The Workplace Equations

The Workplace Equations is an exercise that drives a meaningful discussion on what satisfaction and motivation is in the workplace. It does this through the metaphors of Heaven and Hell, organizational storytelling and various elements of gamification. Furthermore the exercise could be used by teams to derive their own Workplace Equations (based on their specific understandings / perceptions of satisfaction and motivation) and then use these equations to continuously monitor and assess how close their workplace is to Heaven and Hell through the Workplace Signboard.

Timing

150 minutes (but could be less or more depending on the number of teams). Each part of the exercise is strictly timeboxed.

Materials

Whiteboard, papers, pens, sticky notes in three different colors (preferably green, yellow and red), desks and timer for timeboxing. There could be small prizes for the winners (e.g. candies).

What’s Heaven?

Ask participants to write down on a paper what Heaven is in the workplace. They should use narratives (thus practicing organizational storytelling). However the stories should be kept short – no more than 500 words are allowed. Also the whole activity should be timeboxed to 10 minutes. When time is up – give participants 5 minutes to underline all the major characteristics of Heaven (most probably these would be series of adjectives and nouns). Then ask participants to write down each of these characteristics on a separate green note using one or two words the most. Negatives are not allowed so if there are such in the narratives – they should be rewritten as positives (e.g. “no low wage” should become “high wage“). This should be done in 5 minutes as well. A badge or small prize (e.g. candy) might be given to the participant with the most notes.
Example: A sample story from real exercise is given below.

In Heaven employees work in small offices of 5 to 10 people. The interior is cozy and creative, the temperature is neither too high nor too low and the air is fresh and clean. The equipment is no older than a year or two and is fast and reliable. Peers are cheerful and smiling. They are also all experts and great professionals who are always willing to help and assist you (when needed). Managers on the other hand are easily accessible, knowledgeable and resourceful, and trust their subordinates. Salaries are competitive, reflect employees’ competency (as well as real contributions to the work) and are always paid on time. Promotions are well-timed and based on dedication and commitment. Paid vacations are aligned with employees’ needs and preferences and all contracts comply with regional and national laws. Work is challenging and there’re a lot of opportunities for personal development. Traveling is also common practice (but not so frequent to disturb the work-life balance). Working days are full of joy, everybody is playful and there are a lot of informal meetings and events. There’s also a room for relaxation (with free food and beverages) and a spot for fitness and other sport activities. Working hours are flexible. There are also various social benefits (e.g. supplementary health insurance, vouchers, parking spots, cards for public transport, etc.).

What’s Hell?

Repeat the same activities from the previous phase but for Hell. Again in the final notes (which should be red now) all negatives should be rewritten into positives (e.g. “low wage” should become “high wage“). At the end there might be duplicates among the green and the red notes. Again the participant with the most notes might be awarded.

Synthesize

Split participants into equally sized teams. Ask each team to review all individual notes by using the following procedure:

  • Step 1: A member of the team places one of his/her individual notes on the desk.
  • Step 2: All team members check whether they have individual notes similar to the one from Step 1. If there are such individual notes – they should be placed on the desk one over the other (thus forming a pile of related individual notes). Then, if all the individual notes are placed on the desk, the procedure ends. Otherwise it continues with Step 1.

The procedure shouldn’t take more than 10 minutes. When teams are ready – ask them to go through each of their piles of individual notes and generalize it into a single characteristic of the workplace (again using one or two words the most). Then they should further write this characteristic on a separate note. The color of the note should be: (1) Green if all individual notes in the pile are green; (2) Red if all are red; and (3) Yellow if they are mixed. Individual notes should be discarded as they would not be used anymore.

The “Heaven == !Hеll” Equation

Ask teams whether Heaven in the workplace is the opposite of Hell? You might write the following equation on the whiteboard to further visualize the question: “Heaven == !Hell“. Give teams 10 minutes to prepare and present their answers. To further puzzle the teams – ask if any of the teams has green notes? If yes – then these notes probably describe characteristics specific to Heaven (and therefore do not apply for Hell)? What about red notes? Are there any red notes? And are they applicable just for Hell? When discussions are over – ask teams to define what satisfaction and motivation is in the workplace? Then check these definitions against Frederick Herzberg’s Two-factor theory. Ask teams how motivators and hygiene factors fit into the metaphor of Heaven and Hell. Does !Hell means high hygiene, while Heaven includes high hygiene and high motivation (meaning that in fact “Heaven != !Hell“)? Or is it something else? Give teams 10 minutes to think again and come back with a final equation describing the relation between Heaven and Hell in the workplace. You might use Abraham Maslow‘s Hierarchy of needs (or any other employee satisfaction and motivation theory) instead of Frederick Herzberg’s Two-factor theory. However you’d have to adapt the rest of the exercise accordingly.
Example: А sample equation from real exercise is given below.

Heaven = Motivation + Satisfaction, while !Hell = Satisfaction. Then Heaven != !Hell. Therefore you might be out of Hell but this doesn’t mean you’re in Heaven!

The Workplace Equations

Ask each team to draw a line on the whiteboard. Then give them 20 minutes to place all their notes using the following procedure:

  • Step 1: A member of the team places one of the team’s notes either above or below the line – above if it’s a motivator and below if it’s a hygiene factor. The placement should be well argumented.
  • Step 2: Another member (preferably in turns) might place a new note on the whiteboard or change the position of an already placed one. In both cases argumentation should be given.
  • Step 3: Continue with Step 2 until all notes are placed on the whiteboard and all team members agree on their positioning.

At the end the whiteboard should looks like the one given below. You might expect to see green notes above the line and yellow and red beneath. This could be used to further argument and discuss the Heaven == !Hеll equation from the previous phase.

The Workplace Equations - The Whiteboard

If participants are having difficulties determining whether a characteristic of the workplace is a motivator or a hygiene factor – you might give them some additional clues. One such clue could be how easy they could get used to it (and start taking it for granted). For example they might quickly get accustomed to higher pay, while this might not be the case for interesting and challenging work. Also they might ask themselves whether the absence of the characteristic would result in complaints / grievances / disputes and overall negative emotions (thus dissatisfaction) or would negatively impact behaviors / attitudes / perceptions towards the work (thus demotivates).
When time is up – ask teams to derive the Heaven and !Hell equations from the whiteboard. In most of the cases Heaven would be the sum of all the notes above the line + !Hell, while !Hell would be all the notes beneath. This should be done in 10 minutes.
Example: Sample equations for Heaven and !Hell from real exercise are given below.

Heaven = Creativity + Challenges + Freedom + Recognition + Personal development + Fun + !Hell !Hell = Wage + Social benefits + Security + Working conditions + Flexible working hours + Work relationships + Work-life balance

End

Give 10 minutes for each team to present their equations for Heaven and !Hell. Meanwhile the other teams are allowed to reject components from these equations (e.g. two components which are too similar and therefore should be combined into one, etc.). When presentations are over – calculate the results for each team by multiplying the number of components into their equations. Then announce the winners and award the prizes.
Example: Let’s assume that the final team’s equations for Heaven and !Hell are the ones from the previous phase. Then the calculated results would be 49 (7×7).

The Workplace Signboard

The workplace equations derived from the excersise could be further used to continuously monitor and assess how close the workplace is to Heaven and Hell. The signboard given below might be utilized for that purpose (covering only Heaven). All you need is a whiteboard located in an open, public and accessible place in the office space (e.g. recreational area, office kitchen, etc.) and sticky notes.

Each component of the workplace equations (e.g. Creativity) has two areas. The first one is related to individual expectations. It should have slots for sticky notes equal to the size of the team (or the number of individuals who would be involved in monitoring and assessing the levels of satisfaction and motivation in the workplace). In the above example this is 7. The reason is that each individual owns one (and only one) note for each component of the workplace equations. The color of this note should represent the extent to which the individual expectations are met on that particular component: (1) Green if expectations are exceeded; (2) Yellow if they are just met; and (3) Red if they are eluded. Individuals are allowed to change their notes on the signboard at any time (e.g. from green to yellow). A brief explanation (of why individual expectations are met or not) might be also provided on the notes (as free text). The second area is related to possible actions. It gives individuals the possibility to share ideas and suggest actions (through sticky notes) on how to improve the workplace so it becomes closer to Heaven and farther from Hell.
The ultimate purpose of the workplace signboard should be to be entirely green (or at least yellow). This would mean that all individual expectations are exceeded and people are feeling they are working in Heaven and !Hell. If you’d like to further quantify this (so you could better monitor the progress over time) – the following formula might be used to calculate the closeness of the workplace to Heaven and !Hell:

H&!H Closeness = Green notes on the workplace signboard / All notes on the workplace signboard (Strong Formula)
H&!H Closeness = Sum of green and yellow notes on the workplace signboard / All notes on the workplace signboard (Weak Formula)

The workplace signboard should be updated regularly or continuously (by individuals), and might be further used as a source of insights for retrospectives and perspectives.

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