Exhausted and taken for granted: UK workers need management in reverse | James Timson

LLooking at the state of business in Britain, you might think that the way we currently work isn’t working. According to the Office for National Statistics, 2.8 million people in the UK are off work due to long-term illness, 700,000 more than before the pandemic. Deliveroo and Uber Eats employees are on strike over pay and working conditions. Teachers complain that the unpaid overtime they are expected to work amounts to “daylight theft.” In February, the government responded to a massive trial of reduced working hours by 61 organizations by saying: “We have no plans to introduce a four-day working week”, regardless of success of this pilot project. It seems that across all industries many workers feel disrespected and burned out, and neither bosses nor policymakers can imagine doing anything differently. But in my experience, work doesn’t have to be that way.

Timpson, the company I joined in 1995, is both successful And takes care of its employees. In fact, I would say that we succeed precisely because we take care of our employees. This year, we will open 50 new stores, on high streets and in retail parks, and recruit 160 additional employees. I believe that in any company, if you have a strong culture and continue to invest in your colleagues, you can survive periods of disruption.

We call this culture “reverse management”. If you were at one of our board meetings, you won’t hear much from Paresh, our CFO, talking about money, but you will hear a lot about the happiness of our colleagues and the levers that we use to inspire them and care for them. The more money we invest in our culture of kindness, the better the company performs. So colleagues who serve customers have full authority to do what they think is right. They can ignore office guidelines, as long as they stick to our only two rules: put the money in the register and look the part. Everyone else in the company is there to help them, not to tell them what to do.

Many struggling businesses don’t seem to realize that their most valuable asset is not the stock on the shelf, but the loyalty and passion of their colleagues. When sales fall, executives typically demand that costs be cut, prices raised, investments suspended, and training ignored. This is the start of a slippery slope that often leads to increased illness, lower morale, and even strikes. As struggling business leaders are locked in meetings to plan store closings and job cuts, perhaps they could consider another approach.

What might Britain’s jobs landscape look like if bosses asked themselves: what if I tried to run the best company our colleagues have ever worked for? If they offered staff carrots instead of sticks – like free trips to company-owned vacation homes, extra days off on their birthdays and their children’s first days of school, or even when their pets die? None of these things are impossible, or even difficult, to offer. This month, for example, Timpson paid for new teeth for a colleague, bought another a backyard play area for his grandchildren, and a family facing serious health problems made a special trip to Disneyland Paris. It’s no surprise that these colleagues stay with us and provide our customers with exceptional service. To get a lot from the workers, it is right to first give a lot.

What if companies completely changed their leadership style? Eliminate budgets, reduce meetings to a minimum and ban memos? Timpson’s only standing committee is the Stop the Bullshit committee, which tracks down unnecessary reporting and processes. You might think it’s old-fashioned, but I also send a lot of handwritten letters to my colleagues thanking them and wishing them good luck in their new roles. I doubt any of this would be taught in a business school.

The best inside-out management techniques will be different for every company, but I wish more managers would start experimenting with a different way of doing business and seeing their colleagues as valuable human beings and not as units of production consumables.

Employment statistics are not only indicators of the economy and changing times; they also say a lot about how we treat each other and the kind of country we want to live in. Running a business is hard, but it helps when colleagues love their work, feel confident and valued. The happier they are, the better the customer experience will be and the more likely the name above the door will survive – and Britain’s workers won’t have to feel broken.

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