by Steve Collins, Director of Training and Development Lead International USA

At the end of his book, The Best Place to Work, Ron Friedman, poses an interesting question, “What would the modern workplace look like if the factory had never been invented?”  I started my management career on a factory floor and it did not take me long to realize that my business classes from university had not prepared me for the realities of supervising 30 employees who were not particularly passionate about their jobs, their organization, or their career options going forward.  A key management activity was to ensure that my work crews didn’t spend too much time in the break rooms or smoking areas.  There was a direct correlation between physical presence on their jobs and productivity.  Like many manufacturing environments, productivity had been engineered into the job and despite terms like “quality circles,” there was a limited expectation that the factory worker would contribute beyond doing his job in the prescribed way.  Friedman challenges us to consider how much the nature of work has changed and how much of our current work environment has not.

A major influence on our work experience is the physical location. Friedman tells the story of the development of the cubicle and how the designer had originally started out to provide a much improved work experience.  In the 1960’s the common office layout consisted of row after row of desks in a large open area.   Unfortunately for the cubicle designer and office workers, his much roomier and individualized work station approach was soundly rejected by corporate America as being too costly and taking up too much space.  He returned a few years later with a new design, the cubicle, featuring more room and some privacy. He was deeply disappointed that companies saw the cubicle approach as a way to cram more people into smaller spaces.  Over the years, the open office environment has become popular but has also tended to limit individual effectiveness because of too many distractions.  

Friedman argues that companies need to move beyond choosing among costly and isolating private offices, the disruptions of open spaces, or depressing cubicles. Rather they should think more like colleges.  On a college campus you have private and semi private areas like dorm rooms and libraries and you have communal spaces like cafeterias and coffee shops.  He also challenges companies to allow employees to have more opportunity to customize their work spaces. He cites one of the drivers of higher productivity for those who telecommute is that they have control over their work area.

Another carry over from the factory life is the belief we need to be working from a central physical location and we should work at that location about 8 hours per day. He quotes Tony Schwartz from his book, The Way We Are Working Isn’t Working,    “We are still thinking like factory workers where break times are equated with a break in productivity.”   He cites research that says the afternoon nap may actually be a great way to enhance productivity.   Taking walks and going to the gym during the work day are also highly recommended. Yet, most companies, even if they provide the facilities, do not always encourage employees to take advantage of the opportunities as a way to increase productivity.  Instead, they get more attention as recruiting perks.

It is not only our bodies but our minds that need a break.  The pace of work, the amount of information flow, and the opportunity to be constantly connected are not just limiting our productivity and putting stress on our working relationships but are limiting our creativity.  Focused deliberations may actually limit our ability to make the mental connections that drive new ideas. When we take a break, it gives our brain a chance to make those less obvious connections and drive us to new ideas.  This is why those breakthrough ideas often come while taking a shower or driving to work the next morning.

We are working harder but probably not smarter.

Friedman also presents research on motivation and in this area we may actually find some components of the factory floor work in our favor.  In a factory setting, it is quite easy to keep score.  Production quantity and quality are constantly monitored as are safety incidents.  Most factory workers know throughout their shift what kind of progress they are making.  Outside of sales, most management jobs deal with a lot of ambiguity.  It is hard to know if the memo you just wrote or the meeting you just led was at 98% of quality standards or represents a 10% growth over a similar meeting you led last year. Research by Harvard Professors Amabile and Kramer shows that the single most important component of a satisfying workday is the experience of progress.  Because of the inherent ambiguity in management work, organizations have to be more intentional in rewarding progress and delivering feedback.  

An important principle offered by Friedman is that our brains adapt to circumstances so what is at first a happy experience becomes less exciting over time.  Getting a raise or buying a new car is quite the exhilarating moment on “day one” but before too many days have passed we just have a new norm and are looking for the next thing.  Friedman suggest rewards should be frequent, variable, unexpected, and more about an experience than an object.  Interestingly, an addition to his list of desired work qualities is the importance of cultivating a grateful mind.  While this last one may be more difficult for an organization to provide, it does speak to the kind of optimistic culture and work environment people desire.

Earlier I mentioned my primary supervisory role in the factory revolved around checking break rooms and smoking areas.  According to Friedman’s research this might have been counter productive. In Gallup’s ground breaking research on what determines employee engagement, they identified  “Having a best friend at work” as a key factor. While your first thought may be working with friends leads to a lot of wasted time socializing, it turns out that friends are more committed to a successful result, communicate better and have more positive communication (less disagreements.) For friendships to happen in the workplace, you need physical proximity, familiarity, similarity, and the opportunity to go deep (get beyond small talk.) The kinds of things that the extra five minutes in the break room might have created. Friedman cites we need more opportunities to know people during the on boarding process as well as opportunities for shared activities after work.

Cool Office Interior Designs

The major flaw with both the current office environment and the factory floor is a lack of autonomy and flexibility. Friedman writes, “The key lies in empowering employees to find the best way of working and offering them the flexibility to implement that approach.” He adds, “Expecting everyone to do their best following an identical work schedule and work environment ignores a basic reality of human nature.”  Given our different personalities, internal clocks, love languages as well as our different passions and giftings, it is just not possible to design a one work schedule and environment that fits all.  

We also have to accept the reality that technology has changed the nature of work. For some of us, we realize that much of our work can be done from any location in the world as opposed to line of sight from the boss’ office. Even collaboratively intensive tasks are possible (though not as effective if everyone is in the same room) among scattered team members with teleconferencing tools that allow for video and file sharing. Perhaps more importantly, research shows that for more and more people, autonomy is of greater value than wealth in terms of satisfaction. Additionally, people are increasingly frustrated with trying to find the right work life balance. Employee engagement levels remain stuck at around 30% in the US and closer to half that globally.  Rather than start from the default position that we must all be in the same location at the same time, leaders need to begin with a clean slate and ask the question, “What works best for the team and the individual?” The answer to that question will be varied and the organizations that are learning how to respond to that variation are the ones that are leading the next “workplace” revolution.

(photo credit :