People at work

This is a slightly unusual blog entry. I actually wrote the following for an organisation I have recently been working for, after being asked by them to give my opinion on the way they manage their staff. Given that many organisations in the creative sector utilise a mix of employee and freelance staff, I thought it would be worth posting this, incase it is of use to anyone else out there:-

Managing People at Work
An organisation’s staff members are its most valuable assets and so should be looked after above everything else. Working long days or unsociable hours should be balanced with a very high basic salary, overtime payments or time off in lieu; usually time off in lieu is the better option. Overtired people do not work at maximum productivity; whereas a person who is given generous time off in lieu of arduous activities will return to work eager to move onto the next task, refreshed and efficient.

Also, the rules should be clear and consistent, either there is time off in lieu or not. Arbitrarily giving time off leaves people unsure of what to expect and off balance; this wastes their energy, as they worry about how/when they will manage their fatigue and personal lives. Inconsistency also opens the door to morale eroding thoughts of unfairness amongst staff; ‘who is getting preferential treatment’, ‘who is being worked hard’, etc.

Decisions about working hours should be made by management, not by individuals. Asking individuals to decide for themselves when they should start and stop work inherently breeds an atmosphere of competitiveness, in which staff worry about being seen to work longer, harder, faster than their colleagues, to prove that they are committed and hardworking. This is bad for building and maintaining positive team spirit. Good people will nearly always overwork themselves in their eagerness to prove they do their job well, however this leads to exponentially increasing fatigue. Long term fatigue reduces overall productivity more than the gains achieved from short term overworking.

This is not to say that managers should not consult with staff about their working hours. Managers should hold discussions to ensure that staff feel they can manage their workload and hours; but the duty of care rests with the manager not the worker. Also, it must be remembered that staff will never tell the whole truth to their manager; no matter how friendly and close a team is, there will always be things which are held back and unsaid.

Equally, it is critical for senior management to ensure that managers are themselves not overworked; as a manager’s judgment over other peoples working hours is adversely impaired by their own fatigue and by their frame of reference being severely skewed by their own working pattern. This is in addition to the negative effects fatigue has over the many other decisions that managers are called upon to take.

Where long, unsociable and relentless working hours are necessary, freelance personnel should be utilised. Freelancers are in a position to balance their work for themselves, by being free of obligatory contractual working times, in-between ‘major projects’. Long, arduous days are also one of the reasons freelancers get paid significantly more than employees, ie a ‘normal’ wage plus an inbuilt overtime and unsociable hours payment.

The primary opposition to giving time off in lieu is the argument that, upon completion of a project, staff are needed to immediately start work on the next project, with no time to spare for time off. This is simply poor time management. Prior to a project being undertaken, management should assess whether their organisation has enough free time in its schedule to successfully complete the project; and, crucially, the project schedule should include ‘staff recovery time’ as a matter of course. If the organisation does not have enough time to undertake a project with staff recovery time factored in, then either the organisation should employ more staff, utilise freelancers, or refuse the project as unfeasible.

Lack of money is, incidentally, not an acceptable excuse for not employing more staff or utilising freelancers where needed. A project being refused due to insufficient budget for proper staffing is as valid a reason as, for example, lack of budget for necessary equipment, lack of profit, or lack of appropriate expertise.

When looking for freelance personnel, it is well worth remembering that many freelancers are very well connected with other freelancers; it is a very small world. Openness and honesty should always be exercised when discussing prospective projects with freelancers, as any attempts to keep one person waiting for an answer whilst looking for alternative people is likely to be uncovered and this does nothing to promote an organisation’s positive reputation. A freelancer who ‘holds their diary’ for a client and then is not told plainly that they are not required will be less inclined to work for the client on future projects and is likely to tell other freelancers of their experience. This process will gradually reduce the number and quality of personnel available for an organisation to call upon.

There are many occasions where freelance staff are needed for their particular set of skills and expertise; however, organisations should always look first to their own employees. If a freelancer is in line for being booked for a project on the basis of having a particular skill, first look to see whether an employee could be taught that skill. The cost of training is, in almost all cases, less than the long term cost of repeatedly employing freelancers. Learning new skills is generally a positive and appreciated experience for employees and there is the additional bonus possibility of the skills being shared with other members of the team.

On the basis that it is people that form the core of an organisation, every effort should be made to retain good people. A large part of the method for achieving this can be inherently applied by adopting an attitude of gratitude for every employee who has chosen to work for the organisation; whilst avoiding the, often insidiously but easily accrued, attitude that individuals should be grateful for being ‘given’ the opportunity of employment. An individual always has the option of obtaining employment elsewhere, whereas a company devoid of people cannot function.

Understanding your employment status – DirectGov

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