A coffee stain on the desk disappeared under another stack of shuffled papers. A woman at her computer barely noticed the stain to begin with — too entrenched in whatever trivial task of the moment. By the looks of things, there were many trivial tasks and hidden coffee stains. And few noticed anything but whatever they were doing at that moment. The light chatter and clicks of the keyboards said much was happening.
A smudge on the glass. A spritz of the cleaner, a rag, and the smudge was gone. The cleaning lady could now see into the meeting room. Inside, well-dressed people sitting at a long table, looking like they belonged there. The boss peered over his glasses. Through the glass, at the cleaning woman. She quickly went back to cleaning.
The boss stood.
“I’d like to hand the floor over to our senior VP of Marketing. She has a new strategy that’ll help us fill in some gaps. Elise.”
Elise had her eye on the cleaning lady, who by now was halfway down the hall.
“Yes. Thank you. Um…” She straightened out her jacket, despite her outfit being the most impressive in the room. Elise was always put together. “We’ve identified a few areas where the listenership is flagging. Dale and Mike in the Mornings continues to be the strong performer among 24-40 year-old fathers, but we are losing 18-24. I think our strategy going forward involves a few strategic partners I’ve lined up, and I’d like to present them today.”
Elise continued with all the data points. As she gave yet another knockout presentation, all she could think at the sight of all those smiling faces and nodding heads in the room was… “Really?” Didn’t they get that this crisis was just like the last crisis? Didn’t they hear this speech was nearly identical to her last? Were they — like her — just not really paying attention anymore?
The presentation concluded with smiles and applause. Elise didn’t know or care if the praise was real. As she left the meeting room, the light and joyous banter gave way to keyboard clicks and the sounds of people on phones reciting phrases they had recited a million times before to people perhaps half-listening to them. Elise looked to the signs around the office: “Dale and Mike in the Mornings”, “Rush Hour Riffs with Gus Feinstein”. The signs were fun and colorful, telling anyone who saw them that a radio station must be a fun place to work.
Elise always took an extra moment in the bathroom to…fix her hair, wash her hands a second time, or look in the mirror. That is to say, if anyone else was in there. If she was alone, often she’d just stand in there or check her phone. That moment was the important thing.
It was in one of these moments that she noticed a plastic bottle on the floor beside the garbage can. Picking it up was one more thing allowing a few extra seconds of solitude. In the garbage, she found several more. She hesitated, then threw it on the pile.
She left the bathroom. On her way back to her office the only thing she noticed were the plastic bottles and aluminum cans: on all of the desks and even one on the floor behind the copy machine. A man finished his soda, crumpled it, and shot it into a trash can with the rest of a six-pack. As she approached her office, she could hear her phone ringing.
She closed her office door. Silent, save for that loud, obnoxious phone. Elise sat at her desk. That half-empty bottle beside the phone…did it have the recycle symbol on it somewhere? Yes, it did. With a “1”. What did that mean? Ring ring… Elise asked Google about the recycle symbol and the numbers. She answered her phone. “Hello?” Someone on the other end babbled on about ratings. Elise scrolled through a few pages about recycling. She watched a video, and turned the volume down low as she replied with a “Yeah” every now and then. Around the office, all the signs of her great success were displayed triumphantly: Her masters degree in communications and her awards. She paid them no mind.
“Could you come down this afternoon?” the voice said. “We’d like to speak with you about the partnership.”
Elise paused the video. She shuffled some papers with the intent of making noise. “Let me see, I think I can schedule you in…after lunch?”
One expensive taxi ride later, Elise found herself at the headquarters of an up-and-coming website. They’d struck a chord with the working youth, and found a creative way to match young freelancers with work. Wall Street said they were on the up-and-up, and their headquarters said so too. Immediately upon entry, she was invited by the bubbly purple-haired girl at reception to peruse the free snack bar.
Elise grabbed a bottled smoothie, but mostly found herself consuming the odd workplace culture. The first floor had couches with mismatched primary colored-cushions. Two small dogs ran up and jumped at her legs before their owner called them back to his napping pod. There were no computers until the third floor, which Elise could see through the open-center design of the former warehouse this business called home. The man with the voice from the phone called her into their meeting room. Its walls were an aquarium. In the future, Elise would not remember the content of the meeting, but she would vividly recall the fish.
As she left the meeting, the purple-haired girl offered to take Elise’s empty smoothie bottle. She tossed it right into a blue bin.
On another Monday morning, Elise pulled her BMW X3 into her VIP spot by the entrance. The cleaning lady waited there with a flatbed dolly, and when Elise popped the trunk, she revealed a stash of recycling bins packed full. She looked at her watch — time for work — and headed inside as the cleaning woman loaded the dolly.
That afternoon as she marched around the halls with her bluetooth headset spouting facts and figures, Elise made note of all the bins throughout the building. She walked with more vigor than usual, until, as the day wore on, she noticed the bins remaining mostly empty. It wasn’t that there were no bottles — still they sat on desks, and that one stuck behind the copy machine still sat there. Frustrated, Elise leaned over the machine and reached down, trying to grab the wayward bottle. Her arm got stuck. As she struggled, a man approached the nearby garbage can, and tossed his bottle inside. The recycle bin was right there.
That evening as the employees filed out for the day, Elise sat in her office. Her inbox was empty, her outbox was full…why did she feel like nothing got done that day? Recalling the fun, refreshing atmosphere of the other office, she looked up their company’s website. So fun and bright it made her sick. Well, sad was more what she felt honestly. Sad was what she felt when seeing vibrant people on successful paths. Didn’t success take sacrifice? Didn’t it take work? These kids had a meeting room with a ball pit. How were they making millions? And the pages on the website showed them volunteering with the homeless. And hosting block parties to raise money for cancer. And generally, having a purpose beyond the bottom line.
Elise dug out her resume. She typed, and typed.
Elise awoke in darkness. Outside her office, the cleaning lady vacuumed. She looked at the clock — 2:30 AM. She lifted her hand from the keyboard. Her resume now included 8 years of working at “aljnsbjacsbzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz”. She gathered her keys, and her coat. Stepping out of her office, it was strange to see the place vacant and perfectly still. She’d never seen it this way.
If ever there was a chance to get to know her coworkers better, this was it.
She visited their workspaces, and stood there absorbing who these strangers were through their pictures of loved ones, personal notes, and desk trinkets. Apparently These people had unique personalities, and stranger still, many of them were happy. Those photos…Denise never mentioned she had twins. Sam went fly-fishing — really, the same Sam who always carries Purell? How many of these people showed up to work knowing every monotonous phone call and every stupid meeting meant supporting someone they loved, or a favorite hobby, or something beyond these boring grey walls? In Elise’s office, her awards never smiled back.
Elise walked passed the radio booth, where Allan sat speaking with his comforting baritone to the night owls of the world, buoyed by a selection of soft-rock bedtime music. He gave her a nod, and she waved back politely as she left the building. In her car she listened to the radio station. The end product of her long day at work. She wondered what few people out there might be listening.
The next morning, she arrived to see the cleaning lady handling the garbage. Elise almost passed her, embarrassed by the previous night. Kindness got the better of her.
“Do you ever go home?”
“I work nights and mornings. I go at 1,” the cleaning lady replied.
Elise sees a bottle sticking out of the trash bag. “How many of those bottles do you throw out every day?”
“None?” Elise was confused.
“I sort them out in my van. Almost $100 a week.”
In the office, Elise sat at her desk overlooking all the waste. Bottles and cans seemingly everywhere. She got on her computer and typed, her fingers heavily thudding with every keystroke. Out from her printer popped a sign, which the employees later found above the wastebaskets: “Waste = $, PLEASE RECYCLE.” They could surely understand. But they didn’t. Throughout the day, Elise watched the trash fill up, and the recycling remain empty.
At the end of the night, as everyone was leaving, Elise sat in her office defeated. Her boss approached, knocked on the door.
“May I?” he asked.
He spoke. As he spoke, Elise barely heard a thing. Her eyes wandered to just behind him, where she saw the cleaning lady dig another mound of bottles from the trash. Suddenly her attention perked up. As an idea formed in her head, a smile formed on her face.
Coincidentally, this is what her boss was saying at that exact moment: “I’m going to keep this short for now as it’s Friday, but Elise I wanted you to know how much we value you at this company. Dan is stepping down as President of Marketing, and I’d like you to take the weekend to consider the position.”
“Great!” exclaimed Elise.
The boss smiled, filled with contentment that from her reaction, he made the right decision.
Monday morning. An unkempt coworker finished his third soda. He headed to the trash can, and went to toss it out — but he didn’t. He saw something…something that made him stop and think. He picked the recycling bin instead. Another co-worker finished his bottle, and chose recycling also. Again and again throughout the day, every last employee tossed their bottle into the recycling bin.
As the sun faded, the cleaning lady came to work. As usual, she headed straight for the garbage. And what she found was not one, not two, but three recycling bins filled with bottles. Overflowing, with mountains of bottles on top. Perplexed, she picked at the bottle mountains bit by bit, tosses the excess recyclables into her plastic bag. And as she chipped away at her work, slowly she revealed something posted on the wall. Her picture, captioned “Recycle – All Proceeds Go To Martha”.
Martha turned around. Through the sea of smiling well-wishers taking a moment to witness her joy, Martha saw Elise looking up from her desk. At that moment, she was signing her new contract. But truthfully, Martha’s smile signed it for her.
Is your outbox merely full … or is it also fulfilling?
You work all day, but what are you busy working on? Does your business chug along like a machine, or is it conscious of the fact that its moving parts are each living, breathing human beings? And how does a business benefit from putting humanity first?
“That’s business” — this is, by and large, an accepted phrase, excusing cutthroat apathy as a foundation of how business functions. You got laid off? That’s business. You don’t make enough money? You’re not working hard enough. The factory’s spewing pollution into the air? Smog means business is booming. What would happen if we stopped saying “That’s business”?
We all go home at the end of the day, and no matter the number of zeros on our paychecks, have at least this one common thought somewhere in mind before the lights go out: Did today matter? For all the busyness of the day, for everything I accomplished…was my outbox impactful?
Imagine, in the midst of all your worries of the day, someone came along and helped make your outbox matter. Wouldn’t that mean the world to you? Wouldn’t that act of thoughtfulness power you through to the end of the week? And how could you not be inspired to help your coworkers too?
This culture of conscious business is the ideal. Can you find one person who, in theory, says treating employees poorly is great for the bottom line? Probably not. But can you find an executive who, in practice, treats every employee like the living, feeling human being they are? Much harder. Why? Because…“That’s business.”
But “that” isn’t always business, and when it’s not, prosperity grows. One hundred years ago, with poverty the norm in America, Henry Ford paid his workers a handsome sum of $5 a day – that’s $116.48 per day in today’s money, $15 hourly. His reason? “The owner, the employees, and the buying public are all one and the same, and unless an industry can so manage itself as to keep wages high and prices low it destroys itself, for otherwise it limits the number of its customers. One’s own employees ought to be one’s own best customers.” His philosophy built a multibillion dollar company during the Great Depression. Many “That’s business” executives arrive at their failing businesses today courtesy of a Ford.
Executives, be insightful not in order to be profitable, but because insight breeds kinship. And you personally want kinship. When you, Mr. or Mrs. Executive, come to work every morning, you want to be among people who want you and who value you. Since you’re at the top, you’ve got to want them and value them first. You may not get to shake everyone’s hand, but it’s your handshake that sets the precedent.
Imagine every last executive in the world enacted a change to their company’s moral fiber — well, let’s rephrase that. Imagine every last executive instilled a moral fiber into their company. Imagine each executive accepted that their logos are symbols, that symbols have meaning, and that these symbols have the power to empower every individual they employ. “That’s business” becomes “That’s our business”. Strong morale among legions of employees can carry any company into the black.
- How does your business empower each employee?
- Your company is a person. Describe its personality.
- What could you change to make employees more excited to come to work?