Recently I was in a discussion with a peer group when the question came up ‘what is the most formative work experience you’ve had?” My first response was my involvement in a significant project early in my career. But I’ve thought about that question a great deal since that meeting. I wasn’t satisfied with my answer.
After much thought, the right answer came to me. It was my first job.
When I was going into my sophomore year in high school, I worked for a manufacturing company on Chicago’s south side. My dad was the national sales manager for the firm that manufactured table lamps and similar lighting products. I worked in the warehouse, filling orders and preparing them for shipping.
I learned a lot from that job. I was exposed to manufacturing. I saw how stuff gets made, which is one of the things I love about the work Austin does. I got to know people from different backgrounds, I witnessed other people’s work ethics, and I saw their focus on getting the job done.
But the most formative aspect of all was witnessing how my father treated people. Everyone, from the guy pushing a broom to the president and owner of the company, received the same respect from Dad.
To Dad, every person deserved the same respect. In contrast, when other executives from the front office came back into the plant, I would rarely see them engage with the workers beyond the task at hand. They weren’t disrespectful. They just didn’t make an effort to be respectful. They didn’t try to get to know the people. Dad did, and in return, they respected him back. They found ways to help him out with a rush order because they wanted to. They were motivated by mutual respect and kindness in daily exchanges.
I have been thinking about these formative work experiences through the lens of the past fifteen months of working from home. The lessons I learned early on came as a result of being present in the environment eight hours a day, five days a week. Teleconferencing is a great way to efficiently exchange ideas and get information, but I wonder if the work experience gained is primarily transactional, not the whole experience that is gained through casual observation of others around us, body language in a meeting, and witnessing how others react to a situation- both successfully and unsuccessfully.
I recognize that there are exceptions, and some can and do thrive in a work-from-home scenario. However, opportunities lost when you are not together in person can include growing a culture, mentoring, modeling, and developing people. Ironically, one aspect of video calls that offers a better experience than in-person masked exchanges is seeing facial expressions. Being in person with a group of people all wearing masks is like a salad without the dressing.
As we come back to the workplace, let’s take time to appreciate how we engage with others. Let’s value the opportunity to be together and share our collective experiences. Let’s enjoy mutual respect and kindness in our daily exchanges. I hope to see you soon.
“You can observe a lot by watching.”
“Observation more than books and experience more than persons are the prime educators.”
Amos Bronson Alcott
“Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” Henry Ford