Happiness is the key to productivity, and a new exhibit shows companies the way to make life a little better for worker bees. It's a strange new world – one of aromatherapy, "frozen clouds" and virtual "uteruses."
Productive huddling in "frozen clouds" – a key to success?
The average cashier at a German grocery store scans two tons worth of products each day by hand. It's a repetitive-stress disaster waiting to happen.
It's also the perfect vision of the workplace today – one that evokes worker bees who are slaves to the machine, living in Cubeland and perpetually stressed out.
Researchers at the Federal Institute for Occupations Safety in Dortmund are exploring ways to make today's high-tech and highly automated professions a little more humane for workers.
The fruits of their work are on display in a new government exhibit, "Vision 21 – How do we want to work tomorrow," which offers a cookbook of solutions for improving the workday of people. The exhibit covers 18 professions ranging from cashiers to firefighters to goldsmiths to meteorologists.
And that could bring good news for the cashier at Aldi or any other supermarket down the road.
In the future, the exhibit shows, technology could be used to automate the processing of groceries – from scanning products to packing them into bags. In addition to giving a tired arm a needed break, the system would also give workers more time to provide the customer more personal service – which could intern increase sales and customer satisfaction and loyalty.
"Machines will never fully replace labor," says Gerhard Kilger, director of the institute's German Occupational Safety and Health Exhibition (DASA), where the show is being mounted.
"According to our figures, it is definitely cost-effective to employ cashiers who would control fully automatic machines and explain procedures to customers and solve technical problems," he says.
Machines will become increasingly sophisticated, he says, but achieving good results depends on the people who operate them. "People can't be seen as screen-watching animals who produce mouse clicks," he says. The idea is that technology should support people and not the other way around.
The Dortmund exhibit also seeks to demonstrate that creativity and efficiency are linked to individuals' well-being. DASA researchers have found that German companies could save as much as 50 billion euro ($50 billion) a year if employees were given opportunities to develop their creative potential.
According to DASA, music, color, stimulus of the senses and office design are all prerequisites for creating user-friendly work spaces.
The exhibit offers plenty of labor-friendly examples, too. A so-called "frozen cloud" allows business partners to negotiate in ergonomically friendly positions. The "uterus," a room the size of a small chapel, gives stressed out workers a place they can retreat to while enjoying a soothing interplay of projected colors and sounds in a comfortable seat.
Of course, the models on display in Dortmund could be a little hard on the corporate pocket book. But Kilger says the expensive investment required will pay off for companies.
An employee, he says, can cost a company as much as 500 euro ($500) each day. "If an employee is on sick leave for three days, costs are incurred that could otherwise be used to improve working conditions." Such improvements could, in turn, reduce sickness rates.
And the most important way to achieve that goal is to create office spaces that make workers feel liking "living human beings rather than drones."