From the archive: The way to create a successful workplace is simple, but never easy

This was originally published in December 2020. All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. As is now the way of these things, the famous opening words of Anna Karenina have been used to name a principle that is applied across a wide range of fields. It describes how success can only happen in one way, but failure comes in many forms.

The Anna Karenina Principle was popularised twenty or so years ago, but the underlying idea is nothing new. In his work Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle puts it like this: It is possible to fail in many ways, …. while to succeed is possible only in one way (for which reason also one is easy and the other difficult – to miss the mark easy, to hit it difficult); for these reasons also, then, excess and defect are characteristic of vice, and the mean of virtue; For men are good in but one way, but bad in many.

The simplicity of success doesn’t mean it is easy, of course. It depends on a perfect confluence of a number of factors, the absence of any one of which will doom an endeavour to partial or complete failure.

When it comes to the workplace, we know how this plays out. The most obvious examples in the past have been about the way that the design features of successful offices were introduced to less successful workplaces in the hope that they would change a culture or increase wellbeing, productivity or whatever.

This is the cargo cult approach to office design, the attempt to make a family happy by buying the stuff that the happy family next door owns. But this can only work when everything else is in place. Just because a ping pong table works (perhaps) in the offices of Google Amsterdam, doesn’t make it a catalyst for a new culture at an accountancy firm in Kettering.

The latest iteration of this problem is not the attempt to emulate the slides and quirky design features of Big Tech palaces but to apply the thinking of digital first pioneers like GitLab to other businesses. GitLab’s comprehensive guide to remote work is incredibly impressive and useful for firms across the board, but it is held up as some kind of blueprint even though it acknowledges itself its limitations in that regard.

This hasn’t stopped the number of people prepared to talk about it in this way. You can’t throw a stone on Google these days without hitting an article about how all firms should work, often ignoring the number of options now available to make work better. What is best for any particular company will depend on a range of factors that must align, including its scale, existing culture, location, sector and umpteen other things. It isn’t easy, but there are ways to start thinking about change that do not always involve aping another firm or throwing away all the things we already know.

This also applies to individual remote work setups. There is a surfeit of articles putting forward definitive working from home tips, such as this on Fast Company, one of the chief purveyors of this kind of stuff. I’m glad the author has found a way to work from home that suits him, but that’s all this is. And I’m far from convinced even he really needs a 55-inch flat-screen TV as a monitor two feet from his face.