MEREDITH Strategy + Design

We design the places and spaces where people come together to do great work

6 good reasons why graduates of elite colleges won't find satisfaction in the workplace...and six signs of a workplace where they might

The Harvard Business Review released a brief bit of data today from a study of job satisfaction among recent graduates of elite colleges. The news was not great – a good measure of the graduates were unhappy both with their pay and with their job satisfaction. The researchers connected at least some of this to the unrealized higher aspirations among this class of graduates.

I don't want to mischaracterize the study (I don't have access to the full report), yet I think it's okay to speculate a bit on what may lurk inside the subject. Consider some of the potential implications of this data –

  • American business, currently stagnating in poor economic times and challenged on significantly dynamic and competitive global stage, cannot offer a context to effectively capitalize on the aspirations of some of the best educated people in the world
  • Graduates are entering employment in American businesses eager to perform yet, apparently, unable to contribute to their fullest potential
  • Failing to otherwise engage them meaningfully, the American workplace is unable to overcome a focus on wages as a key motivator of job satisfaction and engagement

I am hoping to begin a project soon that will provide a new kind of workplace for one of the best supported, fastest growing new companies who have entered their market with a transformational technology and business concept. Their headquarters, to be built here in the United States, will most likely be perceived as a radical departure from the conventions of workspace that most of those elite graduates will experience. Concepts for this new kind of workspace are being driven by executives from other global cultures with experience and belief in the benefits of workplace planning and design concepts that place focus on the product, support the speed and agility of the work, and recognize the talents and contributions of all with a evenly-distributed, resource-rich response to space.

As this company attempts to attract some of those elite graduates will its proposed workspace concept be effective? Will those new hires find a higher level of satisfaction and engage, contribute and perform differently than those represented in the study that the HBR cited?

We'll, of course, carefully consider this company as a unique culture, and we'll work closely to understand its people and they way they'll do their work before we confirm their executives assumptions or propose any alternative solutions. I think, however, that they are already well on the path of successfully attracting and engaging those future graduates and supporting breakthrough performance for their new company. Why? Because they seem to recognize that everything about work has changed but nothing in the conventional workplace has. If this company were to otherwise to build a conventional workspace and then hire recent top graduates both they, and their new employees, will be disappointed. Here are six good reasons why –

  1. Hierarchy and a focus on status They will walk into a workspace that communicates more about the past than the future, about conventions rather than aspirations, about procedures more than innovations, and about status more than achievement. They will have arrived ready to engage, but they'll find no place to support it.
  2. Cells rather than teams Buried behind a high-walled cubicle or shuttered behind an office door, the workplace will say more about anonymity than visibility, more about individual than team, and more about isolation than integration. It will separate them from the flow of information that was only recently a hallmark of their environment and their achievement, and suppress almost any opportunity for the social engagement that their generation experienced at school.
  3. Fixed rather than agile They will have spent years working, communicating, learning and contributing in almost any place they were in the course of their day. They will, however, be shown to an assigned station, get a heavy desk-top computer plugged into a proprietary network, and fall under the norms of the IT department. Once their workstation is set up and they've moved in, they'll look around and wonder where everybody else is.
  4. Local rather than global They'll walk into a space shaped by standards that reflect the demands of a real estate and facilities function rather than the demands of creative and productive innovation. The spaces they use will be the spaces they've seen everywhere because they were implemented by a team afraid of doing the right thing and who opted to follow workplace "trends." The spaces will reflect the past vestiges of an American industrial arrogance rather than a globally integrated innovation culture.
  5. Closed rather than collaborative When they have a burst of creative thinking, they will have to call someone to schedule a conference room and spend time searching Outlook for their colleagues' free and busy times. They'll walk into a room with a postage-stamp sized white board that's never been cleaned, and look for a marker that isn't dry. They'll craw around under the table looking for the connection for the polycom so they can connect with others in other places (the video conferencing cart isn't working). "Collaboration" will be the subject of a poster on the wall.
  6. Building rather than brand They'll occupy leased space where the planning was constrained by a corporate real estate budget shaped around a landlord's tenant improvement allowance. It will be like almost every other office they've seen. Only their paycheck will affirm for them who it is they work for.

What's in the type of workspace that this company is considering that will perform so much better? I think those future graduates may see at least these six signs –

  1. They'll see people doing work and the products of their work – what they are accomplishing will be visible, and will be the most visual aspect of the place...they'll know this is a place where they can contribute, where they'll find lots of places to engage.
  2. They'll see varying clusters of people – work will look active, interesting, varied in settings, and participatory...more like the campus or the city than the office.
  3. They'll see lots of different kinds of resources and media in the space – people will move to or pull to themselves the artifacts and resources they need to do the kind of work they are doing at that moment.
  4. They'll see an authentic workspace – the innovation that launched and differentiates the company will be what is expressed...what is needed to do the work is what will shape the workspace.
  5. They'll see spontaneity – it may be difficult to find a "conference" room (or maybe even a door) because it won't exist, but they'll see conversations and workshops taking place everywhere.
  6. And, they'll know on entering the space that this is a different kind of company, unlike any other they've seen, with a different kind of product, and where people are making new things happen in the world.

There are, in other words, significantly powerful signals in the physical workspace that inform and influence employees. There are, of course, some significantly powerful alternatives that generally characterize who's moving forward in the world and who's stuck.

New graduates, if you are looking for a place to find satisfaction and make your mark in the world, and employers, if you want to benefit from the drive of those you've hired, take a look around.