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Happy talk

If I wish to engage, then the enemy, for all his high ramparts and deep moat, cannot avoid engagement;

Ironically enough, as I was driving away from the NMBS Supplier conference the other week, I drove past a lorry from the Happy Hen Company which proclaimed: “Happy hens lay better eggs” – that its eggs were better than others because they are happier.

Ironic, because the Supplier Conference was all about engagement , and how being fully engaged with one’s company makes one a happier and better worker.

Jonathan Austin, the CEO of Sunday Times Best Companies came out with some quite astonishing figures to show that companies where the employees are fully engaged with the ideals and goals of the company outperform their markets and the stockmarket consistently.

It’s so true. Having worked for a company where the managing director’s idea of staff motivation was the carrot and stick method – the carrot being that he wouldn’t sack you – I know that it is easier to work harder and more productively when you feel valued and part of the team.

That company also tried to bring in an initiative to develop its corporate values and ensure that every employee adhered to them. But you can’t just impose that on a workforce, particularly not a workforce that’s busting its collective guts anyway, just to keep employed. We might have been more likely to engage with the whole thing if we hadn’t been forced to spend a day in a grotty village hall brain-storming “what makes us an X-company person” questions when we’d all got deadlines and targets that we knew weren’t going to be met by themselves.

Work/life balance is part of engagement but not all of it. But then a company that truly values its employees and encourages their engagement with its values and goals is likely to be one that recognises that we work to live, not the other way round.

The most miserable time I ever had at work was for a company where the sales director expected everyone to work late every night and discouraged one from taking any paid leave on the grounds that he had never spent any time with his children when they were growing up and he didn’t see why other people would want to. I kid you not, he actually said that.

The Supplier Conference was about launching NMBS’s own Best Companies initiative. The buying society has already gone through some of the evaluation process itself and found out the differing levels of engagement throughout the organisation. Generously, md Chris Hayward was happy to share those findings with suppliers.

Even if a company doesn’t get as far as Best Company status, I think there’s a lot to be said for going through the process of asking the questions about how much engagement there is within a company. Even if you find out that there are very low levels would be a benefit as that’s something that can be improved upon.

The lovely rower Ben Hunt-Davies was one of the conference speakers, a man who understands only too well the rewards that can be gained by improving little by little. Improving the Team GB rowing eights little by little won him a gold medal in Sydney and almost lost me my voice, so long and loud was I cheering them on, leaping up and down in my sitting room.

I missed his presentation this time round – I had to get back to make sure the work/life balance was in my favour – but it didn’t matter. I can still remember the important bits from the time I saw him speak in Athens in 2004.

I have used his phrase “does it make the boat go faster” a lot since then to evaluate proposals and ideas, as well as the notion that making the boat go even 1% faster is a goal worth working towards because that improvement is something to build upon. And it’s something that the team all believed in and built upon and they would never have done that if they weren’t all engaged in working towards the same goal and the same values.

About Fiona Russell-Horne

Fiona Russell-Horne
Group Managing Editor across the BMJ portfolio.

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