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.

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!


Mondayphobia is no irrational fear

My journey to work today was delayed by half an hour due to someone becoming seriously ill on the Jubilee underground line. I’ve no idea what happened to this unfortunate person  (in spite of my delayed journey, I genuinely wish them well!) but I found myself reflecting how often this happens on a Monday.

There is scientific evidence that we are at a 20% higher  risk of a heart attack on a Monday morning than any other day of the week.  Not only are mornings generally a bad time, due to high levels of the stress hormone cortisol, but also, as researchers at Tokyo Women’s Medical University discovered, our blood pressure and heart rate rises due to the stress of returning to work. This syndrome, similar to jet lag, has recently been termed as ‘social lag’ – the readjustment to early starts that we subject our bodies to every Monday after a weekend of late nights and lie-ins.

It’s no perhaps no surprise therefore that Monday is also the most popular day for employees to pull a sickie. According to research by Mercers, an astonishing 35% of all sick leave is taken on a Monday, compared to only 3% on a Friday.

In a separate  study by Mind, the UK mental health charity, researchers found that 25% of people say that their weekends are ruined by the thought of having to return to work on a Monday – a sobering thought for any employer or manager.

As someone who officially ‘likes Mondays’, I’m aware that I’m championing a counter-trend. Following the theme of my most recent blog post on health & safety, employee engagement professionals have a crucial role to play in helping people combat their mondayphobia. By helping create a great place to work for employees, we’re not only promoting the general happiness of mankind, we’re also saving lives into the bargain. Inspired by such a noble cause such, is it any wonder that I regularly skip off to work on a Monday morning?

When employee engagement saves lives

Some journalists, who do nothing more dangerous than plug in their laptops, like to poke fun at so-called ‘elf and safety’. Typical targets are schools that won’t let children play conkers or councils that ban bunting because of health and safety regulations. Yet in some business sectors such as construction, engineering or the extraction industries, engaging employees about safety issues can actually save lives.

According to the latest UK Health & Safety Executive (HSE) statistics, last year 173 people died in work-related accidents in the UK. Although the fatality rate has been steadily falling (20 years ago it was double this figure), we shouldn’t tolerate any level of death in the workplace.

Construction still accounts for more deaths than any other industry (again, see HSE report), last year there were 50 deaths in the UK. This amounts to 2.3 deaths per 100,000 construction workers. To quote the title of Rita Donaghy’s 2009 UK Government report into the underlying causes, ‘One death is too many’.

Reading such statistics always makes me shudder. Nearly thirty years ago as an undergraduate, I spent a summer vacation working on an office block building site in my home city of Manchester. In three months, I never saw a single person wear a safety helmet. The crane operator spent lunchtime in the pub and could barely walk in a straight line let alone drive a tower crane. The scaffolding crew swung around like monkeys in a zoo. One day when we were hauling the roof trusses by rope onto the fourth storey, a builder had me stand on one end of the truss while he calmly walked along the narrow beam over a 60 ft drop to untie the rope. That memory makes me feel queasy even now. While the industry has improved massively since those mad days, it still has a long way to go.

Recently I co-organised a leadership conference at which the health and safety team used a group of actors to land some powerful messages about taking personal responsibility for safety. In the aftermath of a (fictional) accident, the audience engaged with the characters individually. We learned how each had in some way got their priorities wrong, resulting in  bad decisions with disastrous consequences. Ultimately, nothing is so important that we can’t wait until we can find a way to do it safely.  For me, this was an all time top ten employee engagement experience.

So no one should every fall into the trap of thinking that health and safety communication is dull. Instead, employee engagement professionals should see it as the best opportunity you will ever have to do something that could be the difference between life and death. Until we can drive the UK fatal accident rate down to zero – the only tolerable level – there is still much work to be done.

Secret of a happy life

You would have thought that professional snooker players would rank highly amongst people who if not paid to do their job, would do it for the love of it. Although I find it mindnumbing to watch and impossible to play, I understand why others find the sport so addictive, as they chase the nirvana of that perfect 147 break. So it was a surprise to discover in Jim White’s excellent article in today’s Daily Telegraph about Ronnie Sullivan’s retirement, that  he secretly detests the game and the relentless pressure to perform. Of course, Ronnie is not alone in hating the sport that he has been so blessed to play.

Victoria Pendleton, similarly sees her awesome talent as a curse, ‘I turn left for a living’ she commented drolely after her 2012 Olympic cycling victory and incredible nine world records. The only thing that drove her on was that she hated the idea of giving up even more; could not bear the thought of letting her Dad and herself down.

It’s not uncommon for professional  footballers to loathe the sport that makes them rich. Their idea of fun is often to head for the nearest male grooming salon, bookmakers or golf course. Although highly successful as a football commentator, even the saintly Gary Lineker looks bored senseless when presenting Match of the Day. You get the feeling he would love to do something completely different, but has become addicted to the money and lifestyle.

Ultimately, it’s not enough to be good at something to be happy in your work, even if you have a  special talent. You also have to enjoy it to be there for the long haul. Find something you enjoy doing and get someone to pay you to do it – that’s the secret of happiness. And if you don’t enjoy what you’re doing, find something different. In this respect, Ronnie and Victoria are both inspirational role models. I wish them  success in their quest for fulfilment, away from the sports that have made them famous.

Would you stop a bullet for your boss?

What was it like to work for Margaret Thatcher? As she is mostly famous for ‘handbagging’ her political opponents, it’s nice to know that Maggie also had a soft side. According to former bodyguard, Det Sgt Barry Strevens, whose story is serialised in The Sun this week, Maggie was a boss who inspired loyalty with small acts of kindness. On one occasion, a member of her protection squad was expecting a rollicking for tramping dog poo over her pristine white carpet at her weekend retreat in the country. Instead, Maggie calmly filled a bucket with soapy water and scrubbed away the mess, saying, “never mind, we’re in the country now”. At Chequers, the Prime Minister’s country residence, Strevens had to spend Christmas away from his own family in a grim outbuilding. But Maggie made sure his room was decorated and left him a flask of hot coffee, a miniature bottle of whisky and a card thanking him for ‘all that you do.’ It was this simple gesture that convinced Strevens he would not hesitate to ‘stand in the way of a bullet’ for Maggie. Although this sounds dramatic, you have to remind yourself that taking ‘a bullet for your boss’ is part of the job description for a bodyguard.

The story reminds me of one told to me by a personal friend who is a quadraplegic. While attending a charity function at 10 Downing Street, he entered the wrong lift and exited to find his path blocked by a small staircase and unable to reenter the lift. Calling for help, my friend was slightly horrified when the first person to respond was none other than Tony Blair. Blair was completely unfazed. Rather than summon flunkeys, he asked how he could help. As my friend did not want to risk causing the Prime Minister to put his back out by lifting a wheelchair, he asked him to press the down button on the lift, which of course Blair happily obliged. This is a true story and for me, shines a light on the real Tony Blair and why he inspires the people around him.

For anyone who aspires to be a great leader, the lesson is that it’s often the small gestures and not the grand ones that inspire genuine ‘bullet-taking’ loyalty. We expect leaders to do the big things, but somehow we’re surprised and touched when they take the trouble to do the small things. That’s why a simple handwritten thank you note can have more power for an individual than public recognition, which so often comes across as being phoney.


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.

Engaging employees through social media – an idea whose time has come

Attending an event this evening hosted by Crelos, the organisational change consultancy, I was persuaded that social media has finally emerged as a major tool for employee engagement. Entitled ‘Into the Ether? Harnessing Social Media to Engage in Change’, the event launched a research report by Crelos consultant Alana Inness. I highly recommend having a read – it’s packed with useful insights about how enlightened companies are using social media tools right now.

Over the years, I’ve encountered several failed attempts to engage employees through social media. One that stays in the mind was an early attempt to introduce facebook like software to a bemused internal audience. Although the site was beautifully designed and attracted hundreds of sign-ups when launched,  a year later it was as dead as the proverbial dodo. People could simply not see the point of it, in spite of the majority of people being enthusiastic facebook fans outside of work. Similarly, I recall a highly charismatic leader whose enthusiasm for yammer introduced a new era of direct communication with his team, while his somewhat obsolescent internal communication manager watched from the sidelines. But when the leader left, the company’s flirtation with yammer ended. In both examples, it was a case of the right idea at the wrong time.

Yet it is as a collaboration tool that social media is now truly coming into its own, enabling organisations to harness the collective power of their people to solve problems. And if one of the essential principles of innovation is learning how to fail fast, social media has an important role to play. A memorable quote from the event was that there is ‘something very powerful about having a rubbish idea rubbished’ by your peers.

A reassuring message is that there are no real social media experts yet, because the technology is still too young. Everyone is still learning. The best way to start is to begin. If you don’t yet know what social media can do for you, then sign up and give it a try. That advice applies to organisations as well as to individuals. If you are one of those leaders whose idea of being on LinkedIn is to hand your PA all the business cards you collect, then now is the time to have a go yourself and see what it can do for you.




Do you know a brain fried leader?

Not often that I find myself tearing out a page from the Evening Standard freesheet but an article this week by Niki Chesworth on ‘brain fried’ bosses caught my attention. It quotes research findings from a survey by Orion management consultancy that only one in twenty bosses are good leaders and four in twenty do more harm than good because they are ‘brain fried’. Would you agree? Certainly the concept of brain fried bosses, stressed out with dealing with the now and unable to focus on the future has a ring of truth about it.

Orion’s website includes a fun little video about the importance of designing ‘brain friendly’ leadership development programmes, based on neuroscience – a scientific understanding of how the brain works. To summarise their five principles for ‘brain friendly’ learning:
– we are best able to digest information fed to us in small chunks when we’re mildly stressed (by which I think they mean being awake and alert)
– we only remember information when we have used it several times
– we will only change our behaviour when we understand why something is good for us personally
– for new behaviour to stick, we need to make it a habit
– the brain learns best after a good night’s sleep!

Although much of this may be familiar, I think this it’s a useful model to stress test any employee engagement programme you are planning. Although learning about new things may be in our best interests, we always have to remember that positive change can be just as threatening to people as negative change. So, it’s important that we invest time and effort in helping people to see the benefits for them personally of any new learning. It’s also essential to follow up on the learning experience to reinforce the new behaviours, rather than simply assume that everyone will becomes an instant convert to the new way of thinking.

The final point about getting a good night sleep is a theme that I will return to constantly in this blog, as I genuinely believe that our 24/7, always on, digitally overloaded lifestyles is the hidden asbestos of our modern day corporate lifestyles.