What makes an office truly great?

It’s all about heart, not free coffee, as this true story from a small US newspaper shows

Newspaper reporter A S Bailey liked his office so much he was filing stories even at the age of 80. His book, The Story of an Ordinary Life, is not on Amazon but a library search in the US state of Iowa might be fruitful.

The book is “filled with humorous and pathetic incidents of a lifetime in the country newspaper offices of Southern Iowa. It was the story of the progress of the world, of the changes of journalism during sixty years,” says the University Missourian newspaper of January 27, 1915. It’s an autobiography.

Of more interest to our times is the story behind the publication of Bailey’s book. It shows what a really great office is like. It is a lesson for bosses, and human resource managers, but most of all for workers. The best office, like the best family, is the one where you can keep your dignity, where you feel wanted, where your role has meaning, where you feel you have a stake. That’s what makes you look forward to being there every day. Italian marble in the loo and free Nespresso, by themselves, do not make an office great.

A S Bailey

There’s Bailey at work on his 80th birthday in 1915, in the office of Sentinel-Post, a newspaper published thrice a week from Shenandoah, Iowa. He had 60 years’ work experience then, of which roughly 20 years had been spent at Sentinel-Post, right from the time the paper launched in 1896 as Sentinel.

Although he looks quite frail in the picture, Bailey even then did “as long a day’s work as the young reporters on the paper, and writes his news on a little typewriter, without the aid of glasses. Every week he makes a trip to some of the neighbouring towns and brings back a newsletter brimful of human interest and individuality.

Coming back to the book, it started as a column in the newspaper when Bailey was 75. Clearly, his boss and the rest of the team were not thinking of getting rid of him for being old. Quite the contrary.

The serialised autobiography kept appearing issue after issue but the ‘type’ was not thrown away. The team wanted to surprise Bailey with a special gift on Christmas, and all of them quietly contributed to it.

The printers on the paper saved the type and contributed their labour after work hours, the editor of the paper contributed the stock and paid the other expense, and the story was printed in book form as a Christmas surprise for the old newspaper man.”

The climax seems straight out of a movie now, but it really happened: “On Christmas Eve, the office force waited on Mr Bailey in a body, and presented the first batch of books which had just come from the bindery. Tears rolled down his cheeks and he couldn’t speak as he tried to thank his co-workers.

And then? Who kept the money from the book’s sales? The editor, who had borne the expense of publishing? That’s what would happen today, but back then: “The book proved popular and the edition was easily sold, netting Mr Bailey a good profit.

It was an office with a heart. The corporate culture of today creates offices that are massive bodies, spread over acres, reaching many floors high, and fed with turbo-pumps because no heart can push so much real warm human blood.

Bailey turned 80 in 1915, and when he came to office, his colleagues demanded a favour of him. They asked for an original poem on ‘The Bridge of Life’. He obliged, of course. The University Missourian says Bailey “set it up himself without a single error”.



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