What value on a happy, healthy workforce?

Posted by Laura Mattin on November 27, 2013

Two news stories with a common theme caught my eye this week – both related to employee health and well-being.
Firstly, Panorama’s expose about the experience of a warehouse ‘picker’ at one of Amazon’s enormous storage facilities in South Wales. I guess, like many people, I have often absent-mindedly wondered at the logistical operation that must go on behind the scenes of the online retail giant – usually this happens after I have managed to purchase a selection of completely random items with ‘one click’ and have them turn up at my doorstep just a couple of days later (I think a recent Amazon basket of mine held some tap shoes, a book, a fancy-dress costume and a cycle helmet!).

Having said this, I have usually considered it all from the operational business point of view, rather than the employees’. The BBC programme reminded me that, no matter how much system and process is put into an organisation to manage work, ultimately it is human beings who have to interact with that process and technology. And that can often be where the whole thing starts to fall down. The programme painted a rather uncomplimentary picture of how Amazon manages this process, with suggestions of un-due pressure, unreasonable targets and excessive physical work – all controlled by a faceless handheld device. Of course, we can’t know whether this depiction was accurate or indicative of how workers feel throughout that company, but it did make me question at what cost was I getting my cheap, efficient Christmas shopping experience?

In sharp contrast, the second news story (although with no relevance to mobile technology or systems), showed how an organisation’s image can be enhanced by the perception that it is doing right by its staff. After a shocking collapse in the first Ashes test in Australia, England batsman Jonathan Trott returned to the UK to recover from a stress-related condition. The dignity with which Trott’s superiors and colleagues discussed this decision and the support they offered left me feeling that things have really come a long way since the bad-old days when people under pressure at work were left (or told) to ‘get on with it’ and expected to carry on without making a fuss. The ECB and its representatives created the impression that the health and well-being of their people is their top priority; a claim that was made by Amazon in the Panorama documentary, but far less convincingly demonstrated.

These two cases, in some ways, can’t be compared – involving totally different industries, people and circumstances. However, together, I think they have some relevance to the ways in which we can think about a workforce management programme:

  • Regardless of process and technology, performance management is still about dealing with individual people, some of whom will react to the processes, technologies and other pressures in different ways. Of course you need processes when dealing with large numbers of staff, but any attempts that the organisation can make to adapt its behaviour and communications to take account of individuals will be appreciated by the workforce.
  • Workforce management systems can provide invaluable management information – but this information should be used primarily to improve processes, not as ammunition with which to target employees; even if there is no intention on the part of the organisation to do this, change management should address the employees’ fears.
  • Explaining to employees what value the system and devices bring to the organisation is important if you want them to use the technology effectively. In the Amazon example, the worker was heard saying that the organisation “obviously don’t trust me to use my own brain”; the benefits of the change need to be made clear to everyone involved, not just from the business’s perspective
  • Listening and responding to feedback from employees is vital if the organisation wants to understand what the working experience is really like; Amazon may be demonstrating that it’s possible to have quite a different customer experience and employee experience, but that isn’t something that a genuinely forward-thinking organisation would aspire to

There’s no doubt that process and technology have been key drivers to Amazon’s incredible success so far, but it’s likely they will have to pay a bit more attention to their employees’ experience if they want to continue being seen as a go-to brand by the British consumer. Well done to the ECB and its people for doing just that.