These days, wellbeing at work is talked about a lot. It’s a massive industry, apart from anything else. Dip a toe into LinkedIn and there is an infinite supply of people wanting to sell you their wellbeing product, or publishing virtuous posts about why mental health is important to them. (It is important.) But these interventions and narratives take as a fundamental, unexamined truth that work is necessarily based on power hierarchies. Bosses, supervisions, people overseeing each other, recruitment, leaders, HR processes—the power structure is so assumed as to be invisible.

Work seems to be necessarily based on hierarchies

As a recent emigrant from that world, I’ve played my part in perpetuating this. The interventions, suggestions and good practice case studies that we celebrated—they related to line manager behaviours; pledges that leaders could sign; whole-organisation initiatives; conversational starters and stigma-lowering activities. They never related to the structure of the organisation itself. That’s off-limits.

The structures around us are massively important to our happiness

And yet, it’s a secret that’s totally obvious but little talked about in this field: the structures around us are massively important to our happiness, our capabilities, our sense of self. At the workplace end of the scale, studies have shown that autonomy is one of the key drivers of performance in anything that requires thought (and that money isn’t, as long as people are paid enough to take the issue of money off the table. How much that is is a minefield for another day). And at the mental health end, it’s starting to be recognised as troubling to frame people’s problems as purely individual and ignore the political and the structural. A psychologist wrote recently: “the most effective therapy would be transforming the oppressive aspects of society causing our pain.”

Creating an environment where people and ideas can thrive

What’s this leading up to? Just this: to create an environment where people and ideas can thrive, look at the power structures around them.

It’s hard to overstate the lightness of neither having a line manager nor being one

We talk a lot here about the fact that we’re a co-operative. Jess recently wrote about how this works, and what it’s like to arrive in a co-op. It’s a world I’m new to as well, and it’s been a revelation. It’s hard to overstate the lightness of neither having a line manager nor being one.

There are downsides; for one thing, when nobody is forced to do anything in particular, you have to think creatively about who to ask for help with what. And, of course, the fact that many of us are freelancers has other issues in terms of security. But then, where else could you say that as a brand new freelancer, your opinions about how things are done are taken just as seriously as everyone else’s, and any idea you have will be considered properly and might well be implemented from the outset?

Fully co-operative structures aren’t the solution to everything. Especially as a newcomer, there’s a certain confidence needed to relax into the uncertainty—and not everyone has been afforded the privileges and opportunities that breed that confidence. They’re not a panacea, and you don’t need to transform your organisational structure overnight (but be my guest, and we can help you with that).

Power and dominance is a part of life

But here’s the thing: these dynamics are a fundamental aspect of all interactions anyway, especially of people working together. You don’t have to go all the way towards Marxist theories of exploitation (but be my guest, and let’s have a drink sometime) to recognise that power is part of the overall fabric of life, work and interactions. No matter what you’re doing—attending a picnic; starting a campaign; building an empire; buying a train ticket; redistributing wealth; curing a disease; buying a pizza in Woking or ambushing someone with a cake—there are always power dynamics going on.

Bringing tech and culture together

People who feel their power is constrained are not just oppressed and unhappy, they’re unable to do their best stuff. Conversely, people who are empowered—or even just in an environment that enables that issue to be recognised and discussed—are able to contribute, work together, and think the ideas that might not have been thought before.

Organisational structure and behaviours are always part of the issue, and part of the solution

Organisational structure and behaviours are always part of the issue, and part of the solution. That’s why Outlandish doesn’t just build tech things: we coach teams in co-operativism and communication, we run a pro-social co-working space, we bring like-minded people together to collaborate and inspire one another.

It’s why we are moving towards treating what used to be purely tech support for our long-term clients as a more holistic, organisational, personal thing. It’s why our project kick-off sessions place so much emphasis on getting all the key people together, listening to everyone, and co-creating an atmosphere of kindness and curiosity, where decisions are collective and all views are welcomed.

We want to do good stuff that improves the world

We want to help people to do good stuff that improves the world. And there’s no better way to start than thinking about power, interactions, and how we treat each other.