Business Essentials: 'We're oiling the wheels of change, but our staff are set in their ways'

How can a traditional Yorkshire firm allay the fears of its workers as it embarks on wholesale modernisation?
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The Independent Online

Millers Oils has an impressive track record for staff retention. "We've got a workforce who have been here on average 25 years. Shortly after I joined four years ago, two people left who had been here 50 years," says Nevil Hall, financial director of the 120-year-old Yorkshire company, which makes lubricant and process oils

The 105 staff, he explains, feel secure in their jobs and genuinely enjoy their work.

Imagine their reaction, then, when this traditional company decided to embark on a massive modernisation process, from IT and branding to new management techniques. "Our dilemma lies in how to get the people who have been working here for decades to come on the journey of modernisation with us," says Mr Hall.

When he joined the family-owned firm, he felt it had a great deal of potential but was under- performing because there had been a serious lack of investment over the previous 20 years. "Everything needed updating - from production facilities to the technical labs and offices - and the biggest problem of all was that there was no succession planning from the board, who were retiring at more or less the same time."

The average age of the board has since plummeted by almost 20 years as the now-retired directors have been replaced. Meanwhile, huge capital investment has been made in updating practically everything. But the staff are worried that all that Millers stands for is changing. "Some have written to us saying it's great, and a few have left because they don't like it. But the majority are sitting tight and wondering what's going to happen next and where they fit in. We want to reassure them, as well as include them."

Indeed, the success of some of the reforms depends on staff embracing them. "One of the things we've tried to modernise is the way managers see themselves within the company. We want them to become more accountable rather than constantly pushing decisions up to senior management. Naively, I thought that once we gave them permission to do that, they would. But they're just not used to it."

So far, Mr Hall's efforts in tackling his dilemma have included instigating quarterly meetings. "But staff see it as a lecture and they don't ask questions or get into a dialogue, so the meeting is over quickly."

He has also introduced a regular newsletter. "But that's difficult too because it's not always possible to find people to write the articles."

In addition, he has organised a social club. "I've used these successfully elsewhere. We go to places like the races or theatre and that helps to break down barriers and makes people realise the directors are approachable."

Another promising initiative has been "First Friday" - a staff outing to the pub.

"But none of this seems to be giving anyone a sense of ownership that they are part of the modernisation process," says Mr Hall. "They seem to feel that changes will happen whether they like it or not. How can we persuade them that they do have a say in it? They know the potential pitfalls and problems more intimately than anyone because they've been here so long. We need their expertise."

Mr Hall feels the firm isn't quite ready for coaching or mentoring as possible solutions. "But we think job swaps might be useful, so people can get an idea of what others are involved with."

What The Experts Say

Ben Williams, Chartered Psychologist

*** "These long-serving staff are resistant to change, so Mr Hall should emphasise that the best of the past and the present can be carried forward to the future - but only with their experience and commitment. Do this by sharing information openly, and by stimulating and responding positively to feedback.

"It sounds as if most of the management team have had little or no training in management skills. So train them; they are as much an investment as your plant and equipment. They will then understand and manage change, and motivate staff.

"The management must be seen to appreciate the support of your workforce. Influence the silent majority by talking with them informally on a day-to-day basis. Be grateful that those who will not accept change now will either do so in their own good time or leave the company.

"Finally, organise a seminar- style away day with managers to focus on the company's new vision and values. Then repeat the process with all 105 staff."

Vanessa Robinson, Strategy And Organisation Adviser, The Chartered Institute Of Personnel And Development

*** "Job swaps might be useful but other issues relating to [job] security, commitment and motivation need to be addressed first. Change can be a daunting prospect, so it is important to involve employees and communicate the reforms effectively, using lots of different methods to reinforce key messages.

"Providing managers with the necessary skills, knowledge and support should make it easier for them to handle the transition.

"Keep employees updated on any action that is taken and get feedback so that problems can be addressed immediately.Only then will motivation and commitment levels improve."

Stephen Pegge, Head Of Communications, Lloyds TSB Business

*** "Involvement through team meetings is crucial, but quarterly is probably not often enough. Consider starting with a larger face-to-face event bringing everyone together. This should involve the leadership team demonstrating their passion and bringing the business strategy to life. Once staff appreciate the role they can play, Millers will be able to unleash their creative energy and unlock performance.

"Where change has been absent, barriers can be erected within the business; job swaps can play a role in breaking these down. Staff engagement can be measured through focus groups where workers agree the topics for discussion and help devise action plans to address any issues.

"Finally, make sure people's objectives and rewards are aligned with those of the business so there really is a clear mutual benefit in success."