The long-held customs of casual Fridays and after-work drinks are evolving as big businesses embrace a more modern approach to engender a sense of belonging. Paul Little reports.

T​here are few events in corporate life more excruciating than the employee farewell at which the person who has driven the departed through the redundancy process also hosts their leaving drinks and makes a speech emphasising their positive points.

It's an act recognised by everyone present as a piece of blatant hypocrisy, but it has to be done because the farewell is a tradition, and companies must have traditions.

The very simple reason for this, according to US human resources consultant Rita Craig, using relatively simple corporate speak, is that shared customs foster a sense of belonging and "when employees feel like they are part of something, they contribute more than just positive energy. Their energy ripples throughout the entire framework of an organisation and ultimately contributes to bottom-line profitability."

Advertisement

As that summary implies, sometimes it's hard to tell whether "employee engagement" is about keeping employees happy or keeping the chief financial officer happy.

Whatever their origins, company traditions are changing to reflect the world outside the company. Friday-night drinks are becoming less frequent under pressure from wellness advocates. Dress-down Friday? How would you tell on Planet Permanently Casual?

Theresa Gattung, co-founder of My Food Bag, believes traditions are important, but only after other priorities have been met.

"Traditions aren't as important as treating people fairly, paying them fairly, having gender pay equity," says Gattung.

"Feeling that your work values what you do, understanding how what you do fits the objective of the greater organisation and feeling your progress will be fairly rewarded, evaluated without reference to gender, race or background - that's fundamental. Without that you can have all the trimmings you like and you won't have an engaged group of people."

Chris Quin is North Island chief executive at Foodstuffs, the company behind the New World and Pak'nSave brands. Foodstuffs has a large and diverse employee population and a plethora of company traditions designed to bring them together. Some of these have evolved to acknowledge currently changing workplace demographics.

"There's more diversity in the workplace," says Quinn.

"So we'll have events for Ramadan, Matariki, Christmas, Easter – we celebrate all those things. We have a flag for every nationality in the warehouse - there are 19. We can always pick up on a national day. We have morning teas from time to time where people bring a plate from their country."

Meanwhile, the after-work drink is more likely to be just that – one drink – than the sessions of days gone by.

"That old world of beers and chips on Friday isn't how it happens," says Quin.

"We're not afraid to celebrate and will go off-site to do that. But I have noticed that everyone has one or two and it's done. Particularly for leaders now, there's so much drama with what can go wrong with those, that it's seen as something you do with friends not with us. Safety and wellbeing play a role in what you can do, especially in a large organisation like ours where we can have 900 people on the site."

Drinks are just too hard, says Gattung, who doesn't partake herself, "especially if you live in Auckland, and you're commuting and you have a busy life".

S​ome traditions are less tangible, more symbolic, possibly differing according to what kind of work someone does. Hard-bitten sales reps, theorises Mike Hutcheson, former advertising whiz, now adjunct professor at Auckland University of Technology, love the tradition of ringing a bell when sales targets are met. It's exactly as Pavlovian as it sounds.

"A lot of sales people are approval seekers and they're in an industry where recognition comes through money rather than some concrete output," explains Hutcheson. "Sales people love that kind of recognition because they're not making anything. They're not like a builder with something to show for their work."

It's also good, say the bosses, for companies to originate – or at least be creative when stealing – their traditions, so that they reflect their company's nature and reinforce that elusive team spirit.

Gattung credits My Food Bag co-founder Cecilia Robinson with creating the Friday afternoon love box at her company.

"Around three, everyone stops work, comes together, tells a few stories, there's food and drink, you spin the wheel and prizes are awarded.

My Food Bag founder Cecilia Robinson is credited with the company's Love Box. Photo / Jason Oxenham
My Food Bag founder Cecilia Robinson is credited with the company's Love Box. Photo / Jason Oxenham

"During the week, people put things in the love box they want to thank other staff for, and they are read out. It's always been a nice tradition and one that everyone took part in."

That breaking down of barriers between management and everyone else lies behind a lot of traditions.

"I write a note every Friday to the whole business," says Quin, "and end it with what I'm doing that weekend - watching supercars or riding a mountain bike. Not because I think people care, but because it gives them something to talk to me about when I walk past. I know what it felt like when you were starting out and the big bosses walked around. It opens up a bit of humanity."

As do Quin's regular "town halls". "I go to the warehouses with the supply chain leadership team members and do a 20-minute update. But I go at their time - 6pm or midnight or whenever their shift is. Then we put on some food, and it might be morning tea at midnight because of the shift. But I notice the best conversations happen sitting down over kai."

Communication is critical – even if it has to be compulsory.

"At HKM Advertising," says Hutcheson, "We had a 'pens down' tradition every Friday night. You stopped work and had a meeting where you could say anything you liked. One thing we were hot on was no backchat or gossip. If you had something to say you had to air it in public and the rule was 'Is it nice? Is it necessary? Is it true?' And it had to be two of the three. Those meetings defused a lot of things."

This wouldn't be a contemporary trends story without wellness rearing its mindful head. A focus on wellness drives much of Foodstuffs' corporate culture.

"We have a boot camp and crossfit two or three times a week," says Quin, who believes that kind of hierarchy-breaking communal activity means people can "talk about things at the human level but also feel safe and motivated to raise business things".

Expect these trends to continue. And expect to see innovative new traditions being formed and fostered. Even that awkward farewell might become a thing of the past.

"I've often thought," says Hutcheson, "that it might be better to have a celebratory function when people arrive rather than when they leave. It might depend on the circumstances under which they leave. Often someone's colleagues and co-workers will want to have a farewell but the organisation is very happy for them to go."

In order to avoid embarrassment all round in such cases it used to be Hutcheson's practice to quietly tell the leaving party that they wouldn't be getting a leaving party but instead slip them a voucher to take a few of their close workmates to lunch.

W​hen Bernadine Oliver-Kerby left TVNZ last year after 25 years, the newsreader didn't get a farewell event.

Oliver-Kerby's position was disestablished in 2015 and she'd spent the next 12 months on a temporary contract filling in as a newsreader on the 6pm bulletin.

"TVNZ certainly haven't let me know there's anything on. Maybe I didn't get the memo," she jokingly told the Herald at the time.

"If there's something for me, I'm not there ... I haven't been invited."

Clearly, if there's one thing we can say for sure about traditions, it's that they are changing all the time.

Workplace jargon

It's widely despised, easy to send up and frequently deplored, so why does jargon continue to flourish?

Luk Swiatek thinks about jargon a lot - sorry, maintains a jargon-centred focus in his work as lecturer in Communication and Public Relations, at Massey University. He says jargon today is not specific to occupations, as it originally was, but describes "specialised vocabulary or sayings that are unique to particular groups of people". Which is fine for them, if not for the rest of us when we are exposed to it.

Yet it remains seductive. "There is an aspect that's appealing because often it has a creativity to it with its metaphorical allusions," says blue-sky thinker Desiree Williamson, director of Communication Works, a company set up to help people, especially in business and the professions, express themselves more clearly. "It's shorthand or code for a particular group," which fosters a sense of belonging.

"There's a legitimate place for specialist terms, including acronyms and expressions," says Swiatek. "Group members, especially in workplaces, often need to communicate with each other quickly and effectively, and specialist expressions help them do that. Problems arise when jargon excludes or alienates others."

Or when, says Williamson, it's euphemistic. She cites as an example the time she changed accountants and her old provider left her a phone message asking why she'd delinked him. So much nicer sounding than "dumped".

Jargon is also a great way of saying nothing and making it sound like something. According to a study of corporate mission statements quoted in the Harvard Business Review, 90 per cent mention "ethical behaviours", 88 per cent talk about "commitment to customers" and 76 per cent blather on about teamwork and trust. In other words, they state nothing about their mission that makes it different from everyone else's mission.

Jargon, especially in legal documents, has consequences, says Swiatek: "Contracts of different kinds are very often signed without people fully understanding what they say. I've seen industry research saying that one in four, and even one in three, people don't understand the contracts they're signing. People also become demotivated when they have to wade through extensive fine print and jargon."

Williamson, who is based in Christchurch, takes this notion further. "It can mean people don't have access to their rights and don't fulfil their obligations. Take insurance companies - if you lived through the earthquake here you realise how a report can be very ambiguous and obfuscate things so you're not aware of your rights. Language is power."

What to do? "I like to use that quote from Quintilian," says Williamson. "One should aim at being impossible to misunderstand rather than being possible to understand."

And speak up.

"I think there is a tendency in New Zealand not to challenge that kind of business speak because it makes you feel part of the in group. Culturally, we're averse to being direct, so it's great when you get people who say: 'What exactly does that mean?'"

When people don't speak up but go along with what's being said, they sacrifice their autonomy, says Swiatek.

"Although jargon continues to be used in thoughtless or deliberately disempowering ways, I'm heartened to see more and more organisations actively taking steps to minimise the amount of jargon in their communication. Letters, websites, emails, brochures: these and other communications are being increasingly written in easy-to-understand language. More than that, they're being written conversationally, an approach that's helping bridge the gap between organisations and their audiences, and demystifying all kinds of policies and contracts."

In plain English: keep it simple, stupid.

What do they really mean?

• Agile – "adaptable", but usually a euphemism for reducing resources. If you're employed in an "agile workspace", good luck finding somewhere to sit.

• Bandwidth – "space" or "capacity", but sounding much sexier in computer speak.

• Bleeding edge – it's not enough to be leading or cutting edge any more. We want to see blood.

• Idea shower – a planning meeting.

• Paradigm shift – a new idea.

• To solutionise – or as it used to be called, "to solve".

• The solve – or as it used to be called, "the solution".

• Sweet spot – "best place" with slightly creepy sexual overtone.

• Swim lane – anything that could be described as an area of interest, even "the sports swim lane".

• Thoughtware - ideas.