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Elevating the Lives of Workers

Too many people hate work. Our series explores how innovative companies are making it better. But first, your brief history of the modern workplace.

Work has a pretty big problem. Most people hate their jobs, and just a third of workers say they’re engaged during work hours, according to a 2018 Gallup poll. The American Institute of Stress found that as many as 40% of workers say their jobs are extremely stressful, and that stress leads to health problems, relationship struggles, depression, and more.

It’s no surprise then that when employees aren’t at their best, business suffers, leading to a decline in effectiveness, morale, and productivity and contributing to higher levels of absenteeism and burnout. Afterall, people spend one-third of their lives at work.

Alas, company executives scramble to hire smarter, add perks, promote, and stay competitive with salary. They pore over organizational charts and culture-boosting activities like mini-golf and walkathons. What are the secrets to making humans happier at work? Some 753 books were published in just the past four years— all of them dedicated to unpacking the secret to a great corporate culture.

Healthy culture often is an elusive prize for company leaders. Achieving it demands a parade of nuances, a combination of policies, hiring, workplace design, values and more. Companies that nail it build trust, health, collaboration and creativity, and drive profits and growth. Those that don’t will be left behind in Workplace 3.0, a term we use to describe incoming waves of innovation.

Enthroning healthy culture wasn’t always a priority. The divide between company management and employees had one time been enormous, starting with the rise of the industrial revolution in the 1880s. Workplace welfare was focused on profit while trying to meet the demands of labor unions, over wages, benefits, and working conditions.

By the 1950s, labor union membership had begun to decline as the office rose to prominence. Still, work was someplace you went, not necessarily something you did. Management was overtly hierarchal, collaboration was non-existent, working mothers  were controversial and most jobs for women were defined only as secretaries or low-end junior staff. (Not to mention smoking, whiskey and sexist comments were commonplace.)

By the 1980s, the percentage of women aged 25 to 45 who worked had ballooned to 71%, up from 15% in 1890, according to The Atlantic. Management had another workforce concern to scoot around: sexual harassment laws. About that same time, more companies also began thinking about how culture could impact their success: “Organizational culture became a hot topic for research in the 1980s,” wrote Iowa State University’s Taysir M. Khatib.

Yet even still, organizational culture wasn’t necessarily focused on the benefit of employees. We saw the rise of cubicles, which some say symbolized oppressive work environments, and the ethos of “forced ranking.” Made popular by GE’s Jack Welch, forced ranking was a management tool that used intense yearly evaluations to identify a company’s best and worst performing employees, using person-to-person comparisons.

By the late 1990s, most people dragged themselves to offices with blindingly bright fluorescent light and impossibly dull  tan cubicles. They sipped stale coffee in crowded breakrooms and waited in line to cook lunch in the splattered microwave. Maybe the team would go bowling once a month or gather for inspirational talks in a conference room a’la Michael Scott in the TV show, The Office.

The dot-com boom, however, ushered in a different kind of mindset — albeit a frenzied and over-the-top one — when it came to considering the wellbeing of people at work. Yet the rise of the Internet economy brought us something closer to today’s version of work. Fueled by a venture capital fever, billion dollar acquisition deals and a budding war for talent, those early Internet companies aggressively wooed employees with free bagels, ping-pong tables and elaborate concerts and parties.

Suddenly, we’d shifted from a perennial employer’s economy to that of an employee economy, filled with myriad opportunities and a geyser of startups. When the economy crashed in the early 2000s, companies recalibrated their employee perks, but the idea of culture and employee wellbeing persevered.

Today, obtaining a good corporate culture has since evolved into a more subtle endeavor, a complex balance of diversity, transparency and career growth, of wellness and wellbeing, of creativity and productivity, of office design and optimizing rest, social and flow states, of retention, flexibility and work-life balance. A healthy culture could let you find and retain great employees. It could foster teamwork and innovation. It could boost productivity. It could let you build a thriving, successful company. A healthy corporate culture became the holy grail in the workplace, especially for fast-growing companies.

They’re embracing daydreaming and doodling. Meditation and honest conversations get championed. They ban workaholics and invite cultural anthropologists and UX designers to figure out how to improve their work cultures. Innovative companies mandate transparency, and craft organizational charts made up of small autonomous groups. Trust and collaboration? They’re building it.

We explore how work is changing and how to make work better in Humans at Work, and we encourage you to explore these ideas and contemplate more deeply the people who will drive your future workplace.