During a Company “Town Hall Briefing” in 2017 I was asked to comment on, what at the time was believed to be by some, a “perceived” difference between the way Operational and Office staff were being treated. My response at that time was “that whether there is actually a difference or not can be subjective, however, the important point was that if operational staff believed that they were being treated differently, then there actually is a problem”. What was more worrying for me at that time was that many of the operational front-line managers weren’t supposedly aware of the fact that this perception existed – which for me was of a bigger issue.
All through my employment there has been at times an underlying issue around the relationship between Depot, or operational staff, and those that worked in the offices. Whilst the physical barriers relating such things as toilets and restaurants have been removed – this under-current seemingly still remains. Back in the 1970’s the Directors had their own Dining Room at Head Office, and were served by waitresses. For many years Head Office had the use of a barber on the top-floor! On the unlikely occasion that you would have to attend there, and occasionally as an electrician you did, then you would be required to remove your overalls before entering the building. At Christmas an entourage of Directors would tour the Depots to wish the “underlings” Seasonal Greetings, and offer them a cigarette or indeed a cigar. What is interesting about this is that I don’t think for one moment those people at that time believed that they were any better than anyone else. Certainly the Company’s General Manager for many of those years was well regarded by all. Yes he was well spoken, and he certainly commanded a lot of authority, but he was approachable and a good communicator. So the question has to be asked – what feeds these apparent divisions?
There is no doubt for me that a lot of the problems are caused by individuals who, by way of their action or influence, continue to feed this perception. What is more of a concern, is that if there is acknowledgement an issue exists, why is it that so many decision makers find it impossible to deal with . The failure of any Business to address a problem like this actually feeds the notion that people from differing areas are actually being treated differently.
So when it comes to these perceived differences, what is fact and what is speculation, or myth? We have come a long way from the 1970’s era where manual labour was portrayed as the vocation of the “working class”, dedicated to the aims and ideologies of the Labour Party, and perceived to be the victims of persecution by the “ruling classes”. Our modern operational workforces consist of a wide range of often intelligent, articulate staff who, are well educated and are, quite rightly in some cases, very opinionated. Yes, of course there are still the odd remnants of the old rear- guard, resisting change at “all costs”, but they are few. I see this change as an important part of the discussion – as we now need to understand that this operational, “shop floor workforce”, see themselves as equals to those who are office based, managers or “white collar”, and quite rightly expect to be treated as such.
Forty years ago front-line managers had often worked themselves up through the ranks, and having worked hard to get there were going to ensure that there was a very clear division between them and the one’s they left behind. Many senior managers, were professional Engineers, and used to being addressed as “Mr”. Everyone at that time accepted the status-quo, as if it existed for some divine reason, and served as some purpose.
Of course, we now see more and more people entering senior management positions with degrees or other professional qualifications. Their route to the top, whilst through hard work I’m sure, is not as it previously used to be, which was often from the bottom up. If I am being really honest I often find myself at times resenting the interference of those who are less able or experienced to deal with a “people issue”, but consider themselves more qualified based on their Education. Do we really have to refer to the “book of best practice” to deal with some of the fundamental problems that employees have? Have we really lost our ability as human beings to be compassionate, supportive or understanding when listening to each other’s issues in the workplace?
During a conversation I was a party to last year the issue came up regarding the apparent unwillingness of some of our staff to do additional planned work on a weekend. “I don’t know what the issue is”, I was told. “We pay them overtime don’t we?” The concept that many of our lowest paid operational staff will jump every time someone says “double-time”, has long gone. They too have partners, wives, children and grandchildren – their time with them is as precious as everyone else’s – regardless how much your monthly salary is.
It clearly has to be accepted that there are significant differences between the work being done by many employees. That difference is at is greatest when you compare staff working in a fixed location to that of a mobile workforce. There has to be a realisation of these differences between all parties. Operational staff need to be realistic with some of the issues they raise; not understanding these basic differences only undermines the issue when true injustices are occurring.
It’s for each of us to think hard about what we actually feel and then to consider whether our behaviours reflect what we actually do think.