It Starts From a Place Of Empathy. Listening To and Caring About Your Workforce
A Case Study: Alfred’s Story
Alfred is the founding director of a Fulfilment Centre for e-commerce sellers. With locations throughout Europe, the company serves its clients’ customers throughout the world.
He founded the company on what he believed were fair principles for everyone — to create good jobs that people can live off — pay people a good wage in return for good work.
The company quickly grew their client base and, with it their workforce. Being known to pay well, there was never a problem in recruiting people. But there was a problem retaining people. This wasn’t immediately obvious because, as Alfred came to learn, as he had established the company during the economic downturn that followed the financial crisis of 2007–2008 when people were losing their jobs when they secured a new job, they hung on to it for dear life. And during the ensuing years after the financial crash, when the economy was slow to get moving again, once again, people were holding on to their jobs.
This led Alfred to the false assumption that all was good with his company and his workforce. Except it wasn’t, as he was about to discover.
Slowly at first, as the economy recovered, people started to move on from the company. As numbers began to build, Alfred asked Human Resources to carry out exit interviews to try to get to the bottom of why people were leaving. He knew they were being paid a higher wage than they would receive elsewhere. Surely a good wage in return for good work was a fair principle for everyone. A principle that stood the test of time — except as he was about to learn it didn’t.
Alfred came to learn that the crux of the reason as to why people were leaving for lower wages was because they felt the higher wage was a payoff for the blood, sweat and (oftentimes) tears that came with the ‘good’ work required of them. Yes, the company paid higher wages, but labour productivity was so aggressive that the culture inside the warehouses was very poor.
These words from one of the exit interviews both summed up for Alfred why people were leaving and shocked him too.
“I felt being paid a higher wage was a trade-off for being appreciated, supported and respected for the work I do.”
These words also served as a turning point for Alfred.
He still believed that a good wage was important, but he had come to learn that building labour productivity around this principle was just the starting place. His company needed to provide the other intangible things that are extremely important to people — appreciation, support and respect for the work they do.
While pondering how he could do what he needed to do to retain people, Alfred was reminded of something his grandfather had once told him. Although he had long since passed, his grandfather’s way of looking at life and his wiseness had remained with him through these:
Words Of Wisdom
“The solution to any problem starts with really listening, really caring and having empathy.”
These words brought about another turning point for Alfred.
He had prided himself on the bi-annual speaking events, where he, as the company founder, kept the workforce informed as to how the company was doing. He now realised that was false pride because all he had actually done was to talk at people, not talk to them. Sure there was always a short q&a at the end, but that was people asking him questions, which had further served to give him an ego boost because his answers gave him a further opportunity to boast about how well the company was doing.
But at what cost? That was the question that needed to be answered, and the answers needed to come from the people on the ground doing the work — the people on the production line, not him, the person flying high overhead from a place where the view was distorted.
Alfred decided to flip the next event from a Speaking Event — him speaking and answering questions, to a Q&A Event — him asking the questions and giving other people a chance to speak.
But people were hesitant in answering the questions he posed. Alfred sensed they were holding back because they didn’t know how open and honest they could be. He had always been a straight talker, and he wanted to somehow find a way to encourage other people to be the same. He knew he needed to instil trust in people that it would be safe for them to say what they felt needed to be said.
He proposed sending questions to everyone in the company as part of a survey that they could answer anonymously. He said the Q&A sessions would become company quarterly events and that he would categorise the responses and put them into a presentation that would frame the Q&A session. He finished by saying everyone would have sight of the findings ahead of the event.
The questions in the survey were:
Are you proud to work at this company?
If Yes, why?
If No, why not?
What, if anything, does the company do well?
What, if anything, does the company not do well?
What one thing would you change about the company if you could?
The findings of the survey was that 15% of people were proud to work at the company, 85% weren’t.
The reasons people gave for being proud were based on the good rate of pay, i.e. I do a good job, and I get paid well, which allows me to support my family — that’s what makes me proud.
The reasons people gave for not being proud were based on what they believed were unrealistic targets measuring productivity. i.e. I feel like I’m expected to perform like a robot and not a human being. I’m being tracked by a computer the whole time I’m working. I’m being measured by an algorithm and not by a human being.
The thing that people felt the company did well was good pay.
The thing that people felt the company didn’t do well was again around unrealistic targets and lack of human interaction with managers and teams.
More human interaction was the most prominent thing that people would change if they could.
And so, as Alfred had said, these responses to the survey framed the next Q&A event. He began by posing the question: “What can we begin to do to make this company a place that people are proud to be part of?”
He encouraged people to share their thinking. They slowly began to open up, and ideas were documented. Then more and more people started to weigh in, discussing and debating what had been put forward before coming to a collective agreement of what the first steps needed to be to make the company a place that people are proud to be part of.
People accepted the importance of good performance in doing a good job. What they didn’t accept was their performance being measured by a computer because it didn’t take into consideration the human aspects needed to do a good job — what was going on for them in their WorkLife outside of the workplace. Understanding people at a human level needed to begin from a place of really listening, really caring and having empathy.
The first step was for managers to have one-to-one WorkLife conversations with each member of their team. The objective — to get to know and understand their wants and needs beyond the production line.
People had made the same decision as Alfred had — guided by the words of wisdom from his grandfather. This reminded him of these further words of wisdom his grandfather had shared.
“People will surprise you if you allow them to surprise you, people are smart, very thoughtful, they care about each other, they really will champion and cheer the greater good and make really smart decisions, you just need to give them the same information you have.”
Wanting to understand why people were leaving for jobs that paid less had taken Alfred to a Turning Point on his WorkLife path. He was open to the learning he would receive along his journey that would enable him and his company to be an employee-focused employer.
Understanding Changes In Your WorkLife Assignment
When things start to change in your WorkLife, and you don’t understand why (I.e. for Alfred, it was people leaving his company for lesser paid jobs), you can adapt the questions Alfred posed to help you understand what is happening and the why behind it. From there, you can begin to plan your next steps. You, too, may find yourself at a turning point along your Worklife path. The answers to these questions will guide you in knowing what to do along your journey.
Are you proud of … ?(whatever your equivalent of … ‘to work at this company is.’)
If Yes, why?
If No, why not?
What, if anything, does X do well (whatever your equivalent of ‘the company do well’)
What, if anything, does X not do well? (whatever your equivalent of ‘the company not do well’)
What one thing would you change about X (whatever your equivalent of ‘the company if you could’)
As a WorkLife Learning Practitioner and Writer, I create learning programmes and resources to help people manage, develop and transition their WorkLives in good, challenging and bad times.
The focus of my work begins by helping people identify a WorkLife path that’s true to their core values, purpose, and motivation. This is followed through by creating meaningful short and long-term WorkLife plans while enabling self-coaching, self-directing, and self-leadership to drive these plans.
I bring you stories created from questions and answers drawn from WorkLife lessons. What I’m trying to do is to highlight different solutions, to provide you with a pathway so that even if a particular story doesn’t apply to you, you understand there is a path to follow.
Whatever you want to do, there is a clear path to it, and once you understand those steps, it becomes much more intuitive, and hopefully, it motivates you to get started. Because that’s what you need most, the motivation to get started. The motivation to follow your vision.
I created The School Of WorkLife book series to help people continuously fine-tune their learning, development and growth in the areas most important to them. Click on the series to see all the books available and previews of what’s inside each book.
How To Use Turning Points To Start Something Different And Better is book 13 in the series. Click on the title to see a preview of what’s inside the book.