Opinion: Tech companies are more like a church than you think

Silicon Valley is reputedly non-religious, boasting one of the lowest rates of religious affiliation in the United States. But in my study of work and spirituality in Silicon Valley, I discovered that tech workers love – at work.

I don’t mean they worship to work. I mean, Silicon Valley companies are doing everything they can to satisfy the inner aspirations of elite employees by providing the spiritual benefits that Americans once got from going to church, synagogue, meetings, and the like.

Here’s how they do it:

1. Companies provide meaning, mission and purpose. Silicon Valley knows that above a certain level of salary, offering meaning is more powerful than offering more money. So, his companies recruit with missions such as “connecting the world”, “spreading love”, “helping humanity thrive” – ​​all achieved by creating and selling their apps. Employees become disciples, determined to spread the good news. Every person I met in Silicon Valley could articulate their personal mission in relation to their work, saying that they had found their “calling”. The work has filled their lives with meaning – making the layoffs particularly devastating.

2. Business demands and cultivates faith. Religions require human beings to develop the faith that they have a place in the universe and can overcome life’s challenges by devoting themselves to more than themselves. In the competitive world of Silicon Valley startups, where nine out of 10 fail, workers need to believe that they will be the ones to succeed – that their company will be chosen, acquired, or deliver a spectacularly rewarding IPO.

Companies support this faith with bare-knuckle meetings that feel like wake-up meetings, led by charismatic, inspirational, and divine leaders like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

Filled with faith, the workers sacrifice their family and personal life, their sleep and their well-being for the mission of the company. These intense psychic, social and emotional demands can sometimes give rise to sectarian cultures that cut workers off from the outside world.

3. Companies offer spiritual guidance. Silicon Valley companies call on religious and spiritual leaders like Wayne Dyer and Buddhist professor Jack Kornfield to provide spiritual care and development to high-level employees. Many tech companies are now teaching meditation and mindfulness to help workers focus, be creative and solve problems. At their annual Dreamforce conference, tech giant Salesforce CRM,
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brings in 25 Buddhist monks to teach conference attendees how to meditate and breathe.

Some companies organize retreats for senior leaders in spiritual and religious centers. Others offer “wellness benefits” that include paid spiritual retreats. After meditation, some teachers may even read 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 executives practices of spiritual reflection and discernment so that they can “connect” with their “authentic selves” and eliminate any emotional and spiritual obstacles that may prevent them from giving their all at work.

Princeton University Press


4. Companies provide identity. Once upon a time, Americans developed a deep sense 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 identity 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 GOOG,
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employees calling themselves “Googlers” and Meta FB,
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employees calling themselves “Metamates” – all signs of loyalty, pride and group identity.

5. Companies offer membership. Faith-based communities typically provide a network of activities to meet the social needs of members and link them to the common mission, with sports teams, soup kitchens, choir, bingo, study sessions, camp summer and more. Now, tech companies are delivering it all onsite. Employees never need to stray elsewhere for book groups, rock climbing walls, music nights, hiking clubs, art clubs, or even community service days.

Instead of attending church potlucks or kiddush brunches, they (at least before the pandemic) are “breaking bread” at work with healthy and delicious chef-prepared offerings that feed followers in the bosom.

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

These top workers might have already 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 goals, it’s the one their businesses ultimately use to improve their bottom line.

It’s the religion of Silicon Valley.

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