Building a Great Workplace - BodyShop Business

Building a Great Workplace

I've been receiving some valuable workplace training from an unlikely teacher, and he's now a great friend. Let me tell you about John.

We should all strive to create a “great workplace.” Don’t we all want our people to trust us and enjoy their work? Shouldn’t we foster a work environment that creates internal motivation to do the right thing? Certainly!

So why don’t most organizations do it? Usually we think of the things we must do to create a great workplace as “HR” stuff and don’t have time for it. Larger facilities and MSOs have a human resources person or department, whereas smaller facilities may “do it yourself” or use a consultant to dot the i’s and cross those human resource t’s.  

Many think HR means completing employment forms, conducting reviews and writing up employees so that there is adequate documentation in an employee’s file when we decide to fire them. This common perception certainly does not foster a great workplace!

Great owners and managers rely on HR. We need to make sure the legal stuff is complete and accurate. But these owners and managers understand that building the great workplace requires constant effort. The reward is a positive work environment where people come to work because they want to!

There is plenty of information out there on creating a great workplace. Google “great workplace” and you’ll find lots of websites, consultants and books on the subject.

I’ve been receiving some valuable great workplace training from an unlikely teacher, and he’s now a great friend. Let me tell you about John.

John is a large, untrained, one-and-a-half-year-old pit bull mix that currently lives at the county dog shelter where I volunteer. John was assigned to me as a training project. My job? Try to make John more adoptable and safe. I’m not a dog trainer, but since the program is overseen by a professional trainer and I’ve been a management trainer for 25 years, I figured I could do this.

John has been reminding me of some basic concepts used to create the great workplace.

Consistency Is King
The definition of a great workplace begins: “A workplace where employees trust their managers.” Working with John, the first step is to establish trust. He needs to trust me. I have no idea what exposure he has had with people. He may have been beaten, neglected or simply ignored. He needs to know that I won’t do any of those things! That’s accomplished by delivering a positive message through calm and consistent behavior. Yes, there are treats involved.

When we hire a new employee, we really have no knowledge of their past, either. They may have been beaten, neglected or ignored, too. It’s management’s responsibility to deliver a calm and consistent message through our own behavior. Too many of us are calm and positive one day, then stressed and blowing up the next. The employee does not know how to deal with us; there is no trust.

Learn To Be Consistently Positive
When I met John, he jumped on me and humped me, which was not a positive experience.  Initially, I pushed him back down, shouted “OFF!” and figured he would stop. Sadly, shoving John down and shouting “OFF!” did not work.  He has no idea what “OFF!” means, and he figured that when I shoved him down, I was playing so he played back by jumping and humping again. He was having fun! I was not. The professional trainer explained this to me and offered a solution: When John jumps and humps, turn away from him and ignore him as well as one can when being jumped and humped by an 85-pound pit bull. Then, as soon as he stops and sits, immediately reward him with a treat (dog money) and praise. He quickly learned that sitting calmly gets him paid and also gets him out of his kennel. Jumping and humping gets him ignored.

I am not suggesting that our people, especially new hires, are going to jump and hump us! Nor will they respond to dog treats and a pat on the head. People are not dogs! But people do respond to positive reinforcement. Step No. 1 is to clearly explain or demonstrate our expectations or goals. Step No. 2 is to consistently catch people achieving those goals or performing in ways we expect, then find ways to reward them. The reward can often be something as simple as verbal praise and recognition. Always be looking for someone doing something right. When you find them, praise them! Be consistent and be positive.

Be Sincere
I once worked with a client who held regular weekly meetings with all of his managers where each one would announce their performance numbers for the month to date. If a manager called out a bad number, the client berated him in front of his colleagues. If a good or great number was called out, the client usually ignored it or offered a “backhanded” comment like, “We’ll see if that holds through the month.” The result? No one gave accurate numbers. One manager explained, “Why call out a bad number? I give him what he wants to hear, and at the end of the month I take my beating, once.” Those meetings were consistent, but they weren’t consistently positive. A better method would be to sincerely praise good numbers. When a bad number is called out, the client should ignore it in the group meeting, then follow up individually for an explanation and then offer to improve the performance.

You Get What You Give
John has an issue with impulse control. So when I’m with him, I force myself to be calm and gentle.  That’s what I want back. Usually, he responds with calm and gentle. To test this, while walking John, I calmly picked up speed and said “Let’s go!” in a high-pitched voice. He went!

One shop manager had been trained, by his HR manager, to document all employee issues with a “write-up” so that documentation was on hand when an employee needed to be terminated. The employee files were full of negative write-ups. Management was focused on catching team members doing something wrong! The team responded by creating their own files. Technicians documented repairs they felt were substandard and took photos of perceived safety issues and OSHA violations. They kept their photos and documentation in their own files. When employees were brought in for reviews or termination, the employee files, with the manager’s negative write-ups, were reviewed. The employees fired back with their files. All in all, it became a very hostile environment.

You get what you give. In this case, the employees were treated in a negative manner. Management was trained to catch them doing something wrong, so the employees gave back what they were given. In a great workplace, management is focused on catching people doing something right. Employee files are full of positive “write-ups” documenting positive behavior. Sure, a negative issue needs to be documented, but there should be far more positive than negative events in the employee files.

It’s Rarely the Money
Most managers and owners think that people are working for money. Sure, we have to pay a competitive wage, but money is generally not the motivator we think it is.

To dogs, treats are money. High-value treats like dried liver are like $100 bills to most dogs, but not to John. Sure, if I want him to do something, I have to pay him.  But do treats really motivate him? No, treats aren’t enough. Tennis balls do the trick! He has learned to “sit,” “lie down,”  “stay” and “drop it” with tennis balls.

One recent survey of 1,200 workers revealed that 71 percent felt that the most meaningful and rewarding recognition they ever receive are appreciative words from supervisors or fellow employees. You have to pay them a competitive wage, but frequent praise and appreciation actually motivates them!

Bill is one manager who truly believes in creating a great workplace. He’s always looking for ways to reward employees and uses many reward and recognition tools constantly. His current favorite is to introduce happy customers to one of the technicians who worked on the customer’s vehicle. When a customer offers praise or appreciation for a repair, they’re asked if they would like to meet one of the technicians. No one says “no,” and someone from the team is called into the office. In most employees’ minds, being called into the office is not a good thing, so imagine how the employee feels when he or she is called to the office and introduced to a happy customer!
Communicate in “Their” Language 
John does not speak English, Spanish or any other human language. He speaks dog. But he’s learning some English. He has figured out the meaning of “sit,” “down” and a few others, but that’s it. To communicate with John, I have to communicate in ways that are meaningful to him. It’s mostly gestures and positive reinforcement, catching him doing things right. His brain is small and his attention span is short, so we play with a tennis ball, then train for 10 minutes, then play again.

As owners and managers, we need to learn to communicate in ways our employees understand. They don’t speak the same language as we do! Saying, “I need you to run 150 percent efficiency with a minimum CSI of 97 percent” to a new tech is like me asking John to get me a glass of Chardonnay. John and the new hire will nod as if they understand, but they don’t! Blah, blah, blah, blah. It would be better to explain to the new hire that we expect them to generate, or flag, 12 hours for every eight they work.

We can explain CSI, but it has been shown repeatedly that customer satisfaction is more dependent on maintaining customer communication than the quality of repair. Use time spent in employee orientation to discover what may motivate the employee. Asking about hobbies and interests may provide a vision of what may be used as a reward or recognition later. Perhaps the new hire coaches a youth soccer team. A great reward could be to allow flex time during soccer season to allow for coaching in the afternoon rather than in the evening after work.

Make Expectations Clear
If I want John to sit for three minutes, I can’t just explain, “John, I want you to sit there for three minutes. When you do, I’m giving you a treat.” He will pant at me and wait for me to throw a ball because he’s a dog. So, I ask him to sit, and when he does, I praise him and give him a treat…then another…and another as he stays sitting. Eventually, he figures out that the guy who throws balls “wants me to sit. OK. Thanks for the treats. When are you going to throw the ball?”

Getting John to walk calmly on a leash is hard because he pulls. I don’t want him to do that, so when he does, I stand still. His reward is to walk, and we only walk when the leash is slack. Right now, we stand more than walk, but he’s getting it. Sometimes he walks right at my side! When he does, he gets praise and treats.

Do our employees know exactly what’s expected of them? Are performance goals clearly spelled out? Is all filler to be finished in 180 grit and free of pinholes? Where’s it written? Do we change that standard on Thursday because “that one is just a used car and has to be on the line Saturday so finish it in 80 grit and we’ll get it painted and buff it if anyone complains.”  

Trust and Consistency
The Great Workplace requires trust. Trust requires consistency. We can’t change standards on the fly because it’s not consistent and damages trust.

Do our employees know they’re expected to be at work, in the workspace, at 8 a.m.? Or is the culture of the shop to just come in around 8, have a cup of coffee, chat with co-workers and drift over to the job by 8:30?

Expectations must be clear and consistent.  We can’t go out and yell at one person who’s late if we’ve never enforced our “on time” policy before. We can’t have a policy or standard that will be effective if it’s not written, understood and consistently enforced.

Let’s look at the “be at work on time” issue. Suppose we have a feeling that no one seems to show up on time anymore. In fact, we don’t hear air tools humming until 8:20 a.m. So we check the timecards and verify the crew is trickling in from 8:00 to 8:15. 

On-time performance is a big issue in any productive environment.  I’ve sat in on shop meetings and listened to owners explain that, “If all of you are one-tenth late, that’s one hour per day of production or 1.5 billed hours lost every day! If you look at the annual effect of that, it’s costing all of us big money!” You can then see the employees shut down and tune out. It’s just not relevant to them.

Before we go out and threaten to fire the late ones, we should review our rules to make sure we have an on-time policy. Is it written, and has it been communicated to the team?

Here’s Bill’s Great Workplace alternative: Restate the on-time policy to the team at a shop meeting. Rather than point a finger at those who are showing up late, his positive tactic would be to create an “On-Time Contest” for the next 90 days. Determine a reward for the best on-time performance, measure on-time performance, post the scores consistently and reward the winners. On-time performance will increase.  Measurement is simple, scores are posted and the employee who has the best on-time performance wins something meaningful.

There will be one or two who just can’t quite figure it out who will require a one-on-one conversation to find out why they’re consistently late. Bill did this and found one of his best techs was always 15 minutes late. Why? Because he had to drop his child off at daycare. Simple solution? Change his start time from 8:00 to 8:30.

Quick Check
The great workplace is an enjoyable place to work, and to manage. Is your business already great? For a “quick check,” look into your employee files. Are they full of “write-ups” for poor performance, problems and mistakes? If so, your business is not a great workplace.

The employee files in the great workplace should be full of positive “write-ups” because management is tuned in to finding people doing things right and rewarding positive behavior.
So, get started creating your own great workplace!

Hank Nunn is a 37-year collision industry veteran. He may be reached at [email protected].


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