Greatly improved

Charles Dickens’ novel, Oliver Twist, vividly described the deplorable treatment of workers, particularly young children, in England in the 1830s.

In the United States the situation also was abysmal. Generally, workers were given no consideration whatsoever. This reached a climax in March, 1911. A fire in a shirtwaist factory killed 146 employees as the building provided no adequate fire exit. Then the public outcry led to the beginning of reforms.

Inasmuch as Canada at that time primarily was an agricultural society, things were not quite so bad, although labourers on the Canadian Pacific Railway and miners had a very rough time.

Nowadays, thankfully circumstances have greatly improved but progress has been slow.

In factories the old assembly line so mocked in Charlie Chaplin’s famous movie, Modern Times, is being replaced by small, working groups. Air conditioning has become commonplace, and government regulations are starting to eliminate the worst abuses.

Still, even now improvement should be forthcoming. For instance, now so-called open offices with tiny cubicles are appalling; in the financial industry employees are jam-packed, row after row, in front of a computer screen.

Significantly, now employees are receiving better treatment: they are beginning to have more fun, sponsored by thoughtful employers.

Examples abound. Software firms in Silicon Valley have installed rock climbing spaces in their reception areas. Others have placed stuffed animals and tropical fish there for a light touch.

Wal-Mart orders its employees to smile. The cult of fun is spreading. TD Bank now has a “Wow” department and sends costume-clad teams to surprise and delight workers. Acclaris, a company operating in the United States, has hired a chief fun officer.

To alter the drab workplace, “Fun at Work” has become a specialized part of some organizations. A British firm has as its slogan “Enjoy Work”, and features during the noon break sheep shearing and geese herding. Another company there has placed a slide in its back office.

Google has pioneered efforts to improve morale with volleyball courts, bicycle paths, regular hockey games with employees and masseuses for tired workers. Twitter supplies cold towels on hot days. Walt Disney features “acts of kindness” to make its worker more friendly.

On a broader front, some businesses devolved power to front-line workers with the hope that this will improve productivity.

Popular culture has its limits: workers must go outside to smoke and usually office romances are discouraged. However, fun has become a management tool that should alter the old stereotype of unpleasant working conditions.


Bruce Whitestone