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The Fascinating Ways WWI Shaped the Modern Workplace

The centenary of The Great War provides a timely reminder to consider the war's influence on today's business culture and work habits.
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How do you summarize the influence of World War I? It isn't easy. But if you view it strictly in business terms, you can devise a useful list: mass production, big oil, railroad efficiency, the rise of American banking.

The thing is, there's more to the way you work today than these sweeping commercial subjects. In your office, you and your colleagues speak a certain way. You use terms and language differently than previous generations did. Likewise, the demographics of the workforce are radically different today than they were in previous decades.

You can find the roots of these changes--the linguistic habits and demographic makeup of today's workforce--in World War I.

Of course, those epic commercial topics (railroad efficiency in particular) have their influence as well. Here's a snapshot of how these subjects developed during The Great War--and continue to shape workplaces today.

1. Women in the workforce. Two quick facts, from Louisa Thomas's recent Wall Street Journal article called "How Women Stepped Up in World War I": 

  • 3 million women joined the U.S. workforce, after the U.S. joined the war in April, 1917.
  • By 1919, Congress had submitted the 19th Amendment to the states for ratification. The amendment was originally drafted in 1878. 

"After the war, many women stopped wearing corsets; they bobbed their hair and wore bright lipstick," writes Thomas. 

As she points out, all this was only the beginning: "It would take another war, and much more time, before many of the real advances would last," she writes. But in many ways, what happened during World War I was the origin of today's conversation regarding gender in the office and in leadership roles.

Whether that leader is Hillary Clinton or Marissa Mayer or Sheryl Sandberg, or whether that subject is the Hobby Lobby decision or the importance of vulnerability--there's no question, notions of management, leadership, and the workforce have changed. 

2. The language of leadership. We seldom even flinch, these days, when management books invoke the language of the military. You'd be rich if you had a dime for every consultant quoting Sun Tzu. Likewise, in his upcoming book, Reid Hoffman, the cofounder of LinkedIn, urges employers to rethink employee tenures as "tours of duty." 

As it turns out, the mainstreaming of military language in work settings owes a debt to World War I. Here's how A.O. Scott describes it in a recent New York Times article: 

Words and phrases once specifically associated with the experience of combat on the Western Front are still part of the common language. We barely recognize "in the trenches," "no man's land" or "over the top" as figures of speech, much less as images that evoke what was once a novel form of organized mass death.

Look no further for proof than the entrepreneurial bible that is actually titled No Man's Land by Doug Tatum. The baffling realm Tatum describes is that space between survival-mode startup and professionally managed small business. His book is a useful guide to what you might call a business's late-teen years, between its fast-growth puberty and its mature early adulthood. 

Generally speaking, we take for granted the language we use everyday in the office. We use it because we use it, innocently mindless of its lineage. But to the extent that today's business lexicon is sometimes a military one, that, too, has roots in The Great War. 

3. The concept of supply chain efficiency (a.k.a. logistics). "The war established railways as a strategic asset, and shone a light on how inefficiently they had often been run before 1914," Laurence Eyton explains in the Wall Street Journal.

Before the war, the railroad routes were simply the railroad routes. Few thought about how to maximize their efficiency, so that objects (i.e. weaponry or soldiers) could move from point A to point B as quickly as possible. But all of that changed during and after the war. As Eyton points out:

The development of trains and rail networks during the war also influenced the science of logistics. In 1919, Syracuse University in New York became the first U.S. university to establish a program in supply-chain management. The U.K. established its first Ministry of Transport in 1920. Such events were an attempt by both academia and government to put knowledge and experience of supply management and transportation gained during the war on a firmer academic and administrative footing.

In other words, the field of logistics, too, owes a debt to World War I. Think about that, the next time you see a commercial that makes it sound like a delivery company or software provider invented the concept.

Last updated: Jul 1, 2014




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