Happiness at Work? UVA Darden Has a Class for That

By Jenny Abel


That’s the word students most frequently use to describe “Spirit of the New Workplace,” a course offered at the University of Virginia Darden School of Business since 2000. The overarching purpose of the course, led by Professor Joseph Harder, is to “help participants bring about the greatest possibilities of work, both for themselves and for others.”

More to the point, the course instills a realization that — in the words of former students — “fun and work aren’t mutually exclusive.” It also emphasizes a closely related tenet: the best workplaces are those that put their people first.

Previously a one-week offering in January or March, the course is now offered as an elective for Darden Second Year students in the full-time MBA program. In it, students are encouraged to consider the central components of organizations — people (including themselves) — in a holistic manner: individuals with hearts, minds, bodies and souls.

“This isn’t rocket science, but it’s a newer way of looking at organizations that’s been slow to take hold,” Harder said.

Highly experiential and self-reflective, the class — which Harder adapted from an elective formerly taught by Darden Professor Emeritus James Clawson — gets students thinking about what truly matters to them through reading, journaling, and activities that range from imaginatively depicting one’s “perfect day” to yoga to drawing to playing with Legos. By the end of the course, participants gain the skills and perspective needed to build a strong company culture, pursue individual happiness and meaning in their jobs, and achieve proper work-life balance.

The purpose of the course’s unique approach is to build a true learning community, in which students see how they can enjoy what they’re doing and the people with whom they’re doing it From exemplary standouts like Zappos.com and Netflix to Google and Hilton, it has been proven time and again that the highest productivity and best innovations flow out of companies with people whose passions are encouraged and who are truly thriving in a collaborative environment.

Harder’s desire is to see students carry this recognition, along with the rest of their business acumen gained at Darden, into their workplaces and leadership approach. And students — hundreds of them over 19 years — have done exactly that.

“It was revolutionary for me — the idea that we can have fun at work, that it can be a nurturing atmosphere,” said Pamela Deguzman (MBA ’00), who took the very first offering of the course and now trains nurses as an associate professor in the University of Virginia School of Nursing. Partly because of that class, she said, “I try to bring a balance of playfulness and respect into my work, nurturing those I work with.”

Deguzman is one of many alumni of the course who cite its impact years later. Another is Matthew Rosefsky (MBA ’03), now an instructor-trainer at MEDIC SOLO Disaster + Wilderness Medical School in Charlottesville.

“By the end of the course, I created a list of characteristics and features of an ideal workplace and working relationships,” Rosefsky said. “Several times over the years, I have looked back at this list, to remind and see what additional fantastic things can be incorporated into work environments I have created.”

Rachel (Korkowski) Brozenske (MBA ’01) likewise cites the course’s impact on her professional track. When representatives from Play, a Richmond-based innovation firm, visited the class, Brozenske was immediately drawn to their interactions and passion for their work. She went on to intern and later work as a senior coach for Play. Today, she is vice president of Allison Partners — an organizational development consultancy founded by Darden classmate Allison Linney (MBA ’01); the firm’s people-centered approach shares some of the same values as are taught in “Spirit of the New Workplace.”

From Avant-Garde to Influencing the Mainstream

As Harder and his co-instructor (and course co-developer) Peter Robertson, a professor at the University of Southern California, prepared to teach their 31st segment of the course, they reflected on its genesis — dating as far back as the 1980s, when they were in graduate school together at Stanford University. It was then that they began talking about how to make organizations great.

“We were somewhat avant-garde when we first began teaching this class,” said Harder, who still visits the spot where he and Robertson conceptualized “Spirit of the New Workplace” — a picnic table at the San Francisco Giants Fantasy Camp in Scottsdale, Arizona. At the time, a shift toward viewing organizations as living systems was just catching on, led by voices still featured in the course, such as Jeffrey Pfeffer — Harder’s Ph.D. adviser and author of The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First. Today, that view is more common, even necessary, as signaled by McKinsey & Co.’s 2018 white paper, “The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations.” Also, more Darden courses now incorporate mindfulness and other features of the “Spirit of the New Workplace” course.

To retain the course’s avant-garde position into the future, Harder and Robertson continue to update their ideas and look for ways to spread the message of the course.

“We keep the course fresh, staying abreast of what’s going on in the world of work as well as in the lives of participants,” Harder says.

In 2019, they plan to address issues such as the rise of artificial intelligence, living wages, the gig economy and generations at work.

“I love everything about this class,” Harder said. “I created it as much for myself as for the students — because I need it, too.”

3 Key Takeaways of “Spirit of the New Workplace”

  1. It’s possible to create a workplace where people thrive, if you put people first.
  2. Thinking of your organization as a living system and leading along those lines will lead to more success than if you lead your organization like a bureaucratic machine.
  3. You have the power to make good personal choices that lead to a well-balanced and happier life both in and outside of work.
About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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