The laws of physics can be applied to the workplace
A view from Sue Unerman

The laws of physics can be applied to the workplace

Entropy never decreases. This is the second law of thermodynamics.

Entropy is the idea that everything tends to drift into chaos or disorder. This is certainly true of my desk. And kitchen. The classic example from the kitchen is a dropped cup. It will smash into pieces and, however long you leave those pieces there, they will never reassemble into something you can drink a cup of tea from. Or imagine a blot of black ink dropped into a cup of water. The blackness will dissipate and never reassemble.

The second law of thermodynamics is very elegant. Essentially, entropy doesn't experience entropy. In fact, for the universe as a whole, entropy is increasing.

The law that entropy never decreases is a paradox. It appears to contradict itself and yet it is observably true. For many years, scientists were puzzled by it. Nineteenth-century physicists believed that the fundamental laws of physics should be reversible. So, if entropy can increase, the laws of physics should mean that it must be able to decrease. But every experience tells you otherwise.

It takes energy to decrease entropy. As the full second law states: the entropy of an isolated system always rises. But put some energy in and order can be achieved – in a crystal of salt, in humans, even in galaxies.

This means many important things to science. I think it can also be observed in the culture of the workplace. Negative energy doesn't decrease when left to itself. Positive energy needs to be continually reinforced. At MediaCom, we have the much-loved Freshness programme (scary pumpkins and the roof on fire being two recent examples).

Over the past dozen years, the number of MediaCommers has increased substantially and, of course, many people have joined and some have left. Yet the essential culture of the place has stayed intact, despite all the increased pressures that media organisations have been under for the past five years. This hasn't happened by accident. A lot of effort, from everyone in the company, goes into keeping our culture fresh every day.

Workplace cultures with negative cultures tend to reinforce themselves over time. Workplace cultures with positive cultures need energy to reinforce that culture. This isn't a law of physics, but it is extremely likely to happen, so it fits with expert thinking on the subject. This is clearly observable among organisations. It is probably my second law of organisational culture.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom