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The "work from home" shop

Imagine walking into a house and seeing mineral stained ceilings, half painted walls, and waterlogged plywood covered holes. Imagine exposed pipes, sagging conduit, and cobbled-together tangles of wire. Imagine cobwebs in the corners, and a thin layer of dust covering everything. Imagine clutter on top of, under, and around the furniture. Imagine bad lighting, harsh smells, and abrasive sounds. Imagine somber people glancing at you from the shadows.

You might ask yourself: “What kind of a person could stand to live in a place like that?” You might even pity that person and want to take action to help.

What I’m describing sounds like a stereotypical haunted house, or maybe a “meth house”. Most of us would not want to spend any time in a place like this, let alone live in it. We all recognize that living in a place like that would have serious consequences on our morale, mood, drive, and well being. On the surface, every one of us would want out asap.

I’ve worked in and toured hundreds of shops in the industry, so I’ve seen enough to know that what I’m describing above isn’t a haunted house at all, it’s a workplace. The setting I described above isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. Some of you own and work in shops that are very clean, well lit, and organized. This article is still for you, dig deeper. You may not have filthy working conditions, but you’re still missing opportunities.

Before I get too far with this, let me first make an admission. I am guilty of running a shop that at one time had many of those same sad qualities. Interestingly, none of the employees said a word. Investors didn’t mind. Things had always just looked the way they did, and nobody cared. It wasn’t on anyone’s mind that anything was wrong. When you work in a shop, that’s just what you expect. Why though? Let’s take a critical look at the place we spend a third of our lives, yet pay so little attention to.

If we wouldn’t want to live in a place like I’ve described, why do we think the comfort level is any less affected because we work there? What we’re admitting is that we’re willing to accept being significantly more uncomfortable at work than at home… for a while. What we’re all signing up for is a world where we can’t wait for the weekend, can’t wait to go home, can’t wait for the vacation, can’t wait to get out of the place we need to be one-third of our lives. While it’s an almost universally accepted reality, it has huge consequences that nobody talks about. When you multiply that reality by all the employees in your company, hopefully you can see that you’re leaving lots of productivity and happiness on the table.

Obviously there’s no place like home. I’m not suggesting you can replace your family, your food and drink, your carefully chosen lounge chair and favorite “blankie” with a work setting and completely succeed. But, what if the gap were narrowed? What if work could be closer to your preferred environment?

We’re missing a huge opportunity for employee retention and employment interest in our industry. We already mentioned that we would want to help the person “living” in those conditions to get out, and at the same time we scoff at the turnover rates in our industry. We complain about how hard it is to find people who are excited for careers in woodworking, and then send them to the “meth house” to spend their day. Why are we surprised that an emerging generation has their eye on tech (for one example), where they can work in offices that exceed the comfort level of their homes?

Tech has its own problems, such as the lack of satisfaction humans feel when they build something physical, and I’m not suggesting your shop needs to look like the Google headquarters, that’s completely unrealistic. What I am suggesting is that if we can take some lessons learned from Google about how to reach optimized productivity levels, we can make some big improvements in our industry.

When a person is comfortable, stress levels go down and cognitive abilities go up. I don’t think many people understand these real costs to a business. For example, let’s say you keep your shop colder in the winter. Let’s say it’s colder than what people are used to at home. An employee is going to (at one point or another) get cold, have that micro-thought and mini-stress sensation about being cold. That thought and feeling leads to a distracted mind, if only for a second. It could be in that second that he is typing in a measurement that results in a product being off, one that goes out wrong and costs your company all the cost of shipping a defective product. Multiply this by all your employees over a winter and you can see how just one little element (like temperature) can have an actual effect on your bottom line.

What happens next is like clockwork. A manager reprimands the employee and stress in him increases further. The employee takes responsibility and doesn’t know why, but he can’t wait for the weekend. When the chance to work in another, nicer (more warm) building arises, he subconsciously wants in without even understanding why. And remember, he really wasn’t that cold, it wasn’t even on his mind. He accepted it as a normal working condition like we all do. He’ll probably tell you that they pay $1 an hour more, and he’s gone along with all the training you invested in him. Next, you’re looking for employees, training them, and the cycle just never stops. It costs you.

So is it worth it to save $300 a month on your gas bill? Is it worth saving a few hundred dollars on lighting, paint, wall patch, and ceiling tiles? Is it worth paying someone to clean your bathroom so that it’s always clean? Is it worth upgrading your dust collection? Is it worth fixing the trim in your showroom that’s been off for years? Is it ok to encourage the personalization of work spaces, machinery, etc.? Is it ok for employees to have a good time at work, to build friendships, and be unproductive on occasion?

These small investments into your space and company culture are a hidden productivity and efficiency gem that not many discover because they’re subconscious and difficult to trace to the bottom line, but they’re real. So stop running a haunted house, and give your people a place that keeps them comfortable, productive, and inspired. Give them a place they’ll want to “work from home”.

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