Lakshmi Rengarajan opened the 2023 Charter Workplace Summit with a reflection on work. Charter hosted the Summit to create a playbook for 2023 for organizations engaged in creating more fair and dynamic workplaces.
This work is inspired by the works of Adrienne Maree Brown and the late Mike Rose.
I want you to think about just one person whose work, enabled you to get here to do THIS work today. And I don’t just mean your physical body. Maybe it was a parent, a teacher, someone in your upbringing or someone you don’t know at all.
Four letters and a seemingly endless list of definitions. What does it mean to work today? Well that’s just one of the questions you’ve gathered together to help answer.
Consider the people around you in this room, on this screen. In this moment. What work have they already done today? Perhaps they needed to make breakfast for someone else, negotiate with the snooze button, traveled on the subway…checked their emails, maybe offered an encouraging word.
Now go one layer deeper…who else had to work for YOU to be here, right now?
It’s not a trick question. And it’s certainly not a scolding. It’s an honoring. The ink in the markers, the backs of your chairs, the buttons on your screen. We are all woven together because someone worked. There is work between the frame of your chair…there is a person’s craft behind the code that allows you to view and hear me on this screen—it took ‘work’ to deliver the chair and who knows how many other fingerprints and heart prints are stitched into what you’re sitting in now. Someone built, measured and calculated the hydraulics and aluminum configuration that allow your chair to move.
Think about someone you care about. Imagine them at ‘work’.
Work can be how we explore our potential. We might feel some of our deepest longings and potential finally set free or we might feel ourselves slowly suffocate under the weight of work.
There is poetry in formatting a spreadsheet.
Elegance and strategy in packing a box,
tone and nuance in knowing how to run a meeting so all are heard,
there is wisdom in diagnosing an engine on sound alone,
there is precision and gut that go into watering plants,
deep experience in knowing how to frame someone’s face for bangs
…there is a quiet ear for storytelling in a PowerPoint,
a keen eye to picking out the right social media filter,
a profound patience and inner knowing to navigating a customer complaint.
There is math and muscle that go into delivering appliances.
But all these expressions can be quashed and go unseen when we don’t see the people, the hands, the minds, the hearts, the moments of humanity within this GREAT big term called ‘work’.
So today, as you hold ideas, plans, mission statements, editorial ambitions, and partnership possibilities…
may you also hold the intricate scaffolding of all the visible and invisible work that keeps this world moving and growing. In a moment where code and pixels, reports and white papers are the exalted forms,
and influencers, Twitter rants and hot takes are the emerging forms,
may you also hold the work of the electrician, the food server, the transit worker, the daycare worker. The person whose work hours would be destroyed by a sprained ankle and the person who is wondering if their career might suffer because they’re not on TikTok.
The folks who didn’t need a Gallup poll to tell them that people yearn to be seen and recognized.
Work can be the music of human potential. Our instruments may be different, some notes are heard and belted and met with applause and appreciation while others seem to go silent or pass quietly—often unnoticed—but they all long to play and be known.
If our collective work is truly a symphony, how might we build an orchestra hall so that every person’s notes, everyone’s music, might hear the applause?
Rengarajan created the Workplace Connection practice at WeWork in 2018 to address the changing nature of personal relationships in the modern workplace. She now helps organizations develop bespoke community building plans as they navigate the future of work. Prior to WeWork, she was director of Event Design at Match.com, focused on how environment and design impact people’s ability to get to know one another.