Graham Birkenhead, July 28 2020

Accommodating the Non-standard Worker

By the late 40s, the US Air Force was experiencing an unacceptable increase in the rate of air incidents and crashes.  This was the era of the introduction of jet aircraft. Apart from appearing to be pilot error, there didn't seem to be a common underlying cause.   But there was.   Back in 1926, the Air Force realised that pilots came in all different shapes and sizes, and so the challenge they had was how to design a cockpit to accommodate this physical diversity.  They came up with the idea of building a cockpit for an ‘average pilot’; they took hundreds of body measurements from thousands of pilots, and started to specify cockpit design based on the average pilot, and so it was for the next 2 decades until aircrew workload reached a tipping point.  To cut a long story short, they identified that there was not one single real human pilot that matched the measurements of the ‘average pilot’.   The cockpit had been designed for a pilot that did not exist and so every mission flown was subjecting the pilot to a less than ideal physical environment and this was taking its toll operationally – and it was killing pilots. Engineers quickly resolved the issue by introducing adjustments that individual pilots could make so that they could set up the cockpit according to their unique body measurements – individual fit rather than fitting the individual to the system.  Incident rates dropped.   The ideas were so successful that they were incorporated into the car industry. We wouldn't think of driving now without adjusting several items such as seats, steering wheel, mirrors etc.

Opportunity.  Much of what we do every day in managing and accommodating our workforce is built around standardising the way we work.   This seems entirely reasonable as we couldn't possibly accommodate everyone in a different way!  But maybe, as we rethink our workspaces, whether that be the office, the home or a hybrid, there is a huge opportunity to embrace some of the opportunities that this need to rethink presents.

All the same but very different.  While we are all able to recognise another human being and so to some extent, we can say there are a lot of similarities between people, we also know how different people are – just look at the members of your own family.  And across a broader spectrum of people, there are many types of diversity including age, cognitive, cultural, educational, ethnic, gender, generational, national, neuro, physical, socio-economic, and so on.  

Taking control.  Intellectually, we know the power of diversity in team performance, problem solving, and innovation, and many companies speak to this in their values. But this spectrum of diversity creates a paradoxical problem for us to solve, it creates complexity.  Our typical human response to dealing with complexity and complicated situations where there is a sense that things could get beyond our control, is to create an environment of control; we produce policies, procedures, rules, regulations, and standards.  The result of this is to increasingly create a standardised working environment for our very non-standard people – cubicles, standard working hours, uniform / dress code and an accompanying culture of conformance. People who are too far from the ‘standard’ will just not fit in at all.  To some extent, standardising reduces costs and enables certain levels of quality to be achieved (absolutely essential in manufacturing), but there may be a human cost.   This highlights another form of diversity – working style; some like to work in a highly structured and regulated environments, some don't, but the majority like a balance, and that balance is different for everyone.   Back to the adjustable cockpit. 

Finding balance. Whenever we design an environment for people to work, there are 3 main high-level system components:  

Finding the balance between these is critical, we can’t have everyone completely locked down and being mere extension of the machinery, and similarly, we can’t have everyone just doing their own thing with no guidance.  When considering the balance, we should realise that machines are really good at doing repetitive tasks that require high accuracy, whereas humans are really good at problem solving and doing work that requires variation and perhaps less accuracy.  People need to have a sense of control of their lives, of connection and belonging, machines don't care.  People get tired and need sustenance – machines will go forever with a small amount of attention.  To increase machine productivity, you just get it to work more hours, to increase human productivity you provide the conditions to achieve more in the available hours. 

The manager-leader’s challenge.  There is a lot of good intention to be more enlightened about providing great working environments for our people.  Unfortunately, many managers are stuck in the Taylorist (Frederick Winslow Taylor of Time and Motion Study infamy) way of thinking about their employees and as a result, many employees are focused on the idea of appearing busy.  A cultural shift is needed and that has to be led by our manager-leaders.  There comes a point in a human system somewhere between the extremes of total control and no control where people become highly productive and creative and find enjoyment and fulfilment. In my blog (The Human Cost-Benefit of the Home Worker) we described the state where this happens as flow, but the manager and company have a huge role to play in creating the circumstances that are required for it to happen.  It is a place where we are more focused on what our employees achieve rather than how many hours they work.  We need to give them the tools for the job, the knowledge to use them, the policies and procedures to guide them, the templates and frameworks needed for repetitive high accuracy elements of their work, and then the personal control, trust and responsibility to ‘adjust the seat and pedals’ so they can work optimally in the way that suits them. 

Ask yourself this question: People mostly want to do a good job and they want to learn how to do the job better.   The question we need to ask ourselves as managers is “are we doing all we can to help them in that endeavour, or are we working against them – like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake?”  Despite ‘allowing’ or encouraging people to work from home, providing a pleasant office environment, or a hybrid, are we still trying to fit the individual to the system, or, are we catering for an individual fit?  This is not easy to resolve, but starts with being aware of the challenge. 

A great initiative is the WELL Building Standard ™.   This is an international standard for creating building environments around human needs. While you could gain certification, for the majority, there are many good ideas within the 11 Concepts that can be incorporated into any office or work environment, or that you could encourage or facilitate your remote staff to build into their workspace and working style.  

If you want more ideas about creating an environment where your people can thrive, let me know.

Written by

Graham Birkenhead


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