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Monday, November 19, 2012

Celebrate Religion, Increase Productivity


This is a discussion point I wrote on the subject of whether it's OK to be religious at work (at GovLoop):
My focus is communication to enhance the functioning of an organization and to that end I think it is possible and important to encourage people to bring their whole selves to work.
Religion, faith, spirituality are critical aspects of diversity. When we stifle that, we disengage the workforce in a significant way. When we celebrate it in ways that don't threaten, we show that we are truly committed to intellectual diversity as well rather than the groupthink that keeps us dysfunctional at times.
For example: Imagine if we celebrated wearing religious attire at work rather than the Western suit. I know Jewish people who do not wear the headcovering (kippa) because they don't want to be "marked" or discriminated against and imagine it is similar for those of other faiths.
Another example: Imagine if we set aside prayer rooms so that people who pray multiple times a day can do that without significantly interfering with their work. I am aware of an agency that does this. It can also be used for meditation. (Just like there are lactation rooms.)
A third example: Imagine if we held cultural food celebrations so that we could learn more about faith in the context of nationality and ethnicity. I just learned about a food called "shabich" in Israel that is the most popular street food around. It is derived from the Sabbath breakfast food of Iraqi Jews (fried eggplant and hardboiled eggs) and stuffed in a pita (because everything in Israel is stuffed in a pita). I learned from this same article that falafel and hummus are originally Arab foods (see here). Considering what is going on in the Middle East it is nice to know that Israelis and Arabs (and Jews and Muslims) are in fact very similar in many ways. Cultural knowledge brings understanding and in a larger sense, peace.
A fourth example, a bit more complicated but I think necessary, has to do with helping people of faith to adapt to workplaces where the norms directly conflict with religion, and in turn helping supervisors to understand the implications of faith for some of their employees. (Example - the ultra-Orthodox Jewish practice not to shake hands with someone of the opposite sex; for those who are not familiar with it, refusal to shake hands can seem like an insult.)
Unfortunately much policy and practice seems to be driven by fear, stagnation or simply a lack of time due to more pressing operational matters. But think about it - we take the time to recruit people, we pay for training, we depend on them to work together on critical projects, and so much of our institutional knowledge is invested in their brains. Their hearts as well should be engaged in the community that supports the mission. 
To that end I agree with Facebook's philosophy as expressed in this letter to investors:
"We hope to strengthen how people relate to each other....Personal relationships are the fundamental unit of our society. Relationships are how we discover new ideas, understand our world and ultimately derive long-term happiness."
This is very much about intelligent investment in human capital...by encouraging physical fitness we cut down on sick time later on; by encouraging and celebrating spiritual self-expression (again, as long as it does not impinge on the rights of others) we cut down on disengagement and improve morale and therefore productivity.