Here let me read it to you. Best to listen straight off Spotify though, the browser version is buggy.
Do you want a happy, motivated team?
I’m on quite the high right now. More on that shortly, but over to you. Do you want your people to work as a motivated team, or as a detached collection of individuals?
And do you want them to be happy?
There are two ways to go. You could “build a world-class employee experience today” using software analysis:
I’m not saying that’s wrong, particularly if you have thousands of staff. But it’s a risk to believe staff happiness is just data, without speaking to a single staff member.
On the other hand, you could just bring some of them together for a day or so and you’ll have absolute clarity on how engaged they are, in about three minutes.
I’m absolutely amped about the business, having had a group of our people from five states come to Sydney for a two day get-together. A mixture of sales and technical folk. It was the first time our business has been big enough to do this, so many of them hadn’t met before.
You just had to look at their happy faces to be reminded how valuable getting people together is.
You’re thinking: you would say that Ian, you’re in the live event game. And that’s a fair point.
But our businesses do high-tech shows and presentations, and we love that stuff. Did we do anything high tech, or in fact allow any presentations at all?
No. We took them straight to a bar/restaurant to meet for the first time, and did five hours of social banter. No wild party antics, just lots of conversations.
Next day the fifteen of us sat around a large table, and basically talked all day about whatever they wanted to talk about, like we were sitting in a café. They led the conversation, and sorted a bunch of stuff out.
Then another night out, and home the next morning.
It was great. The energy was palpable. The business has stepped up a level since before the COVID break. The bar conversations popped and fizzed with smart people getting to know each other and realising they all faced the same issues.
Now they all feel like part of something bigger, and they have new friends to contact if they have problems.
Each of them was really committed to doing a good job. I’m not suggesting that’s unique to us, almost everyone wants to do a better job. Your job as a manager is to remove the obstacles that many companies put in the way. By literally asking them what issues needed fixing.
No agenda, and the cultural value of side-chat
The event was their idea. Specifically Anna from our Hunter Valley office, who came up with it and reminded us for a few months until we gave the green light.
We had no agenda. They’re the ones that do the work, they know what they need to discuss more than we do. Our only goal was to have them leave feeling really good about themselves and the people they work with.
That’s more than enough to provide us with objectively better business results.
Yet see how most people go asking their boss: “Can I have a budget to bring a group of people to a conference, and literally our only objective is to make them feel good?”
Good luck with that. Most of those bosses will say “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it”. So if it the gathering happens, it’s burdened by all kinds of PowerPoint filler and departmental agendas. It’s basically live Zoom with a flight at each end.
These gatherings let you have the essential one-on-one side chats with staff you’ve not met before.
Culture doesn’t really come from formal meetings, when everyone’s on show. It comes from these informal conversations where people show their true colours, and you go down strange conversational side-roads that reveal more of the reality.
The 4am-alarm ice bath people will tell you otherwise, but these conversations work way better after dark. It’s been the way since our distant ancestors told stories around cave fires. People open up. I learned of all kinds of non-work stuff they have going on, their back-stories, and that knowledge is really important. Without it, you don’t have a clear idea of what makes your people tick. You learn what’s important to them.
Plus they like that you’re interested.
I’m not doing this as a cunning business tactic, I’m doing it because I fucking love it. I’m super-proud of all they’ve achieved and I have much to learn from all of them.
In the future, in some high-stress situation, those people will do better work because they feel like they’re working for people who recognise them as an individual.
The Observer Effect
Those employee software surveys are a nice example of what quantum physicists call the Observer Effect: the act of measurement affects the results. If your organisation feels that feels an online survey is a good way to gauge individual morale, that’s a big statement about the organisation itself, and not a good one.
Nobody feels appreciated or understood from completing a survey, no matter how well designed. You’re lowering morale by measuring it.
On the flip side, a mix of formal and informal chats with your people changes you. It calibrates your spider senses for the complex task of getting people to do their best work. Most importantly, it’s a daily reminder how different people are.
By the way I’m not arguing for a totally free-form, qualitative approach to business here. I’m just cautious about applying survey algorithms to the deeply personal world of staff morale, where a more analog approach can lift their performance every day. If you’re a moderate-size business, be very careful about thinking that the digital approach represents progress.
Also, surveys can bring design bias. We can tell when the mood is up or down from any three months of P&Ls, the most coldly objective numbers of all.
(Speaking of spiders, we had a literal spider situation in our meeting room, which was well handled.)
Beware predictions that things you like are “dead”
It’s an interesting lesson to be cautious when people tell you tech developments have made established things “dead”.
In 2020, online event platforms rose up like Godzilla emerging from the sea, towering over the landscape and grabbing all the headlines. Hopin attracted $750M in funding, and their last funding round valued the business at $7.75 billion. This for a business with annual revenue of $100M. I’d quite like our business to be valued at 77x revenue.
All the other online platforms enjoyed a Niagara Falls shower of investor cash, and none of those investors are stupid people. There can only be one reason for those investments: they looked at the insane growth curves of those platforms during COVID, and truly believed: this can be sustained. This is permanent change.
Because why would people bother going to live meetings and events when they could do them so conveniently on your laptop from home? When all your friends and everyone you work with loves to be immersed in digital tech and code all day, it makes perfect sense.
Business rule #1: you are not the customer
They forgot business rule #1: you are not the customer.
As soon as normal people got out of home prison, they rushed out to get together like the herd animals we are, because it feels good. And the online event platforms went back into the sea like Godzilla at the end of the movie. Now they’re a tool businesses use occasionally. We thought hybrid live/online events would continue to be a thing in 2022/23, but our client enquires are about 5% of what they were in 2021.
People getting together meets a deep human need. And all you need to know about human nature was figured out by philosophers two thousand years ago, and it ain’t changing much.
I wrote this story Sunday night, and this morning email responses are coming in from people who were there. Reading them is a genuinely emotional experience. This is the stuff that makes setting your own place up worthwhile.
Whew this was meant to be a short blog because I’ve got a plane to catch but sometimes the stories write themselves. No story next week, it’s Easter and I’ll be surfing.
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For those of you in geo-blocked countries, here’s your non-Spotify audio: