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!

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.

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.

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?

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.

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.