I recently heard Seth Godin, one of my favorite “thought leaders,” discuss a major shift in the human experience… and the role of alcohol.  He told a story about how, in the mid-eighteenth century in England, it was the fist time in history that people went from working in the open air and on farms, to working in factories.  Effectively, workers left the fresh air and sunshine to spend 12+ hours in a factory, slaving away in polluted, dark conditions.

The work was labor intensive, unhealthy and monotonous. The air was filthy and workers were trapped indoors.  To make life bearable, “gin carts” became popular in places like London and Manchester, rolling up and down the streets and even within the factories to keep people working despite dismal conditions. A large majority of workers became alcoholics as a result.  The image above is an engraving called “Gin Lane” by William Hogarth in 1751 demonstrating the scene at the time.

Boy, have times changed.

Today, we have moved from an industrial society to one of knowledge and information.  Knowledge work, our economic engine, does not require spending countless hours working in a factory, but instead working 12+ hours a day in a vanilla-colored office building, tethered to and staring at a computer.  And we don’t drink alcohol – prohibition thankfully helped keep that out of the workplace (for the most part) – but we do drink enormous amounts of caffeine.  Why?  Is it because we feel confined by our vanilla environment, the monotony of staring at a tiny device and are just looking for something to make our existence more interesting?

Is coffee just the new gin?

If you listen to ergonomists, physiologists, epidemiologists, and other health experts who know what they are talking about, the case is clear that our bodies were meant to move.  But it’s not just our bodies, our minds were meant to move too… to be creative, to reduce stress, to give us some perspective and to help us be our productive best.  And if you squint and look at many workplaces today, they start to look like more like a factories, and less like places made for our biology.

A number of organizations are becoming more flexible in the way they accommodate their employees.  More than ever now, employees are able to choose how, when and where they do business.  But its kind of surprising that many so many workplaces still only really support one way of working – pretty much sitting in an office staring at a computer.  We know sitting in one place and being in confined environments for long periods is not good for our bodies or our spirit.  To prove this point, one of my clients actually put a floor plan of one of his company’s office buildings next to the floor plan of a jail, and they looked eerily similar!

I think it’s time to reinvent the work “place.”  Rather than squeezing people into buildings, we need to be figuring out what makes people really perform at their highest and most creative levels, and then designing a work experience around that.  We’ve made some strides on this front, but from what I’ve seen, we’ve still got a long way to go.  How will we know when we get it right?  High levels of engagement, low absenteeism, barely there health care costs… and maybe we all drink a little less coffee.