Author: Sarah Morgan, Director, Equity and Inclusion
Wild Wild Life: The Need for Healthy Work Environments
The Philadelphia Zoo is the oldest zoo in the United States, originally opening as the Philadelphia Zoological Gardens in 1874. And as early as I can remember, I loved the zoo. The smell, not so much, but the overall zoo is amazing. I recall getting my first Zoo Key (big stuff in 1975) which allowed me to turn on the secret recordings of information about certain animals throughout the property. And while these callbox speakers sounded exactly like a teacher from Charlie Brown’s world, I would listen to them over and over again as I canvased every exhibit.
Today, there are a couple of great behind-the-scenes shows on Discovery+ about the Bronx Zoo and the San Diego Zoo. The Director of the Bronx Zoo shares, at the beginning of each episode, that if you ask a kid to draw a picture of a zoo, you’ll likely see animals behind bars. His purpose, as he continues, is to change that perception by building conservations and habitats that will better suit and support the animals there.
Isn’t that, in some ways, how we ought to approach the habitats we build in our organizations? Of course, the suggestion that employees are in captivity is not the same (though I know some of you feel that way!), but rather think of it as crafting pathways for health amongst our teams by being intentional regarding the environment.
Over the last decade, more organizations have put forth sustainability plans as to how they will handle their impact on the world’s environment. And while this is excellent news, with much more work to be done, many of those same organizations have not put enough thought, let alone action plans, into doing the same for the internal environment for which they are responsible. Both need attention, for sure.
When I watch the various zookeepers, designers and operations experts work together to build a habitat that will support learning, encourage health and offer safety to the animals to be housed, I am often impressed at the careful planning and hours of teamwork offered to get it done. There is a real passion to build something impactful for the benefit of the recipient. And when the animals are released into the designed area, we have the joy of watching them thrive.
Whether our role is business owner, manager or human resources, we have the same privilege. Think about how often meetings you attend are in response to what’s not working or who’s not working. We spend the time putting punitive measures into place, often with a longing for a more proactive approach in the future. We genuinely hope for that to happen, but the rut we get in is hard to dig out from, sometimes years-deep in its making. You are the one who gets to turn the attention on what will help our staff flourish.
Environments matter. And lest you think that those roles working from home must be the best setup, think again. Time Magazine published an article with years of research, including the pandemic timeline, to show that those in highly collaborative roles struggled the most with working from home. Their home environment, peppered with some at-home interruptions, made it more difficult to perform to the level desired by both the employee and the employer. Of course, this is not to say that working from the office will solve it all. We know our own experiences that show us how ineffective workplace meetings and collaborative sessions have been. It’s not only about where you sit, but how where you sit has been setup, what resources are available to assist the learning needed, who can support healthy engagement and why it matters.
Transparently, organizations struggle regularly with creating healthy habitats for our teams to thrive. The privilege of asking our teams what might help them to do so is one distinct area we have that the Bronx Zoo does not. We can work collaboratively with our teams to build challenging learning pathways and supportive, innovative teamwork opportunities. We can offer options, and we start by saying we are committed to doing so.
Organizations that build healthy environments are more productive. This is not news, but it is the Achilles heel of many an organization. Likely, attention has been diverted to other things that seem more pressing. Be mindful of the environment being built and how you can be a proactive champion for its construction. Work with other key stakeholders to craft an environment that inspires and provokes people to success.