Why We Need to Get Out of the Office

This past week, the “sustainerati” got out of the office and gathered for GreenBiz20 in the heart of the Arizona desert. This conference is where sustainability leaders converge to share break-through innovations, best practices, and hard lessons learned. It’s like going back to grad school and participating in group therapy over three days. It’s one of my favorite events of the year, in large part because the people in this room are the courageous souls who first used WeSpire.

One of the most gregarious and entertaining speakers was Temple Grandin, the animal behaviorist and industrial designer who has used her own experience with autism to develop systems to relieve anxiety in humans and animals. A key point she made, repeatedly, was that the suits need to get out of the office.  “I don’t care what industry it is,” Grandin said, to resounding clapping from the crowd. “They need to find out what’s going on on the ground.”

Her advice really resonated and reminded me of one of my first jobs, where as a consulting team, we were hired to evaluate, and at times literally watch, how work was being done in a hospital. We then figured out ways to make it better – for the employees, for the patients, and often, for the bottom line of the hospital. Getting out and actually seeing how things happened was a powerful, fast and visceral way to learn. Taking along executives for those reviews was also one of the quickest ways to get people to agree to change.

We spend much of our lives now in our actual, or metaphorical, offices. When was the last time you went to a farm and saw the chicken you were about to eat? If you did, would you still eat it? When you stand at the fish counter and see choices between wild-caught and farm-raised, do you have any idea what a fish farm looks like? I had no image in my head so I googled it. It’s often not pretty. When you buy clothes that say “Made in Cambodia”, do you have any idea what that garment factory looks like or how the women who work there are treated? When you recycle that plastic container, do you have any sense for what a Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) looks like? What does it smell like?

Like Grandin, I’m a big believer that visual, in-person experience is still profoundly efficient, effective and important in this increasingly digital world. I love to go on site and observe how our customer’s employees experience their programs. We think it makes us better at understanding how to make them even more effective. Many other companies do even more customer experience research.

But how often do we apply that same standard to our business or home suppliers? One of my largest suppliers is Amazon Web Services. I’m not even allowed to visit, but they did launch a virtual tour. It’s not the same as in person, but it’s obvious how much energy gets used so I’m relieved they’ve committed to 100% renewable energy. In college, I visited a banana plantation in Nicaragua. To this day, I think about the back-breaking work (and the giant spiders!) every time I buy bananas. I choose organic even though bananas have lower pesticide residue because I can picture all the little kids living on that plantation.

The next time you buy something, stop and ask yourself, “If I could see where this comes from, would I still want to buy it?” If you have the opportunity to go visit a farm or a factory, take it. I highly recommend Ben and Jerry’s factory tour for obvious reasons, but I can also vouch for a paper mill tour I took as a teenager changing how I thought about paper usage. Want to better understand what happens when you are done with a product? Many MRFs also offer tours. You will never recycle the same way again.

If you can’t do an immersive, in-person visit, try googling your product and look for virtual tours and images. Reward those suppliers that offer transparency, like Applegate, where you can put in your bar code and see the farm that your meat came from. 

We are a highly visual species. When we use all of our senses to experience something, we can quickly figure out ways to improve it and more easily galvanize others. Which is why to build a better working world, we need to get out of the office.

Quote of the Week:  “Action comes about if and only if we find a discrepancy between what we are experiencing and what we want to experience.”

Philip J. Runkel

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