BookWatch: Tech companies are more like church than you think

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Silicon Valley is famously non-religious, showing one of the lowest rates of religious affiliation in the United States. But in my study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley, I found that tech workers do worship — at work.

I don’t mean they worship work. I mean that Silicon Valley companies go out of their way to satisfy elite employees’ inner yearnings by delivering the spiritual benefits that Americans once got from going to church, synagogue, meeting, and the like.

Here’s how they do it:

1. Companies offer meaning, mission, and purpose. Silicon Valley knows that above a certain salary level, offering meaning is more powerful than offering more money. And so its companies recruit with missions like “connect the world,” “spread love,” “help humanity thrive” – all achieved by building and selling their apps. Employees become disciples, driven to spread the good news. Every person I met in Silicon Valley could articulate their personal mission in relation to their work, saying they had found their “callings.” Work filled their lives with meaning – making layoffs especially devastating.

2. Companies demand and cultivate faith. Religions ask human beings to develop faith that they have a place in the universe and can walk through life’s challenges devoted to more than just themselves. In the competitive world of Silicon Valley startups, where nine out of 10 fail, workers need faith that they will be the ones who succeed — that their venture will be the chosen one, acquired or delivering a spectacularly rewarding IPO.

Companies support that faith with all-hands meetings that feel like revival meetings, led by charismatic, inspiring and god-like leaders like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

Filled with faith, workers sacrifice their home and personal lives, their sleep and well-being, to the company’s mission. These intense psychic, social, and emotional demands can at times result in cultlike cultures that cut workers off from the world outside.   

3. Companies offer spiritual guidance. Silicon Valley companies bring in religious and spiritual leaders like Wayne Dyer and Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield to offer spiritual care and development to top-tier employees. Many tech firms now teach meditation and mindfulness to help workers with focus, creativity, and problem solving. At their annual Dreamforce conference, tech giant Salesforce
CRM,
-0.73%

brought in 25 Buddhist monks to teach conference attendees to meditate and breathe.

Some companies hold retreats for senior leaders at spiritual and religious centers. Others offer “wellness benefits” that include paid spiritual retreats. Following meditation, some teachers may even read from spiritual texts such as the Bhagavad Gita or the Bible.

Why? Spirituality is a competitive advantage, companies believe. Meditation, they reason, can cultivate compassion and empathy — which helps employees create better, more user-friendly products. Executive coaches teach senior leaders practices of spiritual reflection and discernment so that they can “connect” with their “authentic selves” and remove any emotional and spiritual obstacles that might prevent them from giving all of themselves — to work.

Princeton University Press

4. Companies offer identity. Once upon a time, Americans developed deep senses of identity as members of their religious communities, as Protestants, Catholics, Jews — perhaps displayed by wearing a cross, crucifix, or yarmulke.

Today tech workers signify their group identities by wearing company T-shirts and sweatshirts or displaying company logos on their computers, backpacks, or cars. They name themselves after their companies, with Google
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+1.95%

GOOGL,
+1.90%

employees calling themselves “Googlers” and Meta
FB,
+3.22%

employees calling themselves “Metamates” – all signs of loyalty, pride, and group identity.

5. Companies offer belonging. Faith communities usually offer a web of activities to satisfy members’ social needs and bind them to the shared mission, with sports teams, soup kitchens, choir, bingo, study sessions, summer camps and more. Now tech companies deliver all that on site. Employees never need stray elsewhere for book groups, rock-climbing walls, music night, hiking clubs, art clubs or even community service days.

Instead of attending church potlucks or kiddush brunches, they (pre-pandemic, at least) “break bread” at work with healthy, delicious chef-prepared offerings that keep disciples fed within the fold.

If you look beneath the apparent benefits in these five areas, the religion of work is highly exclusive and extractive – religion at its worst, not best. Only the top echelon of the U.S. workforce gets the spiritual and emotional rewards of belonging, faith, identity, meaning, and spiritual guidance. Everyone else – janitors, bus drivers, cafeteria workers and others – is treated as disposable.

Those top workers might have once been involved in neighborhood associations, sports leagues and, Rotary clubs where they would have built a civic life that everyone can benefit from. While their lives may still be filled with purpose, it’s one that their companies ultimately use to enhance bottom line.  

That’s the religion of Silicon Valley.

Carolyn Chen, a sociologist, is an associate professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley. She is the author of “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley“.

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