How Office Dwellers Can Become Doers (Harvard Business Review)

This is a re-post of my original article on Harvard Business Review

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I’ve often fantasized about hurling my laptop over Niagara Falls, then grilling a fresh salmon to celebrate my sensory liberation. I’d become a Maker. I’d build a sailboat to circle the globe. I’d live off the sea, fending off killer whales and Somali pirates. I’m not alone in yearning to resuscitate my flabby Tweeting muscles. As I’ve written before, there’s plenty of evidence that people who make a tangible product, use their senses, and help others are happier than mere office dwellers. But let’s face it, Microsoft won’t pay you to conquer the Amazon or extract salmon roe. Offices are where the work is. Which explains why I’m here — with you — writing about making things instead of weatherproofing my pirate-repelling catapult. But there is a glimmer of hope for us Clickers, Copy/Pasters, Conference-Callers, and Collators. In this digital office world, happiness can — and must — be simulated.

The butcher, the baker, the office dweller maker
While you probably won’t convince your boss that performing the Nutcracker in the conference room will help you close the Pepsi deal, there are ways to make almost any office job more stimulating and tangible.

Before I turned to writing and starting an incubator, my last traditional office job was leading growth and innovation at a Fortune 100 company. From the outside, you might think my job was a cauldron of experimentation that at any moment could produce a cure for cancer or The Incredible Hulk. No such luck. Most days were a potpourri of emails, meetings, and sensory dead-ends. It wasn’t all pain and suffering. Below are some ways I tried (or wish I had) to infuse Hulks, salmon, and pirates into my bland reality. I ranked these based on how well they stimulate the senses, create tangible results, and achieve business goals.

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a. Invest in products or services that solve real world problems or require physical capital or equipment. Google is doing this with its forays into energy, self-driving cars, and augmented-reality eyeglasses. Beneath every service lies physicality, if you look hard enough.

b. Periodically, have all employees and executives connect directly with customers. Have themtake customer service calls, gather their own customer research, and work in your warehouse or retail shops for a week. “Yes, those khakis fit beautifully, Mr. Shatner.”

c. Engage employees in making your (or your customers’) product. Send them to the factory. Everyone should know how the sausage is made.

d. When coming up with new products or services, build your own physical prototypes andsimulation spaces. Don’t settle for a few bullets on a slide and some faceless contractors in Asia.

e. Turn your office into a forest. Employees who are surrounded by plants have higher job satisfaction, especially men. Maybe even grow tomatoes. Just make sure to cook the sauce away from the sprinkler system.

f. Create your own office decorations. Make Martha Stewart seethe with envy.

g. Give Subway a rest and have your coworkers cook for your next office party.

h. Make those office sports leagues mean something. Winning teams or departments can have real stakes like more vacation time or lunch with executives…or avoiding lunch with the executives.

i. If you have a flabby workforce, make competitive weight loss part of your Biggest Loser-like showdowns. Winners will create happier employees and put less strain on fragile office furniture.

j. Beige and black is so 1993. Instead, create visual appeal. Demand employees dress better. Liven up their work spaces. Use bold colors. I’d say hire more beautiful people, but you already do that, don’t you?

k. Introduce scents. Some companies use scent to drive productivity, while others are happy just keeping body odor below fallout levels.

l. Changing your physical point of view might also change your mental one. Have your meetings outside — in parks, forests, maybe even on the roof. No jumpers, please.

m. Use standing desks or desk/treadmill combos. I can’t guarantee this look will scream Gordon Gekko, but it might take one chin off your chin.

n. Have 15-minute standup meetings instead of those insufferable hour-long snooze-fests.

o. Kill unnecessary document preparation. One page will do for most internal meetings. Outsource the boring, repetitive slide-making. (Hey, I’m trying to save this country… No doubt Belarus or India has its own Sergei or Sanjay Faktor writing for them.)

Your happiness simulator
Let’s face it, office work demands little from our lumpy bodies. It’s an inorganic way to allocate rubles or rupees so you can eat … or survive the untimely loss of an Xbox. The office will never feel as satisfying as cooking or building or sex (as a reader of my last post suggested). But you don’t have to surrender to joyless, digital celibacy…or set up shop in the Red Light District. You can create some satisfying simulations. Though at first they might feel like silicone, in a year both you and your coworkers will swear, “They’re real and they’re spectacular!”

Here’s a simple exercise you can use to come up with your own list of ideas:

1) Lock your most creative colleagues in a room full of coffee, toys, and photos of people doing stimulating things (that won’t get you fired). Together, brainstorm a list of activities that:
• Incorporate your five senses into your job
• Reconnect you and your employees to tangible output

office dwellers example table - ideafaktory.com

2) Rank each activity 1-5 based on the how well it stimulates each sense, creates real output, and helps your job. (Note: I left out the sense of taste, which could be splendid at Nestle, less so at Dow Chemical.)

3) Make a bubble chart using this template to prioritize your activities.

4) Implement as many of the large bubbles on the upper right as your budget allows.

I’d love to hear your most inspired ideas. If I don’t, perhaps we’ll meet on the open seas. You’ll be the one in the homemade schooner; I’ll be the one manning the catapult.

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