As a first-time supervisor many years ago, I was curious about how I could help my small team become more productive.
Let me set the stage. I was one of about 10 young supervisors each supervising 8-12 people doing basic accounting work. We were all in the cargo billing and collection department of a major airline. There was one director over the department and two managers. The workforce was primarily female with an average age of around 40. All of the supervisors were in their 20?s and the managers and director were a few years older. Most of the supervisors were first time supervisors including me. We had been recruited from other parts of the company as the corporate accounting organization was going through a transition and wanted some new thinking.
The environment we were working in was the third floor of an old building in a mid western city. The floor was two beige shades of tile, the desks were gray metal, the file cabinets were gray and plentiful. There was no artwork on the walls and the placement of the numerous file cabinets reduced the access to outside light. We were using a batch scheduling system to measure productivity. It was a bit of a head down grind it out feel and the relationship between supervisors and their direct reports varied by supervisor but at a minimum was not one of high motivation.
I wanted to make a difference and was looking for ways to do so. As I was looking around I saw an article in the newspaper indicating that a noted behavioral scientist, Fred Herzberg was coming to town to speak. I was curious about what I could learn and signed up for his presentation. I loved Dr. Herzberg and his presentation. I immediately bought his core book ?The Motivation to Work? read it and decided to do an experiment.
I gathered my peer supervisors and told them about what I learned and asked for their help in doing an experiment. Here is what we did. We came in the office on a weekend and washed the floors and desks moved file cabinets as much as we could to let more natural light in the room, cleaned and painted the wastebaskets, found some airline travel posters (air travel was the business our company was in), framed them and put them on the walls, purchased a bud vase and flower for every desk and waited for Monday morning.
Monday morning was amazing. Our productivity plummeted as the workforce was blown away by what they saw. They couldn?t believe it. However, the ultimate result of what we did was a 40% increase in productivity for about 90 days and then a settling down to an approximate 25% gain that continued for as long as I was there. In addition, all the sudden there was improved communication and cooperation throughout the entire department. Everyone seemed happier and more willing to contribute and there was a feeling of engagement and cooperation.
What we really did in this very cost-effective experiment was show the workforce that we noticed them as human beings by taking away some of their demotivators in the work environment. Just demonstrating in a visible physical way that we recognized their humanity changed everything and the cost was a very few dollars and a weekend of work by a few young supervisors. The ROI on our investment was incredible.
Is the kind of thing that my coworkers and I participated in many years ago doable today? I believe it is. All we did is recognize our workforce as humans and tried to improve their environment. We didn?t do a big study. We weren?t sophisticated, we just cared enough to think about how we could do something to make the workplace more enjoyable and as a result achieved significant improvements in productivity as well as engagement before engagement was a buzz word.
Much has changed in the workforce today, but much has stayed the same. They are still human, and they still come to work wanting to be the best they can be (McGregor?s theory Y). They are likely better educated than when we did our experiment, but their core human desires have not changed dramatically. If you as a leader, no matter what level, believe your workforce is truly your biggest asset and you are curious about how to help them be the best they can be you will find more than ample opportunities to do so.