September 10, 2015

At BNA, Many Coworkers Became Great Friends. One Became My Wife. Many of those Coworkers are Friends Still.

My housemates and I spent Labor Day weekend touring the gorgeous Rocky Mountain National Park. The highlight for me was spending Sunday afternoon with my Bureau of National Affairs (BNA) pal Bob Velte and his wife Ivy.

While the Velte's house has a Boulder, Colorado address, you can barely see the city in the valley below their house, built on the forested mountainside. Relaxing on the deck, we watched hummingbirds at the feeder, had a terrific lunch and -- most of all -- enjoyed catching up with one another.

I retired from BNA at the end of 1994, over 20 years ago. Even after all that time, many of my good friends now -- like Bob and Ivy -- are former BNA colleagues.

Yesterday morning, my first back at home, I tossed out most of the newspapers, magazines, and junk mail that had accumulated in my absence, except for the "Sunday Review" section of The New York Times. Since my visit with the Veltes was fresh in my mind, I was intrigued by this headline:

"Friends at Work? Not so Much."
It had this subtitle: "Americans need to socialize more with their colleagues."

The article reports that work was once a major source of friendships. These days, we go to the office not to make friends, but to be efficient.

In 1985, about half of Americans said they had a close friend at work; by 2004, the number had dropped to 30%. "We are not only bowling alone," observes Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor at Stanford. "We are increasingly working alone."

That sad reality isn't true everywhere. In a three-country survey, only 32% of Americans reported inviting work colleagues to their homes, compared with 66% in Poland and 71% in India.

What's Happening?
When I was looking for a job 60 years ago, people feared submitting a resume that included three employers within the past several years. You'd be considered a job hopper.

Not today.

According to the Times article, employees these days don't plan to stick around, so they view coworkers as transitory and at best, single-use friends. With the rise of flex time and virtual work, employees have fewer opportunities for the face-to-face encounters that help build friendships.

Today's "gjg economy" means that the guy at the next desk may work for a subcontractor, not your employer. As a result, you'd have less in common.

When I started at BNA in 1955, the staff of each publication usually sat together at desks in the same office. We communicated with other employees by telephone, or -- better yet -- by walking down the hall to their office. When I left BNA forty years later, most employees worked in their own cubicles, and communicated with others -- even if they were just ten feet away -- by email.

Friendlier Workplaces Would Make Us Happier and More Effective
The Times article suggests we may underestimate the impact of workplace friendships on our happiness, and on our effectiveness.

"Jobs are more satisfying when they provide opportunities to form friendships," the article concludes. "Research shows that groups of friends outperform groups of acquaintances in both decision-making and effort tasks."

Workplace social events aren't always effective in creating a friendlier workplace. "People don't mix much at mixers, and at company parties, they mostly bond with similar colleagues."

Some of our leading companies are attempting to create more workplace bonding. The article cites these examples:
Technology companies like Google and Facebook provide opportunities for shared games, sports, exercise and meals -- and research suggests that playing together and eating together are good ways to foster cooperation. Meanwhile, LinkedIn has encouraged employees to take their personal lives to work by hosting Bring in Your Parents Day. And at organizations ranging from McKinsey to Chevron, an increasingly popular step is to build alumni networks, as universities do. As Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha, and Chris Yeh observe in their book "The Alliance," alumni networks can encourage employees to invest in relationships even when they won't stay at jobs for decades.
Employee-Owned BNA Got It Right
Since my career began and ended with BNA, I have no experience with other workplace environments. But I have little doubt that "the old BNA" was unique in combining employee bonding with profitability.

BNA began as a subsidiary of what is now U.S. News & World Report. In 1947, David Lawrence, the legendary publisher of U.S. News, told the five top managers at BNA that he was going to sell the company but was offering them first crack at buying it on favorable terms. After talking it over, those managers told Lawrence that they'd accept the offer but only on one condition: all of BNA's employees must be eligible to purchase shares in the company.

Several companies back then claimed to be "employee owned." But usually the ownership was limited to top executives. BNA was unique in being 100% employee owned.

Employee-owned BNA may have had a rough start. But by the time I was hired in April 1955, the company was well on its way to becoming a highly successful publishing company.

When I retired in 1994, BNA employee stockholders had received annual total return of about 20% through the years.

Employee ownership didn't mean corporate democracy. Yes, employee shareholders got to vote each year for the members of the Board of Directors, and they had a share of the company's earnings in the dividends paid to shareholders. But the day-to-day management of the business remained in the hands of several executives, who could be as autocratic at BNA as at any other company.

Even so, the management style at BNA was egalitarian in spirit. The compression in its salary structure would now be incomprehensible to the leaders at most American corporations, where executives receive salaries hundreds of times greater than the wages paid to average employees. BNA's managers receive no stock options or other executive bonuses.

BNA has no executive dining room. Instead, John Stewart -- BNA's president during most of my BNA years -- enjoyed many evenings playing "guts poker" with a group of employees that included managers and rank-and-file.

At BNA, listening to employees was essential for managers. More than once, a BNA director lost his bid for board reelection because employees thought he didn't listen.

BNA employees typically regarded coworkers as a second family. BNA employees often became first families, too... since many of us married as a coworker.

Did this unique employee bonding help or hinder BNA from becoming financially successful? In 2011, Bloomberg agreed to buy BNA for about $1 billion. In 2013, the much-better-known Washington Post was purchased by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos for $250.000, one fourth of BNA's purchase price.

The financial windfall from the sale was great, of course. But not as great as the the way my life has been enhanced since April, 1955 by treasured BNA friends and by my marriage to BNA editor Diana LeBlanc.

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