Having worked in manufacturing (business side) for the better part of a decade, I think the difference in attitude toward the working atmosphere is focused around three things:
- Hourly Pay
- Clear Goals
- Fewer Politics
Applying these to the white collar world works a bit differently, but is doable.
Blue collar work is typically measurable. If I assemble widgets, then the widget factory knows the average widget-assembler will assemble X widgets per hour. My goal is to assemble at least X widgets per hour. If I achieve that goal, I am virtually guaranteed gainful employment so long as widgets need assembling.
The output of blue collar work is tangible. If we need 10,000 widgets, we know they will take 500 man-hours to assemble. Whether or not those widgets will be sold or not is something the widget-assembler can do absolutely nothing about, and so he doesn't have to worry about it. If he reaches his quota on time, the widget-assembler can go home happy.
White collar work is a lot fuzzier. While many businesses create KPIs, achieving a KPI target does not mean that your business will be successful -- your business is to make the company money, and no amount of waving your KPI history in front of management will help if you still use frames on your company website because there was no KPI to tell you to change it.
As a blue collar employee, because your work is so closely tied to the amount of time you work, your work is the hours you get paid for. There tends to be less unpaid overtime, or unrealistic expectations of output. When you are off the clock, you are off the clock, and don't have to worry about your progress meeting the next week with your department manager. Either you made your 20 widgets per hour or you didn't, and there isn't much sense of wasting time worrying about it.
White collar jobs are generally salaried, and no amount of waving a contract saying, "But my hours are 9-5!" will help if you end up missing a deadline and losing out on a significant contract for your company. Creative work does not scale directly with hours, and you could spend 18-hour days looking for a way to solve a business problem and never come across it, or you could take off from work early to pick up your kid and have it come to you while waiting in front of his school in a stroke of insight.
Because your brain is always on, white collar work has a higher potential to seep outside of work hours and make it more difficult to take your work in stride.
Note: this is not to say that blue collar workers don't think, and the best workers of all walks of life do think quite a bit, but thinking about a concrete goal vs. an abstract goal are two very different things
With clear goals, and output tied to time worked, there are a lot less politics in blue collar jobs. If something doesn't get done properly, since the goals are clear, and the amount of hours put in are clear, it is far easier to point a finger, and far harder to dodge blame.
White collar jobs are fuzzy, and aren't related to time work, so it is insanely easy to point fingers when something goes wrong. Even if everything is going right, there will be people who don't actually do any work, but coast along on the power of their personality, taking credit for other people's success, and/or turning a non-event in to a major victory because nobody really knows what contributes to business success anyway.
Putting it Together
If you're with a group of people who know the goals, know how long they will be there, and know they will be held responsible if they don't get the job done, you want to make it as easy for everyone else to get their job done as possible. Ever done something tedious like stuffing envelopes, or painting a house? So much of it is mindless muscle memory that you end up joking around with the people around you to make the task more enjoyable.
For white collar offices, I have found success with the following:
- Make sure people know what their job is
- Make sure people have some slack in their schedules
- Be friendly
The offices I have been happiest in are the ones where I am in front of customers. When you are directly reminded of what you are working for, it is much easier to focus on a tangible goal (giving them value). I have generally found that the more a white collar person is around customers, the more relaxed they end up being because they are confident in what they need to do to achieve the company's goals.
Constantly being busy is a bad thing. If people are overworked, minor irritations cause people to overreact, pleasantries become a luxury that can't be afforded, and someone making a small mistake that impacts your work becomes a Serious Problem™ that can cause ripples of discontent through the office. Making sure there are enough people to do the job, and that people have some free time to let them breathe goes a long way to making people more pleasant.
But the number one thing that makes a workplace more jovial is being friendly yourself. My last job was in a Very Serious Company™ that tended to discourage smiling, laughter, or fun in the office (save it for after hours, folks). I'm a generally fun person (I'd like to think) but I'd found myself taking on the dour personality I had been acclimated to. When I switched jobs I told myself I would make an effort to be the fun guy to prevent the office from being the same sort of dour.
After joining my current team, conversation increased many-fold, people joked around, had friendly competitions, and people actually voluntarily associated in their free time. Coworkers got to know each other's families, and when we came across something that would have made us irritated at work, we'd show it to our teammates and laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation rather than getting upset.
Offices are living breathing entities, but we can affect them. So long as people know what they need to do, have time to do it, and are surrounded by people they like, you can make it a more pleasant place to be.