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Can a New Work Design Help the Government?

In his recent article “Can Self-Managed Teams Work in Government?” John Kamensky of the IBM Center for the Business of Government addressed the tough challenge of improving employee engagement as measured by the Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey. Examining the potential of self-managed teams in motivating the workforce, Kamensky wrote:

“The concept has been around for decades, and there are success stories in the private sector. In fact, it has been tried in the federal government, starting with some of the Bill Clinton administration’s Reinvention Labs. More recently, the Office of Personnel Management piloted a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) in 2010 with 400 staffers, but it faltered and was curtailed a couple years later.”

As assistant director of the Veterans Affairs Department’s New York Regional Office during the Reinventing Government era, I oversaw the most highly publicized effort to establish self-managed teams. After this experience and having studied ROWE and similar work methods, I see both the plusses and minuses of taking a different approach in government. There are reasons why the concept has not caught on with federal leaders and why it could make a huge difference under the right circumstances.

The Plusses

Building self-managed teams—which I...

In Cold Offices, It's All About Your Feet

When a tech company recently came to Stefano Schiavon at the University of California, Berkeley to test an air-conditioning system for its office, his mind went to flip-flops. The new system would blast cool air from the floor rather than the ceiling, and this being the Bay Area, and this being a tech company, Schiavon figured he couldn’t use the same old models researchers have been using since the 70s to study thermal comfort. (Yes, that is the name for the academic study of maintaining a building at just the right temperature.)

He needed to test people in flip-flops.

Feet, it turns out, are exquisitely sensitive to temperature. When you get cold, the blood vessels in your extremities are the first to constrict, which is your body’s way of preventing more heat loss. “You feel uncomfortable because your feet get numb or getting close to numb,” says Edward Arens, an architect at the University of Berkeley, who also studies thermal comfort. If building managers could heat or cool the feet alone, they could cut energy and costs. So at Berkeley, researchers are focusing on thermal comfort from the feet up.

Despite the outsized importance of feet in thermal...

How May I Help You?

This summer I mailed a bicycle to a vacation hotel. 

Instead of the bike, I received a note from the postman saying it was too big for the delivery truck and I would need to pick it up at the local post office. But which one? There were three in the local Zip Code. Calls to each referred me to a national 1-800 number, which said there was a 20-minute wait.  After 40 minutes, a very polite and very helpful person came on the line and gave me the right post office (which wasn’t one of the three).

Was I satisfied with my customer service? Yes. Was I satisfied with my customer experience? No.

And this seems to be endemic across a number of federal agencies, according to Forrester Research, which recently reported that most of the services in 15 federal agencies surveyed ranked near the bottom of about 300 public and private sector “brands” reviewed. Even the federal government itself sees the challenge: “Despite some important strides to improve customer service over the past 15 years, many federal government services fail to meet the expectations of the public, creating unnecessary hassle and cost for citizens, businesses, and the...

Nod More, and Other Absurd Yet Useful Meeting Tips From a Former Google Manager

Meetings! There are so many in this world, and far too few people who bring fancy doughnuts to them. But in the absence of a tasty snack, writer and comedian Sarah Cooper may be able to help you survive your next confusing PowerPoint presentation.

Cooper, who sat through her fair share of meetings as a user experience designer at Yahoo and a design manager at Google, is an astute observer of the absurdities of everyday office life. On her blog, The Cooper Review, she both delights and confuses readers with cartoons that blur the line between satire and reality. “Draw a Venn diagram,” she advises in a post about how to appear smart in in front of your colleagues. “It doesn’t matter if your Venn diagram is wildly inaccurate; in fact, the more inaccurate, the better.” (Full disclosure: this post, and others by Cooper, have also appeared on Quartz.)

A similar spirit of keen-eyed mischief informs Cooper’s new book, 100 Tricks to Appear Smart in Meetings (out Oct. 4). But despite the arch tone of her cartoons, Cooper told me that she—like most people—has a love-hate relationship with brainstorming sessions and check-ins.

“On the one hand...

A Case Study in How Men Interrupt Women in Professional Situations

There is a unwritten rule in presidential debates—and general conversation—that people should not interrupt each other. All too often in professional situations, men interrupt women.

The first US presidential debate in history to feature a woman a candidate has proven to be a textbook example of this practice. In 90 minutes, Donald Trump interrupted Hillary Clinton 51 times, often talking over her for several seconds.

Trump’s conduct during the debate exemplifies the type of microaggression that belittles women publicly as a way to assert their power, and to dismiss women.

He interrupted, but hated being interrupted himself for going off topic during his replies, or taking up too much time, and he interrupted the host Lester Holt, too, several times—essentially using aggression to replace assertiveness.

Trump did more to make this debate a case-study in sexism by saying Clinton doesn’t have the “stamina” to be a president. That kind of coded language is a classic way of saying that she’s a woman, and therefore, weaker.

He criticized Clinton’s temperament, giving voice to the unfair perception that strong women are aggressive or angry. As he left, he patted Clinton on the back—another form...

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