Instead of compelling people to work in the office ask: is this office a compelling place to work?

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Let me take you back in time. The year is 1983. For four years I have been working as a manager in one of Europe’s largest paper manufacturing plants. I have done a stint running the site’s hardboard mill and have now been promoted to a new role which includes responsibility for the various warehouses.

My responsibilities include the dispatch of all the paper we produce. The union has an iron grip. There is a quota that says the guys will only load 12 lorries in an 8 hour shift. When I come in at 8 in the morning they have loaded the first 3 and are now ensconced in their comfortable messroom eating a generous fried breakfast. The tradition is that the warehouse management knock before entering this space!

That was my introduction to warehouse management and logistics in the 1980s. 

Around the same time a new company was being formed in Cowley, Oxford after a demerger from the nationalised dinosaur that was British Leyland. The new company was launched with over 50% 0f its shares owned by managers and employees. John Neill was its CEO then and is still its Executive Chairman today.

He wanted Unipart to become known for understanding the real and perceived needs of customers better than anyone else. He knew Unipart could only do this if its people were committed, agile and inventive. He won business with Toyota and Honda and insisted that Unipart learn all that the Japanese could teach. To promote that learning he first created a Unipart University which evolved into the Faculty on the Floor. The Unipart Way is a system designed to engage every single employee in diagnosing problems and developing solutions. To recognise and reward employees who had risen to this challenge Unipart created the Mark In Action scheme. In 1998 I was invited to become one of its two external judges – a role I still perform.  

At a special awards ceremony to mark 35 years of the scheme I asked a few Unipart colleagues to remember some of their favourite examples. Mine was a Midlands warehouse employee called Eddie, who took it on himself to write a personal note to a particular Jaguar dealer, offering individual support and troubleshooting should that dealer ever have difficulties.

The dealer was delighted; Jaguar were impressed and in time ‘Adopt A dealer’ went viral.

Commitments to ‘go the extra mile’ were not limited to customers. A Unipart manager remembered a Unipart driver who had stopped his vehicle and gone to the rescue when he saw a woman struggling to rescue a horse that was in danger of sinking into deep mud. Knowing Unipart’s culture, the driver knew he would be commended, not condemned, for taking time out to intervene. A recent award went to an employee who couldn’t stand the waste of water in the company’s washrooms as a beam of light activated the taps every time he walked past. After several attempts he invented a viable solution.

There are many stories of visionary leaders who have turned around failing organisation and then moved on somewhere else. This is different.

After 40 years Unipart remains privately owned and fiercely independent.  It is a global business (our ceremony was joined virtually by, among others,  loyal flag-waving colleagues from a Shanghai warehouse) .

In an age of AI the challenges are more complex than those solved by Eddie. Yet the collective Unipart momentum is stronger than ever.  Any employee knows that she is invited to be a leader in solving problems for the customer or any other stakeholder.

On my way home I listened to yet another radio discussion about ‘Mass Resignation’ and heard Elon Musk declare that the desire of the “laptop classes” to work from home was “immoral”.

How irrelevant, I thought. The issue isn’t about where people work. It is how much of themselves they bring to work.

In any board meeting which debates hybrid working I hope there will be someone who widens the discussion and makes colleagues look through the other end of the telescope.

Nearly one fifth of British people said in a recent study that work was not important in their lives. That is the highest proportion among the 24 countries studied. What a waste of so much talent and energy.

A report from ADP Research Institute surveyed over 32,000 workers worldwide. More than half (56%) of Gen Z said they would leave their job if it interfered with their personal lives. The  Lever report found that 42% of people in Gen Z would rather be at a company that gives them a sense of purpose than one that pays more. In the light of this research the board should spent less time listening to Elon Musk. Stop worrying  about compelling people to come to the office. Start asking  whether coming to work is a sufficiently compelling experience.

Review your underlying assumptions about what motivates the people you want to employ and then ask:

Do we, like Unipart, have a culture in which anyone, in any position, feels expected, and equipped to take a lead?

If the answer is no, do we believe that we would make work more meaningful and purposeful for our people if we started to strive for such a culture?

What do we need to change in our approach to listening and learning for such a culture to take hold?

What might we need to change in our approach to reward and recognition? In particular do we share the rewards in this business in a way that encourages colleagues to take a lead?

Mark Goyder is the Founder of Tomorrow’s Company. He has been a Judge in Unipart’s Mark In Action programme for 25 years. He is the author, with Ong Boon Hwee of Entrusted: Stewardship for Responsible Wealth Creation.

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