Losing Connection in the Workplace

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Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash

I was 18 years old when I started at my first store. As an introvert, I very much dislike interacting with people, so how I ended up in a job in retail and customer service and stayed there for half of my life is beyond me. I’ve never been particularly driven by money or career, and I guess my perception of work can be summed up in the old adage “jobs fill your pockets, adventures fill your soul.” That is a whole other story, but the actual job has never really been about the work itself. Sure I love merchandising, I love solving problems and I like helping people — but for me it has always been about the people I work with. Everybody that you interact with and connect with leaves some kind of imprint on your life.

This restructure wasn’t a surprise. As we all know and has been widely spoken about, this is something that has been in the pipeline for a while. It’s almost three years since the very first restructure at Head Office, we’ve witnessed the natural attrition and the implementation of new processes and procedures — all part of a grand transformation process to enhance productivity and efficiency across the business. The conditions created by Covid-19 make this restructure a necessary remedy. I think most people can understand this from an economic point of view. We have a change process in motion that is driven by data and statistics and analysis. But I keep coming back to the famous scene in The Godfather where Michael Corleone devises a plan to kill the men who organised the hit on his father; and he tells his brother Sonny, “It’s not personal… it’s strictly business.” It’s a pivotal scene that marks the beginning of Michael’s character development into a cold, calculated and ruthless Don. We know from everything that Michael Corleone says and does after this moment in his life and in his business is all intertwined, and all of it — is absolutely personal.

I know that at this stage it is merely a ‘proposal’, but never the less, it is devastating to hear the news that your job no longer exists. That the hours you work and the wage that gets paid into your bank account every Wednesday is now not secure. This has a huge affect on people mentally, emotionally and financially there is no doubt. What strikes me though, is that we gloss over the social cost. How business decisions around profit and efficiency have human consequences. We live in a world where we need to work to survive, but we underestimate how work constrains and isolates us from our personal lives. From the families who now have less time together, to the person who has to give up volunteering in their community, the solo parent who now has to figure out how to look after and support their children. The ramifications of a change like this permeate through every aspect of our lives. It touches not just the individual affected, but the bubbles and communities they are part of. Perhaps where I felt the social cost the most though was the sense of loss in the connections that have bound us together for so long. How suddenly those connections were fractured. How suddenly after 18 years, I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere.

Humans are inherently social beings. From the theories of Aristotle in antiquity to Abraham Maslow in the 1940’s — fundamentally humans are driven to connect with each other for survival. Our social connections shape our identity, our beliefs and our value systems. This is how we make sense of the world around us. The workplace is probably not the most obvious incubator in terms of developing identity and social connections, but for many it is where they spend most of their time. It is where they are able to cultivate relationships with people, whether it be fellow team members or customers. Where social skills are developed and refined. Retail is a remarkable insight into the demographics of society. It is a unique manifestation of the human experience where we will interact with people from all walks of life who all have different needs and backgrounds and stories.

Change is always hard to process. Dealing with change of this magnitude in the current climate is even more taxing. When navigating uncertainty, for me personally, it’s an opportunity for discovery and learning. It wasn’t always this way — I had to learn this in the most absolute hardest way possible, and I know it is not easy to get back up when you are broken. I have worked very hard over the last year or so to get myself into a position where the financial and mental burdens of redundancy and/or restructuring, while it would be difficult — it would still be manageable. I wasn’t, however, prepared for how I would feel about the loss of identity and belonging. How the work and effort I had put in and the personal sacrifices I had made over the years, now meant nothing. It’s fair to say this has been a draining experience for everyone involved. It takes a lot of strength and courage and resilience to carry on in the face of change and adversity, and yet my colleagues continue to do so. They continue to serve and perform their jobs with the struggles and worries of this process hanging over their heads. But it comes at a cost. The diminishing loyalty and trust to the company overall. Many people questioning their years of service and dedication to a firm that has now left them out in the cold. The divide between people is now more apparent as we all look to face these changes on our own.

Connection and connectedness will mean different things to different people. Maybe what I am saying here just doesn’t resonate with some people at all. I am grateful and lucky in my career to have had fantastic leaders and colleagues who have guided and supported me, and effectively shaped the person that I have become. My mentors were direct, and clear with their values. They built a strong culture around leading by example, placing trust in people and ensuring that everyone’s contribution mattered. We had a responsibility to these leaders to show up and work as hard for them as they did for us. They consistently challenged me to deliver to the highest standards and they modelled an incredible work ethic which I was always in awe of, and continually to this day strive to emulate. They took the time and effort to connect and in doing so they created the foundations for which I was able to build confidence, develop skills and knowledge and effectively be able to stand on my own two feet when they moved on. They led their teams with purpose and a sense of coming together as a collective. They made people feel like they belonged.

The bonds between teams are what drives efficiency and innovation. As much as we can position people into the roles that suit them, it is how they interact with the wider team that will determine the merits of their contribution. Teams are always inextricably linked by a common purpose and the mission of the time. Where we arrive as individuals, through our shared experiences as a team — the sacrifices, the wins, the losses, the celebrations, the pain, the struggle, the grief… we emerge as a community with an intuition that we are part of a larger purpose. You inevitably get used to people coming and going from your work teams, it is a fact of life. When people who have had an impact on our day to day lives leave for whatever reason, you still feel that gap that they have left — their personality, their work ethic, the conversations, the shared experiences. Things are never quite the same when a special individual leaves, but their impact is always part of the tapestry of the store. There’s a saying that people will forget what you did, they’ll forget what you said, but they’ll never forget how you made them feel. When I looked at the first roster and saw there was no place for me in that proposal, in that moment, I felt the loss of all of those people who had come and gone all at once. All of those connections leaving an empty pit in my stomach. And though it was only for a split second — it cut deep.

People who feel connected will believe in and align themselves with their company’s values and purpose. At one time I could say this was true for me. In a period where uncertainty is rife — and we are talking globally in all aspects of life right now — people will cling to what is stable and what is certain. This company cannot deliver that certainty. Where clarity and transparency is needed, the company provides it on their own terms — if they provide it at all. This initiative is guided by invisible leadership that lacks the fortitude to engage directly with the people who will be affected the most. The lack of empathy and compassion only cementing the final dismantling of what was once a ‘People First’ culture. And throughout this, I probably feel sorry for the store management teams the most. In the trenches where the emotion is the most real and raw, they are the face of this. They bear the brunt of feelings expressed by confused and frustrated team members. They are ones who will sit down face to face with someone they work with everyday and tell them, “it’s not personal… it’s strictly business.”

And so I guess, my feedback is this. I wish that this had been a kinder process. A process where people and their livelihoods weren’t the main casualties. I understand the need for change — to set the business up for future success and to deliver for our customers. Perhaps in some way to mitigate future reductions of staff. But in a business where we serve, human relationships are the foundations for all business success. Business is inherently personal. For the manager who tries to develop great teams around them, it is personal. For the team member who goes over and above for their colleagues and their customers, it is personal. For the customer who continues their patronage, it is personal. As a business that prides itself on being interwoven in the fabric of New Zealand’s society, it needs to lead in a way that supports the values that underpin our way of life. It needs to do better to connect with people. That fracture of connection that now exists between the company and it’s employees, it can be healed over time, yes, but for now it cuts deep. The ramifications extend beyond the workplace into our bubbles and our communities and beyond things that can’t be measured.

This was the feedback I wrote to the company I worked for during our restructure consultation process in September 2020. I have since taken a voluntary redundancy and wish them all the best on their future endeavours.

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