With the amount of travel I do (or did — pre COVID!), I’ve learned a lot about bad-hair days. And it’s the hairdryer and the decisions designers make (or don’t) that, from experience, has a lot in common with how we design work.
It is due to poor design choices involving a hairdryer, that I have found my head in hotel cupboards or leaning uncomfortably close to hotel toilet bowls. Beautiful hotels designed for appearance rather than functionality have inadvertently subjugated me to the nooks and crannies of a variety of plush hotel rooms in the pursuit of dry hair. It’s a mistake we often make at work, resulting in many a metaphorical bad-hair day.
One of my most memorable hairdryer encounters (for all the wrong reasons) took place at London’s Heathrow Airport, Terminal 5. If you experienced British Airways Terminal 5 when it was first opened, you will know it was really a remarkable airport experience. Of note were the BA lounges where you could wine and dine, do last-minute work, surf the internet, catch up on emails, or take a shower between flights. All of which was still quite special at the time. Though commonplace today, it was still a cut above back then. But it was my après-shower experience that brought everything back to zero. Despite the many millions of pounds that had been spent attending to every tiny detail at the then-shiny-new terminal, it was what confronted me as I emerged from the shower that proved to be the one step in the process that drowned out all others. As I stood, wet hair wrapped in a towel after debating whether to in fact wash it, I was faced with what looked like a vacuum cleaner hose — no power to dry, and a hose so short it barely reach my head! Unable to make it work, I reemerged from the shower cubicle, my hair still wet, and coined my new process phrase: “bad-hair day experiences.” Of course, I still shower at the terminal, but I never wash my hair.
Cheesing us off
This kind of scenario is all too common at work. No matter how much money has been spent or how much thought and effort invested in a business’s operational design, all it takes is one broken link in the chain to create a bad-hair day. With all the best intentions in newly designed systems, automated or improved processes, a great salary, happy customers, new equipment, and technology, the perfect location, or great employee services and benefits, these can be rendered null and void with a bad-hair day experience. Your what cheeses me off factors become pieces of the infrastructure that don’t work for you — a process that doesn’t do what it originally set out to do; a policy that in practice can’t be adhered to; a system that isn’t user friendly; or a procedure that was built for Benedictine monks whose patience is built into their DNA. Bad-hair days make us grumpy and despondent, so that all we see is the negative. They cheese us off.
This despondency, which has a habit of spreading quickly, could persist and become ever more pervasive if the infrastructure failings are not addressed. It creates conversations that distract from the business at hand, building what I call babble (disgruntlement triggers), and goes home with people — it settles into their daily lives. Before you know it, people are switching off in droves, feeling that they are being blocked from being their best, that their needs are not being taken into consideration, that their input hardly matters.
Recognizing the signs
If you want to understand the sources of bad-hair days, try tuning in to the babble at work: look closely for changes in behavior — for example, when perfectly good people begin to show signs of boredom, anger, or bad communication. These are early warning signs of people dialing down their discretionary effort, taking the attitude, “Why should I bother? This place sucks!” You’ll probably be quicker to notice it among people you don’t think are great — but perhaps their attitude has been off exactly because they’ve felt so ground down by the system, for so long.