Sunday, February 26, 2006

Why work should be more like voluntary work

I spent the best part of two hours this morning doing a very un-middle class thing. I put about 200 A4 newsletters through peoples doors. Its not the first, or the last time I’ve done this. In fact, I used to do it a lot more. And as usual I thought: why am I doing this?

It was for the benefit of the local Labour party. I’ve been a member since I was 19 and although I don’t agree with everything the party says and does I do broadly agree. But, that doesn’t mean I must spend two hours on a cold Sunday morning wrestling with letter boxes.

In truth there are a whole bunch of things I don’t do for money and aren’t necessarily fun. I’m on the organizing committees of two committees (ACCU and EuroPLoP), I shepherd paper for EuroPLoP and I’ve organized a new ACCU website. None of these things pays money and while I may claim they are furthering my professional experience I think its unlikely I’m ever going to get a job because of it.

(Indeed the reverse seems more true, interviewers wonder why you do all this and I usually don’t mention my Labour party affiliations in case people get the wrong idea.)

Actually we could add in blogging.

So, just why do I spend my spare time doing this stuff? And in particular why walk the streets on a cold Sunday morning?

Certainly I’m not in the Labour party for power. I spent 5 years as a branch secretary. That was lots of work. Setting up meetings, writing members newsletter, getting them delivered and writing minutes. No real power there!

Neither do I get influence. Most of the local politicians I know don’t have any real power by themselves. And the one time did ring my friendly MP with a problem looking for help he quickly told me he couldn’t do much.

Oddly I will get a reward. When I see people I know elected as councillors, members of parliament or elsewhere I’ll know I helped. Equally, I’ll feel really down if the other side win.

So, why do I do this?

I do all these things because I want to belong to these organizations. I do them because I think these things are important. And I do them because I have benefited from others so I want to give something back.

I wouldn’t do these things if I didn’t share the values and objectives of the organizations. Even if at the moment I don’t agree completely with wants happening I know I’ve signed on for the long run. Things will change again.

Actually, and this is the reason for blogging about this, I don’t think any of this is very much different to work. I’m not the first to point this out - for example Peter Drucker said it often - but many of the same things that make me volunteer are what make us work.

I think this subject has been at the back of my mind for a couple of weeks. My office book group are currently working through Lean Software Development (Poppendieck & Poppenieck) and in the last session we considered the topic “Empower the team.” This lead us into discussions about: who should be on a team? how should a team be made up? and just why do people work?

Sure I need to earn money, I need to pay my mortgage and I like foreign holidays but there is more to it than that. Like with my volunteering I’m looking to belong and I want to contribute. I want to be part of some success.

Work is different; it takes up 8-9 hours a day - far more than anything else. And it is more of a commitment. I’m expected to be there everyday, I’m expected to be there next week, next month and even next year. But I could walk away from any of my voluntary commitments tomorrow. I could just say “sorry to busy” and people would understand.

Perhaps ironically, I’ve been doing voluntary work for the Labour party for far longer than I have held any job - over 15 years. Even when I disagree with the party (and I do, like over the Iraq war) I still stay involved one way or another. How many employers can get that kind of loyalty?

I think its important that we recognise that people have a choice in where they work, and when they actively choose to work for your company, or work on your team then its quite a complement. We need to recognise that and respect it.

We start by giving people a choice of a job. Once they work for a firm we can give them the choice of teams - in my experience self-selecting teams are the best. We should reward them - not just with money, with feedback on their work and show them what their work has accomplished.

And we can let them pursue their interests and passions. We shouldn’t stop them from taking an interest in a project just because they work in the wrong department, if they think they can add something them they will add their passion at least.

The challenge for managers today is to get people to choose their company, their team and their products. You’ve got to make people want to work for you.