Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Workplace Reinvented

If you're employed, you're probably asked to do more with less: harder, faster, better.

There's no reason to believe that today's employers are crueler than past ones. What's different is that today's employers have large new costs that make it ever more difficult to stay in business: mountains of paperwork to comply with federal, state, and local regulations, more employee lawsuits, and government-required employer costs: from worker's compensation to "non-worker's comp-"-the too-often abused Family and Medical Leave Act.  

And of course, employers are ever more subject to global competition. For example, in the not-so-distant past, U.S. car makers could get away with making inferior cars using parts with deliberately short mean-time between failure/planned obsolescence, and could afford to cave to the media-abetted unions and despite mediocre work, give assembly-line workers lifetime job guarantees and better compensation packages ($73 an hour) than most professionals receive.

As a result, a large percentage of the price you paid for for a car has gone to paying for inferior parts and very expensive not-great workers. Asian car companies such as Toyota and Honda offer higher-quality-quality vehicles (average labor cost: $48 an hour)

The U.S. keeps trying to prop up U.S carmakers: for example, a 25% tariff on foreign pickup trucks and a taxpayer-funded $60 billion bailout of GM. Regarding the latter, despite statements by the Obama administration, it has failed--the bailout occurred when the stock price was $34. The breakeven price is $53 but it closed today at 22, a $15 billion loss for you and me.

Yes, a small percentage of large American corporations are doing just fine and because their stock price is up, their executives make a fortune. But more broadly, because of the above factors, to survive, American employers, from auto makers to chip makers to small companies, and, yes even government agencies, must often ask workers to work harder, faster, better.

Alas, too many employees will crumble under the pressure. If you're lucky enough to have a job in this economy, you are ever more likely to get maxed out--you have no more blood to give. 

So what's the answer? I believe the U.S. workplace can be reinvented so as to make worklife better for employees, while net, improving employers' products', services and bottom line. 

Of course, no one model will apply to all workplaces but I hope the eight ideas in this proposal will at least stimulate your own thinking on how to improve your workplace.  

1. No one-size-fits-all treatment of employees. Unions and gender/race advocacy groups often demand policies that require all employees be treated equally. Yet it's wiser to celebrate diversity: Each individual employee needs more or less supervision, more or less accountability, more or less flexibility of hours, more or less telecommuting, more or less of a workload. Employers deserve broader latitude in individualizing approaches to employees.

2. Convert at least some cubicles into officettes. The noise and lack of privacy in cubicles is draining. Employees' worklives would be more pleasant and employers would probably gain more in profitability if at least some cubes were converted into officettes: Use standard wallboard to raise the between-cubical screens to ceiling height, and add a door. 

3. Expand telecommuting. With government having decided to try to force us out of our cars and into mass transit by not building freeways and thus increasing gridlock, commute times are growing. In many metropolitan areas, by the time we arrive at work, we've already dissipated a fair amount of our day's energy. Tack on the commute home and we're ever less likely to want to finish up any work nor have the energy to be a patient parent or domestic partner, let alone to do volunteer work. So, many employees spend most of their evening exhausted in front of a TV with a beer or something stronger.

Especially with the availability of free videoskype to augment phone and internet, more employees who feel they can be as or more productive working at home (or a Starbucks) should be allowed to do so, at least for part of the week. Not only would that reduce commute times, many employees are more relaxed at home, working in their comfies, and may enjoy reduced child-care expenses. And the employer saves money by not needing to build or lease as much office space. 

4. Allow pets. Yes, I'm aware that an inconsiderate pet owner could bring a fleabag to work. Solution: After one warning to use flea remedy, Fido's visitation rights could be revoked. Too, I'm aware that some people are allergic to or terrified of Fido. Solution: If Fido's owner's efforts to keep Fido away from Fearful fail or if Fearful's workspace can't be moved far enough from Fido, the doggie could be forced to turn in his employee badge. 

The benefits of pets in the workplace greatly exceed the liabilities. According to a survey by the American Pet Products Manufacturers Association, most people believe that pets in the workplace make people happier, reduce stress, contribute to a more creative environment, and decreases absenteeism. That makes sense to me. Besides, think of how happy Fido will be to have its owner close at hand for a hug--and a much appreciated walk. Already, 17 percent of large companies allow pets at work. More employers should. 

5. Relax the dress code. Sure, some people love dressing up every day to go to work, but many more find it time-consuming, expensive, and constraining. Personally speaking, I find a tie a mere step from a noose. And when I see someone (a lawyer, financial planner, etc) in a suit, I grab hold of my wallet--It makes me wonder if s/he didn't spend all that money on packaging himself to hide a lack of substance underneath. Dress codes should be more flexible. "Dress as you like" may sound extreme but I think that's wisest.

6. Improve the subtleties of workplace safety. Fortunately, the era of workplaces with toxic fumes and other noxiousness have largely been eradicated in the U.S. But more subtle but still very problematic safety hazards exist. For example, millions of desks/workstations contribute to repetitive strain injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome. Another example: research indicates that sitting too long can kill you. A solution: an adjustable-height desk or, less expensive, adjustible height keyboard tray and monitor arm. Those allow you comfortably to, for example, work on a computer, while sitting or standing. Improving workspaces ergonomically is a cost-effective way to improve workers' lives.

7. Make ADA requirements more flexible. As with many laws, pressure groups have filed lawsuits forcing expansion of the Americans with Disabilities Act well beyond the non-controversial improving wheelchair access, to everything from celiac disease to chronic fatigue so that now, for example, a person with a psychologist's note saying the employee is depressed is entitled to so-called "Reasonable Accommodation."  

On one hand, I understand the frustration of a person with a mental or physical illness or disability not wanting the additional burden of being persona non grata in the workplace. On the other hand, if employers are forced to assume the burden of employing such people, net, that causes harm:
  • coworkers often must take on extra work to "carry" the disabled employee,
  • all of us customers suffering from worse products or services. 
  • the shareholders who have invested their savings in the company losing money, the employers. If an employer chooses to terminate any of the 43 to 54 million Americans now covered under ADA, the employer must prove that the employee wasn't fired because of the disability. As a result, many employers retain poor performing employees, make Reasonable Accommodations for them, and accept the resulting reduced profitability and increased risk of going out of business. The companies are more at risk of going broke because, in every other country in the world ("the U.S. is a benchmark",) employers are under less pressure to retain employees with serious mental or physical disabilities. And, of course, if a business goes bust, all its employees lose their jobs--devastating to their and their family's lives.
I believe that moderating the Americans with Disabilities Act would lead to greater net good. 

8. Make Affirmative Action policies more flexible. As with the ADA, no reasonable person could dispute Affirmative Action's original intent: to ensure that people of all races, religions, and sexual orientations are treated fairly.

But pressure from government and advocacy groups has converted the originally reasonable affirmative action laws and policies to, in practice, decreasing the weight of merit in hiring, promotion, and firing, and increasing the weight of non-merit-based criteria: aiming for proportionality in race, gender, age, and sexual orientation.

And government is now extending employment rights to the long-term unemployed and to ex-felons. For example, the Obama Administration has made it easier for ex-offenders to prevail in lawsuits by providing such legal weapons as the Disparate Impact Theory of Discrimination. For example, in a biotechnology company, if there is a smaller percentage of African-Americans or ex-felons in leadership positions than in the general population, that is deemed to be evidence of discrimination! There's something Alice-in-Wonderland-like about pressuring employers to not give preference to applicants who haven't been felons nor been rejected by many other employers. 

Such policies are bad for coworkers, who thereby are forced to work with coworkers who are not as competent or easy to work with as those who would have been selected if hiring, promotion, and firing were based only on merit.

They're even bad for the protected classes: minorities, women, the disabled, sexual minorities. Too often, even fully qualified people in those classes are viewed askance: that they wouldn't have been hired if it weren't for their being, for example, an "underrepresented" minority.

Nor are such policies good for employers, whether companies, nonprofits, or government agencies. Their products and services have to be worse for feeling pressure to hire, promote, and fire, based on criteria other than merit.  And such companies are more likely to fail, costing all the employees' jobs, because their competitors in other countries such as India and China are under far less such pressure. 

Of course, a few foolish employers will refuse to hire and promote the best candidates because of non-merit-based factors but, for the reasons cited, far greater ill to society accrues from the massive so-called "equal opportunity" enterprise. America would be wiser to reduce pressure to hire based on race, gender, sexual orientation, and age, let alone having been long-term unemployed or committed a felony.

Instead, American law and policy should simply encourage people perceiving discrimination to seek mediation, and, if that fails, arbitration, with taxpayer-funded subsidizing of legal fees for low-income claimants. 


Johannes said...

I like your suggestions around giving companies permission to make their hiring decisions based on employees merit. I hope the transparency made possible by LinkedIn and other social media will naturally move us toward greater importance of merit.

Maria Lopez said...

Some observations:

Allow pets really means allow dogs, fish, and perhaps snakes and rodents. Other pets either noisy, incapable,
of understanding that they aren't welcome on everybody's desk, or likely to be seen as prey by dogs.

Dogs have been naturally and artificially for a hundred thousand years to behave in ways that are compatible with humans, other pets are less like to understand obvious social conventions.

Also, relaxed dress codes are not everybody's cup of tea. There are always a few who prefer suits and ties.

Finally, despite offshoring there are still a lot of industrial workers in the US, you might like to make a separate list of suggestions for their employers.

L{DiracDelta(t)} said...

As far as working in a cubicle environment with lots of noise, I bought a set of Peltors with 30 dB of noise reduction that are comfortable enough to wear all day. It isn't an office, but it goes a long way.

- L{DiracDelta(t)}

ST said...

1. No one-size-fits-all treatment of employees.
This is true, except it's the employees who start screaming when things look unfair.

2. Convert at least some cubicles into officettes.
Heaven help us cube dwellers. This has got to be the worse "invention" in the office, except it's better than the completely open office I worked in when I started working in the 1980's. Due to the nature of my work, I really could use several hours of uninterrupted time during each day to concentrate. The Peltor is a good idea, and I've used noise cancelling headphones (with music playing) and regular ones, too, except I don't always want music playing. The ear muff would be good, except a lot of the interruptions are instant messages and (URGENT!) emails. I guess it's a fact of life working in an office, and why I spend so many nights and weekends doing my "real" work.

3. Expand telecommuting.
We already have a fairly generous policy, up to two days a week working from home, with some restrictions, which aren't too bad. It helps on the gas and adds concentration time (but doesn't get rid of emails or instant messages).

4. Allow pets.
No way. Having pets, like having kids, is a personal choice and should remain at the home of the individual, not in the office. At the very least, there would be a doggy day care on site, and I don't see companies spending the money on that.

5. Relax the dress code.
We already have a casual dress code, collared shirts and casual pants (jeans on Fridays and certain other days).

8. Make Affirmative Action policies more flexible.
I really do have a beef with the fact that it's almost reverse discrimination in hiring and one of our research departments is almost entirely Chinese, most of them H1-Bs. I've even seen and have heard about examples where the Caucasians were either subtly ousted out, or were passed over in hiring, even though very well qualified. This same kind of thing happens in the IT department with East Indians, although I'm not as close to that area.

Clinton Harvin said...

Having a recreation room in the workplace that promotes the health of the employees such as a fitness center is a good recommendation too. It can help maximize the performance of the employees and help them maintain good health. A larger workplace is also recommended so that there will be spaces for the employees to move about and be active.

Anonymous said...

You write, "And government is now extending employment rights to the long-term unemployed and to ex-felons!" with vehemence. The protection is in not allowing blanket hiring prohibition, which should increase hiring on individual merit. You like to make decisions on facts and data. Here are the facts. Ninety-five percent of the people who go into jail come out again. The number one thing that contributes to their being able to "make it" on the outside and not recidivate is getting a job. If companies have a "We hire no felons" policy in place, formerly incarcerated Americans are damned from the get-go. Ex-offenders whose crime follows them around say, "I've paid my debt to society -- how long do I have to keep paying it?" Have you ever done anything you really regret? Ever wanted a fresh start? Have you ever resolved to do better? Ever wanted to be given a fair chance to compete?

I was standing in a career center last week when a man came up and introduced himself. He said he'd just gotten a job at a wind energy company and wanted to come back and thank the staff for all the support they gave him. The govt had paid for 5 weeks of training during which time he earned 13 certifications. Now he travels all over the state doing wind turbine projects. He was a great ending to my hard day because such an upper. After he left, one of the staff members told me he'd served 10 years in prison.

EEO doesn't "force bad co-workers on people." I'm told the gentlemen above had talent and skills in electrical and carpentry and was able to assist struggling fellow students in the cohort, allowing them to finish at the top of the class with him, including the only woman in the class [who will, BTW, make a decent wage because she isn't afraid of hard physical work in all weather, to your perennial point].

It breaks my heart that a sweet preschool teacher I knew who briefly sold pot during a period of unemployment (and got caught) can never work in that field again. She loves children but cannot work with any "vulnerable population." I'm sure you're pleased that some blanket prohibitions remain.

"Ban the box" and other such measures even pass the utilitarian "sniff test." It does more harm to more people to put barriers in front of ex-felons attempting to rehabilitate themselves than it does to open opportunity because they are more likely to go back to the only thing they know (illegal ways of making money) if they cannot get a legitimate job.

Just think how "one's" life might have been different if "one" had not only lost that job, but never been able to apply to another. Yes, perhaps there'd be one more soup cart in the world. But not everyone is cut out for entrepreneurship -- it can't be the solution for all ex-offenders. I'm thinking of one "successful" entrepreneur (not an ex-offender) who found it soul-killing. Peace.

Marty Nemko said...

While well-written, your analysis ignores the dispositive points. As with the other pressures government imposes to hire on factors other than merit, the INTENT of the law (no BLANKET prohibitions against hiring felons), IN PRACTICE, too often becomes "targets," near-quotas for hiring and promotion.

Because of Justice Dept/EEO pressures (e.g. analyzing employment through the Disparate Inpact principle mentioned in the article,) company lawyers end up urging HR to add felons and the long-term unemployed to the list of diversity hires that need be made. So in practice, you have ever more people selected for factors other than merit.

Also, your analysis expresses concern only for the ex-felons and long-term unemployed. You ignore all the other stakeholders, people who are, net, more worthy: non-felons, people who have not stayed unemployed for a year or longer, the other coworkers, the customers, the society.

Nearly every law helps some people and hurts others. Usually, I choose to cast my lot with laws that benefit the larger society, non-felons, the not long-term unemployed, etc.--even if it didn't make utilitarian sense--and it does.