Many companies around the world are renovating the workspace offering quirks such as guitars in the lobby or zip wires hung from the terrace for thrill-seeking workers. With comfy chairs, free top-shelf coffee, yoga classes and sports facilities, it might as well be the lounge of a swanky hotel. The idea is that all these niceties add up to more than the sum of their parts. Cynics say that they want to keep employees in the office for as long as possible. If they can eat what they want, go to the gym, and even get their dry cleaning done at work, why would they ever want to go home?
This is a stark departure from the post-industrial revolution era when workers were herded into workplaces with stringent rules and repetitive tasks, and eventually, moved to stultifying offices where they sat in regimented desks and waited impatiently for the clocks to hit 5 pm.
The restructuring of the office space is not driven by profit alone as sceptics will tell you. Two important factors are at play here—many routine tasks are being automated and humans are focusing more on creative endeavours. Hence the need for creative working spaces, which encourage independent thought.
This is also an attempt at redefining the “corporate culture”, which emerged as a solution to the problems of the large, distributed mass industrial company, long before it was identified and cultivated as an idea. Ransom E Olds, a pioneer of the American automotive industry, is credited with inventing the concept of the assembly line way back in 1901, and it was over the following decades that businesses began to feel an urgency to address the question of what work was supposed to “mean.” It was both a financial matter—employees who toiled 9 to 5 in exchange for a pay check were difficult to retain and reluctant to prioritise efficiency and innovation—and a social one.
In the next five decades, big companies like the American car manufacturers had come to represent the main institutional affiliation for workers. Even if these firms had no clear-cut benevolent interest in civic cohesion, they certainly had a stake in the preservation of the social order. If corporations could invest piecemeal labour with something like dignity, they could nullify the political and economic threats posed by workers’ union.
What they arrived at was a universal set of strategies, applicable to any industrial organisation, designed to help employees recognise the value of their personal contributions to the final product. This new approach was formulated in Concept of the Corporation (1946) by Peter Drucker, widely recognised as the father of modern management, who believed that workers must not be viewed as exploitable resources but as human capital to be nurtured, and therefore, provided with training for development. Drucker showed that employees lacking the drive for self-development were more motivated when given a holistic view on production—the maker of a car’s brake, for instance, might be shown where his mundane, repetitive effort fit into the fully realised automobile.
But strategies, no matter how well-designed and well-intentioned, fail if the right culture is not developed within the organisation. “Culture eats strategy for breakfast,” said Ducker, a phrase made famous years later by Mark Fields, a former CEO of automaker Ford. Business leaders seeking to build high-performing companies are often confounded by organisational culture. They may lay out meticulous, thoughtful plans for strategy and implementation, but because they do not pay attention to culture’s power and dynamics, their plans often go off the rails.
Organisational culture cannot be built in a vacuum. Influential US anthropologist and Princeton professor Clifford Geertz defined culture as a collective act of interpretation, the stories we tell each other about ourselves in order to make a sense of why we do what we do. He advised that corporate culture could easily borrow from civic culture’s predominant norms and, in turn, reinforce them.
Organisations are no longer just labour-platform intermediaries positioned to match those who need something done with those who need something to do. Many members of the Generation Z, the population segment born after 1996, are entering the job market. Their expectations and outlooks vary from those of the Millennials who in recent years reengineered the modern workforce. Various studies suggest that their top job priority is to find meaningful work which means something that they care about and something that they believe could help other people out. They want to create, innovate and solve problems that matter to us all.
With this in mind, companies are reinventing themselves with a combination of architecture, technology and hospitality. Will serving Michelin-quality food and organising concerts revive the workplace as a locus of societal coherence? Can we put a group of random actors on stage and expect them to stumble their way toward a play? And yet, in some of these places, a spirit of community does unfold ex nihilo. And when that happens, we have an organisation that not only makes money but also makes life better for people. That is what work is all about.
Amitava Kar is a mechanical engineer.