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Donkin on Work - Employee Engagement

December 2008 – Building respect for good work

One of the most enjoyable things about working for the Financial Times was to attend the annual Christmas carol service at Southwark Cathedral.

For many of us, the Christmas carol service and maybe the odd funeral or wedding, is the closest we come to a church these days. If we seek it at all, we find meaning in our lives through other avenues, very often through our work.

But there is something to be said for carols, something about their simplicity and lack of cynicism. There is too much cynicism in the way we relate to each other today. I see a lot of it in management writing and management practices. It is as if the very idea of “goodness” in life is suspect.

So we try to attribute a motive in every gesture. More than that, we try to improve it, package it and profit from it. Companies and consultancies are making a business now from the analysis and commoditisation of goodness. Employees who do good things or who work extremely well with the kind of attitudes that demonstrate a love of their job are being singled out as role models.

There is nothing wrong with that, you may say. Who would want to single out the feckless? It’s a fair point, but I’m not sure that a love of the job is something you can distil, package, then disseminate among others.

It was something I was discussing a couple of weeks ago with Peter Flade, managing partner of Gallup in the UK. He told me about a study of room cleaners in Disney hotels. Those who were questioned had been singled out as the best at their jobs.

One of the cleaners described how she would lie on the bed after she finished cleaning so that she saw the room as residents would see it. In the bathroom she would sit in the bathtub to see the lower walls and surfaces at eye level. Neither of these practices was recommended in training; in fact they were expressly forbidden. But this employee had “thought through the rules” to understand the requirements of her work from a customer perspective.

There are thousands, probably millions of people out there, who possess this understanding, but how many of them have the confidence to work in this way when companies have introduced systems for everything?

A forthcoming book, The Extra Mile, How to Engage Your People to Win, puts the need to understand the way employees relate to their work in context. As the authors, David Macleod, a consultant at Towers Perrin, the HR consultancy, and Chris Brady, Dean of Bournemouth University business school, point out, it’s no good trying to build a great workplace if you ignore your products, services and customers.

“The workforce needs to have confidence and trust in those responsible for policy; they need to feel they are in safe hands,” say the authors. Before the decline and subsequent recovery of Marks & Spencer, they add, “staff knew that M&S had the wrong ranges in stock – everyone that is except the management.”

What the authors are talking about, they stress, is not employee happiness, or ways to make companies, more “employee friendly” but about reaching the untapped potential of people at work.

One thing that’s clear from the book is that there seems to be little disagreement among the bosses of big companies that employing people who are keen to do well for a business is a good thing that they want to encourage.

The difficult thing is creating the conditions for better work when companies have done so much to remove discretion for many employees. The word “engagement,” may be a relatively new term in human resources, but there is nothing new about the concept.

The Japanese, for example, talk about something they call “Wa” that refers to people working in harmony with the aims of the business.

Frederick Taylor, the originator of scientific management, thought the answer was to remove responsibility for good work from the worker and place it with the manager. He equated skills with power and he had a point. The artisans in his machine shops understood their machinery so well that they could regulate their working patterns in a way that allowed them to work at their own pace.

This is the dilemma for those who seek to improve the way that people relate to their work. More often than not this desire equates to getting more work out of people. But people are not machines. They are people. They are designed for living and work is an important constituent of living. But it is not the whole thing.

Too many companies today are myopic in their approach to work. They will happily allow their employees to work through their lunch hours but then they become alarmed when people become distracted by surfing the web.

Some of the best work on engagement has been undertaken in customer relations. The authors quote from a long running annual survey carried out by Towers Perrin, that noted improvements reported by employees in their understanding of customer satisfaction.

The way that some of this is penetrating in to working practices is evident in a trip to the supermarket. When I asked someone at Sainsbury’s where the cream was the other day, he broke off his shelf-filling and took me round to the spot. He may have been a particularly helpful chap but I suspect that this kind of behaviour had been encouraged in training.

While training is important, however, it is not the be-all-and-end-all of engagement. The book emphasises the need for managers to have simple conversations with people and to get out in to the field.

One of the best illustrations of this point is not in this book but in a much older book, Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy. One of the main characters, Levin, a landowner, works alongside his farm labourers, cutting hay and learns how they develop a natural rhythm in their work.

He sits with them, shares their food and learns about their families and daily concerns. At the end of the day he persuades them to work on to finish the field and they do so out of respect for someone who has learned to respect their work, that and “a drop of vodka for the lads.”

Like the carols that make us feel good about Christmas, good work is founded on the simplicity of human relationships. It’s founded on learning, understanding and sound communications. But most of all, I suspect, it is founded on respect.

The Extra Mile, How to engage Your people to Win, by David Macleod and Chris Brady is to be published next month by Prentice Hall, price £21.99.

See also: Placing a value on values

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