VSarolyn Chen is a sociologist and professor at UC Berkeley who studies religion, race, and ethnicity. His new book, Work Pray Code: When work becomes a religion in Silicon Valleyfeatures in-depth interviews with employees and employers to explore how spirituality drives productivity in the global tech hub.

As a teacher of religion, what triggered your interest in Silicon Valley?
I’ve studied Taiwanese evangelical immigrants, evangelical Christians, Buddhists in their communities, but I think anyone who lives in a western industrialized country, in a metropolitan area, knows that religion is on the decline in terms of religious affiliation and of religious participation. For me, it felt like something was missing if I only captured people who identify as religious. How do we see religion working in the world? What is the contemporary manifestation of religion? I was really interested in observing the presence of religion in secular spaces.

What brought you to yoga studios and what did you learn when talking to secular people using this spiritual practice?
I noticed that work figured very prominently in people’s stories and in their biographies. When I asked people, “So why do you practice yoga, when do you practice yoga? it was often centered on work. People said, “Well, I do yoga because after a long day, I feel like I need to release stress.” But there was also another line: “Yoga really helps restore me so I can become a better X” – and here you could fill in the blank – a better nurse, a better engineer, a better accountant or lawyer . It became clear to me that work was really a religion in their lives – that work was what they were willing to submit to, surrender to and sacrifice for. And, if anything, yoga was just a therapeutic aid – it was to support this other thing they loved, you might say.

So it became clear to me in these interviews that I was looking in the wrong place. Because I was looking at something that had religious origins, which is yoga, but what did they actually worship, what was really sacred in their life? It wasn’t yoga. Yoga helped them love their work.

And your book chronicles how Silicon Valley CEOs are using this to their advantage — first, by offering yoga classes at tech headquarters, and now by encouraging Buddhist practices like mindfulness and meditation. Why did they take over?
Yoga has been replaced by meditation and mindfulness because there are thousands of studies on [the benefits of] meditation and mindfulness – there is a whole cottage industry. But, as I write in the book, many studies have been done in controlled laboratories, so they are not necessarily applicable in the workplace. And we don’t even know what mindfulness is when used in these secular spaces. I just felt like these companies were always looking for the new, easy thing. It had to be convenient and fast to maximize the productivity of their employees.

Which is essentially the heart of your book – tech giants use spiritual practices to optimize productivity and spiritual concepts (“missions”, “origin stories”, “leaders”) to inspire people to dedicate their work life. But why now? Why optimize employees this way, anyway?
This is part of a longer trend and larger shifts in the economy – the rise of the knowledge economy and the shift from an industrial to a post-industrial economy. In an industrial economy, the way you could improve your bottom line is usually through the exploitation of natural resources. In a knowledge economy, the most important asset is the knowledge and skills of your workforce. How do you cultivate this? You can increase the value of a person by educating him, but you can also improve his production, increase his value, by developing his mind. How do you capture that spiritual side of them, that emotional side of them, so they can fully engage in the workforce? Many of the terms we now use to describe work, such as “passion” or bringing your “whole” to work, refer to this concept of how you manage work today in a knowledge economy; it’s not just necessarily the skills of the human worker, it’s also that spiritual aspect.

In practice, this means that companies offer employees free healthy meals, life coaches, wellness centers… While reading, I kinda thought, “It sounds good.” How do you get people to challenge that? What are the downsides of what you call corporate mothering?
First, let me say that I felt the same. Because what the tech company offers is the most effective – and effective is the most important word here – solution to delivering a meaningful and fulfilling life. When I spent time there, I thought, “I would be a much better scholar, teacher, mother, even, if I was here, because the company would take care of all those things. So I had a hard time with this same question you ask.

But there are downsides to that that I’ve seen as a sociologist. I talked in the book about how the workplace acts like this giant magnet that attracts a community’s time, energy, and dedication. But what about the other institutions? What happens to family, religious communities, schools, even small businesses, arts organizations, neighborhood associations? In the American model, we view these civic institutions as fundamentally important to preserving our democracy. All these other institutions start getting smaller and smaller, because you have this alpha institution that attracts everything.

That’s right – and you noted that janitors and caterers don’t get the same benefits as engineers, and the ethical dynamic of spirituality is completely lost. Some of the benefits on offer raise eyebrows: I was shocked to read the story of Vijay, an engineer who was basically given a dating coach by his employer. What was the most shocking moment for you in your report?
This HR person said, “Well, we can’t have our people working 24/7 unless we give them flexibility.” And when she said that, a light bulb went on in my head. We really need to think about this as we move towards a more hybrid model. Workers are pushing for flexibility, but what can be the consequence? You may be working 24/7.

Before opening the book, I assumed that much of it would be about worshiping people like Steve Jobs. It is more complicated than that. who is the God in your equation? What is the cult figure?
Steve Jobs is like a saint – there’s this hagiography, there’s a cult of Steve Jobs, and people started practicing meditation because of him. But that’s essentially worshiping a system. It’s that belief that work is going to save you, it’s the thing that’s going to give you meaning and purpose and, in a sense, immortality.

Work Pray Code: When work becomes a religion in Silicon Valley by Carolyn Chen is published by Princeton University Press (£22). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply