Employees Are More Than Just Labor

Ages Apart by hans s

By Matt Courtland

I have to wonder if Andrew O’Connell’s recent piece, Respect Employees: Be Tough on Them, in the Harvard Business Review blog was intentionally meant to incite a strong negative response from as many people as possible. The entire thrust of the article can be summarized in these few outrageous sentences: “…it’s not fine to pretend that employees come to work in order to have fun and be fulfilled. That fiction does them a disservice. They’re here to do unremitting work, maybe for years on end, and the labor is going to take something out of them. And they may get laid off for their trouble.” No doubt this has historically been true, but we are in a new age of business in which the contract between workers and employers is rapidly moving beyond sweat for money. Simply put, today’s employees are more than just labor.

O’Connell focuses on recent research out of Germany that compares two groups of people involved with complex problem solving (CPS) projects. The group from the “nice environment” found results came easily and was praised for its good performance. The group from the “nasty environment” found results came very slowly, or not at all, and received negative feedback.

The findings show that, “nasty environments influenced CPS by leading to a higher information retrieval and a better CPS performance.” This is not surprising at all. Humans have developed coping strategies that allow us to survive when situations become unpleasant, but nature only intended for people to be put into difficult situations every so often. The increased daily stress levels commonly seen today are known to lead to a variety of physical problems as well as compromised relationships at work and at home. Yet it appears that as our “civilization” moves forward, we are making it harder to fulfill our needs and increasingly find ourselves in “nasty” environments.

61 Faces by Mait Jüriado

The hunter/gatherer lifestyle practiced for thousands of years around the world gave people a 60-40% balance between work and leisure. Our modern world leaves us with far less time to enjoy life, yet articles like O’Connell’s are suggesting that on top of already busy work schedules, people should be given negative feedback to help them see how a company needs its operations to run. I realize that O’Connell did not perform the research but he is reporting it as business news and I find the implications irresponsible.

While it is not possible to include an in-depth discussion on the many socio-economic questions this new research raises, it is important to take an optimistic view of the shift in workplace culture that is gaining momentum. Many leading companies are creating positive environments for their employees and doing much more than organizing a few outings or offering games tables in their break rooms. Organizations are responding to an increasing demand for business to be socially and environmentally conscious and to fit into employees’ pursuit of a good work-life balance. Adobe has bicycle mechanics at many of its locations so people who bike to work can get a tune up or repair without eating into their personal time. Google’s 20-percent program allows people working for their company to spend one-fifth of their week researching topics that interest them but are not related to a current project. Patagonia let’s their employees leave work when there is a good swell so they can enjoy surfing near the company’s California headquarters.

These programs are certainly not 100% altruistic. Google claims that many of the applications that make it into their test lab were envisioned during the 20-percent time. Overall, these situations do not sound like “nasty” work environments to me. To say that a negative environment leads to higher and better outcomes is externalizing the true costs of the system, such as the decreased mental and physical heath of the workers being put into these consistently difficult environments. O’Connell writes that he, “takes no pleasure in reporting” about the benefits of oppressive working situations and claims, “I wish it were not so;” however, he provides personal examples to show that a negative work environment can provide management with the best that people have to offer. Again, this is no surprise. What is surprising is that the Harvard Business Review would publish an article that deals with such a short-sighted view when a new age of organizational management based on social responsibility, environmental sustainability, and financial viability is rapidly growing.

May the sun shine warm upon your face by W9NED

Two hundred and fifty years after the new technologies of the Industrial Revolution first began to change the world, the global business community is discovering it needs to change the world once again. The money-making model which fueled the revolution did not fully account for the well-being of society and paid little attention to the health of the environment. The results of this flawed paradigm are seen today as the human population and global temperature increase while natural resources and economic stability continue to decline. Companies now have a tremendous opportunity to incorporate the triple bottom line – an interest in people, planet, and profits – into the heart of their organization. Businesses like Stonyfield Farm and Timberland are taking the lead by protecting the Earth and offering employees an outstanding environment where they are encouraged to provide more than just labor.


Matt Courtland of The Natural Strategy educates people on sustainable business practices while reconnecting them to the energy and inspiration found in nature.

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