Paris Waiters, Canadian Bus Drivers, British Olympics Hosts: a Summer of Observations about Engagement at Work

Tourists enjoy the beautiful Olympic rings hung from inside Tower Bridge during the 2012 London Games.

As someone who does not have to be in one particular place in order to work, I take full advantage of the time and friendlier summer weather conditions to wander around, budget permitting. This summer I found myself in my usual haunt of southern Germany (where I live part time) and also in France, Great Britain during the Olympics and British Columbia, Canada. Not only is this incredible fun but it also allows me to observe first hand things about which I often write, i.e. workers being engaged, disengaged or something in between. I was shocked at some of the things which I saw, and not in a bad way…

Let me say first of all that most of the jobs which tourists see people doing, whether waiting tables, carrying bags in hotels, cleaning restaurants (including bathrooms), working for a railway company, pumping gas/petrol and so on, I have also done.  There was a time when I figured that I had had 25 jobs before “settling down” (a phrase which will never really describe me) to the more structured world of consulting and eventually to writing business books and blogging here. This means that, unlike Mitt Romney (“I like being able to fire people who provide services to me”) I approach anyone in such jobs with a feeling of identification rather than entitlement. I don’t act demanding and I do act friendly, because time has taught me that life is far far better that way. It was not always so:  I didn’t get to write a 22 page chapter about the ego in my recent book (with Cary Cooper) by not having any personal experience to draw on!  Now all this means is that when I receive bad service, for example, it is not as a result of me being an unmentionable body part with the people serving me. It is because of them….or at least the situation they are in. I know what a boss from hell can do to one’s desire to provide “great customer service”….it can destroy it. I also know that, economic conditions being reasonable, one can choose to work elsewhere. Yes I know economic conditions have been far from reasonable for years, in many places, and that one of the consequences of this is that people have been spending too much time in the grip of such bosses.  I also know about, and have written here about, the “worker from hell”, the person who is in the vice-grip of the ego and who does constant damage inside and outside the organization.

I’ve written elsewhere about engagement in Germany so won’t cover that here.  My experiences there this year re-confirmed what I have found before.  So….on a short trip to Paris and some of the cities to the north, I had some interesting experiences. I have talked in both books I have written about Parisian waiters, and not always in a complimentary way. Their reputation has been poor over the decades, and rightly so (full disclosure: I used to live there, a long time ago, so this is not just based on hearsay).  Although my sample this year was small and absolutely not representative, I am going to have to eat some of my words. I had great service, friendly waiters, and not just that…people in the street helping me find places whose locations I had forgotten.  This was not always so.  I have spoken good French since I was about 14, so its not a language issue, and I still remember pulling up to a short line of people at a bus stop to ask for directions somewhere in the Burgundy region, and getting that classic French brush off, which sounds like “bofff”, accompanied with an arm gesture of hopelessness combined with “get lost”.  Nothing like that this time, quite the opposite. I know that some time ago, the French woke up one day to some kind of article in the newspaper saying that they were considered among the unfriendliest in Europe for tourists (if you can find this, let me know)….and that this “shocked” them….Was it enough to get the ball rolling to the point where things actually changed? Or was it just me that changed over the years and now I am seeing the fruits of that change (as in “as you perceive things so you will find them)? I will never know but I am open to the possibility of both being true!

A short hop over the Channel took me to London in the heat of the Olympics, and what a job those Londoners did (Mitt Romney eat your heart out, and sorry to mention you twice in one blog but honestly you earned that “Mitt The Twit” headline in the conservative Daily Mail). The place was literally lifting off the ground, in spite of the initial issues with security, etc.   In the end none of the “problems” mattered, the Olympics were a triumph and the many Olympics volunteers I met were the epitome of great, engaged, hosts.  And they were unpaid…..As I prepared to leave Heathrow I asked various tourists from the US and other places how well they were treated by the Brits and they raved about the hospitality.  They gave me story after story confirming my experience as to how helpful, kind and “going out of their way” the thousands of volunteers and paid Olympics workers had been.  Talk about an engagement surge, and lets hope this carries over.  One of the biggest benefits:  this destroys any arguments that GB (or anywhere else) is incapable of creating a highly engaged workforce  (contrary to the low levels of this measured by surveys over the years).  In other words, there is nothing, nothing about the British character which determines, and makes inevitable, low levels of worker engagement.  There is bad management and there are other things in the work environment which make that happen, not some pre-ordained national character defect!

On my way back to my home base of southern California, I took the long route, via British Columbia, which was a delight and a living laboratory for the high engagement work culture.  If it is in the water, lets bottle it and distribute world wide!  I was quite overwhelmed by how friendly, helpful and considerate all sorts of workers were, from Wal-Mart to…bus drivers!  One advantage of taking public transport is that a visitor is really exposed to the “real world” realities of where one is visiting.  I have never seen such engaged bus drivers as in Vancouver and Victoria, BC…ask them to point out a stop and they gladly and reliably do it.  Ask them quickly while getting off the bus where to go, and they even stop the bus, jump off and point the way!  At the very least they take the time to help.   Having trouble with the payment system?   They gladly help.  Did your bus ticket run out of time one minute before getting on the last connection?  They wave you on board.  Now bear in mind that Canada is a highly unionized place, and these are union workers.  This does not make them slaves to any rigid behavior (driven by negotiated “work rules”) which goes against simple friendly gestures of customer service, which I have seen elsewhere.  I was impressed, as I was by the Canadian public, which turned out  to be as friendly and helpful..and “engaged” with a tourist such as myself, as any I have seen in my travels around the world.

From the streets of London to those of Paris and Vancouver, my experiences re-confirmed for me that: a) when you treat people well, as a customer, you will greatly increase the likelihood that you will receive this back! b) that places which are often written off in big multi-national surveys of engagement can indeed rise to the occasion when it counts, thereby proving that they have it in them after all;  and c)  Canada has to be one of the friendliest places in the world!

Let me know what your travels tell you about worker engagement…I’d love to hear about it!

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