How to have a happier and more productive workforce

Sometime during my experience as a full time student in the Tulane Business School’s MBA program (25 years ago now) I heard the following parable:

An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

The Mexican replied, “Only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.”

The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

“But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

“Millions – then what?”

The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

I don’t remember where it came from, maybe another student, maybe one of my professors. Wherever it came from, it stuck with me.

As part of my effort to constantly learn, I just finished reading the The Wisdom of Laotse as translated by Lin Yutang. This book includes the Tao Te Ching, the seminal book of the Chinese religion Daoism. There was a short parable in the book that reminded me of the parable of the Mexican fisherman.

44.5 Chuangtse was fishing on the P’u River when the Prince of Ch’u sent two high officials to see him and said, ‘”Our Prince desires to burden you with the administration of the C!h’u State.”

Chuangtse went on fishing without turning his head and said, “I have heard that in Ch’u there is a sacred tortoise which died when it was three thousand (years)
old. The prince keeps this tortoise carefully enclosed in a chest in his ancestral temple. Now would this tortoise rather be dead and have its remains venerated, or would it rather be alive and wagging its tail in the mud?”

“It would rather be alive,” replied the two officials, “and wagging its tail in the mud.”

“Begone!” cried Chuangtse. “I too will wag my tail in the mud.”

The Bible has a similar teaching:

For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread. – 2 Thessalonians 3:11-12

All three point to something fundamental about being human. We all need to work enough to sustain ourselves and our families, but we must also save time for life.

Work/Life Balance has been the subject of more books, research papers, news articles and blog posts than any person can count. There’s a reason for that.

As humans we all long for a more fulfilled life. Work, for the sake of work, cannot be the thing that makes life fulfilling. And since the great majority of people do not work in areas where the work provides that fulfillment, the spiritual need people have for a more reasonable balance between work and life must be addressed. There are two sides to the work/life balance equation. One is the material things necessary to live. What you consider necessary will likely differ from what someone else deems necessary. But since we have to work, for those that can do it, finding a way to work so that time for the rest of your life is maximized is vital for the employee and the employer.

Why is it vital?

In a study recently published by Owl Labs, Global State of Remote Work, two of the findings stood out:

  1. Workers that are able to work remote at least one day per month are 24% more likely to be happy in their jobs.
  2. Workers in North America claim increased productivity and less time commuting as the top reasons for choosing to work from home.

Happy employees are more productive employees, potentially impacting profitability. Happy employees are more loyal employees, reducing hiring costs. If a company can do it, and do it right, a remote work force can realize a lot of savings.

But how do you do it right?

The folks at GitLab have come up with a model that works for them. The key for them is, like their business, open-source.

  • Company meetings and presentations are posted for all employees to see
  • The employee handbook is available online, enabling employees to get answers to questions on their own
  • To overcome social isolation, virtual coffee breaks are built in to schedules
  • Senior management hold virtual chats open to all.
  • Everyone shares in the success of the company when it meets its monthly goals.

GitLab ‘s efforts to maintain an effective remote workforce all focus on minimizing social isolation and developing a sense of shared accomplishment.

While GitLab is focused on how to make a remote workforce effective for the enterprise, the lesson they do not address, and one that we all know at some level, is that the opportunities their employees have to maximize the rest of their lives is the pressure release valve necessary for them to produce at a higher level.