They say when you get back from Burning Man you need to take a few days off – the official lingo for this is called decompression. It’s a funny thing to take a few days off after what is already a week disconnected in the desert.
So what’s the deal?
Burning Man attracts about 75,000 people nowadays. It’s an entire city. Combine that with not much sleep, not much food, harsh desert conditions and the fact that you can’t buy anything, and you’d expect the worst. Yet I’ve heard someone mention before that going to Burning Man will restore your faith in humanity. Watching the city function does just that. Burning Man is based on a gifting economy – there’s no barter system – people literally just give you stuff: anything from a shower to a bicycle to a steak dinner to a tiger onesie. You’d think that the system would break down – that if too many people take and not enough give that it would fall apart. Yet somehow everybody contributes and the system works. But it’s not only tangible goods that people gift – they also gift their time. Whether it’s through building their camp or lending an ear to a person in need, it’s amazing to witness the interactions between people. Seconds after meeting someone, you can engage in deep conversation. “Mind passing the humus – oh and do you believe in god?” would be a common dinner conversation. Just met someone? You’ll probably hug. Burning Man certainly has its way of creating a strong community.
Being in an environment where people drop the usual formalities and filters has a strong effect on you. Just now in the airport, my bag was lost pre-flight (I didn’t know that could happen) but a lovely woman at the help desk made sure I didn’t miss my flight to the point where she had the whole plane waiting for me as I sprinted to the gate. Just before my sprint I thanked her and went to give her a hug out of impulse but by then she had already stuck her hand out in a formal handshake then turned on her heels and went back to her post.
That’s what forms part of the decompression – this transition from a warm, welcoming, open environment to the ‘real world.’
With that, I look at the culture we’ve created at LiveCA. When we meet in ‘real people’ form – we hug. To be honest, I don’t think I appreciated the significance of that gesture until recently. I’m also not sure when it started. No one tells you that you have to hug at Burning Man. But once one person hugs you, the feeling of closeness and support is addictive, so you pass it on.
Working in a virtual environment is hard. When you lose day to day human contact it’s easy to turn conversations into transactional interactions. I have this question or I need this thing done. Yet one thing I hear from a lot of team members is how supported they feel – that when they start here they’re bombarded with messages of people wanting to meet them. That if they’re going through a hard time there are people reaching out to lend an ear or help out. There’s no protocol that we have to do that and no one has mandated that’s the way we should interact. To me, that’s what having a sense of community means.
It’s that sense of community – the sense of feeling supported by your teammates that contributes to a warm and welcoming work environment. When people leave LiveCA they say the hardest thing to leave is the team. That’s the thing I’m most proud of.
I’m not sure if working in this type of environment makes you more successful. Nor do I think you need to go around hugging everyone you meet. Perhaps companies that have created competitive, cutthroat work environments are more profitable. But what I do know is how enjoyable it is to work in a team that has a strong sense of community. To work in a place where you can let your guard down to your colleagues, let them know when you’re feeling stressed, and know that you’ll receive support.
We’re far from perfect and we’re not always our best selves. But as we grow, it’s going to be important that we don’t lose sight of the environment we’ve created and that we do our best to continue to foster it – by reminding ourselves to reach out to colleagues just because, to give a compliment, to thank someone, to say I’m here for you if you need anything.
This will be an exciting year ahead as we move into October with a fully stacked team and some pretty lofty goals. Did I mention there was a Boeing 747 at Burning Man that was turned into a club? I suppose others at Burning Man have some pretty lofty goals too. So while the year ahead will be challenging, so long as we continue to be open, supportive and close to one another, I have no doubt that we’ll be successful.
If 75,000 strangers in a desert can pull it off, then we should be able to do it as well.