23.11.2015 : Ian Macbeth

Happiness is a warm office environment

An effective workplace culture makes you feel good, valued, engaged and committed to the team. Conversely, a toxic workplace environment brings everyone down and they often look for the exit door to some place better.

I’m reminded on a daily basis of how much I appreciate coming home to be enveloped into the cosiness of a well-designed, well-insulated and warm house. One of my dreads during winter is visiting other people’s houses on dark, cold evenings when I have to wrap up in my own personal insulation against the interior cold and damp because there’s little or no insulation provided in my host’s house. That, or expect to face an unpleasant windblast from a heat pump while sitting in the only semi-warm room in the house. It strikes me that there’s an analogy here to something I’ve been pondering recently. And that’s around workplace culture.

An effective workplace culture makes you feel good, valued, engaged and committed to the team. Conversely, a toxic workplace environment brings everyone down to the level of trying to insulate themselves against the chill wind of misery and dissatisfaction; often looking for the exit door to some place better.

Yet workplace culture is one of those intangibles that you can’t really quantify or measure effectively. It’s just ‘there’; it’s simply ‘the way things are done around here’. You can’t fake it and you certainly can’t buy it. Equally, you can’t sell it when you’re recruiting. Trying to explain workplace culture at an interview, particularly to graduates or intermediates who have little or no experience of how much workplace culture matters, is nigh on impossible. Because of this lack of experience, often their decision will come down to the highest dollars on offer; and, fundamentally, this is a very poor determinant of a successful and fulfilling working experience.

I’ll give you a little example of what a warm office culture feels like. I was recently in our Auckland office, conducting graduate interviews on the 6th floor, where the Group Executive is based. It was my first time on the floor in such rarefied surroundings and, while in the interview room, our Chairman, Richard Aitken, walked past. And as he walked past, he waved at me. I doubt he actually knew who I was beyond knowing I worked for the company, but I was touched that the most senior member of a company of 3,000 employees would make the effort to acknowledge me so generously and effortlessly.

Speaking at my first team meeting on taking over as the new manager of Beca’s Christchurch Water team in 2011, I used a Maori proverb that I think elegantly sums up the most important thing in life:

He tangata, he tangata, he tangata”- It is the people, the people, the people.

Ultimately, we are nothing without the people in an organisation. Particularly in a consultancy environment where we don’t sell ‘things’, it’s even more self-evident – our only asset is our people.

Managers set the tone. I’ve been in a workplace environment with a senior manager who I admire enormously; despite a huge level of responsibility and workload, he still found the time to actively engage with individuals at all different levels and demonstrated a genuine interest in their well-being.

Coming from the top, this sort of behaviour flows down to all levels. People feel good working in a place where seniors care about them. It makes everyone that much more committed to succeed as part of an organisation. You’re prepared to make that much more effort to ‘do it for the team’. And, of course, success breeds success.

At another workplace, I briefly had a manager who, by his behaviours, made it clear he was far more interested in himself and furthering his own career. I distinctly recall my disgust when he called an impromptu meeting of staff to announce, Cheshire cat-grin on his face, his departure to a bigger, and allegedly better, part of the group. I confess to a feeling a degree of schadenfreude when I later heard he had been made redundant and spent many months unemployed.

Yet while managers set the tone, I absolutely believe everyone has to be a part of it. Coming into an organisation and expecting to be wrapped in a warm blanket of cosiness isn’t enough. Everyone, including new starters, needs to fully engage for a team to work effectively. Everyone needs to be their own little radiator of heat. Like anything in life, the more you put in, the more you get out. Sitting back and expecting ‘stuff’ from ‘The Management’ without contributing to a constructive workplace culture yourself isn’t good for you and it’s certainly not good for the team. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy at his US Presidency inauguration speech back in 1961:

Ask not what your company can do for you - ask what you can do for your company”.

You can talk about creating an effective workplace culture as much as you like, but it’s nothing if you don’t walk the walk. It permeates everything. Treating others with respect, taking personal responsibility, working as a team, giving effective feedback, learning lessons, being proactive, remaining positive, looking for solutions, aiming for excellence, delivering on promises and being present.

On the point of feedback, I recently attended a refresher session on 'Effective Feedback'. The group was asked to do some preparatory homework whereby we had to consider our recent experience of feedback. I confess I struggled to come up with many examples, thinking to myself that I don’t often get feedback. And then I had a bit of an epiphany: how often had I actually bothered to ask others for feedback?

So, I’m now trying to be brave and regularly ask for feedback, from both seniors and juniors, rather than just passively waiting for it. I encourage you to do it as well. Not only do we learn what we’ve done well and what we can improve upon, we gain a better understanding of each other’s expectations and drivers.

I’ll leave you with a simple challenge: say hello and smile at your colleagues when you pass them in the corridor or in the stairway – whether or not you actually know them. Engage in conversation at the coffee machine. It costs nothing and generates a lot of warmth. And, for those of you at Beca, if you want to see a best-practice role model of this, just spend a couple of hours shadowing Dave Quensall, Facilities Manager in the Auckland office.

Stay warm this winter. Kia kaha (Stay strong).

About the Author

Ian Macbeth

Manager - Christchurch Water

Ian has over 25 years’ water industry experience in NZ and the UK. He has background in water and wastewater treatment plant operations and management, as well as in trade waste control and water-related regulatory compliance. He likes to see the big picture and how things are inter-connected by using coloured pencils and flowcharts. I'm a firm believer of Lord Rutherford’s maxim, “if you can’t explain it to the tea lady, you probably don’t understand it yourself”.

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What Do You Think?

Justine · 7/08/2015 1:08:14 PM
Great piece, Ian. You are quite right about Dave Quensell. He sets the bar high.

Ian Macbeth · 6/08/2015 5:24:21 PM
Thanks, Emily - you're a great example of a little radiator :-).

Ian Macbeth · 6/08/2015 5:22:45 PM
Thanks for the comment, Kam - glad you liked the article. And pleased to hear you've got the warm fuzzies about Beca.

Emily Kelly · 4/08/2015 7:36:15 PM
Outstanding article Coach/ Captain Macbeth. Every word is very true. We are so lucky to have a great culture at Beca.

kam · 3/08/2015 10:59:40 PM
Ian - great article and summarises my warm fuzzy feeling about working in Beca. :) It is the strong Beca culture and focus on our clients, our partners and our people - let's not lose that!