Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

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Treat workers like children and you might get childish results

Published 09 July 2012 12:28, Updated 09 July 2012 20:26

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Treat workers like children and you might get childish results

If you treat adults like children, you get childish adults. If you treat people with suspicion, you will encourage devious behaviour.

The more unnecessary rules you impose, the less decision-making you allow, the more you will infantilise the people you are trying to manage.

BHP Billiton’s exhaustive list of “Do’s and Dont’s” at the company’s new Western Australian headquarters is a perfect example of over-management.

An 11-page document tells staff how big their one personal photograph should be on their desk (they can, alternatively, have an appropriately-sized work-based award instead), what kind of food they can eat at their desks (no chocolate or nuts, but lollies are OK), and how long they can keep their flowers.

People spend the majority of their waking hours at work and most just want to be left alone to get on with it.

If they feel comfortable shovelling in fist-fulls of trail mix while at the keyboard, they should be allowed to. If they motivate themselves with a gallery of family happy snaps, then why not?

Laying down excessive rules on behaviour and appearance just makes people feel uncomfortable and harks back to the old Industrial Age view that people are mere cogs in a machine and are easily replaceable and interchangeable.

People are messy, unpredicatable, emotional and creative. We all have our own reasons to come to work and our own ways of going about it. Trying to make us all do things the same way by imposing rules is never going to work.

We will take perverse pleasure in flouting rules we see as silly, or an imposition. And, once we get into the habit of making minor infringements, will we always know where to draw the line when it comes to respecting other rules?

BHP’s rules are about an outmoded idea of efficiency and about cost savings. BHP Billiton has introduced Activity-Based Working practises, which mean people no longer have a desk to call their own and can work from any location at the office.

This means that desks have to be cleared at the end of each day.

Activity-Based Working represents a great saving in real estate costs, because in traditional offices, many work stations are vacant on any given day because staff are working away from the office, are on holidays or sick leave.

Employers can then dramatically reduce the amount of office space they have to rent, by making sure that each desk has a higher rate of occupancy.

This system is the fastest-growing new workplace trend in this country, where rents are high, but it can still be effective without a dictatorial approach to people’s behaviour.

Some of the leading thinkers in workplace theory are starting to find ways to reintroduce individualism into Activity Based Working.

British-based workplace consultant, Philip Ross, visiting Australia earlier this year, said the new iteration of the office may take into account that people need to “nest”

“Some people do prefer – and behave better – when they are surrounded by their own artifacts,” he said.

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