Is Yours A Workplace Divided Against Itself?
by Ava Wolf
A man drives to work. He arrives, bleary-eyed, and checks in at the front desk. Standing before his locker, the man removes his duck boots and leaves all personal effects—wallet, phone, watch—in a sterile tray. He is identified via his company keycard only as “Mark S.” Mark S. greets the elevator operator and descends to the Severed floor of Lumon Industries. Eight hours later, the elevator doors sail back open. The workday has drawn to a close—but Mark S. can’t remember a single second of it.
In the critically acclaimed AppleTV+ program Severance, this is the draw of a job at Lumon, a company which surgically alters employees’ brains so they can’t remember the world outside the office while at work, and can’t remember work once outside. At first, the division of work and reality may appear advantageous, even sensible. Most employees would like to skip the hustle and grind, and know that they had a productive day—if only in some inaccessible part of their consciousness. Of course, one’s outside self, referred to in-series as one’s “Outtie,” is losing one-third of their waking hours. But for the character Mark Scout, therein lies the appeal.
Mark, the protagonist of Severance, has suffered an unimaginable loss. His cherished wife, Gemma, died in a car accident several years earlier; in response, Mark wishes to run from his grief by vanishing into the void of office work. Enter Lumon: An enigmatic and seemingly benevolent corporate entity that manufactures… well, no one is entirely sure, but the simplest answer is “biotechnology.” Lumon is most notorious for its controversial patented surgery, known as the Severance Procedure, in which employees opt to receive a quick and painless brain implant that effectively severs their workplace consciousness (or “Innie”) from their primary consciousness. Mark willingly undergoes the procedure in a desperate attempt to curb his boundless mourning.
Severance is more than a dystopian workplace drama. It is a functional narrative device that successfully demonstrates the disillusionment that American workers are feeling with their jobs now more than ever before. It flawlessly depicts so many of the broken, outmoded practices that the modern workplace has adopted in futile pursuit of its goals, along with the employee disillusionment that is sweeping North America. In depicting the vital errors of Lumon’s approach to mollifying its severed employees, Severance illustrates a better way: companies must authentically connect with team members and practice transparency around their needs, intentions, and objectives.
Americans are leaving the workforce en masse. Retention rates are plummeting across the country. Working from home has significantly weakened the opportunity for workers to meaningfully connect with their colleagues, amplifying the loneliness and disconnect that people may have long felt from their careers. In the wake of “these unprecedented times,” people must make choices about how to spend their precious time, and the sacrifices that come alongside those decisions.
In Severance, Mark S. is happy enough at Lumon. The work of being a “Refiner,” he tells his skeptical new trainee, Helly R., is “mysterious and important.” But to anyone on the outside, it appears meaningless and profoundly dull. Inside the windowless, mid-century cell of his office, Mark and his three colleagues whittle away the hours by “refining microdata”—a process that involves sorting on a screen into various buckets based on the emotions they evoke. Helly comes to learn that sometimes, the numbers are, in fact, scary.
The purpose of refinement remains intentionally cryptic—Lumon anonymizes Mark and the other Lumonites as a means to an end. Although the Innies are only “awake” for eight hours a day, work is all they know. They never sleep (”I like to focus on the effects of sleep, since we don’t get to experience it ourselves,” Mark cheerfully advises Helly on her first day). They don’t witness the changing of the seasons, or daylight fading in the evening. One doesn’t have to dig deep to see what elements of modern work Severance is satirizing. Most employers are witnessing the effects of this disconnection firsthand.
The pandemic has permanently altered employees’ feelings about work and life. A Gartner survey revealed that 65 percent of individuals reported that the pandemic shifted their attitude toward the value of life outside the workplace, and 52 percent stated that COVID-19 made them ponder the purpose of their jobs. For Lumon workers, the incendiary question at hand—one that is never answered throughout the duration of Severance’s first season, although not for want of trying—is: “what is the point of what we do?”
Of the 68.9 million workers who left their jobs last year, a record-breaking 47.4 million quit voluntarily. According to the Pew Research Center, 63 percent of people who left their jobs in 2021 quit due to low pay and no opportunities for advancement; 57 percent quit because they felt disrespected in the workplace. Although this phenomenon is colloquially referred to as the Great Resignation, it might be better understood as a shifting of priorities. Workers are struggling to find purpose in their careers, and if companies want to reverse the Great Resignation, they need to help job-seekers reconnect with their work and prove to them why it matters—to cement why employees do what they do.
Core values serve as the backbone of a belief system, helping to carve out a company’s identity and separate it from competitors—and, subsequently, reifying its purpose for employees. When implemented correctly, core values should shape employee interactions in a way that help them meaningfully identify with the story of a brand. Unfortunately, for many companies, core values are no more than lip service, as demonstrated through Severance. Lumon expects workers to adhere to its nine Core Principles, as instituted by its founder: Vision, Verve, Wit, Cheer, Humility, Benevolence, Nimbleness, Probity and Wiles. This directly contrasts Lumon’s corporate culture of bullying, lies, and fear; they maintain employees’ compliance through brainwashing and negative reinforcement.
Lumon employees’ only respite from their eternal workday comes in the form of “perks,” awarded based on performance. These perks range from Chinese finger traps to Waffle Parties, which are not at all what they sound like. When employees misbehave, they are sent to the dreaded Break Room, forced to recite the same cultish apology until they earnestly mean it. Gimmicks like Melon Parties and holographic desk ornaments are meant to distract the Refiners from their misery, diverting them with a glimmer of hope—something to work towards, even if the reward is often tawdry and insignificant. These same rewards can be applied to the contemporary corporate landscape, especially in the wake of the pandemic, where employers are scrambling to entice employees with shiny prizes like vacations, cars, and company swag in a desperate bid to boost morale in an otherwise aimless workplace. Incentivization only works if employees want to be there in the first place.
When an organization builds its culture upon a solid foundation of core values and reflects those values in its daily practices, employees become fundamentally more engaged; this increases retention, even in the face widespread discontent. The typical retail turnover rate is just over 60 percent. But between 2014 and 2017, Best Buy managed to slash staff turnover down to a mere 32 percent. How? By embodying its core values in an actionable way.
While pay differentials between Best Buy and other major big-box stores like Target remained intact, turnover continued to decrease. The perks of working at Best Buy were worth far more than a free yoga class: The company made good on its core value promise to “unleash the power” of its workers by systematically altering its employment practices. Best Buy offered tuition assistance, backup child care, paid time off for part-time employees, and a paid caregiver leave program that enabled employees to receive up to four weeks off at 100 percent of base pay to care for a loved one with a health condition. The organization also worked to expand mental health resources.
Best Buy, unlike other major retailers suffering the effects of high turnover rates, demonstrated “humility, respect, and integrity” by looking inward. The company conducted hundreds of one-on-one internal interviews with Best Buy employees across the nation to inquire about various internal pain points, including usability issues with its technology and applications. When met with negative feedback, Best Buy “learned from challenge and change,” implementing a new training program that encouraged more employee-customer interaction, as opposed to remaining reliant on bulky hardware and complicated software that further alienated workers from customers. “It’s super important for our employees to feel like they have a place in the future of where we’re going,” said Shari Rossow, Best Buy’s vice president of retail operations. Rather than pointing fingers, Best Buy listened to its staff, empowered them, and accomplished real, quantitative change.
As the show progresses, Innie Mark and his increasingly jaded coworkers do their best to uncover the truth about Lumon’s nefarious activities. Outtie Mark finds himself in a similar position, further complicated by the minor detail that his Unsevered boss is posing as a friendly neighbor who surveils him at all hours of the day. In the end, Mark and the other Refiners go to dangerous lengths to blow the whistle on Lumon’s abusive and unethical workplace tactics. By recognizing Innies as only a fraction of an individual, Lumon refuses to consider their personhood, leading to widespread worker dissatisfaction and noncompliance—as well as occasional revolt, illustrated by the fabled O&D coup d’état that allegedly gave way to a department-wide massacre. Lumon can only ply the Refiners with so many coveted Music Dance Experiences before they demand the one thing they can’t access: The freedom to define their purpose.
The most effective and principled way for employers to rectify mass employee alienation is through workplace empowerment. It is imperative for companies to foster a culture that straightforwardly represents their beliefs and to engage employees based on those essential shared values.
Ava Wolf is a brand storyteller at Woden. Want to stay connected? Read our extensive guide on how to craft your organization’s narrative, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss whatever your storytelling needs may be.