Sunday, May 31, 2009

Employees' Commitment

A famous joke tells about a pig and a chicken walking together and discussing the possibility to open a restaurant. "How shall we name the restaurant?" asks the pig. "Simple", answers the chicken "We'll call it 'Bacon and Eggs'". "I am not sure about this idea", says the pig. "It's true that we are both partners, but while you are involved in the business, I am committed".
What is commitment and how should we create organizational commitment? These are the questions I would like to dwell on in this post.

Thinking of organizational commitment brings to mind issues of job satisfaction, feeling part of the organization and similar concepts. All these are related to commitment, but are not identical. Organizational commitment is a psychological engagement of the employee to the organization.

Why should an organization work towards such commitment? There are several reasons.
First, commitment improves employee retention. We invest a lot in Knowledge Workers; we spend many hours nourishing and deepening their knowledge. An employee that is leaving forces us to re-invest. Furthermore, we depend on many of our employees. In some organizations, employees have strong relations with customers, making the personnel change unpleasant to the customers; in many organizations employees hold invaluable information, which will be lost if they leave. If employee commitment to the organization reduces turnaround, no doubt that we should encourage such commitment.
We could settle for this reason, but apparently, there are other benefits to an employee that is committed to the organization.
A committed worker is more productive during his working hours; a committed worker, according to studies, works more hours and has better performance. A committed worker is less absent; and a committed worker identifies with the organization and better assists in meeting its goals (see Dr Sigal Weisner's PhD thesis on the importance of an individual's commitment))
In order to understand how to get employee commitment, it's important to understand the different types of commitment.

Commitment can be characterized by several dimensions: One dimension deals with the nature of the commitment: an emotional commitment that the employee develops, verses a beneficial commitment (the benefits of staying within the organization), verses a moral commitment.

This can be viewed also as intellectual motives affecting commitment, like a high chance of not finding an alternative job or the comforts of the current job; verses emotional motives affecting this commitment, whether positive (liking the people we work with) or negative (fearing from the need to get use to a new job).
Yet another aspect is the subject of commitment: An employee might be committed to the profession and thus (partly) to the organization; or an employee might be committed to people in the organization, either to top management, direct management, to colleagues or to customers; and some employees are committed to the organization itself, seeing themselves as part of it and wish for its success.
We can also refer to the scope of commitment: inter-personal or organizational. In the personal level, researches have found that older people are more committed than youngsters, women more so than men, educated professionals less committed than laymen. We also see personal character as an influential parameter of commitment.
The organization and its organizational culture play a major role: a culture of sharing, teamwork and participation in decision making enhances employee commitment.

The professional aspect has great influence on the level of commitment: Job description clarity, volume of activity and personal ability to develop, all affect commitment level.

If I had to choose one parameter affecting commitment, just one tool, I'd choose reciprocity: be committed as a manager to your employees and to their wellbeing. The rest will follow.


Monday, May 11, 2009

The physical work environment

In his book "Thinking for a Living" that deals with how to achieve better performance by the knowledge workers, Prof. Tom Davenport dedicates a whole chapter to the issue of the physical work environment of the knowledge worker.
When I think about an invested work environment, the first example that pops to me is Google's offices. The slides, the fire pipes (enabling one going down fast) and the various games and entertainments, all leave me with the impression is a place with fun. The massage booths (with professional massagers), as well as the settling areas (arm chairs and aquariums), enable any employee rest also on formal working hours. And the list is long.

Fifteen years ago, I worked for a short period in a Start-up. If there is one thing that I won't forget from there, it for sure is the kitchen. The kitchen in this place was always full. The refrigerator always seemed to be overloaded, having every type of delicacy one could dream of. The closets were always filled up and twice a day, someone in charge, came in to refill. People arrived to work very early as breakfast seemed much more appealing there than at home. People left later, staying for dinner at work, and of course, discussing work at the time. I always thought that this is a cheep and easy way for the organization to see that its workers work more and produce more: Give them the right conditions and they shall stay more and produce more.

The interesting question is what influences the performance of the knowledge worker in terms of physical work environment? How is it right to organize the workplace?
In the mid nineties, as Knowledge Management emerged as an independent discipline, some organizations invested in building special complexes nurturing knowledge sharing and development. It became popular to invest in many cozy coffee places, encouraging the employees to speak more one with another. The assumption which led to this, was that when an employee encounters a problem, and does not solve it by himself immediately, he will take a coffee break, meantime meeting a colleague and discussing the issue. There is a good chance that the conversation can help, whether because the colleague has a good idea, or whether because the employee has spoken about it, and found a way to progress. Coffee areas turned to be part of the trend of organizational Knowledge Management efforts, enabling informal knowledge sharing.

Another phenomenon that developed at these years, also witnessed nowadays is designing special areas for knowledge development. Skandia, for example established its future center in this perception, back in 1996.

Do plants and lightening encourage thinking? Are colors as red, blue and yellow better for creativity? And, maybe, whiteboards across the office walls (with markers near them, of course), enabling one to write down every new idea as it pops, the key to successful knowledge development.

Davenport, in his book we mentioned, has researched this issue of the physical work environment. His conclusion is that even though many companies have acted in several ways in order to provide a more efficient workplace, very little can be said for certain, as to the effects of the workplace on the knowledge workers' performance. Davenport claims that the attitude towards this issue should be fit, twofold: Customized and personalized:
Customized- fitting the physical work environment to the group and its knowledge needs, based on the fact that knowledge workers should be segmented to sub-groups, each having its typical workplace needs.
Personalized- as knowledge workers like the autonomy of deciding for themselves, and if possible, choice has to be granted to them as to their workplace.
Indeed, I learned.

A new trend that I have heard about in several big high-tech organizations has to do with setting up virtual workplaces. The supporting rational is that the employees are mobile employees nowadays: They come in to the office only part of the work days, they have mobile telephones, and laptops, and a fixed workplace is not really needed. Instead, virtual work-stations are populated, every day with the employees who need it on that specific day. This solution can also be used if people do not have laptops or mobile telephones. Technology enables one to connect to every computer and log-in to his or her environment using their User-id and password, and connecting to their fixed number just dialing some instructions on the phone.
No doubt that this solution can save any organization a great deal in the short term. Rent is expensive and should not be ignored. This solution is one among a series of possible solutions, from which any organization has to pick its decision:
A private room for each employee.
Team rooms.
Open space (having a cubicle for each employee).
A virtual workplace.
In order to understand how the environment influences the performance of the knowledge workers, I believe three factors should be considered, each effecting the performance, whether directly, or indirectly:
The ability of the workers to concentrate and promote their tasks.
The workers ability to share one with another.
The workers satisfaction from work, as affected from the physical environment.

If we analyze all alternatives, we see that there is no one correct answer:
Private rooms may enable the optimal concentration, and may be most satisfactory, as a private room as concerned as part of the employee's status; they enable less sharing.
Teem-rooms enable sharing but may decrease concentration;
Open spaces give a bit from each;
And virtual workplaces are cheap.

I favor teem-rooms (3-4 people in a room). Assuming knowledge develops in teams and groups (as to Nonaka) and that fellowship/ friendship / team spirit develops with togetherness, I think it is the best solution, performance speaking. I know that concentration can be affected but there are several ways to handle this challenge:
First, remember that almost never, all employees are together on the same day in the office. The knowledge workers, as already stated, are mobile and spend a lot of hours out of the office.
Furthermore, people with laptops can always wander to other rooms, in order to hold a noisy telephone call (and not interrupt the others) or in order to work on some task where they need the silence (and not to be interrupted by others). The organization has to verify that such rooms exist, and that such a move is legitimate.
Also a request to work at home in order to promote such a task, should be treated favorably.
And, last but not least, when people work in a joint room, they develop a culture of considering one another.
What else do we need?

No matter what you decide to do, I have one wish: Do not promote a virtual work environment in your organizations, also it has financial benefits. Understand the importance of a private corner, a place for personal pictures, a plant and some nonsense on the table. They are all part of the worker, and even though it may not be proved by any research to help better performance, it surely is important for the employee's feeling and sense of convenience and comfort. At the end of the say, we invest a lot in order to give our employees a belongingness feeling, so why spoil?