7 steps to creating a free-range workplace
– Those familiar with industrial farming will be aware of the inhumane conditions under which the animals are kept and the brutally short lives that they lead. There is little room for movement or sociality. And there are certainly no opportunities for creativity when you are packed in so tightly your claws just about touch the disease-ravaged corpses of fallen comrades.
If you make it to the end of the ‘conveyor belt’, you get to suffer the indignities of the slaughterhouse.
In the next decade or so, business anthropologists will look back on the industrial era and draw similar conclusions about the conditions under which many of us skill work. Cooped up in our little cubicles, forced to stare at a bright screen for hours on end, as weeping colleagues are marched up the aisle with their career belongings in a box. It would be unwise to protest. Just keep looking at the bright screen.
Industrially-farmed livestock is unlikely to revolt against the tyranny they face.
I would not envisage a ‘Planet of the Chickens’ franchise being a media success.
But the humans are increasingly showing signs of discontent and are increasingly able to exert their will.
Dark Satanic Mills
In the early days of the industrial age, we rushed from the villages to the towns to work in the factories for economic gain. That the work was inhuman was neither here nor there because it enabled us to have a higher quality of personal life, possibly even some disposable income. But over the years many of us have forgotten why we work, resulting in work becoming the goal as opposed to living the life that we are in fact wired for through many thousands of years of evolution.
Some people have realised that having the biggest disposable income is not so impressive if you have no time or energy to enjoy it.
And anyway, how many meals can you eat in one day or how many bedrooms can you sleep in in one night?
Thus, some people are starting to trade income for a better life. And that better life is not one outside the factory, it includes the workplace too, given the percentage of our lives we spend ‘at work’.
That work is not for me
This group of people is growing. They are sometimes referred to as ‘young’ people. They have witnessed their parents live unattractive lives despite having all the toys of career success. And that is not for them.
It’s not just young people, but many are so locked into financial commitments that they simply have to keep staring at the bright screen.
And will do so whilst imagining the day they too are escorted to the exit because their role is now doable by an algorithm.
So the question arises for business leaders as to how you keep your people engaged in a world where the very nature of work and workers is changing. We do need workers in the digital age. However, we need them operating at their full cognitive capacity, rather than as technology placeholders in the corporate machine.
Towards the free-range workplace
My belief is that if you provide the conditions for people to be people they will thrive, and in turn your organisation will thrive. Here are some recommendations for a free-range workplace:
- Build mobility into the work environment. People need to move. Our brains are primarily designed for movement. Encourage people to get out of their chairs. Have meetings on the move.
- Build sociality into the work environment. This requires a shift from a paid labour model where by you are rewarded for your activity rather than productivity. A focus on results rather than activity will enable people to forge social bonds that over time will lead to network effect-driven corporate gains.
- Build an environment that enables home-working but also work-homing. An environment where people can conduct personal matters within the nine to five period. Work -life balance doesn’t work. The goal is work-life integration.
- Foster creativity. It is in our nature to be curious and to take risks. Harness this natural tendency and everyone wins.
- Remove cognitive leaks. Much of our creativity is destroyed through poor workplace design, bureaucracy, poor leadership and a general suppression of our anthropological traits.
- Create an organisational sense of purpose that goes beyond making the shareholders richer. If we are going to be spending a lot of our lives working, then it’s best that it is meaningful.
- Give your people some degree of autonomy. If all decisions have been pre-baked into an operations manual then the worker is literally a cog in the machine. It also fosters an attitude of ‘learned helplessness’, whereby the worker no longer takes any responsibility for what they do.
I provide a framework for a people-centric workplace in my book entitled:
The power is shifting
Of course, not all of these suggestions can apply to all roles.
Giving nuclear power plant controllers free-rein to meet their needs for self-expression would be unwise.
However, many organisations have plenty of scope to provide an environment where people are treated like people.
On the face of it, this might seem like a rallying call to indulge the whims of so called ‘entitled millennials’. The reality is that you have no choice. The power axis is moving from the employer to the worker. On a more positive note, treating your people like free-range humans will yield great benefits. Creating a free-range workplace that channels the cognitive capacity of great people in pursuit of doing great things can only be good for all stakeholders.