So, if you heard that your removal men were to go on a training course, you might reasonably hope they would be endowed with the skills of bereavement management or massage, but Humour Relations would surely be way down your list. Yet this isn't a joke. Harrow Green Removals is one of the top companies in the field, undertaking everything from domestic moves to relocating multinational firms. There might be Carry On ... potential in their recent assignment for the National History Museum, which included shifting seven blue whale skeletons, but why do their staff need to learn to see the funny side?
"We rely on our people to give good service," explains Michael Monk, Harrow Green's human resources manager, "and therefore feel responsible for their personal development. It ultimately improves their service to our customers. We try to do things that the rest of the industry hasn't done, and to show the way. Removals is still old-fashioned and traditional, we're trying to get away from the man in a van with hairy arms image."
It was Harrow Green's marketing director, Reg Allen, who felt the need for a course to help with team-building. "We've had a lot of changes going on, and that makes people uncertain. Our staff need to come together around something light and upbeat."
Twenty volunteers, ranging from directors to the receptionist, met at a country house hotel just outside Brentwood in Essex. The course creator and organiser Sue Plumbtree promised learning through fun, and assured them that they would stop taking each other for granted. The morning was dominated by a human treasure hunt which involved tracking down people with certain personality traits and asking the sort of questions that are seldom raised round the staff coffee machine, from the easy, "Find someone who has had a good laugh lately. Find out about it", to the personal - "Ask someone to tell you about the first time that she/he fell in love."
Although everybody worked within the same firm, most barely knew each other. And, as Paul Sharville confessed, "I normally like to reveal myself one page at a time, and my first love is more like page 365. It was very intimate, but the fun and positive nature stopped it from being too dangerous."
Soon everyone was beginning to think about how laughter oiled the company wheels. "It relieves stress and allows us to step back from the pressure," explained Tim Ryder from the Operations section. "Within our department we know each other well enough to know when a joke's gone too far. But when someone's from another part of the firm they can take it the wrong way and think you're having a pop at them."
It quickly became apparent that the main conflict was between different departments, rather than between managers and staff. In the modern, down- sized company, everybody works so closely together that those traditional divides are disappearing. "When I was a young man and first started working, even how you had your tea break was hierarchical," reflected director Geoff Upsdell. "The top brass had their own pot and tray while we went to the canteen. Today at Harrow Green, I'm not conscious of any such barriers."
The modern disease is inter-departmental rivalry, with each department functioning like a rival mini-company with its own objectives and priorities. In this case, Operations complained that Sales will promise anything to close a deal, while Sales riposted that Operations were not flexible enough. Sue Plumbtree was quick to point out the benefits of humour to cross these divisions: "Smiling is the world's only universal language. Other gestures change from culture to culture. Crying can mean anything from angry or sad to even happy, but laughter always means the same thing."
The longest and loudest laughs of the course were raised by an exercise designed to improve observation skills. Everybody was paired off, sat back to back and told to change five things about their appearance. It was a hot day and most people were wearing very few clothes, so plenty of ingenuity was needed. After a couple of minutes they turned around and attempted to spot what was different about each other. In some cases it was not only easy but hilarious. Men with tattoos had borrowed ladies clip-on Bet Gilroy-style earrings, and one director shoved a pen up his nose.
When asked for yet another seven changes, one move co-ordinator even found a swimming costume to slip over the rest of her clothes. "It was all about change," said Sue Plumbtree. "Normally we think, 'How will change affect me?' Originally, everybody thought they couldn't cope when I asked for even more change. However, by swapping items, they learnt the value of sharing and how it was OK to ask one another for help. When they were creative they had no problems. Humour helps unlock our creativity."
Employees voted Humour Relations 100 per cent successful. "I found that I can approach people and voice opinions without it sounding like recrimination," explained Mo Alan from Accounts. "It allowed us to bring down our inhibitions," added Sarah Piggot from Sales, while Paul Sharville from Marketing felt that "it brought a personal face to Harrow Green and showed how we need to talk more and how, as we grow, this becomes more difficult".
For the final session the group was split into four teams, who were asked what changes they would like the company to make. Just how effective humour was at breaking down barriers was underlined by how similar each team's conclusions were. Improving communication was the common thread, and suggestions included: inter-departmental rather than simply management liaison; finding space for a communal meeting area, and setting up a social activities committee.
The bosses, too, thought the company had benefited from the day. "I was thrilled with the results," says marketing director Reg Allen. "We'd already discussed all the communication problems at board level, but now the demand is coming from the bottom up. They are bound to be more successful because everybody has owned these changes. A meeting called by the board to get better communication is doomed."
Humour is the British way of opening up, while the Americans are encouraged to share their pain so they can begin to understand one another - we shy away from such difficult disclosures. In a work situation, the British are particularly uncomfortable about being too intimate with each other. We just don't need to know that the woman in Accounts has problems with her mother-in-law. Sharing a joke allows us to lower our guard, and at the same time humour can defuse a situation that has become too threatening. For example, the list of projected social activities for Harrow Green employees became so long that it seemed to engulf all free time. Laughter exploded when, after charity cricket matches, pub quizzes and barbecues, some wag had written "wife swapping".
Work makes heavy demands on us. We already put in more hours than we used to, and now it seems we're to be asked to bond with our colleagues. Yet we have a limited amount of emotional energy and surely we need to save some for our families? Work used to be work and play was play. Today the boundaries are blurring, with our employers training us to have fun, while in our free time the government lectures that we should be working at our marriages. It's a funny old world.
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