Since I first started working for a living, I have been deeply sceptical about the way organisations work. I saw too many people demoralised at having to put up with petty dictators, and too many rules getting in the way of people trying to work effectively.
Then, for some years, I had the chance to experience what work can be like in an environment that produced not only outstanding results, but a spirit, excitement and quality of life that people loved. It had no petty rules. It assumed people were there because they wanted to be successful, and its management acted as if it was there to help.
The mediocrity, insensitivity and sometimes the plain nastiness that we put up with in work environments a lot of the time comes at an enormous human cost and leaves untold money on the table.
The fundamental problem lies in the relationship that exists - perhaps I should say is allowed to exist - between employers and employees, or bosses and workers. It is not usually an acknowledged problem. It is tacit and not discussed openly.
The issue is as old as the hills, but was famously characterised for our times by Douglas McGregor as Theory X and Theory Y (these are views managements hold regarding how to get people to work well: X says you stand over people and threaten them; Y says you give people trust and support because they want to do well). Whether a workplace has the style of X or Y is a big influence on whether the resulting work life is an inspiring success story, a dreary routine or a toxic nightmare. Of course, X and Y are each appropriate at times. The important point is that they happen in a way that makes sense to people and is good for the business.
Australia has fantastic potential. Many Australians are doing wonderful, leading edge work, resulting in great businesses, discoveries in science and advances in social areas. Nevertheless swathes of the workforce are locked into industrial attitudes that draw their potency from historical wrongs and a culture of conservatism, competitiveness and fierce individualism that does little to foster co-operation.
For Australia to realise its strengths, people need to work well together, not just co-operating at tasks they have been trained in but listening to one another and building on ideas. Sticking with the old employee relations agenda is like driving forwards in time with eyes fixed on the rear view mirror.
So what is to be done?
The challenge is to build an environment in which people want to give of their best and are well supported in doing so. But it is notoriously hard to change a culture, largely because the forces that got it to wherever it is are still there to do it again. A solution often adopted in business is to start afresh in a green field site, with clear, new incentives. This is the guiding principle behind “Emporium”, in essence, a proposal to treat Australia as a green field site on which to build a world leading, high performance work system, fit for the turbulent times we are living in.
To convey how this might work, I ask you to come forwards with me in time about ten years and see what has developed. There is now to be found in towns and cities across the country a network of new workplaces called “Emporium” which are supported by an adult education program. Emporium’s basic modus operandi is to support its members in finding, contracting and executing work assignments, which can vary in size from small one-person tasks to major areas of responsibility outsourced from large organisations. Many of its members are part of multinational project teams.
Physically, Emporium offers serviced office accommodation, perhaps with light industrial space, and areas for social contact and other meetings. Visiting a facility, one might encounter members, mainly meeting as teams, people from other organisations temporarily working there, visitors investigating, consultants supporting and staff administrating. One might notice several people who could be retired - the key to Emporium’s success has been experienced people, with valuable knowledge and contacts, becoming involved and acting as mentors.
The financial impetus to get Emporium started came from large employers. Concern was growing to reduce costs by outsourcing any work that could be parcelled out, and Emporium was ready with a solution as the matter was getting attention. Its leading members were able to demonstrate an understanding of how to manage the subcontracting relationship, and an attitude to getting things done in business that the employers respected. Emporium placed great emphasis on managing these relationships and is now seen by many clients as a strong business partner.