When I entered the business world in the late 1970's, open discussions on spirituality at work were taboo. Yet, while searching through a desk drawer for correction fluid during one temporary assignment, I found a Bible. Other desks held hidden books on Buddhism and poetry, plus numerous inspirational quotes.
At a conservative commercial real estate firm, almost all of the staff and the executives got me either behind closed doors or off-site to speak about spirituality. After remarking that they had noticed me reading Fritjof Capra's "Tao of Physics" during breaks, they swore me to secrecy ("No one else here would understand," everyone insisted), and then told me their stories.
During those secret conversations I learned that one executive meditated regularly and another dreamed of doing creative service. The receptionist was a devout Christian; the researcher had spent a summer at Findhorn, the eco-spiritual community in Scotland. The mailroom clerk's spiritual journey was initiated by a poem that helped her heal from a near-suicidal depression.
Today, spirituality has come out of hiding throughout the business world. Trade journals and magazines such as "Business Week" and "Training Magazine" regularly discuss the subject. Judi Neal's website
lists dozens of conferences and graduate-level classes where participants ponder ideas from ancient Buddhist teachings to everyday business management. Hundreds of books offer practical insights and inspiration on how to work with increased meaning and joy.
One executive who has found time to do just that is August Turak, CEO of the rapidly growing Raleigh Group International software company. Turak regularly retreats to a Trappist monastery. When he works, he works hard and enjoys it, but most of the time he refuses to carry a cell phone after hours. His home telephone answering machine died three years ago, and he doesn't work on a laptop during plane trips.
Turak learned from his mentor, Lou Mobley, founder and recently retired director of the IBM Executive School that "the higher up in the organization you go, the more important people issues become. A really good executive spends enormous time on people issues, the rest on vision, to decide the things that are worth doing. These are values decisions, not efficiency issues."
When workers instinctively act from their values at work, the work can become more efficient and profound. During a hard time, legal secretary Brenda Fuller, placed a prayer she loved by her telephone. Later she added a photo that makes her laugh and a quote by Goethe to go boldly towards her dreams. Tiny frames filled with prayers graced her computer monitor stand.
Brenda inspired me to collect examples of other "workplace altars"--a natural response to the need for respectful reflection wherever we are. "Stop here long enough to consider what matters," altars invite. "Reconnect here to the wonder of life. Gain strength and guidance."
Because of business practice and labor laws, workplace altars need to be discreet. The underground workplace of Patsy Attwood, a station agent for the San Francisco Bay Area Rapid Transit System, is an example. You could walk by and never notice how subtly she has altered her space to integrate faith and work.
Attwood's glass-walled booth is enlivened by plants and flowers. Whenever she enters her space, she blesses it. On her phone console, a prayer she wrote helps her live her values moment to moment.
From July 1999 until May of 2001, I wrote about spirituality and work for the San Francisco Chronicle's Career Search section. People I interviewed demonstrated that meaningful work has little to do with job description and everything to do with attitude, especially a willingness to see the world of work with fresh consciousness.
"Becoming a dad and businessman forced me to discover that people I used to think of as adversaries are really people like me who made different decisions because they had different information," says cultural anthropologist and mountaineer Jeff Salz, Ph.D. "I got my information from the Andes, the Tibetan mountains, the sunrise over the Grand Canyon; they may have learned from the Wharton School of Business or Tom Clancey. We have much to teach each other."