On our honeymoon, my husband and I drove across the Golden Gate Bridge – my feet tingled for the entire drive (I am slightly afraid of heights). The experience is memorable not only because of the physical sensations that accompanied the trek, but also for the impressive nature of the structure. Spanning over 4000 feet, and with its highest point towering 700 feet above the water, the Golden Gate Bridge is an awe-inspiring sight. Construction began in 1933, and, amazingly, it was completed three years later. The story of how this was done still carries important lessons for our workplaces today.
Working on the bridge provided a good wage and steady income to the men who gave their energies to the project, but these jobs did not come without risk. A gust of wind could blow a worker off their scaffolding, tossing them into the water below. I can only imagine how scary it must have been to work in windy, cold, and often foggy conditions.
The bridge’s engineer, Joseph Strauss, insisted on many safety rules in an effort to keep the workers safe. They were required to wear wind goggles and headlamps, along with safety belts and lines at all times – if workers refused to wear these, they were fired. Strauss’s crews were some of the first to use hard hats. He even provided sauerkraut juice for men suffering the effects of hangovers! Most impressive, however, was the huge safety net he ordered and had installed under the bridge.
The net spanned the length of the bridge and cantilevered out on each side. No matter where workers were on the bridge, if they fell, the net would catch them. As a result of the focus on safety, one year into the project, only one man had been lost. That record changed in February of 1937 when a scaffolding broke loose and 10 workers fell through the netting, tragically losing their lives. In total, 30 men fell into the net – 19 who were caught and saved, and 11 who died.
At the time, it was estimated that construction projects would lose one man per every million dollars spent on the job. The construction of the Golden Gate Bridge was $35 million and although it is tragic that any lives were lost, the safety record for the time is impressive: one man per every $3.2 million spent. The net was a source of pride for workers, and morale on the crews was high. In fact, workers had to be ordered not to jump into the net on purpose! Free from a fear of falling, the men worked much faster and the bridge was completed in record time.
In our places of work, we too need to provide more than just a fair wage and a steady stream of work. As important as policies and procedures are – like safety belts and hard hats – they are not enough. We certainly don’t want to go without them, but we need more to create organizational strength. If we desire high morale, productivity, loyalty, and the ability to complete quality work despite crises, we too need a safety net – and that net is our culture. A healthy workplace culture creates resiliency and the power to keep an organization functioning even when things go wrong.
If we desire high morale, productivity, loyalty, and the ability to complete quality work despite crises, we too need a safety net – and that net is our culture.
In our book, The Culture Question, we explore how to create this cultural safety net by outlining six pillars that are foundational to creating a healthy workplace culture.
If you want to have a cultural safety net, ask yourself if your organization gives enough attention to the following six pillars:
- Clearly communicating its purpose
- Ensuring meaningful work for staff
- Focusing its leadership team on people
- Building meaningful relationships among employees
- Creating teams that can perform at their peak
- Managing conflict constructively
The Golden Gate Bridge has been called one of the “modern wonders of the world” by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It is a photo destination for many travelers and a source of pride for those who call San Francisco home. With the right safety net, our workplaces can also be a model of what is possible in the places we work. With a healthy culture, employees will be able to work hard, feel safe, and take pride in the work they do alongside their colleagues – and that is a project worth investing in!
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