Many years ago I was the office tea boy at the head office of a high street jewellery chain. Even as a spotty teen I was struck by the importance of the ritual. It was so much more than an opportunity to rehydrate; it served to mark out the working day. It also said something about status, performance and service; the role always being taken by the most junior person whose worth could then be judged by the quality and timeliness of beverages.
Most importantly, it was an opportunity for social exchange – a short break when talk could turn to things other than work and relationships between co-workers could evolve.
These relationships and rituals may appear relatively unimportant from a strategic HR perspective. Yet they are significant. They can foster belonging, boost morale and are integral to work performance, and so to organisational performance.
These days the tea round is largely gone and with it an opportunity to forge social relationships. In hot desk offices, and among mobile workers, a means of fostering social cohesion has disappeared.
Some of these changes stem from strategic HR decisions about employment and working practices. For example: decisions on flexible arrangements. While these may address certain strategic imperatives, they potentially lose sight of what organisational theorist Karl Weick calls ‘small cues’; the insignificant details from which we make sense of the world around us.
The ‘organic’, unintended and socially positive side-effects of a mundane process such as the tea round may be lost, to the detriment of current HR priorities such as collaborative working, employee engagement, wellbeing and so on. Further, these organic processes are not easily replaced by initiatives that seek to address consequences through more formal means, and which may be seen as tokenistic or are met with cynicism as mechanistic substitutes for something smaller but more real.
For example, an appraisal interview is a poor substitute for an ongoing relationship between manager and employee. Likewise, ‘organised fun’ is generally not fun at all. Artificial managerially-created social encounters rarely seem to work. They are not an organic part of the work process so have no intrinsic meaning to employees.
So the meaning that employees attach to their established routines and rituals can be sorely underappreciated; it is easy to lose insight into what people ‘own’ in the workplace, what they value and what meaning they attribute to the apparently insignificant. When ‘the way we do things around here’ is changed, albeit for good reasons, the possibility of negative unintended consequences is high.
The tea round isn’t just a cup of tea dropped on a desk, in the same way the watercooler isn’t simply a dispenser of water. It’s an opportunity to create relationships, bonds and meaning with others. It’s a way of forming the small cues from which employees draw meaning and enjoyment in work. It is a potential arena for games and entertainment that lighten the day.
Importantly it is locally created – something that employees feel like they own. It is precisely these bonds, meanings and ownership that are a route to heightened performance.
The first challenge for HR professionals is to really know what work means to employees, what bonds are formed in local contexts, and what ‘games’ people play. The second is to resist imposing so-called best practice. Instead, employees participating in devising changes provides a route to productivity that can also preserve the small cues of their work, minimising the unintended consequences.
And if you are keeping the tea round, make mine a tea with milk and no sugar… Thanks.
Pete Thomas is senior lecturer in the department of organisation, work and technology at Lancaster University Management School