Workplace Artifacts: Playing Archaeologist at Your Company

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A visit to an office, storefront or facility might seem routine. Yet when we step inside a place of business, we are in a sense venturing into an active archaeological site. Our workspaces are filled with artifacts of every imaginable shape and variety. We have papers covering desks, posters hanging from walls, filing cabinets, computers, office supplies and equipment everywhere. The bustle of industry depends entirely on the stuff we use every day.

It’s obvious that we need physical implements to do our work, but we don’t usually spend much time thinking about the design and placement of these items. Yet it really is true that a salesman who places the telephone in the center of his desk will call on more prospects. If an order form takes ages to complete, you are more likely to get illegible scrawls and incomplete responses. The articles we have at work actually impact our ability to complete work.

Archaeologist Artifacts Workplace Dig Innovation Design

Put on your archaeologist hat for a moment and think about the stuff in your workspace. Just as a pottery shard or a renaissance painting tells you something about the culture and lifestyle of generations past, the appearance of a change request form provides insight into the society of the organization that produced it. The size of boxes on the page implies the volume of information expected. The questions asked indicate what data was believed necessary when the form was created. The carbon copies indicate different stakeholders who might not entirely trust one another. Every aspect of this artifact has some meaning, and a few moments of examination prompts countless questions about its design.

Perhaps the most significant realization is that every workplace artifact has a creator and a consumer. If you’ve ever had to squeeze your email address onto a blank less than one inch wide, you know that the person who made the form probably never tried to actually use the form. Likewise, the person who wrote the operations manual may have produced a masterpiece, but what are the chances that this 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 first hand.

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 seen posted many times before: “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.

Verbiage Employees Must Wash Hands Signage

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 a 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 are trying to quietly protect their own employees? Shouldn’t everyone be washing their hands?

Finally, the message “employees must wash hands before returning to work” creates a clear separation in time. This phrasing offers a subtle reminder to staff that visiting the washroom is not working. In a sense, the statement is actually derogatory and self-contradictory. “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 again to the roles of creator and consumer. The person who posted the sign is almost certainly fixated on legal protection. By indicating 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 everyone ought to be washing their hands. What’s the advantage to telling just some people that they have to use soap and water, and that they must do it on their own time?

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

Photo credits: CoteGbaku, Cover elements: Link


Robby Slaughter Biography Picture Artifacts Blogpost


Robby Slaughter is an Indianapolis consultant at AccelaWork. His primary professional interest is in productivity, workflow and employee engagement. He lives in Indianapolis with his wife.

Follow Robby on Twitter! @robbyslaughter