No Bean Bags Here

Posted by jlubans on May 29, 2017

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Caption: SWA’s Ramp Team RDU on a cold and rainy day. Photo by J. Lubans

Two articles, the BBCs “Why ‘cool’ offices don’t always make for a happier workforce” and the Wall Street Journal’s “CEOs Want Their Offices Back: Some bosses pushing back against open floor plan” stirred up a couple memories. The first was my friend Don Riggs’ strong opinion that his beautiful new library building provide for closed spaces for professional staff. I quote from my 2016 blog entry:
“… Don Riggs at Nova Southeastern University, insist(ed) - over the architect’s objections – that all professional staff have private spaces - with doors - in his new building. He intuited, correctly, no one really wanted to be always on display (and never alone) when working.
Supposedly, the Open Office was to lead to better collaboration.
Stop and think. Was there a factual basis for this idea or was it something imagined by an architect based solely on his nostalgia for the sweet camaraderie he experienced with his project team on all-nighters, (most likely barefoot), in architecture school?”
Another memory was that of my first encounter with the perked office: free lunch and free child care and free dry-cleaning and free onsite fitness workouts, etc. This glimpse came during the DotCom boom when I was invited to visit a start-up NYC software company office pitching for Web business.
While all the perks, including a barista!, were there, I was left wondering if they were not masking a particularly grueling and uncertain business. And, based on the DotCom crash, it appears many of these companies were burning through their start-up money at mach speed. The free gourmet lunch (along with an ever lengthening list of Herzberg’s hygiene - non-motivating – factors) was paid for by investor’s money not by real revenue.
My 2016 “Play at Work” essay cited Fred Emery’s solid-as-a-rock guidance on what people want from work:
Adequate elbow room for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
Meaningfulness
A desirable future.
The BBC article is among the first to penetrate past the gimmick aspect of the fun office.
The author asks the serious "So, What?" Question. What does this type of office get you? He concludes: “It’s a false narrative. Happy workplaces don’t need beanbags, barbecue stations and ball pits.”
While nice, like pleasing and comfortable furniture and decor, what people really want is what Emery put forth decades ago.
It is of course easier to put in a ball pit then to assure your organization provides meaningful work and a desirable future for employees. That takes real leadership – thinking and compassion - but then orgs have all too often gone with the superficial, the hygiene factors, like performance appraisal.
I recall a behind the scenes visit with a ramp team at SouthWest Airlines (See my chapters on SWA in Leading from the Middle). No bean bags here.
Yes, there was a Weber grill, on the tarmac, just outside the operations room, but hardly anything to compare with the haute cuisine at the NY software company.
Heck, the ramp team provided the meat and buns and the camaraderie was real. These folks worked together on every incoming plane, often more than one, unloading luggage, provisioning, and then reloading luggage, all as quickly and safely as possible. All the while helping each other.
They were, and I continue to believe are, the best in the business. Take a look at SWA corporate values; the corporate commitment to those values is what makes this company click.

N.B. My next book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in September 2017 as an e-book ($9.99) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($25.99). The print book, pictured, will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.

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Cover: "Fables for Leaders" PRE-PRINT, 203pp. 2017.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017
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