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Examining Uses and Meanings of Workplace Artifacts

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We’re all familiar with the popular sign: “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.” What we may not know or realize is that such a sign may convey different meanings that could negatively impact consumers. So how can workplace artifacts be improved?

business process consultants review how signs impact consumers

© Flickr user ThisParticularGreg

An issue of BizVoice Magazine featured Robby Slaughter’s article, “Business Artifacts: How to Use Them in the Workplace”. For your convenience, the full article reprint is below:

A visit to an office, grocery store or other establishment might seem routine. When we step inside a place of business, however, we are in a sense venturing into an active archaeological site. Our workspaces are filled with artifacts of every imaginable shape and variety. Papers covering our desks, posters hanging from walls, filing cabinets, computers, office supplies and other equipment play a major role in our business activities every day.

It’s obvious that we need physical tools to do our work, but we don’t usually spend much time thinking about the design and placement of these items. Resources we have at work impact our ability to complete projects. It really is true, for instance, that a salesman who places a telephone in the center of his desk will call more prospects. Similarly, if you ask clients to complete a lengthy, complicated order form, they are more likely to return it with illegible scrawls and incomplete responses.

Put on your archaeologist hat for a moment and think about the items in your workspace. Just as a pottery shard or a Renaissance painting tells you something about the culture and lifestyle of generations past, a change request form provides insight into the society of the organization that produced it. The questions indicate what data was deemed necessary when the form was created. The carbon copies reveal that different stakeholders might not entirely trust one another. Every aspect of this artifact has some meaning, and a few moments of examination prompt countless questions about its design.

Practical usage
Perhaps the most significant realization is that every workplace artifact has a creator and a consumer. If you’ve ever had to squeeze your e-mail address onto a line that was less than one-inch wide, you know that the person who created the form probably never tried to use it. Likewise, the individual who wrote an operations manual may have produced a masterpiece, but what are the chances that the document has done more than collect dust? This is the first and most essential aspect of making better workplace artifacts: bring consumers and creators together and have them actually attempt the task. There is no better path for finding and fixing errors than experiencing them firsthand.

Furthermore, artifacts tell us something about our values. Ancient sculptures reveal perspectives on beauty and fashion. Modern informational signs explain workplace policy and procedure. Consider a phrase you’ve likely seen posted many times: “Employees must wash hands before returning to work.” Certainly, the text explains the cultural value of sanitation. Clean hands improve safety and increase customer satisfaction, so the message aligns with management needs.

Yet, there is incredible weight in the subtext of this message. If you’re a customer reading these words, you might wonder if this is merely a policy or in fact a reminder. Are staff members at this location known to commonly forget to wash their hands? Is the management secretly aware of toxins in the establishment that would affect everyone and trying to quietly protect its own employees? Shouldn’t everyone be washing their hands?

Hidden meanings
Finally, the message, “Employees must wash hands before returning to work” creates a clear separation in time. It offers a subtle reminder to staff that visiting the washroom is classified as not working. In a sense, the statement is actually derogatory and self contradictory. One could argue that the underlying message is, “We’re not paying you to wash up, but you better clean your hands thoroughly while being quick about it.” The instruction actually requires behavior (using the word “must”) at a time when employees are not technically on the clock!

To understand how to improve the artifact, we need to return to the roles of creator and consumer. The person who posted the sign is almost certainly concerned about legal protection. By stating that employees are required to wash their hands, the company is insulated from potential liability. Yet the two groups of consumers – employees and patrons – read the message with suspicion. Everyone knows that people should be washing their hands. What’s the advantage of telling only some individuals that they have to do so, and that they must do it on their own time?

Instead, consider verbiage that satisfies the needs of the creator and the consumer such as, “Thank you for washing your hands!” This serves as a gentle reminder without patronizing, dividing or judging. If archaeologists found this sign among ruins, they might surmise that it came from a culture rooted in mutual respect and focused on productivity. These are words designed to support organizational values while advancing individual responsibility. Consider the design of artifacts in your workplace. Collaborate with creators and consumers to help make work more effective, efficient and satisfying.

Interested in learning how to apply this to your own organization? Contact the experts at AccelaWork today!

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