According to Gallup’s 2013 State of the American Workplace report, 50% of employees merely put their time in, while the remaining 20% act out their discontent in counterproductive ways. These employees are negatively influencing their coworkers, missing days on the job, and driving customers away through poor service. Gallup estimates that the 20% group alone costs the U.S. economy around half a trillion dollars each year.
What’s the reason for the widespread employee disengagement? According to Gallup, poor leadership is a key cause.
Richard Sheridan, Founder of Menlo Innovations, describes an antidote for this lack of enthusiasm. He claims that “joy” is what is missing from the workplace. In a recent interview, Sheridan spoke about some of the ways that he purposely designed joy into the way that people work.
In his view, most organizations fluctuate on a continuum between chaos (the land of never getting anything done) and bureaucracy (the land of never getting anything started). The pendulum swings back and forth, confusing and frustrating the employees who are seeking to be productive and perform meaningful work.
Sheridan was inspired by the environment that was created at IDEO. He set out to design a workplace that would invoke joy at work. The culture at Menlo Innovations is such a departure from the norm that over 2500 people visit the facility in Ann Arbor each year to discover the “secret sauce” that Sheridan created.
Here are four takeaways that Sheridan revealed during a recent interview.
There are very few rules at Menlo. But one of them is that you cannot wear ear buds. The reason? Sheridan wants his employees to overhear things. It’s an effective way to learn about what is happening with your fellow neighbors, without having to call a bunch of meetings. The open space environment makes the work space very noisy – but also conducive to informal conversations.
Sheridan emphasizes that most people who take a tour and see Menlo’s workplace layout immediately go back to rearrange their working areas to be more open. But there is no change in the mood, atmosphere, or productivity of their teams. They don’t understand why this redesign doesn’t work to create a better working atmosphere. Sheridan claims that they get this part of the design backwards. In his words,
“We didn’t build an open collaborative work space. We built an open collaborative culture – then we built the work space to match the culture.”
The heart of Menlo’s learning system is how they organize their people within the space. They pair people together and these two people share the same work station for five days. Then they are switched and work with someone else for the next five days. Camaraderie and esprit de corps naturally emerge from these relationships.
In addition, this open atmosphere dramatically reduces the number of undiscussables in the group. The rules of engagement are transparent to everyone.
Make It Visual
In most software development companies, progress is tracked using project management software. At Menlo, they do it simply and visually. They use a large board for each project and post the status of each task using a color coding system. The board is updated by the team members and reviewed in a daily stand-up meeting. The color codes and their meaning are listed below:
- Yellow – In progress
- Orange – I think I’m done
- Red – Not done (re-check my work or I need help)
- Green – Done! (This visual is extremely important as a reinforcement to those doing the work. Everyone feels good about getting things done…)
Go and See
They believe strongly in the power of observation. They are encouraged to go find the people who use their stuff and observe them. They are coached to look for the invisible and to be empathic. The result is a higher success rate with the end product.
This philosophy is a basic tenet of Lean. Going to the gemba is the first thing that any Lean practitioner learns. No problem can be adequately solved in isolation. Observation is paramount.
Run the Experiment
If you walk through Menlo’s work space, there is something else you notice that is rarely found in other work environments – dogs and babies! Sheridan tells the story about one of his employees who requested that they bring their dog to work. At first he hesitated, but then relented. He placed the burden on the dog’s owner that it would not be distracting to his co-workers. It had a wonderful effect on the demeanor of the team. Soon there were other dogs lying at the feet of their owners while they worked. The owners understood their privilege and never abused it.
The same thing happened months later, when one of his employees was on maternity leave. She came to Sheridan and explained that she would have to resign because she could not find acceptable day care for her infant. He told her to bring the baby to work. She did. Her team embraced the child and even took turns caring for the baby while they worked on a project.
Sheridan’s advice? Run the experiment. If it works, great. If it doesn’t, then adjust and see what you can do to make it work. But don’t assume that you have to follow all the norms. Not all of them are best for the employee or the organization.
Clearly, not all organizations can implement these workplace design changes. However, the broader view is worthy of considering. What is the common thread for this kind of work environment? As Dan Pink concluded, people are motivated when they have autonomy to make decisions, when they are able to master a skill, and when they do meaningful work that has a purpose.
Richard Sheridan might argue that putting these things together in a team environment is a recipe for joy.
What can you do to bring a small measure of joy to your team?
Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love. Richard Sheridan. Portfolio Hardcover. 2013.
Blue Ocean Leadership. W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne. Harvard Business Review. May, 2014.
Drive – The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Dan Pink. Riverhead Books. 2011.
Photo: https://flic.kr/p/bEzv9T. Ruben Vique.
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