Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

If you want your company to be more innovative 1: improve the cafeteria

Posted in HR and personnel, social networking and business by Timothy Platt on June 29, 2013

Managers and owners of businesses take a great many approaches to working with and managing their employees. The explicit reasoning and the assumed but perhaps unconsidered assumptions that underlie their decisions here, arise from a wide variety of sources too.

• They can come from their own work experience, both positive and negative, and as a simple continuation of and even replication of what they experienced as an employee.
• Sometimes managers develop their own approaches to leadership and to working with and managing employees as a breaking away response where they develop their own approaches as a reaction to their own work experience past – and as an explicit repudiation of it, and as a considered alternative to it.
• Personality and personality type plays a role in this insofar as managers and owners, like everyone else, tend to gravitate towards their own comfort zones. And for people in leadership authority their preferences and their comfort zones can and do shape the expectations and experience of others around them.
• And when a business operates in an industry where certain standards and approaches to employee behavior are in place and expected by all, that can and does have a real impact too, on shaping the workplace for everyone: employees and manager alike and even executive managers and business owners.

My goal in this posting is to discuss creativity and innovation in the workplace, and developing and instilling a workplace environment and a workplace culture that can support and facilitate creative, innovative discussion and collaboration. So I began this posting by posing a list of ways in which business leadership shapes the employee experience – but largely to set it aside.

• If your goal as a business owner or leader is to instill a rigid uniformity of employee experience and business culture, as for example in maintaining conformity to a fixed, single-permitted standard, then top-down approaches as touched upon above can work, and even be requirements for success.
• But if you seek to develop the innovative potential of your employees as a source of value for your organization, top-down organization and shaping of the employee experience and of the corporate culture that defines it cannot work, and certainly as an unalloyed, one and only approach.

Think in terms of employee needs, and of developing and offering resources that address them. Think and develop in terms of meshing productivity with the meeting of those basic needs. And seek out feedback and opportunity for two way and even multidirectional conversations in finding out what would improve employee satisfaction and an employee sense of involvement and even ownership – and that would foster innovation and collaboration.

I have worked at businesses where everyone was encouraged and even expected to work through lunch, and where people often brought their lunch to their work cubicles. It should not be much of a surprise that people who work in that type of heads-down environment rarely even get to really know their colleagues who work near them, let alone any of the people working in other areas of their business, and even when that would mean people who work on tasks that their own work functionally connects to.

• If you want to foster an open, creative, collaborative workplace and gain the benefits that such an environment can foster, you need to support a more bottom-up, inclusive and empowering corporate culture and bottom-up workplace shaping processes and decision making.

And as one possible starting point out of many possibilities for that, I would begin with the company cafeteria. Everyone eats, and everyone gets hungry during the course of their workdays.

If everyone simply gets up and leaves the building for lunch, spreading out in multiple directions, that can be just as isolating as encouraging employees to eat hidden away in their work cubicles. Opening up the business to its open collaborative potential means bringing people together and keeping them there and engaged in shared activities together. And that means offering them opportunity to both be able to come together and to want to do so.

• Offer a workplace, on-site cafeteria and build and maintain it as a comfortable place that people will enjoy going to.
• Create an environment in it where employees and managers from all levels on the table of organization: the full range of people who would be the source of your innovative potential, can come together to eat and to and chat, and to get to network more widely and share ideas.
• Make sure the food is very good and very inexpensive – subsidize it as a cost of improving your business. Actively solicit feedback on what your employees want to see on the menu.
• Make the setting more comfortable so people will go there and eat there, and not simply get their food there to bring back to their desks or cubicles.
• Encourage people to eat there and to talk with each other – make the tables larger and set an example from the top down of sitting down with people you know already, but also and at least as importantly with people you don’t know yet.
• And remember that business social networking is business networking but it is also social networking – encourage and even actively cultivate that too.
• Innovation comes when people make unexpected connections and see none-of-the-above possibilities from unexpected directions.
• Innovation comes when challenges are viewed with fresh eyes and by minds not already caught up in all of the basic assumptions that all too often lead to opportunities being seen as challenges.

And offer breakfast and evening dinner service as well as lunch service if your shift schedule and employee workday patterns mean that people would be at work and hungry at those hours. Make this space available as a commons area for coffee breaks and for less formal work meetings, and for developing and fostering interdisciplinary collaborations for finding innovative solutions to the business’ challenges.

I am going to follow up on this posting with a second posting on creating a creative commons in your business space, and will then go on to discuss online counterparts to that. Meanwhile, I offer this as a thought piece, and in that regard recommend your reviewing related postings that can be found at HR and Personnel and Social Networking and Business.

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