention again the 35 suicides that shed light on the ongoing “terror management” at France Telecom between 2008 and 2009? We may as well mention the direct physical consequences of these symptoms: men who feel like they have little or no control at all over their work are half more likely to suffer heart disorders. It rises up to 100% when it comes to women (according to a study led by Hans Bosma, Stephen Stanfeld et Michael Marmot on more than 10 000 british public servants). Chronic psychosocial stress results in high secretion from the adrenal glands, hypertension, and an increased heart rate, leading to adult diabetes and infertility. This is all very expensive for the firm: absenteeism, lack of productivity, and stress-related health spendings costs about $10,000 per employee (according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics).

The polling institute Gallup, specialized in studies about the workplace, wellness and social integration, announced in 2012 that only 9% of employees in France were actively engaged in their work and were invested in producing positive results for their organization. 13% worldwide. As for the rest of our fellow citizens, 65% are not engaged, meaning that they’re doing their job just fine, but nothing more and nothing less, and 26% are actively disengaged, meaning they negatively impact their colleagues (State of the Global Workplace). And when we read in Deloitte’s 2016 Report on HR Trends that “Employees engagement is confirmed as a key challenge for businesses: 80% of French businesses rate this trend as important or very important (85% worldwide)”, we can only see it as a confirmation that the situation is critical. It’s not just us. All the more since only 46% of them feel ready to tackle the challenge. Besides the loss of meaning in work tasks, one also realizes that few team members and managers really understand their company’s culture (28% according to the same Deloitte’s study). So, no, everything shouldn’t be thrown into the flames. But we have to admit that work intensification, including often impossible workloads and objectives, exacerbated competition, and lack of autonomy prevent our development at work and the full exploitation of our latent potential in its wholeness. And though everybody doesn’t necessarily work just to get their paycheck at the end of the month, we observe that people who are really into their work, passionate and proud of what they do everyday at their job are hard to find.


… and therefore a crisis of corporations themselves

in a nutshell

More generally, questioning the meaning and purpose of all these hours we invest in our companies is more and more often applied to the company itself, to its purpose and its social and environmental responsibility.

more specifically...

At a time when every company has nicely defined its values and “Code of Ethics”, and has pinned them up on the office walls: trust, team spirit, spirit of initiative, ambition, respect, diversity, responsibility, openness…, employees are more often than not still wondering what weight these values bear when not serving the company’s ambition for profitability or the shareholders’ dividends.

Now, let’s talk about corporate involvement and impact on its direct and indirect social and natural environment, a.k.a. the famous CSR policy. Unravelling the true from the false is not easy, when so many philanthropic initiatives - especially in the energy, IT and fashion industries, and more generally in any mass consumption related industry are deployed through PR strategies. But without knowing the “whole truth”, we feel that very rarely do companies genuinely invest in their local communities, setting up concrete actions to fight against environmental deterioration or human exploitation, in other words living up to these beautiful values they chose for themselves.

In fact, ethics-related scandals multiply in large (and less large) corporations. The way they’re dealing with their commitments to their clients and employees looks like Trump dealing with the truth (Orange, Zara, Coca-Cola, Volkswagen, Uber, Deliveroo, Lafarge-Holcim…) and yet: nothing seems to change. Worse still, these behaviors become usual, “I’m not surprised, what did you expect?!” (no, it’s not Schweppes), as if this way of conducting business this vision of what a company should do was inevitable. All this leads to a profound disillusionment with the world of work and businesses, and to an increased sense of helplessness, especially among the young generations: “business is business, don’t think for a second that we live in a wonderful world”.


The dirty little secrets of motivation

“When growth and the bottom line are all that count, when the only successful life is the one that reaches the top, we are bound to experience a sense of emptiness in our lives.”

F. Laloux

in a nutshell

To sum up: there’s this crisis of meaning, all of this just doesn’t feel right, we’re unsatisfied, fair enough. But what does feel enough and right? What actually does motivate us when working? For we aren’t all Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and finding personal fulfillment and a meaning in one’s job doesn’t mean for everybody “changing the world and making it a better place”. So what’s the secret? Behavioral research has been showing for 50 years that the key to human motivation in the context of complex problem solving (which matches most situations in our current Western economy) resides in intrinsic motivators: autonomy, mastery, purpose. This goes against the way most companies function and organize work and their teams, most of the time based on extrinsic motivators (carrot-and-stick policy), which are counter-productive in our working environment. Employees feel this crisis of meaning because it stems from the gap between what they are asked to do, what they are allowed to do, and what they would like to do. This is where we need to act.

more specifically...

This problem is nothing new. There never was a golden age when people were naturally in love with their work. Jean-Denis Budin, who has created an association to accompany career transition (Credir), confirms: “Not finding meaning in one’s work has always been, even more when robotization hadn’t relieved mankind from repetitive tasks.” Besides, Behavioral research has been conducting studies trying to penetrate the secret to what motivates us for 50 years now, and the answer, quite simple, has been constant. Extrinsic motivators (carrot-and-stick policy) work really well in a simple and mechanical environment, requiring no cognitive skill; on the contrary, intrinsic motivators (autonomy, mastery and purpose) are proven to be working in a complex problem solving environment, requiring cognitive skills and creativity. But that’s not all - in this type of environment, extrinsic motivators have a negative impact on performance, restricting thinking and imagination, whereas intrinsic motivators not only improve performance but also increase motivation and engagement in the given task (check out the Candle Problem presented by Dan Pink below).

These results are no simplistic extrapolation of cold and sophisticated studies made on lab rats: they verify in real life too, and in every study carried out on motivation at work. For instance, the study “Engaging hearts and minds” (Hay Group, international management consulting firm) carried out in 2015 on 7 million employees worldwide, including 175,000 French workers, revealed that less than half of them consider their company to be innovative in the way it is operated, and that 44% don’t think they are being efficient in the way they work. Given reasons include not being encouraged to take reasonable risks to try out new ideas or working methods, not having the chance to have their ideas adopted, not feeling encouraged to share their ideas and not having a cooperative atmosphere.

The problem is that most leaders, and even employees, think that extrinsic motivators such as allowances, paychecks and perks are the best kind of motivators, and that the more you pay someone, the more one will be motivated, and therefore performing. Except that these motivators, already questionable when applied to positions involving lower responsibilities and lower skills, are even less accurate when it comes to higher skills, like management and high-ranking positions. Unfortunately enough, these represent a large part of the jobs in a knowledge-based, globalized, ever more educated and overly competitive economy, involving complex technologies and corporate structures, with problems that ought to be solved through daring (and sometimes unexpected) solutions, requiring flexibility and creativity in this type of position. In order to face the economic, social and environmental issues of our time, it may be time to start paying attention to what science teaches us, and to start changing the way we run and organize our businesses and corporations, relying on intrinsic motivators. Autonomy. Mastery. Purpose.

There is a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. Dan H. Pink

We must then find meaning in our jobs, and more importantly have the opportunity and freedom to make the most of our natural and acquired talents to lead our businesses and societies to prosperity. The crisis of meaning felt by employees in companies stems from the gap between what they are asked to do, what they are allowed to do, and what they would like to do. By the way, these issues are said to be dear to the younger generations (Y or even Z…), who already account today for more than half of the workforce. They feel that their skills are often under-valued and employed, and thus are calling for new types of recognition at work. But this is sadly where our corporations are having a hard time.


Current propositions stand between half-measures and concessions

in a nutshell

To answer these issues, corporations have led (and still do) actions to restore the meaning of work, trying to engage and empower team members, without getting too ahead of themselves though, so as not to entice too much employees with dreams of freedom and emancipation. Are those smokescreens or does it embody a proper change in action? It may be a little bit of both actually, for it is moving from thought to action that is difficult, and most people and corporations fear the new models offered by pioneers in management and reorganization. Thus, they choose compromise over revolution, in a such a way that it impacts only the surface of their organization, while the structure and the focus on control remain. And this is what it’s all about.

more specifically...

At an individual level, at least on paper, initiatives focus on providing employees with greater flexibility, stimulating their engagement, and achieving agility (#1 buzzword of the moment). In practical terms, this results more often than not in experimentations and initiatives that are more local than global. For instance, corporations test lighter hierarchy on some business units in order to empower their team members. Or they pivot to networked, team-based structures, connected through projects, instead of employee clusters defined by one’s post or geographical belonging. They redesign their processes through Design Thinking, in order to simplify and rationalize communication, and to encourage collaboration between team-members. Another focus is made on rethinking offices’ design and organization - giving priority to coworking spaces in order to foster contacts and thus (?) creativity, using warm or flashy colors to create a more friendly working environment. Also, they organize in-house ideation challenges so that they can identify and harvest promising ideas running around the company.

At a higher level, change is also reflected in corporation’s decisions to make larger and more important social commitments. Foundations with feminist, social or cultural matters at heart are flourishing. Investments in “green bonds”, which are bonds conditioned to eco-friendly projects are soaring (issuances have doubled in 2 years). As a matter of fact, Allianz, which is one of the most massive investors you can find on our planet due to the huge amount of insurance premiums it collects, decided to quit investing in companies with at least 40% of its activity depending on coal. Many companies also encourage their employees to take a day off and do some civic service (and they certainly don’t miss out on publishing pictures taken during this special day on their corporate website).

Other actions are taken from start-ups that understand something is off. Many apps are created in the Happytech to address some issues. The Never Eat Alone app plans lunches for you with other coworkers you don’t know yet, in order to create a better sense of belonging, for example. Many of them encourage healthy eating, sports activities, and body exercises to optimize your general well-being. These ideas are implemented at work, but not for work. We work around these apps. They make a difference, yes: but is it enough? It won’t prevent you from having a terrible boss or from being bored by your Excel sheets. It may help you live with the idea more easily, though.

However, we’re still far from the change Laloux advocates for. He believes the next step that is starting to emerge is the Teal one. It basically considers organizations as living bodies. Such bodies include three core steps forward: self-management (hierarchies are torn down while consensus isn’t necessarily required), self expression (by exploiting everything that makes coworkers who they are: their talent, their assets, their shortcomings, and their humanity), and a basic mind set on constant evolution (adapting the corporate structure and the corporate tools according to coworkers’ ambition). Many businesses agree with the observation and actually admire self-organized firms. They do integrate some of their practices in certain business units. But they are also many to declare that there is a need for even more leaders. That’s right: the Deloitte study reveals that 83% of the respondents intend to increase their budgets allocated to their leadership because “the traditional pyramid model of leadership development doesn’t make enough leaders, or at least not fast enough to address the business needs and the quick changes that unfold in a highly competitive environment”.


… and aren’t enough

in a nutshell

Indeed, most of these halftone solutions that are implemented aren’t completely satisfying. It’s no surprise when looking at the mismatch between the intention lying behind such initiatives and the dominant corporate mindset, based on control. In this context, individual, collective, and social initiatives are flowing out in an attempt to bring the change they seek through new plans.

more specifically...

An innovative idea consists in temporary workspaces. While it enables coworkers to choose their office for the day when they arrive in the morning, it also generates stress. Because the top management is still there, self-organized business units are only half self-organized. Experts such as David Courpasson looked at psychosocial risks stemming from poorly managed project groups. He noticed that pressure increased due to performance requirements, that organizational skills prevailed over functional competencies, and he also observed a sense of grief at the end of the project ( As a result, these halftone measures constitute a discording patchwork of failed attempts to shift the stats and put coworkers’ well-being and the planet’s sustainability back on track.

Individual initiatives have taken over, in order to offset the difficulties large corporations face. As Teerlink, former CEO at Harley-Davidson (a self-organized firm) : “people don’t refuse change, they refuse to be changed”. Social entrepreneurship ( has spread like mushrooms in the 2000 decade, not only in France but worldwide. Consulting firms specialized in organizational change and digital transformation are the new black. See for yourself: today in France, 6 out of 10 twenty-somethings want to setup their own business (according to the OpinionWay barometer from February 2017). More and more citizen-led movements raise debates over collective governance and promote social local intiatives (Mouvement Colibris, Bleublanczebre, …).

So what should we do?

1/ Tackle stereotypes to further diversify the alternatives and to develop better solutions

It has become absolutely necessary to rethink how a company works from its base, instead of trying to fix and refurbish a dysfunctional system. Right. So now there’s this 1-million-dollar question we have to answer: what can we do about it?

At About Work, we believe the very first step, often ignored, is to start fighting against clichés and common myths we all have on the corporate world. Wrong ideas on how they’re supposed to work, what people tell us, what we hear, what we are made to believe, what we’ve always thought and especially, most importantly what isn’t told. Let’s be a modern era Numerobis, let’s prove Amonbofis, who “does it this way because we’ve always done it this way”, wrong. It’s only by questioning what we believe in that we will find solutions to address our needs: both current but more importantly future ones. Diversity generates richness.

Brian Robertson said so...

"I had to give up everything I thought I knew to focus on my sole inquiry: how to identify elements that could be improved, and how to correct them? [...] Without presuming of the solutions, my work was mainly about experimenting a lot in order to keep only the best tools."

Brian Robertson
Brian Robertson founder of Ternary Software and creator of the Holacracy model, currently considered as one of the most advanced self-organized management model

2/ Meet with these pioneers of the new corporate world

When freed from these myths and beliefs that pollute our critical thinking, we will have our eyes wide open to discover and explore daring initiatives that intend to address the general disengagement and inefficiency problems.

We want to meet these companies that dared getting rid of their offices, reducing hierarchy at its core minimum, neglecting the aim of accumulating profits.

With our bullshit-o-meter at hand, we will check and double-check the credibility of companies claiming that trust, well-being, and environment issues are at the heart of their mission and culture.

We want to take a closer look at this visionaries. Left-wing hippies for some, absolute corporate heroes for others, either way they dare to swim against the stream to offer a better alternative for everyone. They’re the ones who still don’t get why we insist so much on being bored at work and bullshiting our way through to the top of the pyramid.They’re the ones who refuse to maintain a system that disappoints some of us, and that makes us cynical, depressed, sick. No matter how high the price. They’re the ones who want businesses to assume their social responsibility. They’re the ones who won’t give up.

Together, we will march on the American land that once embodied the hopes for a better world. This may be a second chance for the Western civilization, already choking on deadly working conditions during the First Industrial Revolution. It is the Mother Earth of entrepreneurship and the incarnation of capitalist abuse all at the same time. This is the spot we chose to start getting some answers: is there still room for idealism? Is it still reasonable to believe in marginal solutions? Can the corporate world of tomorrow be better for humankind?

When our test tubes are filled up and when our notebooks are scraped all over by dying pencils, one last question will remain: why ain’t these types of initiatives more developed and spread here in France? What lessons can be learned from the USA? How can cultural gaps be overcome?  We’ve got a mountain in front of us. And we’re dying to start climbing it.

The last word to you, Ilana.

> If you want to know more about social entrepreneurship, it's over here: mouves

> If you want to know more about the depths of human motivation, Dan Ariely is a master in the field.

> Good Leadership according to Michael Scott: click and learn!

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