The concept is so fundamental it cries out for recognition. Yet in some business circles it's almost as though it doesn't exist. What I'm talking about involves treating people in the workplace with dignity and respect. It also involves empowering workers so they have the freedom to do their jobs the best they can. Simple, right? Of course, but it just doesn't seem to cross the minds of some executives that happier employees mean increased productivity and better service. It shouldn't take a genius to figure it out, but we all probably know many organizations where this kind of thinking is foreign.
In a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal, under the heading of Work & Family, reporter Sue Shellenbarger discusses family-friendly workplaces and how they translate into better overall performance. According to the article, various units of one company studied were able to achieve 30% fewer employee absences, shorter customer-response times and right-on-time completion of a new product for the first time, all thanks to the company simply taking employees' work-family needs into account. The article details how up-to-date studies support the notion that treating people better in the workplace offers many rewards.
Findings of a study conducted at Xerox Corp. and funded by the Ford Foundation challenge the widely held thesis that accommodating employees' family concerns in the workplace can hurt a business by interfering with productivity. The Ford study's findings seem to point in the opposite direction: "By reversing the usual process-by defining `family' as all employees' personal concerns, then using employees' wishes for better-balanced lives as a starting point for restructuring jobs-managers can uncover a powerful incentive to streamline work."
Lotte Bailyn, a member of the research team at Xerox and a professor at MIT's Sloan School, is fielding all sorts of requests to speak about the study. She recently received a rousing reception from a group of executives who heard her present the study's findings at a recent conference of clients of learning-organization guru Peter Senge. Senge is the author of The Fifth Discipline and head of MIT's Center for Organizational Learning. According to the Journal, his analysis of the latest study is that the approach "promises to have great power in revealing deep sources of waste and inefficiency." He believes that using work-family concerns as a starting point "holds tremendous potential payoff for more productive workplaces and more integrated human beings."
Workers at three Xerox units were asked: "What is it about the way work gets done around here that makes it difficult for you to integrate your work and personal life?" In Webster, N.Y., for instance, 17 engineers were under tremendous pressure to get a new printer to market in 18 months, but they made it clear they didn't think they could complete the project in that amount of time. They also made it clear they wanted more quiet time and more control over their lives in an effort to reduce stress. So the researchers started by asking them to take a closer look at how they spent their time. One surprise was the engineers found they were spending 52% of their time either meeting with or interrupting one another. Obviously some of the talk was important, but most of it wasn't, so the engineers agreed to set aside morning quiet times when interruptions were banned. From there things took a turn for the better. Managers even credited the experiment with the division's first-ever on-time product launch, which earned an internal Xerox award.
And on top of those achievements, the employees reported something even more important-the fact that improved morale and job satisfaction spilled over into their lives outside work.
Maybe breaking with old traditions is the answer to increasing worker happiness as well as productivity and sales. It won't happen overnight, and it will take courage to change. But there's a body of evidence to suggest this might be just the right thing to do in the '90s.
Change is good,
Charles S. Lauer