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.

Body language in the workplace

Recently, a client asked me to create a workshop on body language awareness as part of a wider ‘diversity and inclusion’ initiative. The idea was that making people more aware of each other’s non-verbal signals would help to promote respect in the workplace. At first I wasn’t sure if I was the right person, but the client convinced me: “Start with the body language stuff you do in your communication coaching and take it from there – you just need to get people talking.”

Having now run dozens of these workshops in a culturally diverse, UK based organisation, I’ve gained some fascinating insights into the etiquette of the modern workplace. The feedback has at times been humbling, like the self-confessed cynic who said, “I only came along because I had to, but actually this was the most valuable session I’ve attended in years.”

So what have I learned? In the absence of any defined rules of engagement, there is clearly a lot of confusion about non-verbal communication at work. At different extremes, some people are totally unaware of how their behaviour could cause offence, while others are so frightened of getting it wrong they avoid personal contact wherever possible. In today’s diverse workplaces, colleagues are increasingly confused about how to relate to each other.

Take for example something as simple as a standard business greeting. As part of the workshop, I ask everyone to greet each other with a handshake. Then we discuss the experience. As you would expect, people talk about firmness of grip and whether or not someone looks you in the eye when shaking your hand. But what happens when men and women greet each other? From a cultural point of view, some colleagues will not want to shake hands with a member of the opposite sex for religious reasons (e.g. Orthodox Jews, Muslims). It is important to be aware of this to avoid potential embarrassment; a handshake should never be forced. Yet cultural differences aside, some men when shaking a woman’s hand will opt for a brief grasp of the fingers, as if they are about to go down on one knee in a chivalric bow.

Why does this happen? The men who did this told me that it was because they felt that ‘women’s hands are more delicate’. So I would then ask the women how they wanted men to shake their hands. Invariably the answer was in the same way as a man – properly but without excessive force. Interestingly, some women said they often avoided shaking another woman’s hand because it did not feel ‘natural’ to do so. Unless they know the other woman well, they would usually avoid physical contact and simply greet each other with a smile and a nod. In some cases, this has resulted in women course participants resolving that in future, they would make a point of shaking hands with other women.

Eye contact is another fascinating subject. The Western cultural norm is to look at someone when you are listening to them. Yet there are many parts of the world e.g. parts of Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, where it is considered disrespectful to do so, particularly when listening to an elder. One participant who was brought up in Nigeria described having been severely reprimanded by his grandfather for exactly this reason. Yet when he came to the UK, he realized that his ‘respectful’ avoidance of eye contact was not helping him in job interviews. Getting people to share their personal experiences in this way has led to many ‘light bulb’ moments.

By far the best experiences have been running the workshop on location for a whole team. Managers have told me that experiencing the workshop together was a bonding experience that enabled team members to discuss office behavior in a non-threatening way, when previously it had been in the ‘too difficult’ category. For example, it enabled a manager to talk to a team member about their habit of getting too close to people and why some people found this invasive of their personal space. (It turned out that the ‘space invader’ in question had hearing difficulties.) I’ve even been asked to run follow up sessions so that the people who missed the original training didn’t feel left out. How often does that happen for workplace training?

Searching for the meaning of life with Alain de Botton

This post originally appeared as a ‘Live Blog Postcard from the Beach’ in my role as ‘beach writer’ at the Purple Beach Experience 2015.

What is the point of culture? asks philosopher and author Alain de Botton. Alain unapologetically offers a utilitarian solution: the human soul is in trouble and art should offer us therapy. This is a theme that he argued in his book, ‘How Proust can change your life’.

When role models and supermodels like Miranda Kerr say they have found solace in eastern philosophy, Alain thinks this is because western thinkers have let us down, by failing to demonstrate a purpose for the arts in society. In fact Philosophy offers answers to our personal fears and crises. Take the idea of success. Our society places huge value on material prosperity as an indicator of how well we are doing. For many people in the west, their greatest fears are humiliation and poverty. This is exacerbated by mass media that delights in stories of failure. But the idea of success is ‘amenable to tweaking’. What if success was defined differently?

Alain thinks the solution to our fears is to work towards a more sympathetic society where we all understand how easy it is to ‘stuff up’; a world where we recognise that our mental health is very fragile and we are all ‘one blood clot away’ from the end of life.

When it comes to existential questions such as ‘the meaning of life’, Alain suggests that the ultimate goal of life is fulfilment and a sense of serving others. When jobs become meaningless, it is often because they have become disconnected from how we serve other people and why it matters.

The difficulty is getting such wisdom to ‘stick’. Hollywood films with mega-million budgets can move us for a couple of hours, but the next day, the effect has gone. Similarly, Alain suggests that companies who want to inculcate ‘values’ should learn from the great religions that used music, poetry, beautiful images, special places and above all, endless repetition from birth to death to establish their value systems.

Alain believes that every human fear presents a business opportunity. For example, Facebook has established a global empire by offering a sense of community to those who fear loneliness. In this era where so many people are searching for meaning, there is so much more to do, so many opportunities to address people’s fears in fulfilling ways.

See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2015Postcards/viewBlog/5/Searching-for-the-meaning-of-life-with-Alain-de-Botton#sthash.wvna3gHY.dpuf

What can we learn from pirates about being more creative?

This post first appeared as a postcard in my role as beach writer at PurpleBeach.com

What can we learn from the golden age of piracy? That was the question posed by Kyra Maya Phillips, co-author of ‘The Misfit Economy’. Sadly, Kyra began by debunking the myth that pirates spent their time making people walk the plank in shark infested seas, had peg legs and said things like, ‘Aye,Aye me hearties’. Instead, pirates were early adopters of hierarchy-free enterprise. All crew members received an equal share in the booty, except for the Captain who rarely got more than a double share. Compare that to modern CEOs!

The quartermaster, responsible for dividing the booty,was also the main recruiting officer. According to Kyra, many merchant sailors who had been press ganged into joining the navy, hoped to be raided by pirates as their only chance to escape the tyranny of their own ship captains. No wonder the punishment for piracy was death by hanging!

Despite pirate crew members’ reputation for being ‘mad, drunk and illiterate’, they were still able to pioneer democratic models of working, based on shared values and common purpose. There is also evidence of early pirate social protection schemes involving compensation for injuries and payments made to their widows.

While not condoning the illegal activities of pirates, or their modern day equivalents (hackers, counterfeiters,etc.) Kyra suggests there is much we can learn from how they organised themselves, giving the example of small gaming companies with ‘no management’ philosophies, who encourage team members to collaborate and innovate spontaneously. It may not work for large organisations, but if you want to make your team more creative, think how they can be a little more swashbuckling!

See more at: http://www.purplebeach.com/pBexp2014Postcards/viewBlog/3/What-can-we-learn-from-pirates-about-being-more-creative?#sthash.EhG0fLK7.dpuf

Multi-tasking or just bad manners?

Call me old fashioned but I was taught at school that it was polite, when someone is talking, at least to look as though you’re paying attention. Recently I attended an external breakfast event where I could barely hear the speaker because of the person next to me loudly tapping on her Blackberry. And no, she wasn’t tweeting the speaker’s smart ideas, she was dealing with work e-mail (I confess I had a  crafty peep – lack of data security being one good reason not to e-mail in public).

My neighbour on the other side, meanwhile, was distracting me visually with his astounding ipad dexterity, surely destined to be an Olympic support for the couch surfing generation. He was locked in digital warp drive, hypersurfing profile searches on the speaker, checking out her company website, twitter feed, facebook account. Everything short of actually listening to what she was saying.

I know that our digital economy supposedly makes us all more productive. But really, much of this so-called multi-tasking is simply bad manners. You could call it making a virtue out of attention deficit syndrome. While I recognise that many people now use their tablet devices for note taking, there’s a crucial difference when compared with a traditional  notepad and pencil. Touchpad typing for most people means that you’ve lost eye contact with your speaker. And when that happens, you’re not really listening.

When  I started my career, (not that long ago I hasten to add), going on a business trip often meant being out of contact with the office for days on end. Meanwhile back at the ranch, correspondence stacked up in your office intray. I remember returning to my hotel room at night to find handwritten notes slipped under the door by the hotel concierge, asking me to call my boss in the morning. Seems like a lifetime ago now. But just because we have the ability to  be always contactable does that mean we have to use it?

I believe that digital technology has  damaged our ability to be accountable for how we use our time. No one can criticise you for spending a day taking part in an external meeting, if you use technology to do exactly what you would have done at your home base. How many readers have experienced the craziness of travelling to somewhere in a different timezone, only to find yourself spending half your day in conference calls with your home base and half the night catching up with email? Oh, for the old note under the door from the concierge.

While the principle that no-one is indispensable is as true today as it ever was, some managers try to create a cult of indispensability by being virtually present even when physically absent. Yet how do other members of the team learn how to deputise if the boss is ‘always on’?  In reality, digitally omnipresent bosses disempower their teams.

So do all our digital aids promote increased productivity or do they encourage poor decision making and a fast track to burnout? Only time will tell for the always on generation. My final message for my frenetic friends from the breakfast meeting: ‘stop tapping and listen, you might actually learn something.’

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?

When did you last get a good night’s sleep?

When did you last get a good night’s sleep? Insomnia is a disease for our times, exacerbated by our increasingly stressful, ‘always-on’ digital lifestyles. Researchers have identified sleep deprivation as a major cause of lost productivity, costing an estimated $2K per employee annually (Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine: Jan 2010). It’s also a major cause of workplace accidents with recent studies revealing that losing 1.5 hours sleep a night can reduce daytime alertness by 32%. That adds up to a lot of accidents. Drowsy drivers are as dangerous as drunken drivers and US accident statistics (100,000 crashes a year caused by driver fatigue) are enough to make you want to stay off the road for life.

For parents of young children, feeling TATT (tired all the time) becomes a way of life. As Boy George put it in his classic song, Karma chameleon, (though for different reasons) ‘everyday is like survival’. The worst fatigue I’ve ever experienced was after my third child was born. Five plus years of interrupted sleep can turn anyone into a raging zombie. Trying to hold down a stressful job at the same time takes its toll on your health and wellbeing. In those days, staying in a hotel room on a work trip was the greatest luxury imaginable, until I’d return home to face my wife after she’d suffered a sleepless night of coping on her own and then it would be my turn to go without sleep again.

In global companies, jet lag is a major occupational hazard. I remember once being in an important meeting with two colleagues who were both totally time zoned out, rambling incoherently like a pair of punch drunk boxers and incapable of a sensible thought between them. One of my colleagues stood up from the table, leant his forehead against the cool wall and promptly fell asleep while standing on his feet.

Some social commentators describe sleep as ‘the new sex’. I think many people will relate to this concept. What does it mean for forward thinking employers? Will we see offices with sleep cubicles, or perhaps dormitories, for people to take forty winks during the working day? I’d be interested to know of any companies that already do this. In my experience, any sensible manager knows when to send an employee home, but few managers will go home themselves when they’re too tired to make any sense.

Post script
Since writing this article, I stumbled across an interesting article in Bloomberg’s Business Week magazine about US companies such as Nike and Google that have already installed ‘napping rooms’ in their offices. Meanwhile, Manhattan based companies can now ‘outsource sleep’ to daytime ‘napping spas’ such as Yello. It also introduced me to the concept of a ‘napping chair’ called an EnergyPod, that can be rented for a mere $795 per month!

 

Make your facilities manager your new best friend

News that Amazon is looking for a new London base has prompted speculation about where they could find offices big enough for their needs, which at 750,000 sq ft, is the largest the capital has seen for 2 years. It raises an interesting question about how much space per employee you need to make a successful work environment. In recent years, the average employee work area in London has fallen from 190 sq ft to 120 sq ft. But does anyone need that much space if increasingly, many of us work quite happily at home with a macbook, a mobile phone and a beanbag?

As prime London commercial rents push £40 a sq ft, most companies are having to take a serious look at how they use space. So many office environments are crammed full of depressingly drab furniture: cupboards and pedestals that store little more than an employee’s food stash and malodorous gym kit;  wall cabinets chock full of out-of-date publications that no-one can be bothered to archive or shred. Even desks are becoming redundant as desktops give way to laptops and desk phones are replaced by smartphones; punching a telephone number into a keypad now seems like so much effort.

Interestingly, the UK legal minimum for office space is a mere 40 square foot per person, which, depending on ceiling height, seems barely enough room to swing a cat. But with more companies adopting enlightened attitudes towards flexible working and hot-desking, 60-80 sq ft per person will become increasingly achievable. Provided that companies think creatively about their environment, this does not need not be at the expense of employee engagement.  Getting rid of all the hideous grey furniture is an opportunity to open up the environment to creative meeting areas and quiet zones with the kind of furniture that people would choose to have in their own homes.

In creating inspirational office spaces for tomorrow’s employees, facilities management and employee engagement professionals should be each other’s new best friends, for the benefit of both employees and shareholders.