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A good friend of mine is cleaning out her office this week. You guessed it; yet another victim of recession induced cost cutting measures. But no – (thankfully) she hasn’t lost her job. Just her space.

Late last year her employer evaluated every job in the company to identify who truly needed and who did not need a desk in company-owned buildings. By reallocating unnecessary workspace, the company will save millions by leasing out the newly available office space. As a knowledge worker and manager, it was determined that my friend no longer needed a company-supplied office. So although she lives just 2½ miles from the corporate headquarters, she will be working from home on a full-time basis.

This latest trend seems to take a new angle on telecommuting/workplace flexibility discussion. Seeking greater autonomy, employee advocates have long argued for the right to work from home. Scores of websites coach employees on building the case for telecommuting. Benefits to the company are frequently cited, ranging from productivity increases to corporate responsibility/environmental impact. This fervor for the right to work where and when you choose has lead to the popularity of books like Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It and its case for building a Results Only Work Environment (ROWE).

It is true that employees ask for this. In the employee survey business, we frequently see requests from employees for the opportunity to occasionally work from home. Many state they would love to work one day a week from home or to be able to telecommute when they are home with a sick child.

But now, it seems, the tide has turned. As employers realize that knowledge workers can in fact work just as effectively from home, many companies are choosing to eliminate the extra expense of providing office space for these employees.

There is certain appeal to the idea of working in one’s pajamas, avoiding office politics, not to mention cutting the daily commute. But as the opportunity to work from home becomes an expectation to work from home, it seems to change the dynamics of the equation. And as the opportunity to report to the office becomes a privilege or a perk, perhaps we should pause to think about what we lose. Camaraderie, collaboration, mentoring, a sense of community and belonging – can these truly be replicated from a distance? And what about the boundaries between work and personal time? As one friend put it “You never get a snow day when you’re working from home. There’s really no reason for you not being available – all the time!”

So what do you think? What has been your experience with working from home? Positives? Negatives? Unintended consequences? I’d love to hear how it’s playing out in the organizations where you work.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/kevharb / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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I was on my way into work one morning when I heard an ad on the radio. The company guaranteed that it could save its clients up to 50% on the cost of its product or service. Something about the ad made me uneasy, and then I realized that it was the “up to 50%” element of that guarantee. They are hedging on their guarantee. Essentially, the company promises to save its clients somewhere between 0% and 50% on their costs.

Yet, this seems to be the mode of today’s guarantee. Claiming that improved engagement can result in up to 20% improvement in productivity or that the use of social media can improve your customer contact by as much as 60% only implies that you will likely see some improvement, but there’s really no guarantee. Yet, these kinds of claims are made all the time about a variety of interventions.

Now, that is not to say that engagement initiatives and social media are bad ideas. The problem is that a whole lot of consultants, researchers, and companies are trying to convince you that you are guaranteed to see results by using their product, implementing their pet program, or relying on some magic bullet technology. Yet, if you read the fine print and pay attention to how the message is delivered, you can see what the seller is really “guaranteeing,” which often isn’t much.

There are lots of factors that influence the effectiveness of an organizational intervention, whether it is employee involvement, work-life balance, recognition, growth and development, or health and safety. In addition, some of the predictive power of interventions is actually really weak, but they don’t put that in the press release. Instead, they say things like, ‘our measure of engagement is significantly associated with organizational performance’ – even if their measure of engagement only accounts for .001% of organizational performance and is only (statistically) significant because it’s based on a sample of 30,000 people. In situations like that, it’s almost impossible NOT to find “significant” results.

What does this mean for organizations and managers interested in the latest “research” on healthy workplace practices? Well, it means a few things:

  1. Be skeptical of what you read on the web, especially when it comes in the form of a press release. A press release is not the most effective foundation for a decision. Read the full report with a critical eye.
  2. Become a better consumer of statistical results. Just because something is significant in a statistical sense does not mean it is meaningful in a practical sense. I iterated this point in a previous posting on health care consumers, but it deserves a mention here as well. Lots of things can lead to “significant” effects, with the most powerful driver being sample size. And, given that lots of consulting firms provide reports using sample sizes in the tens of thousands, statistical significance really takes a back seat to practical meaningfulness. Financially, it doesn’t make sense to spend $100,000 on an intervention that will result in only $20,000 in cost savings. Having an understanding of the real power of an effect is key to interpreting its practical meaning for your organization.
  3. Finally, be wary of advocates who push a particular type of intervention, regardless of the circumstances, especially when use of that practice will produce greater profit for that person or organization. Many of the reports and so-called studies released by consulting organizations are conducted and released strictly to sell their own products.

There are a lot of competing perspectives, interventions, and approaches for developing a healthy work environment. Many of them have true scientific and/or practical merit, but some are really a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Organizational decision makers would be wise to consider all of these programs with a healthy dose of skepticism, making informed, data-driven decisions. Most of all, organizations should avoid any “guarantee” that doesn’t come with a firm lower threshold of improvement.

We wouldn’t let academic institutions get away with guaranteeing that students with a degree will earn up to 200 times more money, or let doctors get away with guaranteeing that by using their services, people will live up to 50 years longer. Why do we let consultants and management fad salespeople get away with selling us a different fictional guarantee?

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/phunk / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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What impact do our personalities have on our co-workers? How do our personal approaches to problem solving help or hinder our ability to accomplish our work? How can we be more effective communicators?

Our personality and behavior influence how we act at work and how we get along with others, so understanding ourselves and why we process information the way we do can help us work better with others. Are you a visual learner but your boss likes to spend hours in meetings giving long, verbal explanations? Take notes – it will help you organize the information in a way that makes sense to you without putting pressure on your boss to change her communication style to meet your specific needs. Instead of explaining to your team how you think and process information, take the opportunity to understand yourself and your needs, yet listen and learn from others about how to most effectively operate within your organization.

Oftentimes employees expect the system or people around them to change, to accommodate their needs, but realistically, that’s not going to happen. I notice this especially with younger employees just starting out in the workforce. Tammy Erickson’s book, Plugged In: The Generation Y Guide to Thriving at Work really resonated with me – she does an excellent job presenting oodles of research to show how different Gen Y is and where we’re coming from. Tammy also points out how much Gen Y has to contribute to the workplace and how our ideas about doing things differently are great, but not always realistic. The point of the book, in my opinion, is to help Gen Y employees learn how to fit in and get their ideas heard by working within the system before they can best navigate ways to change it. There are so many different personalities, age groups, and management styles at play in the workplace. Since you cannot change the people you work with and oftentimes cannot change the rules, figure out how you can tackle issues by adjusting your method – this will bring more results than struggling to do things your way.

Approaching a difference of opinion without taking it personally can take practice, but it’s worth it. If you are open-minded and really try to understand the other person’s point of view, you could come away with a broader understanding of the problem, which will only help you implement the best solution (even if it’s not your solution or is a hybrid of it). By taking a deep breath and being open to new ways of thinking you may find it spurs your creative thinking and is more effective than digging your heels in and sticking to your own ideas. Learning more about how we as individuals learn and interact with others and then approaching difficult relationships like a challenge (e.g., “How can I make this work?” or “how can I adjust my style so this person better understands me?”) benefits employees and the organization. Knowing thyself is the first step, but working well with others is essential.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/clspeace / CC BY 2.0
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Last year many organizations had to make some pretty difficult decisions in order to stay afloat. Pay was slashed, employees were let go and benefits were cut to the bone. To their credit, some employers are trying to support employees and keep spirits up, even under these difficult circumstances, but I wonder -- where's the line between morale boosters that employees actually appreciate and trivial niceties that come across as superficial and in some cases offensive, given the hardships many employees have faced?

The Onion captured this issue nicely in its May 2008 article, Potential Employee Uprising Quelled With Free Pizza, where they write:

A massive employee backlash over low wages and increased workload was narrowly averted this week when company management arranged to have eight large pizzas delivered to the design firm Cobalt Media, instantly quelling months of mounting resentment and dissatisfaction. 

The story goes on to make the point with a quote from a fictional employee:

"Everyone's been fed up and ready to explode at management for weeks," production designer Carolyn Wurster said. "But then all those pizzas showed up, and it just didn't seem like the right time to start demanding a legitimate healthcare plan or salary raises that reflect the amount of work we do."

Okay, so sometimes good intentions go awry, but other times its clear that an organization is simply doling out little perks to gloss over the real issues. I grew up in Texas, where we love our idioms, and know good and well what you can't polish (figuratively anyway), but assuming an employer really does have the best interests of its employees at heart...

How can an organization maintain a positive climate and build morale during tough times, without coming across as superficial and condescending?

What has your organization done and how have employees responded?

Special thanks to Dr. Sheila Gardner, who heads up New Hampshire's State-Level Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards, for bringing this article to my attention.

Photo Credit http://www.flickr.com/photos/su-lin / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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About this Archive

This page is an archive of entries from February 2010 listed from newest to oldest.

January 2010 is the previous archive.

March 2010 is the next archive.

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