Stop making your employees sit on garbage cans

Many years ago, my husband Geoff worked with a Brazilian government agency in Rio de Janiero (I know, he’s had a rough life).  Although they were very advanced in many ways, they had some surprising deficiencies when it came to making sure employees were productive.  For instance, Geoff couldn’t find a chair to sit on.  Like none.  Desperately, he wandered the hallways peering into other rooms trying to find something to sit on.  No luck.

He is not one to let such a minor setback deter him from work that needs to be done. Eventually, he grabbed a garbage can, turned it upside down, plonked it down in front of his computer terminal, and moved on.  He used that trash can for a month.

Problem solved (ish).  Or so he thought.

A month later, the agency decided that they needed to promote quality and excellence among the staff.  Employees were handed out T-shirts that said “Arrumando a nossa casa”- “Cleaning our house”.  Inspectors were sent around to all the offices to make sure that everyone was adhering to the highest possible standards of quality.

When they saw that Geoff was hunched over his keyboard on an overturned trash bin, they were shocked and appalled.  “This is unacceptable!” they cried.  “People should not have to sit on garbage cans!”.  And they took the trash bin away.

Geoff waited, and waited.  And waited.  They never brought him a chair to replace it.

The T-shirt employees wore during Quality Week at a Brazilian government agency.  I’m particularly fond of the rock hammer character.

Now, most employers understand that they need to provide some basic amenities to their staff so that they can be productive.  For most people, a chair would be considered pretty fundamental.  Some employers even spring for a ergonomic, adjustable chairs.

These days, most white-collar workers can expect to have access to a decent desk, a fairly up-to-date computer to work on, and of course, a chair.

Very few employers would say “Why do we need to give our employees chairs?  The chairs are for our customers. Employees can just use these old milk crates we’ve got lying around.”

Why then, do they give their employees lousy software to work on?

You know what I mean:

  • The time sheet reporting system that takes you an hour to fill out.
  • The expense reporting tool that you can never remember how to use.
  • The employee portal for submitting your vacation days that hasn’t changed since it was built back when Microsoft Clippy seemed like a good idea.

Expecting employees to put up with bad tools to do their work is the digital equivalent of giving them trash cans to sit on.  It means that time spent wrestling with unwieldy software is time not spent on whatever their actual job is.  Not to mention the impact that it can have on morale.

I am sometimes asked to justify the “Return On Investment” on good user experience for internal tools or for enterprise software.  As if somehow, the only people worthy of having a good experience are consumers.

Companies building internal tools for their employees wonder if they need to bother including a designer on the team.  “It’s only for internal use, the IT department can just do it. I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

Vendors rationalize that “The only people using this will be the call center agents, so we don’t need to make it look pretty”.

These folks might be surprised (although I’m not) that providing a better experience for enterprise software users is good business.  Workday revolutionized HR software and is forcing their much larger competitors to try to catch up with their ease of use.  And companies like Expensify are reinventing the way people report their business expenses.  Their tagline is “Expense reports that don’t suck!”  Yup. The bar is that low.

Here’s the bottom line:  As an employer, start demanding a better experience for the software you buy for your employees.  They not only deserve it, you need it for them to be productive.  If you demand it, the vendors will surely start providing it.

And vendors, if you start providing actual chairs instead of overturned garbage cans, trust me, people will buy.

photo credit: ShutterStock | Zenza Flarini