Social Conversation and Shop Morale

Can a business owner help maintain a friendly and sociable work environment? The question sets off a long and lively discussion on the Business Forum. July 24, 2005

I could use a little input on a shop morale issue. I operate a 2000 square foot shop with myself in the office for the most part and two guys on the shop floor. They are both young guys who are dependable, honest, hard working, concerned about their work, etc. Knowing what others go through in terms of employee reliability, I consider myself fortunate. They are compensated very well for our area of the country.

One of them, though, is not very happy. He is an outgoing individual who needs some social interaction in the course of his day. The other is basically an introvert who is quite content concentrating on his work, not being concerned about discussing "what I did after work yesterday" or anything else for that matter. Not negative... just quiet.

I don't always help the situation, as I am not always the most patient individual. So, the not so happy fellow is thinking that he needs to leave and find a job somewhere that will not leave him feeling so isolated. There are a few things I know I can do, but not many. First, since everything in the shop comes from the top down, I can try to be more pleasant, helping maintain a pleasant and positive atmosphere.

Another thing is that even though I feel classical music (yeah, I know... but I like it) adds to a concentrated shop environment, I think I should let the guys choose the radio station from now on.

Also, I've talked with the quiet guy and asked him to try to add something to the conversations in the shop when he feels comfortable doing so. Also, I've considered bringing in a 3rd person, letting personality be a bit more of a guide than usual, and actually have someone in mind. However, we get a lot of 50 hour overtime weeks and both guys like the paychecks. Bringing in another person would hurt them financially unless I gave significant pay raises, which would be on top of the expense of a third person.

Beyond that I'm at a bit of a loss. I know that I can talk with my social guy more often, but in the course of the typical busy day, I have my hands full running the office end of the business. So… what do you all think?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor F:
I think I would explain to them (since they are young) that they will both have to learn to get along with different personalities. Given your workload, there should not be a lot of time for chitchat anyway. Not to mention the risk factors involved. If they are truly keepers, I think you can find a little more time in your schedule to stroke an ego now and then. Try to get them involved in more decision making. Bottom line is they have to find their own way to happiness.

From contributor D:

Learn to be patient. To recognize at times that you're not patient is your feedback for self-awareness and improvement.

In my business, I allowed individual radios/players with ear phones if it did not interfere with performance and safety. You can broadcast their music, but continue to control it. Keep controls in office - but play it for them. Split it up to please everyone's taste. Overtime for business is not a good thing, and should be eliminated when possible. A third person is good if you have the work. Overtime pay is good in a paycheck, but having to work it is bad and it rags people out in their least productive hours.

You can't please everyone and the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, especially for young people. Often when they leave, they'll want to come back and work for that "sensitive" employer.

And the employees love to be around their chief/leader, so participate as a worker when you can. One other thing - if they hang around during lunch and you have a space for that, a breakroom with a little tv/vcr/dvd helps entertain. Even cartoons are fun to laugh at. Checker board, game board, cards, chess, coffee maker.

From contributor B:
Tough call. I don't think the third person would make it better. I put a stop to the radio situation by not playing anything, as there is too much noise in the shop to hear it anyway. I buy muffins each day for morning coffee and we discuss whatever, sometimes work, sometimes other. I did provide Honda Goldwings for my two employees - we would ride as a group. Not sure it was appreciated as much as it cost. In any case, they have their own now, so I no longer furnish them. Seems we are always talking about something. I do work in the shop and office, so am always around.

From contributor S:
Perhaps you can organize your work a bit better to create time to give some ear to the social fellow. Expecting the quiet one to take up the slack may only cause him to feel put upon ("Now the boss wants me to listen to..."). Organizing your office work so you have more time may also help you cultivate patience, to everyone's benefit.

As a two man shop, I once had a hand that frankly said he wanted more social interaction than I could give him (I'm the quiet type with the classical). He went on to become a medical tech OB-Gyn and gets all the social interaction he can handle.

I also have had to cultivate patience and positive interaction, after years of being a cynical, psychotic, solo woodrat. I now enjoy my daily rounds and positive comments and believe they help create and keep a positive attitude that is easy to live with. I don't watch sports, so can't talk that talk, so we end up talking about whatever they want. I just shut up and they talk. I share all the positive customer comments and take guys out to the finished jobs to see how it all looks, and even hand out shop photos for them and their family. We also have flexible hours - totally honor system - that help with coordinating child-care and chauffeuring the kids around.

I personally would be wary of giving up control of the radio. Here we would have chaos and more dissension over that than anything else. I limit what is listened to, and threaten to bring in my opera recordings if there is any complaining.

Seriously though, you are the leader, and there is nothing wrong with that, and good employees will be okay with it. They can/should trust you to do what is best for the company as a whole.

From contributor M:
Is there something you do personally that involves interaction with clients and suppliers, office work or anything that you could delegate that would make the fellow feel more important? That would keep his mind occupied and at the same time would make him feel more appreciated. Groom the guy for additional responsibility. Most of us could do more delegating. The key is to let go. I am as guilty as anyone on that one. You seem to have the right situation. Bringing in a new person would cover some of the lost production from the other fellow while cutting at least some of the overtime. Besides, you could use some additional free time for whatever it is you don't get to do because there is never enough time, couldn't you?

From contributor L:
"I did provide Honda Goldwings for my two employees..."
Wanna hire another guy?

I take 'em to Rangers ballgames (Cowboys games if they've been "bad" :), fishing/hunting if they're into that, and treat 'em to Pizza Hut on Fridays. I try to let them off early so they cash their checks and have some fun. I do require Saturday work, but usually from 8-noon or 2pm.

It helps, but there are other jobs that pay way more than I can, so retention is near impossible. Also, finding just one person that will work every day is a challenge.

From contributor C:
Contributor M seems to have the right idea in giving more responsibility to your social butterfly. One area could be purchasing and stock control of materials and tooling. Your guys probably know what's on hand now better than you do. Remember that no matter what their personalities are, these guys are the ones that pay you in the end (after the client/consumer of course).

From contributor T:
Sounds like it's time to hit your local vocational school and hire yourself an apprentice for this guy to teach. It should work out well for both of you. He gets help, he gets someone to talk to, and you get increased productivity, a cleaner shop, and in a few years another good employee.

From contributor P:
Having worked as an employee in two different shops and recently made the transition to self employment, I'll put in my two cents.

If your employee has already expressed concern about needing some social interaction, my guess is it may only be a matter of time before he decides to make a career change. He may be hanging on for the paycheck, not really knowing what else to do. If you give him some added responsibility that may give him a social outlet, why would he not ask for a pay increase?

Bringing in a third party, unless really needed, may blow up with everyone annoyed - lack of overtime, personality clashes... maybe not, though. I also don't think one more person will cure his social need.

As far as the radio, let them pick the channel - they are the ones making you money (hopefully). If there are issues with stations and constant changing of channels, then step in. I think classical would slow my production, but that is just me. My guess is that you would probably only hear it here and there with machines going anyway. But there is nothing like a good beat to get you through the late afternoon drag.

Those guys that take their employees out to lunch, buy coffee... That stuff goes a long way in my book. Having an employee know he is appreciated only helps in the long run.

From contributor I:
There are two things that employees look for and want - give them these and 75% or more of the battle is won. These things are respect and appreciation. Appreciation has already been mentioned. Is it, though unintentional, possible that one feels slighted from the other in the way he is treated?

From contributor J:
Bringing in a third person only opens you up to the new guy and the extrovert forcing the introvert out the door because "He's not one of the gang" type mentality. The music should be a mutually agreed to choice that all enjoy. Use an anonymous list of favorites to find a neutral station everyone likes (that way there's no pointing of fingers). If you install your own work, have the extrovert take that to keep his mind stimulated and peace in the shop. Hire a new person that can float in between the two. It would be sad to penalize either one for their personality unless it starts to get way out of hand.

From contributor M:
I owned a body shop for 14 years. Employees come and go. Find out what the guy thinks of training a vo-tech person. Just bringing one in without his input may backfire, but if he is involved in the decision, he'll realize how important he is.

We rotated the radio station - Monday me, Tues George, Wednesday Frank, etc. Overtime more than two days a week seemed to not work well.

From the original questioner:
I am truly amazed at the extent of the responses to this question. I appreciate all of you taking the time to give me your opinions and experience.

The only point made in the thread that I have to disagree with for my situation is that “employees come and go.” I agree that is often the case. However, for what we do, it can take one to two years to train someone to be fully independent in the shop. After that kind of investment, I do everything I can to keep them here.

Contributor F, you are absolutely right in saying “they have to find their own way to happiness.” One cannot make another person happy with their life, but I could try to make the atmosphere here in the shop more pleasant. Your comment on decision making is something that we have already discussed as well. To help in that area, I need to do less “micro managing.” This may lead to some bad decisions along the way, but in the long run the results should end up being more positive then negative.

Contributor D, the radio really isn’t a problem here. Both guys are pretty comfortable with most any music, but as contributor P says, “there is nothing like a good beat to get you through the late afternoon drag.” So, we will be changing radio stations. Also, you are right with the “grass is greener” diagnosis; it is an issue I have already had to deal with in the past.

Contributor B, I really like the idea of muffins in the morning. I think I’m going to set up a petty cash box so one of the guys can stop on the way in each morning to pick up coffee, muffins, juice, etc. We can then make sure we all sit around the break area together for the 10 am break. I will need to try and make myself leave the office and participate in this. I know of a few shops where the guys play cards during these breaks and have always thought it was a foolish idea. I’m beginning to see this differently though. Also, we do have a TV by the lunch table. However, I think motorcycles are a bit of a stretch for me… I never did have much interest in them.

Contributor S, you are really right about sharing the positive customer comments. I’ve done that some, but they don’t hear them all. As to the flexible hours idea, that can work some places and not in others; it depends upon the people involved. It works here as the guys know they can come and go if they need. As I said when I started this thread, both my guys are 100% dependable and can be fully trusted not to take advantage of a situation. I am fortunate in this. They are also very good with the 50 hour week and we really don’t lose efficiency at the end of long days. Plus, when we run the 50 hour weeks (7:00 to 5:30 M-F), they take one day of their choosing and leave at 4:00 (so it’s really a 48 ½ hour week).

Contributor M, if I do bring in a third person, it would have to be someone to take some of the office load. The person I have in mind is a good candidate for this.

Contributor L, the Rangers game trips are a great idea. I’m thinking that once every month or so, a Friday out of the shop as a group would be a really good thing. You know, a Red Sox game, a day on the ski slopes, a movie, etc. It could be helpful in getting the introvert to have something to talk about with us.

Contributor C, purchasing responsibility is a novel idea for me. I’ve always handled that end of things. Perhaps I could let him handle ordering the lumber, etc. I’ll give that some more thought.

Contributor T, the vocational school resource is a good one; I got my introvert fellow right out of high school at the local Vo-tech 3 or 4 years ago. As to my guys teaching a new employee, I have tried this and found it to be a difficult task for them. I still hope, though, that if I do bring in a third person, they will be able to do some of the teaching.

Contributor P, we actually do occasionally go out to lunch together. It has been a hit and miss sort of thing, though, occurring when I happen to think of it. It should become a regular thing, perhaps once or twice a month.

Contributor I, both guys know they are appreciated. I can be a hard nut, though, and maybe need to take a closer look at showing them they are respected as individuals and woodworkers. Telling someone they did a good job is easy and shows them you appreciate what they’ve done. Showing someone they are respected, though, is a more subtle and complex process. I’ll have to think more about this.

Contributor J, I don’t think I would need to worry about the quiet guy being made to feel an outcast to the group with a third person in the shop. I could be wrong here, but I think having more people around would actually help to draw him out of his shell a bit. As to installation, we do not do any. So, for better or worse, we are all locked up here in the shop together.

Contributor M, you’re right. Both guys need to feel they are important to the operation of the business.

Again, thank you all for responding. Whatever the outcome with the current situation I think I can make the shop a more enjoyable place to be as a result of these suggestions.

From contributor A:
I have tried perks from taking everyone to lunch, chartered fishing boats, ski trips, letting them know when they did good, weekly bonuses based on production, profitsharing, above average pay, above average benefits, etc.

Some guys will stick and some won't. They either want to do the work or they don't. Younger guys are more likely to move around. I think contributor P is about right: "If your employee has already expressed concern about needing some social interaction, my guess is it may only be a matter of time before he decides to make a career change." I think guys are looking for a future and stability. If the shop is growing, it is easier to retain employees.

If you can create a "game," it helps. I would assign quotas or targets and if he (individually) hits the target, he gets a bonus for that week. Or as a group, if the quotas were hit for x number of weeks, then take everyone fishing or skiing or whatever they wanted to do.

At the end of the day, morale comes from production, not perks. I used to watch my guys at break. If they were all sitting separate and not talking, I knew production was down. If they were all sitting together talking and upbeat, production was up. Check it out.

From contributor P:
I really don't think creating a "game" would help. Although I have never worked under these conditions, I am aware of a shop (here in CT) that does this and have heard through the grapevine that it is a big joke. It's just micro management in disguise, in my opinion.

The perks are/should be used to enhance a group/team effort in the business. Let them know you are doing X activity because we did well on this job. I also don't think it should be overdone (daily muffins/coffee) because then it is routine and not looked on as a perk. The perk should be a reward for doing well and they should understand that. I don't think a perk will keep anyone from leaving, but I do think it will increase productivity and morale if they know they are appreciated.

From contributor B:
For me, the muffins are not a perk - it is interaction. We discuss whatever, but mostly it is what is coming next or how to accomplish what we are doing now. I think you will find employees with something to eat on their coffee break working more diligently before lunch, not wasting time until lunch. Some days I buy muffins and some days they bring whatever was baked at home. If I have bought every day for awhile, I ask for donations. I don't buy every day, but we do have something. When I was 20, I worked for a guy whose idea was "if you want a coffee break, then find another job." That instilled a lot of loyalty.

As far as the questioner is concerned, if he walked out with a box of something and had coffee with his guys and talked to them, that might go a long way. What does it cost to try?

From the original questioner:
I didn't supply anything at break time this morning, but I did say we were all going to do this together. After a moment or two of trying to figure out what to talk about we settled on this issue. Both guys read the entire thread after I printed it out. Their response was quite positive as we discussed some of the ideas. Bottom line was the 15 minute break was over before we were ready to be done discussing ideas. It was a really nice interaction and broke up the morning like nothing we've done before. We'll continue doing this and see what effect it has on my unhappy socialite!

From contributor V:
I think your last post really nailed the issue square on the head. Involving your guys in the situation by having them read this thread probably did more for a sense of teamwork than a 10-yard dump truck full of muffins. As the old phrase says, "Teamwork makes the dreamwork." By talking with these guys as adults and asking for their input in solving the problem, they gained more stock in your organization without you spending a dime. Don't get me wrong, muffins and motorcycles are great, but honest communication will bear the best fruit.