From workers' rights to personal growth

Tony Morgan (right) has led the 80-year-old Industrial Society into a new age of beneficent bosses. By Hester Lacey
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HALF-a-dozen top executives from different British companies packed waterproofs and walking boots last week, switched off their mobile phones, and set off to a remote Welsh farmstead for a four-day "leadership retreat". On the agenda, at a cost of pounds 3,000 per person, were exercises in awareness called "letting the forest find you", sessions on haiku poetry, and learning about "gifting yourself a future". And the organiser of this new-ageish jaunt? The Industrial Society, a venerable body founded 80 years ago by an Anglican minister to improve working conditions by encouraging the provision of canteens and lavatories.

Today, as a non-profit-making charity with a royal charter, encompassing private and public sector employers, trade unions, charities and voluntary organisations, it has a uniquely varied membership. But things have changed at Robert Hyde House, the society's headquarters in Bryanston Square, near Marble Arch, London; now it publishes volumes such as The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul at Work, and commissions research on sex in the workplace (it discovered that the office roof is a favoured spot for illicit dalliances).

Unlike the Rev Robert Hyde who founded the society in 1918 as the Boys' Welfare Association, the current chief executive, Tony Morgan, is more concerned with employees' states of mind than the condition of their bathrooms.

Those on the Welsh retreat, for example, experienced communal cook-ins and housework to help them "bind as a group". As a way to help with "accessing the non-logical parts" of themselves they each took a piece of music, a favourite poem and a piece of verse. Their goals: self-discovery, self- knowledge and improved leadership qualities.

The Industrial Society first became widely known in the years 1962 to 1986, under the leadership of John Garnett, the father of former heritage secretary Virginia Bottomley. It began to work on training and communications as well as welfare issues.

Tony Morgan says: "I don't think John Garnett would have approved of the sex at work research, but Robert Hyde would have found this was an issue to campaign on. Though perhaps he would have approached it more formally. It was a very good piece of research and it was sad that some journalists trivialised it. But if it showed the society up as less fuddy- duddy than people think it is, that's good."

Mr Morgan came to the society in 1994. His background is diverse and includes stints in banking and industry, time as a BBC governor, plus a period in San Francisco working for non-profit organisations that specialised in industrial coaching. When he joined, the society was in poor shape; the eight years since the departure of John Garnett had not been a successful time. "He was a hugely charismatic leader and an incredibly difficult act to follow," says Mr Morgan diplomatically. His brief was to revive low staff morale, sort out finances, and re-establish the society as a serious player in the affairs of the nation. "My job is to make this a great place to work," he says. "It may sound crass but you can't now run organisations where good relations don't exist."

The society offers, as well as traditional instruction in "Minutes and Agendas" and "Finance for Non-Financial Managers", courses such as the three-day "Achieving non-linear results" that aims to "create new thinking" among managers. "Complexity theory", which treats businesses as living organisms, is one of the new buzz theories. Mr Morgan is especially proud of the fact that the society has been praised by the American management guru Warren Bennis, who singled out in particular its recent research into what constitutes leadership in the modern workplace. "He said our work was as good as anything he had ever come across, which is the greatest accolade the society could get."

But does praise from California cut any ice with UK managers? Far from finding all this too new-agey, says Morgan, British companies are lapping it up. Twenty-two thousand employees each year are now being signed up for training courses. The modern society's guiding principle is promoting "best practice" in the workplace, through campaigning and consultancy work. This month it launches Best Practice Direct, an interactive service that includes a phone helpline and website.

At the end of its first decade of existence, the society reported that "the movement has changed almost beyond belief during the last 10 years. What was regarded as fad is now regarded as a normal feature of industry". Back then, "fads" included canteens, pension provision, safety and health precautions. Is it possible that managerial retreats and complexity theory might be the norms of the next decade?