July 15, 2013
Workplace surveys: ridiculous or illuminating?
A new study has found that an employee's efficiency increases by more than 200 percent when that person is given the option of sitting in a chair made of milk chocolate.
The study was conducted by me, on behalf of my new company, ChocoChair Inc. (Our chairs are so good, you'll be sitting on the floor by noon!)
The study's margin of error is plus or minus "I Might Be Making the Whole Thing Up."
OK, I made the whole thing up. But I did it to highlight that we're in the Golden Age of workplace surveys, a time when no aspect of the office or any of the behaviors of its inhabitants are immune to examination.
In less than a week, I've been contacted about studies that include: how many workers report that stress from a personal problem hurts their work performance; what percentage of workers think a pet-friendly workplace would make them more productive; how many people believe they'll get a raise within three months; what percentage of millennials want to set their own schedules; and what time of day the boss sends work-related emails.
One particularly compelling bit of research began: "Americans' attitudes about work are shifting, with the changes both positive and negative."
I'm certainly not alone in this river of workplace data. Whether it's a sound scientific study or a publicity-hungry corporation's dopey survey, this information routinely winds up in newspapers and on websites and the nightly news.
So I ask: Is it too much? Are we overanalyzing the workplace?
Deborah Rupp, the William C. Byham Chair in Industrial/Organizational Psychology at Purdue University and editor of the Journal of Management, doesn't think so.
She quoted William Faulkner: "You can't eat eight hours a day nor drink for eight hours a day nor make love for eight hours -- all you can do for eight hours is work."
"Work is just a very pervasive part of the human experience," Rupp says. "People are now working more than they're doing everything else, except maybe sleeping -- but in a lot of cases, not even sleeping. It's the venue in which we're carrying out our lives."
So this intense study is, in Rupp's opinion, a good thing. And it marks a significant change in concern for our overall well-being.
For ages, the primary focus of workplace monitoring was to figure out how to squeeze as much work out of people as possible. The concept of "work" and "life" melding together is, in the grand scheme of things, relatively new.
"All [these] data we see [are] symbolic of organizations paying more attention to the needs and health of workers than ever before," Rupp says. "It used to just be, 'How can we make you more productive?' It wasn't because you, as a human being, matter. Now, the information we receive has a concern motive about it."
OK, but what about my survey about chocolate chairs or the pet product association's survey on pets in the workplace?
"I think the public is able to differentiate between hokum and science," Rupp says.
To my concern of oversaturation, she notes, wisely, that the prevalence of work in our lives makes it virtually impossible for us to tire of new data and trends in the workplace. It's like talking about the weather -- we just can't resist.
Karen Cates, a lecturer at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, agrees that the appetite for studies about work is insatiable, but she warns against management becoming too reactionary with each new data set that comes along.
"You'll see stats that say only 15 percent of women in corporate America are CEOs," Cates says. "One of the answers that comes from that is: We have to recruit more women. You take a statistic that you don't know anything about, and you just jump to a conclusion. That's not very thoughtful; it's reactive. And that's the risk that you take in letting these stats speak for themselves. There's a risk of getting on a bandwagon without knowing where you're going."
At the same time, she says, even the more sensational bits of data can raise valid questions. The key for managers is to research the data and decide whether it's worth worrying about.
"You see this absurd or surprising statistic -- but maybe it relates to you or your company," Cates says. "That's where leadership comes in. If leadership seem sincere in their desire to know something or discover something, they'll research it. Then they'll say, 'Hey, this is an issue, we want to do something about it.'"
So it's possible I've been too critical of the zombie horde-like waves of workplace studies that come my way.
On the plus side, however, this gives me hope that all our desks will one day come with sumptuous ChocoChairs.
Rex Huppke writes for the Chicago Tribune. Send him questions by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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