What is an Intentional Workplace?


What is an Intentional Workplace?  We may have to use our imagination more than our experience in trying to answer this question.

The dictionary defines intentional as:  done with intention or on purpose.

Not many people have had the experience of working in environments that operate intentionally or “consciously.”  You know – the kind of organization, team or workplace where conscious thought for addressing human needs is understood, recognized and integrated into the system.

We are speaking, of course, of human dynamics and work and how they fit with the needs of a workplace  Too often people subvert or ignore their own personal needs when they go to work. We’ve been conditioned to believe that human needs should not drive business decisions. This moribund idea is based on another core business belief that should soon become obsolete – there is no place for the “personal” in business.  

We often wonder why more people today don’t have greater expectations for intentional workplaces. Sadly, year after year. more surveys show that the level of worker engagement is diminishing. Yesterday’s incentives no longer hold relevancy or meaning for today’s workforce, but the mindset among many senior leaders has not grasped that reality.  Most people still persist in thinking they can do their best work and thrive when they are working in incompatible and uncaring work environments. The personal toll is huge.

Work is a vitally important foundation of most of our lives.  Not just because of economic necessity but because what we do is central to the deepest dimensions of our being in the world.

We’ve all had the experience of meeting someone new and within seconds are asked, “What do you do?”  What we do, in collective societal terms, often defines who we are.

In his landmark book Working, Studs Terkel wrote “Work is about a daily search for meaning as well as bread; for recognition as well as cash; for astonishment rather than torpor; in short for a sort of life rather than a Monday to Friday sort of dying.”          

Work – what we do, how and where we do it – and why – continues to be, for so many of us, driven by unexamined assumptions.  For the vast majority of people, work is understandably driven by economics, with little thought to satisfaction or intrinsic purpose.

Without question, this is primarily shaped by the economic and educational systems we have created, and is also reinforced by the mindset we bring to our work.  Our experience is often matched by our beliefs and expectations; formed and carried through our collective beliefs.

To us, intentional work is work that has meaning.  Any and all work can have meaning. And that meaning is defined and experienced by the person performing the work.  While we may share a collective meaning about our work with a business or a group of people, first and foremost, it’s about the worker’s sense of purpose.  When we work from this place our work is truly a “vocation,” whose Latin root (vocare) means a calling.

  • Intentional work is fulfilling.  The process and the final outcome are satisfying and provide the person doing the work with a sense of gratification and accomplishment.
  • Intentional work is respectful and has integrity.  The person producing the product or service respects what they do and how they do it.  They take genuine pride in the effort and the result. They are treated fairly by their “superiors” (now there’s a label that has to go in the new intentional mindset) at every level of their employment.
  • Intentional work serves the greater good.  That means that everyone, the worker, the team, the company and the end user all benefit.

To us, an intentional workplace:

  • Puts people first.  It creates a conscious process that is built on the understanding that human dynamics are real and are, in fact, the engine that is the driving force of all work endeavors.
  • An intentional workplace respects human needs and consistently strives to accommodate those needs. It also makes an on-going commitment to create the conditions that enhance a sense of wellbeing at every level of the system.

The sad reality is that the 19th century model of work still dominates the 21st century workplace. Largely driven by patriarchal values and demands for logic and linear thinking as the primary levers for production, the American model of work still leans too heavily on the vision of men like Fredrick Winslow Taylor.

Taylor, an efficiency zealot and the “father” of theories based on time-motion and task management, laid the groundwork for most of methods that grew into the 20th century’s modern organization’s philosophies and practices.  Obedience, regimentation, predictability and conformity were the “skills” required for success in Taylor’s world.

The sublimation of the personal needs and feelings of Taylor’s workers went unquestioned and hardened over time into a sort of hostility and mistrust of emotions in the workplace that still is prevalent today.

To be successful, early models of the organization and business required that there be a negation of the inner life of the worker.

It was not until management guru Peter Drucker declared in the 1950’s that organizations were human communities and that employees should be considered “assets,” that the fossilized thinking of Taylor’s world was effectively challenged. Although, even as the concept of workers as business assets is being challenged, the era marked the slow evolution of humanizing the workplace that is underway (however slow and choppy) today.

The harsh legacy of this history still shows up in today’s business ethos as a suspicion for self knowledge.  Intrapersonal and even interpersonal skills are still considered “soft” and at the bottom of too many to-do lists.  As the world of work now moves from the Age of Information to the Age of Imagination, creativity, the ability to form and sustain trusting relationships, cultural sensitivity and savvy will become essential.

Fear-based workplaces will find themselves hard pressed to compete in these “softer” more open environments. “Survivor Consciousness” organizations and workers that hoard power and lack emotional intelligence will be in the backseat of real change.

No one can predict where, when and how these coalescing forces of change and ultimately – transformation will take place.  But one thing we know is for certain, the most powerful tool available for creating and sustaining meaning in our work is the mindset we bring to it.

Louise Altman,  Intentional Communication Consultants

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