Staff morale: sing if you’re winning

If conventional training methods are failing to inspire your employees, perhaps it’s time to try something different. Virginia Matthews highlights some quirky ways to boost staff confidence.

Chalk-and-talk training sessions may be the easiest way to impart a simple corporate message, but when it comes to more complex tasks such as building and developing a team, boosting productivity or managing change, many HR professionals are looking for something new.

Whether it involves opera or jazz singing, flamenco or salsa dancing, extreme sports or even a spot of method acting, staff across the country are being removed from their comfort zones and asked to attempt something new, and potentially embarrassing, often with dramatic results.

According to our three case studies, featuring companies that have committed budgets of between £40 and more than £100 per head towards finding news ways of putting smiles on faces, the resulting boost to morale has been a welcome surprise.

Dancing partners

The John Lewis Partnership is justifiably proud of its ethical approach to employment and HR. Yet following a positive experiment with a one-day corporate dance session, its various departments are now being encouraged to tread on one another’s toes in the name of progress.

Last summer, John Lewis Direct organised a team day for its 25-strong merchandise and selection squad, including every member of the team from the administrative assistant to the head of merchandise. After a brainstorming session, which highlighted paint-balling and a river cruise as possible options, they chose salsa dancing.

“Each team at John Lewis is allowed to organise its own team day, with a fixed budget, and the only rule is that a selection of people must present the results of the day back to the business,” says Jane Martin, product manager at Direct.

The company drafted in to organise the studio day was Corporate Dance, and a dress code of black, white and red with various Cuban flowers was decided on. With male dancers thin on the ground, staff swapped partners throughout the session.

Martin says: “Everyone was laughing and enjoying themselves, even though some people were slightly out of their comfort zone. Although some people were natural dancers and others less so, any embarrassment disappeared once we got going.”

Following the day, she and a small group of her colleagues danced in front of other John Lewis staff back at HQ.

While Martin believes it is impossible to quantify the impact of the salsa session on the team’s morale and productivity or on staff retention rates, she is adamant that it has been of great value in building and improving relationships.

“I have no doubt that the session was money well spent, and I have recommended that other teams do it too. Our team is doing a murder mystery day this year, which I hope will be just as much fun.”

Staff in harmony

Statistics may indicate that at least one in 10 of us is tone deaf, but that hasn’t stopped a galaxy of starry City names – including Deloitte, Barclays and American Express – from arranging on- or off-site corporate sing-a-longs of opera or pop through the Make Yourself singing consultancy.

The process is designed to sharpen presentation skills and improve vocal strength in general, and consultancy boss Graham Singleton claims that once initial shyness is over, group singing over a day or even a whole week can strengthen ties, improve self-confidence and create an upbeat mood among even the most unenthusiastic staff.

Despite having no previous experience of group singing, P&G (formerly Procter & Gamble) has recently become an advocate of the approach, as Geneva-based director of external relations Nada Dugas explains. “Having heard about the singing programme and what it could achieve in terms of employee motivation, we sent a team to assess it, and despite initial reservations, we have found it to be a powerful tool,” she says.

“As someone who does a lot of presentations, the breathing exercises were particularly important to me, and I have found it far easier to project my voice since attending. Colleagues say they feel less intimidated about speaking in public and generally more energised and motivated at work.”

While Dugas concedes that to some staff, the very thought of singing in public is enough to trigger a stampede to the exit, she believes that even the most recalcitrant songster can be encouraged to join in.

“Although there is inevitably some resistance to singing, particularly among the brainiest people in the business, we believe it will provide a valuable training platform for a whole range of P&G staff.

“We are talking to Make Yourself with a view to creating a tailor-made programme for this organisation, and will be presenting it as an opportunity for both sexes, all ages and, of course, all levels of staff.”

Even the most reluctant male employees can be cajoled, if asked carefully. “When it comes to initially presenting the idea, though, it is probably wise to downplay the singing and concentrate on the team-building elements of the programme, just in case it all sounds a bit soft and girlie,” she says.

Speaking out

For Co-operative Financial Services (CFS), the new approach to training has been more about talking the talk than singing for your supper, as head of insurance services Ann-Marie Stagg explains.

“Having restructured our customer contact centre and introduced new systems, we needed to move on from teaching staff product knowledge to more customer-focused, call-handling skills that would allow staff and customers to feel more positive about the whole experience. It was a big cultural change for us.”

After putting the contract out to tender, the training company Academee was brought in to deploy ‘Talking Positive’, a programme that involved practical sessions of learning and coaching, group discussions, Q&As and action planning.

“The two-day training involved teaching new techniques and even a whole new language, which allows customers to feel relaxed and encourages staff to end every call feeling in control,” says Stagg.

“The programme has empowered staff to replace potentially negative statements such as: ‘sorry to have kept you waiting’ with something like: ‘thank you for holding’, and has also helped strip out all the unnecessary jargon we know can confuse our callers.

“While our conversations remain unscripted, aside from the regulatory element, feedback to the new approach among our customers has been enthusiastic. Commendation levels by letter have doubled, and on the sales side, where we have recently rolled out our ‘Selling Positive’ programme, conversion rates are at an all-time high.”

Stagg and her team set up a Big Brother-style diary room to record staff experiences of the training programme. It not only led to staff literally queuing up to talk, but resulted in the equivalent of three days of footage being shot.

Since the programme ended, CFS has noticed a significant knock-on effect in terms of team morale and staff communication. “We have seen less backbiting and bitching as well as a new, more positive attitude towards other members of the team,” says Stagg.

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