Connecting with people ignites opportunities for success

Annemie Ress talks to Peter Vogt

This post was originally written as a ‘live blog postcard from the beach’ in my role as beach writer at The Purple Beach Experience 2016.

We can do powerful things when we open up to new insights from employees, said Peter Vogt, leading employee engagement expert and “the guy who invented employee brand” in an interview with Annemie Ress at the Purple Beach Experience.

Peter described his work as helping companies become better places to work, where people feel valued and respected. As a result, employees become more connected to customers and want to create better communities. Pete is also “super big open” about being gay and has done a lot of work to help companies “go on that journey” to become more open and diverse employers, particularly in supporting their LGBT employees. He believes it is vital to build empathy in workplaces for people who think differently.

Peter gave the example of the US company Avon in the 1970s, who began hiring black Avon Ladies to help them sell their products to the African American community. But it was only when Avon listened to their new employees that they started to make any progress. They learned that their existing products simply did not work on black skins and so they needed to create a new product range. This is a great example of the power of empathy and why we need to talk to our own people, because they have the solutions.

When he worked at Visa, Peter introduced a reverse mentoring programme called ‘The Exchange’ to help break down unconscious bias. The idea was to get people from different minority groups and millennials to mentor senior executives about their lifestyles and communities. According to Peter, the benefit of such a programme goes beyond inclusivity, it is about ignition – when we gain new insights from truly connecting with others, it can ignite new opportunities for success.

In the new world of work, ‘EQ’ – emotional intelligence – is outstripping IQ in setting companies for success, a change that seems to favour women over men. In Silicon Valley, companies will increasingly test potential recruits for EQ. The strong message is “you may be smart, but if you’re an asshole, we don’t want to hire you.”

At the same time, Peter cautions that many companies fail by hiring great diverse talent, but without the systems, environment and mentoring to receive them. Peter’s advice is to ‘get your house in order’ and ‘work on inclusion before you try to sell it.’  It is no good thinking you can simply bring in a lot of diverse people and assume this will fix the problem. Creating a diverse organisation needs a thoughtful, systematic approach and that times time and energy. It needs companies to build more conversation and community.  Inevitably, many organisations will be left behind because they lack the courage and the will to do this.

When Words Fail, Try Experiences

This blog post was first published on the Octopus HR website

Insights come in strange places. For me last summer, it was while trying to steer a narrowboat on the Avon & Kennet canal. We’d gone on holiday with another family and our children (six in total) couldn’t be persuaded that larking about on the roof wasn’t safe, even if the boat was only cruising at 3 mph. All the usual threats to switch off the Wi-Fi or unplug the TV somehow lacked credibility in the heart of the countryside, when even the adults were complaining about lack of phone signal. Tempers became frayed.

Then my wife wryly suggested I use my ‘professional expertise’ as a communicator. And so, from the edge of breakdown came a breakthrough. We invited each child to take a turn at steering the boat, under close adult supervision. With their own sweaty mitts on the tiller, they finally realised how stressful it is to navigate around trees and bridges when someone is blocking your vision and you’re worried they’re going to end up overboard.

The insight, of course, is blindingly obvious: sometimes you can’t tell people, they have to experience it for themselves. Yet how often do we need to remind ourselves of this simple truth?

In their excellent book, “Influencer – the power to change anything”, the authors (Patterson, Grenny, Maxfield, McMillan, Switzler) tell the story of a US manufacturing company under threat from Japanese competitors, whose productivity levels were 40% higher. To stay in business, they had to make some urgent changes. If their employees wanted to keep their jobs, they were going to have to work a lot harder. But somehow, the management couldn’t get their message across, because the workforce mistrusted their motives. Then they hit on the idea of sending a team of employees on a fact finding tour to Japan. It did the trick. When they returned home and told their co-workers how much harder and faster their Japanese counterparts were working, they accepted that change had to happen.

Another powerful example is the Exchanging Places scheme run by the Metropolitan Police Cycle Task Force that gets cyclists to sit in a lorry driver’s cabin. Once you’ve seen for yourself the size of the blind spot for a left turning lorry, you will never again attempt to undertake a lorry on a bicycle. I only wish we could make every cyclist experience this for themselves.

Thinking about your employee engagement challenges, what kind of experiences could you create to promote the changes you are seeking? For example, if you want your team to become more customer centric, could you send them on mystery shopping exercises, or have them sit behind a one way mirror during a customer focus group? If you want your team to be more creative or innovative, how about taking them on a team building exercise where they experience what it’s like to create something together – and discover for themselves how fantastic that can feel?

My all time favourite team building exercise was an Advertising Sales Director who wanted his team to feel like superstars. So for a team experience, they recorded a pop promo video. Everyone had their hair and make up done, they dressed in wild, spangly clothes and danced around like loons, lip synching to the words of a cheesy pop song. Not only was it brilliant fun, the experience transformed team morale. It still makes me laugh and I watch it whenever I need an injection of enthusiasm!

Work shouldn’t be this fun

This week I co-facilitated a leadership development event where the team building exercise was a scavenger hunt, designed in homage to a well known property trading game. The ‘out of the box’ activity from the team at Trainers Kitbag, involved dashing around London, on foot or by public transport, hunting for clues and completing quests. My role was to facilitate and observe the team’s behaviour (more on this later.)

It turned out to be a very fun day, if slightly knackering. The challenges presented just the right level of novelty and stretch. Though as you would expect, perceptions of difficulty differed from one participant to another. When one person says, ‘oh no, that’s impossible’, another says, ‘great, when can we start?’.

Within the freedom of an exercise, I found it fascinating to hear people voice their reactions openly. So often we assume that everyone is equally energised by a task, particularly in environments where the naysayers have learned to keep their doubts under wraps. A great example of this was the challenge at Oxford Street to learn from passing tourists how to say “I love you” in 6 different languages. Even the biggest doubter had to admit it was pretty amazing that within 15 minutes, the team had learned the phrase in Bangla, Hindi, Korean, Creole, Hebrew and a Zimbabwean clicking dialect. In how many cities could that happen? It was so much fun that the team didn’t mind too much when I revealed that the Oxford Street property had already been claimed by a competing team 3 hours ago. Yet earlier in the day, when they learned, after a much easier task, that another team had pipped them to the prize, it was like a collective punch in the solar plexus. Even though they’d not completed the ‘I love you’ challenge first, the experience had lifted their spirits and given them a sense of what they could achieve as a team.

Another enjoyable aspect was how willing Londoners are these days to get involved in other people’s silly challenges. Armed policemen guarding embassies were delighted to pose smiling in a group photo. Chauffeurs outside a Park Lane hotel competed to have the team climb inside their limousine. In how many countries would that happen?

So what was the point of all this, I hear you ask? For a day ostensibly spent in frivolous pursuits, it was rich in learning. During the post session debrief, we shared some powerful feedback and insights:
– Teambuilding: my team hurled themselves into the challenge without spending any time bonding or learning about each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They didn’t even share mobile numbers and as a result, almost lost each other in the lunch break!
– Leadership: even though this was a leadership development programme, they didn’t think to elect a leader or decide how to make decisions. As a result, they trusted to an organic ‘group mind’ and drifted along without any strategy or game plan
– Asking permission vs. seeking forgiveness: when given a tricky task that obviously required an element of blagging, some team members couldn’t think beyond finding a person in authority and asking for permission. When this approach failed, inevitably, they were happy to move on, safe in the knowledge that their failure had an ‘audit trail’.

Suffice to say, my team came last, but I like to think that in the real game, they gained the most learning. It was fascinating that while the team members recognised their omissions, it was all stuff they knew already. So what stopped them from using their leadership skillsets? The simple answer is this: when put under pressure without a clear structure, people are inclined to forget what they know and take the path of least resistance. They know that this strategy is unlikely to be successful, but they plod on in the hope that everything will turn out for the best.

If you work in the field of organisational effectiveness or employee engagement, you will no doubt take heart from this. No matter how successful the organisation, your skills will always be in demand – if only to remind people of the stuff they already know!

Who do you get to challenge you?

When I started my career in the mid 80s with Bain & Company, in those days known as ‘the KGB of management consultancies’, a favourite mantra was “don’t bring me problems, bring me solutions”.  I’ve often reflected since then how dangerous it can be to promote a culture of relentless positivism at the expense of openness. How many times have we all witnessed slow motion corporate train crashes – accidents that could have been avoided if only people had the courage to speak out without fear of being branded a ‘negative thinker’.

At the recent, excellent ‘PurpleBeach‘ launch event, I was fascinated to hear Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness talk about how we deal with situations at work where everyone can see the problem, but no one does anything about it. This was the ‘postcard’ that I wrote from the beach:

Margaret Heffernan tells a story about Dr Alice Stewart, an Oxford based epidemiologist who in the 1950s, conducted research into the causes of childhood cancer. Dr Stewart had asked herself why, contrary to most trends, the disease was more prevalent amongst children of affluent families. By extensive statistical analysis, she found that by a factor of 3:1, the children’s mothers were more likely to have had an X-ray during pregnancy. Yet although Dr Stewart published her findings immediately, it took 25 years for the practice to be banned in the UK.

The problem was not that Dr Stewart was a woman, nor that she was a ‘difficult person’. Indeed, a research project at the Harvard School of health found similar results but still took 26 years to change the practice in the US.

What enabled Dr Stewart to keep fighting for 25 years? In Margaret’s telling of the story, the answer lies in her collaboration with George Kneale, a somewhat ‘nerdy’ and nocturnal statistician. Kneale declared it his job to prove Dr Stewart wrong. If he could not, he declared, it would give Dr Stewart the confidence to keep on fighting. And the outcome was that he couldn’t prove her wrong and she did keep on fighting.

As Margaret explains, the story is a fantastic example of “thinking partners who work not as echo chambers but as challengers of orthodoxy.” Her question to the audience was simple: , “Do you have someone who challenges everything you do because they want you to do your best work?”

How does this translate into how people behave in the workplace? Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin in their seminal 2003 study into organisational science at NYU* asked execs if they had issues and concerns at work that they don’t voice. An incredible 85% said they did. “That’s a lot of silence,” says Margaret. Fear of retribution was a key factor. In a similar study in Europe, the silence was explained by a sense of futility that nothing will change as a result. How many times have we all heard a similar message from employees when they complete the annual survey?

Margaret shares an illustrative story of an executive in medical equipment company who worried that a device they were due to launch was not safe. When he finally raised his concerns, it turned out that everyone else had the same thought.

The challenge we all face, says Margaret, is to create noisier workplaces, where people are not afraid to raise issues because it could lead to conflict. Without conflict, there is no thought and without thought, no progress. She argues that executives need to be trained to initiate conflict in a way that does not frighten others and that organisations must celebrate the people who are prepared to do this.

In today’s volatile economic climate, the problem is even more acute. High levels of executive unemployment and high mortgages lead to “obedient workforces” and that spells trouble ahead for businesses.

Meanwhile, for individuals, who fear the personal consequences of speaking out, Margaret has some sage advice. Save up some “running away money” . You never know when you will need it!

*An exploratory study of employee silence: issues that employees don’t communicate upward and why – Milliken, Morrison & Hewlin



Does your business have a great birth story?

Having a great ‘birth story’ is a powerful engagement tool for customers and employees alike. When I worked at eBay Europe, we always loved to tell the story of how Pierre Omidyar invented the concept of online auction by accident. The first item he advertised for sale was a broken laser pointer and he was amazed that anyone wanted to buy it. Soon, other people were contacting him with goods that they wanted to sell online. Within a year, Omidyar was so overwhelmed with demand that he had to give up the day job to manage it. Stories like this are like gold dust. When you work for a company like eBay, you quickly discover the enthusiasm and passion that customers have for the product. Everywhere you go, you meet people who want to share their own eBay stories with you. It can be a humbling experience.

Last week, I had a similar feeling when I listened to Taavet Hinrikus, Skype’s employee number 1, talk about the birth of his latest business. Transfer Wise, a peer to peer fx company, was inspired by his frustration at getting ripped off by banks every time he transferred money from London back to Estonia. Here is an article that I wrote about his story for the PurpleBeach website.

Why not change money with common people like you?

Taavet Hinrikus couldn’t work it out. Every time he transferred money from Sterling into euros, some 3-4% went missing for no good reason. As Taavet explains it, sending money is about as technically complicated as sending an e-mail, so why do banks take such a huge cut?  In airports, you can lose up to 15% of the value of the exchanged. Even when banks advertise zero commission rate, it’s usually only to disguise the fact that they offer a ridiculous exchange rate. He concluded that the whole fx business was simply ‘a racket.’

Then Taavet had an idea. While he needed to transfer Sterling to euros, a friend had to transfer euros to Sterling. So they agreed to put the money in each other’s bank accounts at the published exchange rate without any commissions. With this simple wheeze, the two friends cut out the middle man, saved a bunch of money and a business idea was born.

You’ve heard before of garage businesses? ‘Transfer Wise’ was cooked up in a kitchen. It offers the opportunity to ‘change money with common people like you,’ (a tribute, no doubt, to the classic Pulp song sung by Jarvis Cocker.)

So far, Transfer Wise has transferred £100m and the amount of transfers has doubled in last 4 months. They exchange 8 currencies and soon will be add a further 10-15. All the growth has come from personal recommendation.

The initial charge of £1 per transaction was, according to Taavet, ‘great marketing, but a bad business plan.’ They have since introduced a charging system of £1 on exchanges up to £200 and 0.5% charge on amounts above that. Taavet contrasts the high fees of banks with the Transfer Wise mindset of ‘how little can we charge to build a global business.

According to Taavet, there is a huge potential market for peer2peer fx, with 200M people worldwide who live, work or study abroad. Taavet says, “Our enemy is the banks. Our target is the 99% of people who go to banks and get ripped off everyday.”


What Benny and Bjorn could teach us all about communication

For a long time I’ve thought that ABBA songs should carry a Government health warning. On more than one occasion, I’ve had the song ‘Mamma Mia’ stuck in my brain, infiltrating every quiet, reflective moment of the day. Recently  I learned that this is a neurological phenomenon known as an ear worm, (from the German Ohrwurm.)  For me it is the words, “Mamma mia, here I go again, My my, how can I resist you?” that always seem to get ‘stuck’, like some nightmare hallucination. Both the gratuitous use of the expression ‘Mamma mia’ (what does that possibly mean – is this person in love with their mother?) and the taunting use of the expression ‘how can I resist you’ seem to get me every time.

I should have known better, but on holiday last week, I agreed in a moment of weakness to watch the film version of ‘Mamma Mia’. By such small acts of self sacrifice, I sometimes attempt to ingratiate myself with my family in the hope that it will make me a better spouse and parent. I even agreed to watch the karaoke version and happily growled along under my breath to the irritatingly familiar tunes. But I was still taken unawares by a new aural invader. This time it was the song, ‘Does your mother know’, sung by the long limbed, Christine Baranski, Donna’s ‘other bandmate’ as she cavorts with a half naked man, half her age. The lyrics “Well I can dance with you honey, If you think it’s funny,” have taken hold and a week later, are proving impossible to shift.

Trying as always to find the positive from such experiences, it has struck me that Abba songwriters Benny and Bjorn could teach a masterclass in how to make communications stick. What is even more incredible is that they were not writing lyrics in their native language and neither could notate music, but relied upon Agnetha and Frida to interpret the melodies. Imagine if we could use some of their combined skills to communicate with our customers and employers?

In ABBA Let The Music Speak, musicologist Christopher Patrick analysed every single phrase of every Abba song, concluding that they were ‘musical economists’ of the highest order, using a simple ‘power of three’ do-re-mi structure to embed the hook lines in the listener’s brains.  Elsewhere, other commentators describe how the catchiness of their songs derives from having up to five of these hook lines, or from the sheer outrageous improbability of their rhymes, or from the number of times that the chorus is repeated, or from the fact that their songs describe simple, memorable stories and familiar human emotions like regret and unrequited love.

Neil McCormick in his hilariously scathing article about his hatred of Abba, described their ‘musical range that goes all the way from A to B and back again.’ But when it comes to communicating ideas, there’s nothing wrong with keeping it simple. In their book ‘Made to Stick:Why Some Ideas Survive and others die”, brothers Chip and Dan Heath described the characteristics of a sticky idea (as popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in ‘The Tipping Point’) with an annoying incomplete acronym SUCCES, which stands for:

  • Simple
  • Unexpected
  • Concrete
  • Credible
  • Emotional
  • Stories

I have to say that the ABBA songwriting team most certainly got their first, even if they discovered the technique by accident. As for what it all means for employee engagement, I have to reflect that there are many times when we could all try harder to emulate the standards of Benny and Bjorn, who by all accounts, worked hard to craft their hits.

While we are fond of asking employees whether they understand the strategy of the business, we are less keen on asking them what they can actually tell us about the strategy without being prompted. Could we try harder to help people attach strategic ideas to the velcro of their memory?  Here’s a good test. Ask yourself how many of your own communications you can remember a year after you’ve written them?  If the answer is less than 5, can I recommend that you spend an hour or two listening to ABBA’s greatest hits for some inspiration?

That joke isn’t funny anymore (in fact it never was)

Ricky Gervais knew what he was doing when he created the character of David Brent in The Office as both a manager and a wannabe comedian, not always in that order. Over the years, I’ve worked with many senior managers who felt they had a talent for humour, who saw themselves as being basically ‘a pretty funny kind of guy’. Often this ‘talent’ emerged alongside their professional success. Rather than having been the funny kid in the classroom, (a time when the individual was probably considered slightly earnest and serious), their sense of humour surfaced as they found themselves managing increasingly large teams and needing to address even larger audiences. I use the phrase ‘funny guy’ advisedly, because these senior managers with comedic ambitions are usually men. By contrast, I’ve met very few female senior managers who wanted to be thought of as ‘funny’. In my experience, women tend to be wary of anything that prevents them from being taken seriously.

The sad fact of course is that funny senior managers are rarely very funny. But who will tell them? As the meeting rooms and conference venues echo with the sound of obsequious laughter, who is brave enough to say that the Emperor has no clothes? That his punchlines have no punch, that his gags make us gag? Easier just to laugh along with a big, shit-eating smile on your face.

So why do so many male senior managers want to be funny?  Does it stem from a desire to be popular, which in turn perhaps derives from a basic insecurity?  Does it relate to the same inner compulsions that drive certain people to the top of their organisations, while other (less funny) people are happy to stay in the audience?  I’m not qualified to judge on these matters, but I hope that some readers with a background in psychology will possibly feel inspired to offer their opinions in the comments section below!

As a communications consultant, my standard advice to any leader who wants to tell jokes is to avoid the urge. Simply, there is no upside. If people laugh at your jokes, it’s because of who you are, rather than the intrinsic value of your material. If they fail to laugh, it will throw you off balance and you may struggle to regain it. So many times, I’ve seen leaders panic when their audience misses a laughter cue, to the detriment of their communication. Instead of focusing on the key messages they need to land, they start to chase the laughs with increasing desperation. I cringe just thinking about it.

What’s the solution for a leader who wants to engage with his employees? It’s simple. Leave comedy to the professional comedians and focus on being yourself. You don’t need people to think you are funny, but you do want people to see that you are a real human being who can demonstrate human warmth. Tell stories that provide insights into why you think the way you do. Chances are they will like you for it and even if they don’t, they will appreciate your honesty. If people are moved to laughter, it is far more likely to be genuine.

As a postscript to this article, I remember a senior leader who thought of himself as a pretty funny kind of guy, whose team would laugh along uproariously at his sparkling wit. Then he lost his job and suddenly he wasn’t funny anymore. I can remember wondering what hit him hardest – no longer being top dog or having no one to laugh at his jokes? Sadly, I lost touch, so I never got to find out whether he rediscovered his comedic talent when he found a new job and a new audience elsewhere!

When employee retention becomes employee detention

When you interpret your company’s employee survey data, which social demographic do you normally find has the strongest correlation with employee engagement? In my experience, the strongest correlation tends to be length of service. Unfortunately, it’s usually a negative relationship. That’s right – often the longer employees have worked for your company, the more likely they are to feel disengaged. Why should that be?

No-one is surprised to discover that recent joiners are the most enthusiastic and tend to remain highly engaged at least for their first 2-3 years of employment. You’d expect that to be the case and if the reverse was true, you’d want to take a serious look at your recruitment policy and induction, as well as the competence of your managers. But once employees get to around 6-8 years+ service, disillusionment starts to set in.

By the time employees get to 10+years experience, your sample tends to polarise radically. At one extreme, you have the minority who’ve made it to the top of the pyramid. Such employees should be highly engaged, although as we know, senior managers can be your toughest internal customers due to their very high expectations. At the other end of the spectrum are long serving employees who haven’t made it to the top, but unlike those who exited the business when passed over for promotion, these are the ones who decided to stay put for whatever reason.

Of course, not everyone wants to rise to the top of their organisation, which is just as well; the simple laws of geometry dictate that in career terms, most people stay nearer the base of the pyramid. Employers have to find other means to recognise the contribution that loyal employees make to the success of the organisation beyond promotion and salary increase. That’s where it gets hard. There are only so many sideways moves that employees will accept before frustration sets in. Another solution is to give employees ‘specialist practitioner’ status, in recognition of their depth of experience. But in reality, there are few roles where ten year’s experience is twice as valuable as five year’s experience. All too often, ten year’s experience amounts to one year’s experience repeated ten times.

It gets more difficult when length of service means that the employee benefits cease to be golden handcuffs and instead become a ball and chain. Many long serving employees can not hope to match their benefits in terms of pension (especially, in this day and age, if they are lucky enough to have a final salary pension) and accumulated holidays, even if they could match their salary and bonus elsewhere. Employee retention can easily become employee detention. In this situation, employees can only wait for retirement or redundancy, whichever comes first.

Having many employees in your organisation who are in this situation inevitably has a depressing effect on morale. It’s a scenario familiar to anyone who has tried to create an engagement culture in public sector organisations or former nationalised industries. In reality, no-one likes to feel trapped, but the logic of employee benefits that increase with service means that most employers perpetuate this cycle.

Perversely, when it comes to restructuring, organisations are often reluctant to make long serving employees redundant due to the high cost involved. Instead they will tend to offer voluntary redundancy to recent joiners, which in the long run is always a false economy. (A successful restructuring has to follow the logic of best person for the job, regardless of length of service.)

Is there an alternative to this gloomy scenario? Well of course there is. Leaders who truly ‘get’ employee engagement make all their employees feel valued and continually re-energised, including those who have been with the company the longest. They achieve that by making people feel valued and keeping them in touch with whatever it is that makes them get out of bed in the morning. Organisations who build such leaders are rewarded with employees who love their jobs, who look forward to being with their teammates and who never want to retire. By achieving the right balance of ‘give and get’, employers can reverse the tendency for long serving employees to become disengaged. The nirvana state is to have long serving employees who see it as a privilege to have a job they enjoy that also fits in with their life. In short, a long term employee retention strategy must focus on intrinsic benefits, because financial benefits alone are more likely to result in employee detention.

Adapting to flexible working

How well does your organisation manage flexible working? Does your strategy drive engagement by allowing employees to define their own work life balance? Or is it perceived as a sneaky way to cut costs while extending the effective working day to include all waking hours?

This week I took part in a workshop at Comma Partners on how virtual working and globalisation of business affects employee engagement. Michelle Pattison presented an absorbing case study about Unilever’s agile working strategy.

The Unilever approach aims to maximise flexibility and minimise constraints for the business by aligning the three key enablers of technology, workplaces and working practices. When it works, the benefits are diverse and transformational. As well as achieving cost savings on property, travel, and associated environmental benefits, agile working boosts capability by enabling global, virtual teams to collaborate effectively and increases resilience against business continuity risks. Agile working also promotes diversity, by enabling people to choose how they manage their work life balance and can be a powerful recruitment and retention tool – as demonstrated in this Unilever careers video.

During the discussion, a number of themes emerged for how to engage employees positively about adopting flexible work practices. Everyone agreed that getting leaders to ‘walk the talk’ is fundamental. It’s difficult to get employees to hot desk if their leaders retreat into private offices. Similarly, travel bans provoke resentment when leaders still choose to globe trot in the company jet.

Another major concern was how companies protect their employees from burnout. Hardworking, ambitious employees in highly competitive, global companies can easily find themselves working 12 hour days over an 18 hour window. Managers must be alert to their team members work patterns to guard against creeping workaholism.

For a communicator, flexible working has its own particular challenges. How can you engage people face to face when they rarely come into the office? This is a subject close to my own heart, having pioneered the use of video-conference technology as an engagement tool at eBay Europe with the innovative and award winning European Team Brief. In the same way that Saturday night TV has staged a comeback in the UK against an industry trend towards ‘on demand’ viewing, so communicators must stage ‘you just gotta be there’ experiences to bring employees together. It’s all about creating a buzz so that employees feel they’re missing out if they don’t get the live experience.

As a final point, I believe that virtual working is great for established teams, but you also need to consider how to build new teams and onboard new members. Working as a contractor, I rely upon being able to rapidly establish my internal network in order to become effective. Achieving that in an environment where people rarely visit the office becomes a big challenge. If you don’t thinks that’s a problem in your organisation, ask yourself when you last went into the office solely for an induction meeting with a recent joiner?

A mysterious package arrives

When our postman rang the doorbell, it wasn’t because he needed a signature for the package he was delivering. “I hope you don’t mind me asking,” he said slightly sheepishly, “but everyone at the sorting office is dying to know what’s in your parcel.”  When he handed over the bizarrely shaped package, I realised why it had attracted such curiosity for a team that every day handles thousands of rectangular, cuboid objects.

From his keen interest, I suspected that money might be riding on the outcome. “What’s the current favourite theory?”, I asked. “Well,” he said, stroking his chin, “Most people think it’s a garden rake or a kite, but I don’t think it’s either.”  “Both good guesses, but you’re right,” I replied, ripping open the package to reveal the pair of prawn nets that I’d bought on eBay as Christmas presents, ready for next season’s shrimping expeditions in Pembrokeshire. Our friendly postie was so delighted that he couldn’t get in his van quick enough to report back the news.

I was tickled by the idea of a team of sorters at the post office who brighten their working day by guessing the contents of packages, then sending someone on a heroic quest to discover the truth. How refreshing and inspiring also to come across a team that finds its own way to connect with its customers.

One of my observations about organisations is that no matter what else is going on in the business, good managers will always find creative ways to raise team morale. Walk around a call centre and look at what’s on the boards and walls. You can usually spot the highest performing teams, because they’ll be the ones who’ve created their own vibrant micro-culture based on the team’s personalities and targets.

It’s one of my fundamental beliefs that a sustainable  employee engagement strategy has to support and reinforce the positive relationships that already exist between managers and teams. Campaigns that attempt to reach employees directly, bypassing their managers, tend to be short-lived. Why is that?  Simply because real culture exists at the team level. Anyone who regularly reads pulse surveys will know that engaged employees usually give the highest rating to their immediate team. As employee engagement professionals, we need to work with that trend, not against it.