Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Employee engagement. Not child’s play, but we can learn from our kids

December 14, 2009
by Greg Savage: The Savage Truth

In the world of managing staffing companies, I imagine the last 12 months are up there amongst the hardest ever. For us at Aquent, despite our market leading position, we have had to respond to declining demand with staff reductions, reduced hours and a range of spending cuts. Good commercial sense of course, and our business is in prime shape because of it, but it pays not to underestimate the human toll.

I have been travelling a lot around the business lately and it’s obvious our people are bruised by a very challenging year. Faith in the company remains rock solid I am pleased to say, but no employer should take staff engagement for granted, and this will never be so true as the market recovers and people consider their options.

Of course I was well aware of the challenge of morale, engagement and staff retention right through the downturn, but a little scenario has been playing out even closer to home than Aquent, that has driven this lesson home to me recently.

I have a 19-year-old daughter, just completing second year of a Bachelor of Business in Marketing at University in Sydney. (I will call her ‘M‘ here because mentioning her name on my blog will provoke World War 3 at home). Being a true child of her generation, ‘M’ can’t envisage life without a car, massive mobile phone bills, and a not inconsiderable social life. Equally, I can’t imagine a world where I pay for these trappings of her good life.

So ‘M’ has a job. And it’s a good job too – on the surface. For reasons soon to become clear, I won’t mention her employers’ name, but she has a retail role in one of the flagship outlets. It’s well paid too, and with Sunday overtime, it keeps her in the style she feels she deserves, while enabling her to complete university as well.

Having a father in the recruitment industry is a double edged sword for ‘M’ however, because I encouraged her (vigorously) to also look for experience in a field closer to her career goal. And to her credit she secured “work experience” with Pulse Communications, a successful PR company, which is part of the STW Communications Group in Sydney. This arrangement is like an internship and she has worked every Friday at Pulse for the last three months. Great experience, but unpaid.

Now this is where it gets interesting. ‘M’ detests her well paid ‘real’ job. People are cold and disinterested. They operate in cliques that exclude newcomers. Her boss doesn’t work the days she does, so she has never met her! On one occasion the supervisor left at 4 pm and all five of the other employees working on the same shift as ‘M’, moved out back into the staff room and stayed there until closing time. The fact they had left a trainee to handle a long line of irate customers, while they smoked and joked, apparently caused them no concern at all. The culture is such that when she arrives for work a cheerful “good morning” is met with stony silence more often than not. When she leaves maybe one person out of five will say goodbye. The tiniest error is met with derision and scolding. I was saddened to have her tell me she goes to work with “a heavy feeling of dread in her stomach”.

But Pulse is so different. As I warned her she would, she stacks boxes and stuffs envelopes, but they have also give her interesting research and include her in client meetings as an observer. On her second day she was invited to lunch with the team celebrating a big win. People know her name, include her in all goings on, and the CEO asks her how things are going. She loves going there, and has learned so much she has been totally re-enthused about a career in communications.

I was stunned and delighted be told by ‘M’ that during her (obscenely long) Uni vacation, she has volunteered to work at Pulse three days a week. And she is not paid one cent.

So what do we learn from this? ‘M’ hates her paid job and only turns up for the money. She does her best, but no doubt her unhappiness must show in her customer service – or at least it will eventually. She is looking for a new job and will leave as soon as she can. But Pulse, where she is not even paid, brings a sparkle to her eye. She looks forward to going there. She speaks in awe of the people who work there, and has taken a renewed interest in her university studies as a result.

And so I reflected on this lesson. I am not expecting anyone at Aquent to volunteer for three days unpaid work a week any time soon (!) But the importance of creating a culture and an environment where people want to be is clearer than ever. Commercial success is important, but so is belief in the business and a return on our efforts that are to measured in fun and self-respect as well as dollars

I will be working with the senior Aquent management team to create just such a work place at Aquent.

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