Why plans for revolutionizing workplaces are often just 'innovation theatre'

Employees in the tech sector are organizing, demanding a more democratic workplace instead of so-called innovations in workspace design.

True workplace innovation means addressing what employees actually need

Silicon Valley has long painted itself as forward looking, but what happens when a push to democratize work meets the bottom line? (ESB Basic / Shutterstock)

Workplace innovation.

It's an expression that's tossed around a lot these days, especially as many of us deliberate returning to an in-person workspace that's less than ideal in a post-pandemic world.

Of course, workplace innovation has been an issue since long before COVID-19; companies like Google are famous for creating a work environment that's so engaging—with its beach volleyball courts, Whole Foods stores and a café every 100 metres—that workers never want to leave.

And therein lies the problem: companies have realized that by investing a little in the workspace, it makes it easier for employees to spend longer hours at work, and be more productive.

But does it make people more productive, really?

Or is it often just "innovation theatre:" where the trappings of a work environment are just a decoy to get more out of workers without actually paying them more, and to attract better workers to whom the beach volleyball court appeals?

That's what Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino suggests in her latest book, Creating a Culture of Innovation.

"People will invest in new buildings before they invest in new ways of working. It's way easier and way more attractive, I think, to do something like that, that feels very celebratory, and very creative, even though you're buying into the creativity, rather than asking yourself, why is the turnover of staff so high? Why are people, you know, so miserable?" she told Spark host Nora Young.

Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino argues that if companies really want to be innovative, they should focus on what's causing high turnover rates. (Apress/databrick)

Moreover, she said that by creating arcane job titles like "creativity ninja," or "innovation Sherpa" companies just end up confusing people—and making it difficult for employees to have a clear sense of what they're meant to be doing.

"And it means that that person, when they move on, either to a different division in the organization or to another organization, is going to really have a hard time trying to sell themselves as the 'innovation Sherpa' for someone else."

Additionally, this sort of corporate window dressing doesn't really help us imagine an appropriate workspace once the pandemic is over.

"Because we've been in the pandemic, and we've been isolated from each other for so long, I think we forget about the annoyances of everyday work life," she said, adding that not enough thought has been given to how the "hybrid" model of work—where people split their working time between home and an office—will work.

"I think that the pandemic fueled 'presenteeism', which is just showing up for the sake of showing up at work, and really burns people out. And major organizations have started doing no video call Fridays, or no meeting Thursdays or whatever it might be, in order to regain some downtime and some more concentrated time."

Your problems have nothing to do with innovation, your problems probably have something to do with your pay scale, or how toxic your workplace is in the first place.- Alexandra Deschamps-Sonsino

Deschamps-Sonsino suggested that if workplace managers really want to be innovative, they should focus on what is causing high turnover in their offices, and address that rather than building a meditation room, for example.

"If you can't keep people around, you're always retraining, you're always looking for new people, you're always trying to find a mix of social conditions that makes new ideas stick. So your problems have nothing to do with innovation, your problems probably have something to do with your pay scale, or how toxic your workplace is in the first place."

Tech employees demand a more democratic workplace

Veena Dubal, an expert in technology and precarious work, echoed those sentiments, adding that this is why there have been recent union drives in areas like tech, that have long resisted collective bargaining.

And employment legislation often thwarts the effort to improve working conditions in the tech sector, she added. "Labour law in both the US and Canada makes it quite difficult to actually unionize in a context where you can force the company to respond to you," she told Young.

Veena Dubal's research focuses on the intersection of law, technology, and precarious work. (University of California)

Dubal said the resistance to unionization is not just driven by an inevitable increased cost in salaries and benefits, but also because it could impact the use of technology in the workplace.

"So they didn't want to have to bargain over things like the workers wearing wearable technologies that surveilled their behaviour, they didn't want to have to bargain over the surveillance that they use in the warehouse, they didn't want to have to bargain over the automatic termination that people experience when they don't meet their quotas."

Dubal also said that true workplace innovation, in the tech sector especially, would necessarily involve addressing the use of gig or contract workers that don't technically work for the company but still perform an essential role. 

The use of gig workers means "companies really eschew the risks and liabilities associated with business and they contract them out to other people, or they shift them on to other people, they shift them onto the workers themselves," she said. "The result is precarity. It's poor working conditions, lower wages, lack of benefits, having to constantly worry that you're going to be let go or terminated."

It makes them angry, and that anger means that they don't just want to leave the place, they want to change the place.- Veena Dubal

Even the way terms like calling a Google employee a "Googler" are prejudicial, she added, and an anti-union tactic.

"So you make workers feel like they are family, and then it becomes much more difficult to sever ties with family, or to talk back to family or to criticize family, and we've seen Googlers come out and talk about this," she said.

Dubal said that rather than, say, catering meals for their employees, companies should be listening to what will really improve their lives.

"I really, really hope to see these companies paying attention and doing things voluntarily like putting workers on their board, listening to the concerns of marginalized and minority workers in their workplaces, and starting to care about the workers who are producing value for the company in a way that really values their lives meaningfully."

Written by Adam Killick. Produced by Samraweet Yohannes and Nora Young.