Engagement/Motivation

“Want to Work Less?” All Hands Go Up. “But, You’ll Make Less Money” Most Hands Go Down

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Suddenly, it seems everywhere you look another billionaire is promoting a reduced workweek.  I recently appeared on WSJ Live to share my thoughts on the trend (scroll down to view the clip–I make my main points at 3:35).

While I believe their motivations are valid, these moguls need to understand that it will not be easy to make their vision a reality.  Some major hurdles stand in their way.

First, who is saying what?

Latin American telecom tycoon, Carlos Slim, is extolling the virtues of the three-day workweek, while the founders of Google are discussing the benefits of splitting one full-time job into many part-time jobs.

Why?  They have identified real challenges that could, in theory, be addressed through the collective reduction in the amount of time we work each week.

For Slim, the challenge is how to help people stay healthy so they can extend the number of years they are able to remain in the paid workforce.

For the founders of Google, the challenge is how to address the potential mass-displacement of workers by technology (e.g driverless cars, etc.), a not-so-distant reality recently described in an oped by respected Silicon Valley insider, Vivek Wadhwa.

Sounds good…but not that simple

Translating what may sound good on paper into action is not going to be easy for the following reasons:

People can’t afford to make less money.  If you ask a room full of people if they’d like to work fewer hours a week, almost every hand will go up.  However, if you add, “…but you will make less money” most hands will go down.

Bottom line: most people can’t afford to work less.  Therefore, any discussion of a reduced workweek must address financial reality, especially since individuals are being asked to shoulder more of the expense and risk of retirement and health care.

Workplace legislation and management infrastructure are based on a 35-to-40 hour workweek.  Any change in the standard workweek would require major legislative, HR policy and accounting regulation updates and overhauls.

For example, today overtime under the Fair Labor Standards Act is calculated based on a 40 hour workweek. Would that change or stay the same?

In most organizations, compensation and benefits, such as health care, retirement contributions, and vacation are calculated based on a 35 or 40-hour full-time workweek.

In terms of accounting, internal head count cost allocations in most organizations are also based upon a full-time, 40-hour workweek.  That means if an employee works part-time the system still charges the business unit overhead for a full-time worker. It’s not prorated. If you hire another part-time worker, that’s another full head count.

How do you deploy more people working fewer days/hours and remain responsive and competitive in a global economy?  This won’t be as big an issue for less human capital intensive, or highly localized industries, but for service industries with customers in many time zones, a reduced workweek will require more complex coordination and communication across people, teams and shifts.  Managers will have to break their addiction to management by face-time.

Carlos Slim and the founders of Google have identified very real challenges.  They should be applauded for starting an important conversation.  But any wholesale reduction or reconfiguration of the workweek will require new approaches to compensation, updated employment legislation, and revised team management processes, benefits calculations and internal cost accounting rules to succeed.  That will be a heavy lift.

What do you think about the growing interest in reducing the workweek on a broader scale?  Does it have merit?  Could it really work?

3 Signs Flexible Work is Strategic–And Not Just Window Dressing

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(Post originally appeared in Fast Company)

Research shows that a majority of employers offer at least some type of informal, day-to-day and formal work flexibility, and a majority of employees agree that they have access to it.

Therefore, the question is no longer simply, “What is telework, flexible hours, etc.?” We get the concept. The focus must now shift to “How do we use work flexibility strategically and deliberately to achieve our unique business and personal goals?”

Unfortunately, too often the flexible work that exists is either random with no clear, coordinated, widely understood goal behind it. Or it’s a program or policy that sounds and feels good but hasn’t infiltrated its way into the day-to-day business.

So how do you tell if an organization’s approach to work flexibility is deliberate, strategic and targeted, or if it’s random, window dressing? Here are three signs:

Sign #1: When a business challenge or opportunity appears, managers naturally ask themselves, “How can we address this by being more flexible in how, when and where work is done?” And then they understand how to pull the team together to make that flexible work solution succeed. For example:

  • The group is covering clients across all time zones and is burning out; therefore, “How can we be more flexible with our work hours so that if you are on a call with Asia or Europe overnight, you don’t have to be at your desk by 9 a.m. the next day?”
  • Business is down and we are getting pressure to cut head count; therefore, “How can I reduce schedules to save labor costs and the valuable talent we’ll need when the business turns around?”
  • An employee has to care for his mother who lives in another state and was recently diagnosed with dementia; therefore, “What if we let him telework so he doesn’t have to quit?”
  • There may be a new business opportunity in a market but there isn’t enough revenue to justify renting an office; therefore, “We can have the initial start up team telework from their homes until revenue grows?”

Sign #2: The organization consistently connects the dots between all of the tactical, siloed applications of work flexibility. (Click here for more)

The Strategic Use of Flexibility (NEW Article in Talent Management Magazine)

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(This article appears in the October, 2011 issue of Talent Management Magazine and was co-authored with one of my Flex+Strategy Group partners, Donna Miller)

As the dust settles from the Great Recession and a new economic reality emerges, businesses are beginning to take a hard look at how they can manage their talent for maximum business impact. The urgency to review and rethink is driven by leaner headcounts, larger workloads and greater stress as technology and globalization.  These trends erased the traditional lines between work and life. The result is a shift in expectations about how to manage responsibilities on and off the job. Businesses are moving beyond the traditional one-size-fits-all model of work and career and taking a more strategic, flexible approach.

Since 2007, Work+Life Fit Inc. and Opinion Research Corp. have conducted a biennial national study to track the state of work-life flexibility from the employees’ perspective. The results of the 2011 Work+Life Fit Reality Check study confirm that new, flexible ways of working have gained traction since 2007. However, organizations need to do more. Helping employees manage the way work fits into their lives and organizations’ profits and growth plans in a transformed economy will require making flexibility — informal and formal telework, flexible hours, reduced schedules and compressed work weeks — an integral part of the operating business model and culture.

Traditionally, that meant writing a policy or training managers. But strategic flexibility requires dedicating people, time and money to a coordinated culture change process — one that clearly defines a business’ unique rationale for greater flexibility, establishes a shared vision of how managers and employees will use it and executes with relentless communication.

(Click here for more)

New Series! Flex and the C-Suite: John C. Parry, CEO of Solix, Inc.

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Post originally appeared on FastCompany.com.

This is the first post in a new series that I’m calling “Flex and the C-Suite.” Periodically, I will interview C-Suite leaders who have made flexibility in the way work is done a key strategy for achieving business results smarter and better. In other words, they get it.

I’m kicking off the series with John C. Parry, the President and CEO of Solix, Inc. I had an opportunity to get to know Parry and his Senior Manager of External Communications, Gene King, when we rode back to New Jersey from Washington D.C. on the Acela late last year.

Parry had just presented at the Workplace Flexibility 2010 celebration that I’d attended. I was struck by the clarity with which he described the key role flexibility plays in achieving the core objective of his business which is excellent client service. I think you will be too.

First, here’s some of background about Solix, Inc. and its business. Solix is a New Jersey-based provider of comprehensive outsourcing solutions for government and commercial clients. It manages public benefit programs ranging from providing funding for Internet access for schools, libraries and rural health care facilities to qualifying low-income consumers for discounted phone service. Commercial clients work with Solix to enhance customer relationship management and to effectively satisfy regulatory program requirements.

Cali Yost: Let’s begin with the top challenges and opportunities that you see facing Solix and Corporate America over the next year or two?

John C. Parry: For most CEOs, the challenge is how to grow their companies profitably. Keeping current customers happy, while expanding into a larger, more complex organization and making sure that new revenue is profitable. Too many companies are trying to maintain profitability by trimming their workforce. We are doing it both ways–we’re becoming more efficient as we grow.

The benefit of this approach is that we give more opportunity to our current workforce. This allows us to keep the bright young people who work for us motivated because we are growing and changing as a company which creates more career opportunity.

In your opinion, how does flexibility in the way work is done help Solix, Inc. address those challenges or seize those opportunities?

To me, workplace flexibility is one of the ways to remove “the noise in the system” so that employees can focus on the business at hand which is providing the best service to our customers, both new and old. That noise in the system can be anything from the fear of losing your job, the unproductive rumor mill or worries related to family issues. Providing a great work environment allows people to focus on the clients. We do this a few ways.

First, we remove the noise from the system. How do you do this? First, communicate, communicate, and communicate. We have an “Ask John” program where people are encouraged to anonymously send any questions or concerns they may have to me directly. I will answer within 24 hours.

Next, we don’t want people to worry that it’s a black mark if they miss a day of work because of a family issue. In our culture, all we really care about is the excellent service of our clients. We don’t care how you structure your hours as long as you’re providing that service. If you are sick, don’t come in. If it snows and you want to work from home, fine. You make the decision. This eliminates a lot of workplace stress that, again, is unproductive noise in the system.

We let people compress their workweek, telework and flex their hours. We’ve supported phased retirements and even let people take longer chunks of time off to visit family overseas. The reality is that it takes a year to train someone. Why wouldn’t we take them back after a three month break to visit their family in India? In fact, we would let people work from home more, but they like coming in to work.

Second, we give people meaningful work to do. The work we do reaches all corners of the country to help people and that feels good. For example, a small school in Pahoa, Hawaii where less than 25% of the students have Internet access at home was able to upgrade its computer lab and a rural health care provider in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska has improved their Internet and telecom infrastructure to better serve their customers in this remote area. In addition, the work we do helps low income citizens gain access to subsidized cell phone service. We value that.

Third, we promote the team concept. I spent most of my career in the Bell System. Because we had no external competition for many years, they promoted internal competition which wasn’t particularly positive. From this experience, I am a big proponent of teams. Individuals are important but we celebrate and recognize team success, and people really support each other

Finally, we encourage community involvement, and good citizenship. Our employees often work in the soup kitchen as a team or raise money for charities about which they are passionate.

What factors have been most critical to the successful implementation of flexibility at Solix?

To any leader who thinks creating a supportive, flexible work culture is a boondoggle, I’d suggest starting with a trial run. Use work that can be done from home and with low supervision. See the results.

Ask for input from all levels. What’s making the work environment stressful? Trying to raise a family and punch a time clock?

Prepare supervisors and employees to succeed in a flexible work culture. Pick managers who have already bought into it to take the lead because there will be a lot of skepticism. At some point, everyone will realize that there’s been no reduction in quality or productivity because of flexibility and that they, as managers, get to have flexibility too!

Now everyone gets to set his or her hours. For example, I am an early person so I get in to the office very early in the morning but like to leave here by 4:00 pm most days and I do. On the other hand, our CFO and the head of HR get in later and stay later.

What would you say to a C-Suite leader who still thinks workplace flexibility is a nice-to-have perk, not a strategic imperative?

What is the end result you are looking for? You are looking to achieve corporate goals. Let’s be honest. Nobody goes around cheering that 99% of employees got to work today and worked eight hours.

What you want to know is that you have a highly motivated workforce that delivers high quality customer service. With flexibility, it helps to measure output over a longer-term period. Because of flexibility we are getting better productivity and commitment. When we look for volunteers to meet a tight deadline or deal with a backlog, everyone raises their hands to help. That’s engagement.

Too many CEOs believe they can force their will on people. It never works in the long run. Our turnover is ridiculously low (although we do let poor performers go) and we don’t have an absence problem because if someone is sick they stay home and don’t infect everyone.

Readers: Do you know a C-Suite level executive who “gets it” that flexibility is a strategic imperative for their business and their people?  I’d love to showcase them.  Send me an email at cali@flexstrategygroup.com.

Fast Company: Quarterly Earnings Kill People-Based Innovation…

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Do a quick search in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and you will find numerous articles by very smart people pronouncing that only “innovation” will lead to an economic recovery.

Yet, it’s ironic to read these articles at the same time that Hewitt releases its most recent quarterly global employee engagement survey. In the first quarter of 2010, the trend lines of companies reporting increases and declines in engagement converged and crossed. For the first time in 15 years, the companies experiencing declines far outpaced those reporting improvement. Houston, we have a problem. As Hewitt correctly states in their report,

“This highlights the growing tension between employers—many of which are struggling to stabilize their financial situation—and employees, who are showing fatigue in response to a lengthy period of stress, uncertainty and confusion brought about by the recession and their company’s actions.”

Yup.

Now we could argue the point about employers are “struggling to stabilize their financial situation” when 3,000 non-financial firms hold an estimated $1.6 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) in cash and equivalents, but I want to focus back on one simple question:

How do companies across the globe expect to innovate on the backs of an increasingly demoralized workforce that’s stressed, overworked, undercompensated, unrecognized, lacks career opportunities, and doesn’t trust leadership?

As I said before, how do we square this circle?

Now, I’m not an expert on innovation strategy, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not, “Be sure to overwork and undercompensate your employees. Make them really afraid. And then, when they no longer trust you, put everyone in a room and let the magic begin!”

So, what’s the answer?

Let’s go back to the articles begging for more innovation written by those very smart people. What do they say?  (Click here for more)

Work+Life Flexibility “How to” in Pictures: #2 Change requires employee+employer partnership (some gov’t) and shift in broader cultural conversation

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How Employees Can Partner with Employers: Work+Life Fit in 5 Days Series

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #1 Don’t get stuck on the innovation curve

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #3 Focus on fact that same flexibility keeps business open in snowstorm, cares for aging parent (and more)

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #4 Making flexibility real takes more than traditional policy, toolkit and training

Yes, Flexibility Increases Productivity (and, More)…Favorite Flex Research/Resources Links

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This past weekend during the BlogHer panel, “Screw Work/Life Balance, We Need Work/Life Policy,” an attendee raised her hand and said, “I know from personal experience that when I work from home I am more productive.  I wonder if anyone has done research on whether this is true more broadly?”

I’ve been immersed in work+life flexibility for so many years that it’s easy to forget that most people don’t know about the stacks and stacks of research that proves that flexibility not only increases productivity but benefits businesses and individuals in many other ways.

In an effort to answer the question, I’m sharing a few of my favorite pieces of flexibility research.  I’ve also included a list of resources that have been studying and advocating for greater flexibility for more than a decade.  Many are on social media.

Great Flex Research Links (no particular order):

Great Resources…that I know personally and who seriously understand the underlying research-based business case for supporting work+life fit and flexibility (no particular order):

Do you have a favorite piece of flexibility research you’d like to share?  Add it to the list in the comments section.  And spread the word!  Flexibility in how, when and where work is done and life is managed benefits everyone…individuals and business.

11 Ways HR Can Jumpstart Work+Life Flex Strategy

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Thank you for tuning into HR Happy Hour and talking about the important topic of “Making Work/Life Work.”  As promised, here is a list of ways HR professionals can get started today advancing strategic work+life flexibility in their organizations.  Please add others you think are important and didn’t get a chance to share during the show.  I look forward to continuing this important conversation with you!

Define what you believe work+life flexibility is. The answer will determine HR’s role and response.  Is it a business strategy?  Is it a “perk” reserved for good times?  Or is it an annoying regulation to be tolerated and mitigated?  Assuming you decide, yes, work+life flexibility is a strategic lever that we want to help integrate into the day-to-day operating model of the business, then…

Start to change the way you talk and think about flexibility because according to our the WLF/BDO study of top CFOs, only 13 out of 100 felt their senior leadership saw flexibility as a strategy (the rest saw it as a perk), and had the process in place to target flexibility toward a problem or opportunity.

At FSG, we talk about work+life flexibility, as opposed to workplace flexibility, because flexibility in how, when and where work is done won’t succeed if there isn’t corresponding flexibility in the way life is managed, and vice versa.  So for example, a compressed workweek is only going to succeed for a parent that can flexibly move the pickup time at child care back.  Or telecommuting only works if there’s the appropriate equipment and space to work remotely.

We also use the term work+life fit, not balance as one of the outcomes of strategic flexibility.  By work+life fit, we mean actively and flexibly optimizing the way work fits into your life day-to-day and at major life and career transitions given your unique realities.   Everyone has a work+life fit they need to manage, from the CEO to the temp worker.  This normalize it throughout the culture.

Learn about what is already working and start to capture it. Success doesn’t require a complete overhaul of the way you do business.  No, in fact, there’s often a great deal of flexibility already happening that you can start to capture and leverage.   And chances are HR doesn’t know about most of these pockets of flex innovation because it’s usually just organically happening and might not even be called “flexibility.”  The intuitively flexible manager and team probably think of it simply as “getting the job” done.

Gather internal and external data to support the need for flexibility.  And to reinforce the business impact of the success stories you’ve identified internally.  Here are links to some of my favorites (others below):

Find a senior line leader who will be the champion and public face of the flexibility strategy. As much as possible from the beginning, position the strategy as business led and sponsored effort with HR as a partner.

Link impacts of flexibility to the business as directly and broadly as possible. Keep pulling all of those links together and building buy-in and awareness.  Find the “pain” points of opportunity or challenge within the business where being more flexible in how, when and where work is done and life is managed would make a big difference.  Start to share and build the business case.  Listen and join the conversation.  For example,

  • Is the administration group trying to figure out how to seed new markets without taking on office space until a presence is established?  Telecommuting.
  • Have revenue and earnings not rebounded as quickly as expected?  Are conversations starting about more reductions?  Furloughs, sabbaticals, reduced schedules.
  • Are more and more of the company’s clients oversees requiring coverage outside of normal office hours?  Flexible scheduling.
  • Are levels of stress and overwork causing a spike in health care costs?  Day-to-day flexibility to get to gym, leave early to see kids’ games etc.
  • Are the investor and government relations groups struggling to complete the Corporate Social Responsibility/Environment and Social Governance Report for the SEC? Telecommuting.
  • Can implementing a flexibility strategy in partnership with the technology group help improve utilization of what’s already being offered and identify gaps in tech resources that need to be filled?

Understand the common characteristics of successful work+life flexibility.  Fifteen years of work with companies, leaders, and employees have shown us, time and again, that the best strategies have the following characteristics:

  • They are NOT one-size-fits-all. They are tailored to the unique realities of the business and the people who work there.  Those (sometimes tough) business realities must be acknowledged for the solutions proposed to have credibility and staying power.
  • They are process, not policy-based which makes them flexible enough to adapt and evolve with the changing realities of the business and the people who work there.
  • They are built on a strong employee-employer partnership, not from the top-down. The employer/manager creates the space within which innovative work+life solutions are crafted as part of the day-to-day operating model.  And employees are prepared and know what they need to do to meet the company halfway. Most companies skip this important step.
  • They achieve both business and individual personal objectives. The employer understands how to apply the same flexibility that helps individual employees manage their work+life fit to achieve other business objectives such as resource cost management (eg. labor, real estate, technology, and health care), global client service, sustainability, disaster preparedness, working better and smarter, etc.

Move beyond the five standard types formal flexible work arrangements.  Again, it’s process, not policies. Include in the process the ability to officially change how, when and/or where you work for a period of time.  Some people and the business will need a formal change, at some point in time.  But, build the strategy primarily around day-to-day flexibility or small, periodic, none recurring shifts in work and life.  Consider including in the flexibility toolkit any PTO and Leaves you offer.  You are providing a whole continuum of flexible tools in one package.

Any job and any industry can embrace some form of flexibility but not every type of flexibility. A process-based approach lets you adapt the flexibility to the business, whereas “check the box,” one size fits all formal flexible work arrangements don’t.  Flexibility is going to look different even within different businesses within the same company.  Important: The consistency comes in the access to the same process not in the promise of the same type of flexibility.

Measure at all points. Adapt what you measure to where you are in the process and what you want to learn.  An example is the case study of key metrics from our BDO Flex project. In the discovery phase we used quantitative and qualitative data to begin to identify what’s working and make links to the business.  In the visioning phase, we tested how well people understood this shared vision.  Then when we were building readiness of a key leadership group, we tested their buy-in.  And finally in the orientation and review phases we measured the following buckets of outcomes at set intervals:

  • Personal Work+Life Fit and Understanding of Flexibility
  • Employee Engagement
  • Work Effectiveness
  • Business Impact

Nothing is EVER going to be perfect, and you are always going to have to continually tweak and improve your flexibility strategy. Some employees will not live up to their end of the bargain.  If they don’t, then they don’t get flexibility.  As a very wise executive once said to us, “Chances are it’s not the flex, it’s the employee and maybe they should be gone.”  You will always have managers who won’t support it.  They need to be coached and penalized in the reward system.  But, at the end of the day, avoid the temptation to build a flexibility strategy geared toward the few who will abuse.   Build it for the many who will thrive…they will.

Great Resources (No particular order):

Fast Company: Don’t Let “Flex Just Doesn’t Work for Me”= “I Don’t Care If You Leave” Because It Will

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Three times in the past couple of weeks I’ve heard a variation of the same story that should serve as a cautionary tale for all managers:

  • You have a highly valued, competent current or prospective employee who has used flexibility in the past to manage his or her work+life fit in a way that considers their needs as well as the needs of their job. They have a track record of success.
  • Said employee presents a well-thought out proposal for flexibility. They’ve covered all angles. Of the three scenarios mentioned above, one person wanted to reduce his schedule to deal with an ongoing health challenge more aggressively, with the goal of going back to full-time after he recovers.  Another individual had been promoted, and returned to a full-time role; however, she wanted the flexibility to work from home periodically.  And finally, the third person was being considered by a venture capital firm to be CEO of a company.  He wanted to telecommute two days a week as he was doing with his current job.
  • In all three cases, the response was, “No.” The initial reason given was, “I need you here.”  Then each employee respectfully asked if there were any business concerns that made the plan unworkable.  None of the decision-makers could cite a business-based rationale for their answer.  All they said was, “It just doesn’t work for me.”

Okay, let’s stop here for a minute. I have seen this same scenario play out over the years more times than I can count.  To these managers, their logic makes complete sense (at least at the moment):  If I just say, “it doesn’t work for me,” then everything will go back to the way it was.  Everyone will forget about any flexibility.  I don’t want change.  I like things exactly the way they are right now.  It works for me as it is.

In fact, in an alternate universe, these managers are often giving a compliment.  They are essentially telling the employee that he or she is too valuable, therefore, they  want them around and available.  They think saying “No,” will make their preferred status quo a reality.

Unfortunately, that’s usually not what happens.  Note to managers: just because you will it, doesn’t make it so.  Fair warning, you will lose.
What should managers and individual employees do? (Click here for more)

Work+Life Fit Ah-Ha’s of “Undercover Boss”

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I am not a huge follower of reality TV, though I am a fan of Oprah’s.  I sat down to watch an Oprah episode a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about the new reality series, Undercover Boss. I almost turned it off, but I’m glad my kids stopped me.  Highlights from the series offered surprisingly important insights.  I was struck by the fortuitous relevance of the show as we make our way through this post-recession, pre-recovery period of uncertainty.

The interactions between the employees and their “undercover boss” showcased the sometimes painful disconnection between the work+life reality employees actually experience and what senior leader know or intend.  I decided to tune in when the series debuted following the Super Bowl, and wasn’t disappointed.

In the first episode, Larry O’Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management, goes undercover and poses as new front-line worker in different divisions of his organization.   Obviously, reality television is contrived by the sheer presence of a camera, but perhaps the followings insights from the show will spark reflection.  Specifically, what’s really happening on the line everyday and what needs to change so that employees and employers benefit.  Here are my takeaways:

American employees work hard…very hard. Often in difficult circumstances.   Productivity grew by 9.5% in the third quarter of 2009, the largest gain in 30 years.  But unit labor costs fell 3.6% in that same period, the largest decrease since 1948.  What this means is that in the second half of 2009, employees produced more work in fewer hours and made less money.

Undercover Boss gives you a sense of what that really looks like.  Whether sorting through a rapidly moving recycling conveyor belt, cleaning 15 port-a-johns in a day, or doing four different office management tasks at the same time, people are working very hard .  And they are often doing it while managing some sort of chronic illness.  In most cases, O’Donnell couldn’t complete the difficult tasks his employees had mastered.  He was visibly surprised and humbled, as he should have been.

Small adjustments in work+life fit reality make a big difference. So often we talk about the big, transformational changes we need to make to improve the way we work and live.  But as the undercover boss learned firsthand, tiny, easy, low-cost adjustments can do enormous good.  There were two small fixes identified by O’Donnell that would make a huge difference to the work+life fit reality of workers.

First, when he rode in the residential sanitation truck with a female driver, O’Donnell was shocked to learn that she goes to the bathroom in a can because there isn’t enough time for a bathroom stop.  At the end of the show, he’d committed to fixing that.

Second, when a worker in the recycling plant panicked and ran to make sure she didn’t clock back in even a minute late from lunch, he was appalled.  He knew this wasn’t the corporate policy, and made sure that rule was reexamined.

Yes, these two small changes, if completed, will have a big impact in terms of morale, commitment, engagement, and lower stress, but chances are they are not isolated.  O’Donnell needs to make identifying and fixing similar work+life fit related issues an ongoing priority.  They may seem insignificant from the executive suite and are easy to pass over and ignore.  Don’t.

Involve line level employees in the creating the solutions. What sounds like a great idea to fix a problem from 30,000 feet up at corporate headquarters may not make any sense on the ground.  I was glad to see that O’Donnell engaged the employees in resolving the issues he observed.  Whether determining when or how to build a bathroom break into the truck route, or how to motivate the people who clean the port-a-johns, he asked the individual employees to participate in the problem solving process.  As a result, there’s a greater likelihood the solutions will work.

Attitude is Makes a Difference. There is no doubt that times are tough today, but attitude goes a long way in determining how we feel about the way work fits into our lives.  While I am sure the employees profiled adapted their behavior for the camera, they exhibited positive attitudes in often difficult work circumstances.  You could tell that they consciously thought about how they approached their jobs.  For example:

  • A man laughs and smiles and describes his job cleaning 15 port-a-johns a day, “an adventure.”
  • A young female cancer survivor takes pride in juggling the responsibilities of one office and three generations of her family alone.
  • The garbage truck driver makes sure to stop and visit with her customers, one of whom is handicapped, along her route, and
  • The proud landfill supervisor marches tirelessly up and down the hills of garbage even though he is on dialysis three nights a week.

The influence of film crews aside, undercover boss O”Donnell was visibly moved by the integrity and dedication of these individuals.  Their attitude offers an object lesson for us all, but you have to wonder how long they can keep it up.  In fact, it turns out the gentleman who cleaned the port-a-johns with a smile had left the company for another job by the time the show aired.

The series continues for the next few weeks.  I will keep watching and sharing any new insights.  Although engineered to make the CEO look like a good guy, it’s fascinating to watch the leader become follower, and the followers become powerful teachers.   Have you been watching Undercover Boss? What’s your reaction?