It’s the Work, Stupid!


Yesterday I had an interview with the Human Resources Director of the company. He asked me what I was looking for in my next job. I shared that I was looking for a good group of people to work with. I was looking to build relationships with my coworkers wherein I could help them feel good about the work they were doing. I was looking for a company where I could reduce wasted effort, boost productivity, and build pride in personal craftsmanship.

This was music to his ears, and he said as much. He said that the company wanted to be an employer of choice. He shared the effort made by the company to improve its culture to that end. Like many of my previous employers, they had surveyed their employees to find out what management could do. Employees, while happy with the cafeteria, had said the food was too expensive. So the company decided to subsidize it with $20 per employee. They also started making people take their birthdays off.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? It makes it appear as if management was listening and responding to employees, that it cares for their well-being.

The trouble is that such actions do nothing to improve an individual work process or the system within which workers work. And we all know by now that the bulk of the problems workers deal with reside in the process or system. Workers are powerless to affect them. What does subsidizing the cost of a meal do for improving the way work gets done? How does making people take their birthdays off boost productivity? Will installing an espresso machine help with reducing rework?

The assumption going into providing such fringe benefits (perks) is that problems are the result of workers holding back. That workers do not give their all or that they do not do their best. If only management rewarded them more, then workers would work better. Much has been written about the negative impact of boosting extrinsic rewards without changing the work process or system. Rather than feeling better, workers become more stressed, make more mistakes, take more time.

Management’s diagnosis of the cause of productivity problems is fundamentally flawed. Worse, management knows it. But working on the system to improve it requires management to work in ways they are not prepared to. Effects of changes to the system are not immediate nor are they easily perceived. But providing fringe benefits makes a real splash, however short-lived it might be. So here’s to hoping the pizza and beer will stop all of you workers from whining!

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