‘It takes a village’: the change that unified a workforce

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Russell Gordon Contracting (RGC) was a finalist in this year’s IBM Kenexa Awards for being among New Zealand’s best small to medium sized workplaces.

HRM sat down with Andy Telfer, COO at RGC to discuss what made the company such a successful employer.

Last year, the company’s survey results showed that employee engagement levels had improved; but rather than encouraging complacency, RGC took a proactive approach to increase those levels even further.

The company held training sessions with an organisation called Team One, which is run by Rugby League stars Tawera Nikau and Hugh McGahon.

“Because of the demographic of our employees is very similar to them, they hold a lot of personal credibility with their sporting success,” Telfer explained.

“So we felt that working with Nikau and McGahon would be a good facilitator for the change and development of our company culture.”

The sessions with Team One were intended to construct a “unifying, guiding principle that reflected RGC’s multicultural team”.
Leaders and employees were challenged to agree upon a new set of core principles for the company to abide by.

A village community

“The key idea that emerged from the training and discussion was the concept of operating our company like a village,” Telfer told HRM.

“Even in the most industrialised countries of today, it was not very long ago that everyone lived in villages. That metaphor works well to encourage our people to consider how they behave at work.”

The core ideology is that RGC, like a village community, works together in the field to produce an abundant harvest.

“If that harvest is abundant, everyone shares the rewards,” Telfer said. “If it is scare, everyone suffers the result.”

He noted that in modern companies, this is not what happens; shareholders reap the rewards of the variable profit.

“Our employees can reap a share of the profits if they work hard, but those benefits fall away if they don’t do well – they will get paid, but they won’t get bonuses.”

In order to make the metaphor work, the workforce discussed the kinds of behaviour that would lead to abundance, and which behaviours would detract from it.

“That was the behaviour of everyone, from managers all the way through,” Telfer explained.

He added that there were two categories of behaviour that was to be monitored: operational behaviour, which encompasses clear objectives, and behaviour around conduct, such as behaviour towards colleagues and coming to work on time.

“One approach to behaviour is operational, and one social,” Telfer told HRM.

The next challenge for the workforce was designing a way to measure those behaviours in order to reward them.

“We have a literal measure of these things,” Telfer said.

One of these methods is a scorecard – “imagine a team of guys laying concrete on a construction site; we give their supervisor a score card to measure several aspects of their performance,” Telfer explained.

“The first thing they do is record whether each individual has arrived on time, then they go on to check whether workers have all of their equipment, and whether they worked safely.”

Other measurements include whether employees have worked productively, kept their manager informed, whether the customer had any complaints, right through to whether the employer went home on time.

“At the end of the week, we calculate a bonus that can be shared between the people who scored 100% on their behavioural indicators,” Telfer told HRM.

“When we take it up to a higher level and look to managers, they will be measured for a number of things, like whether the team achieved its objectives, customer feedback, and zero harm onsite.

“These are measured monthly and lead to annual bonuses.”

Employee response

Telfer told HRM that the response to the cultural overhaul has been positive across the organisation.

“This is not just a bonus scheme,” he said.

“It’s literally got to be communicated with that message of the village, because people if people don’t use that analogy it’s just an ordinary financial reward system.

“We have many different cultures in our workforce, from countries with different environments, so there are guys who grew up in places from the UK to New Zealand to Rarotonga, and everyone gets the idea of the ‘village’.”

Telfer added that the metaphor has also promoted cross-team support; he explained that rather than just looking after one’s own team, workers will assist other teams because that helps the village.

“It really makes a big difference,” he said.

“A simple explanation is if someone is off sick, someone from another team might volunteer to take their place – whereas before they didn’t.”

Another benefit the company had seen was in terms of health and safety – which is a huge priority in the construction sector.

The hazards in the construction industry are high, so health and safety has to be significant, prominent, and clearly defined – which is another thing we’ve achieved with these changes.”

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