Employee engagement, sustainability, Thailand, Interface
I just found a journal entry from 2012. It was from an 18-month research project we did with Interface carpet working to discover the secrets of sustainability and employee engagement. It’s kind of a Hunter S Thompson-esque rambling mess. Maybe it was the start of a novel about the seedy underbelly of sustainability consulting….
Our team, transmogrified by 20+ hours in Economy Class into some stiffened gelatinous featureless creatures, crawled from the Boeing 777 double-decker plane and into Thailand’s lead-heavy air burst, just alert enough to navigate customs in a foreign land aided by considerate strangers taking care of one another like walking steaks on a meat house death march, and government watchers all watching [out] for us. A white sign with SOAP scratched on it could have easily been a trap and we walked into it, handing over all personal effects willingly to the stranger who knew only S.O.A and P. That was enough like cheese for these weary rats. Uncomfortably numbed by travel, we made stupid prey. We got lucky and not for the last time on this trip.
The limo ride to the Four Seasons Bangkok [bottled water and jasmine-scented wet cold towels] cleared us up enough to notice that the highwayside advertising contained a complete lack of green messages [and surprising amount of English]. Back to the 80’s, but also jettisoned into the future where Blade Runner-esque moving billboards lined the near horizon. They spoke to us, welcomed us in neon hi-resolution, coaxed us and the new middle class to consume. Same same. Only different.
The assignment for the next three weeks was to explore sustainability at an undisclosed manufacturing plant an hour or so [depending on crazy traffic] outside of Bangkok. Interviews, charrettes, video, ethnography and trickery were our tools.
Each day our team of eight [researchers, translators, documentarians, etc] would slip out early trying [failing] to escape the scooter throngs moving as one like schools of fishes and frantic drivers of Bangkok. We would work for 10 to 12 hours and slip back to the sanitized safety of the Four Seasons in Bangkok. “No one stays near the factory,” we were told. After three weeks in the Four Seasons, and watching to complete cycles of tourist come and go, the staff no longer bowed to us, accepting simply as part of the hotel’s normality.
Of note: Not a skateboard was seen on the streets. Not one. Too dangerous on these streets lined with meat vendors and navigated by insane drivers seemingly on some odd cocktail of Red Bull, nitrous-oxide, Dexadrine-X, and fearlessness permitted by a religion based on the platform of reincarnation. As if to prove all previous points, our Tuk Tuk drivers, while making unnecessary and ill-advised left hand passes of the speeding cars in front, would place two hands together and bow as we drove past shrines at every street corner. It was a rhythmic life and death dance that they were comfortable with. But as Westerners more used to keeping our religion hanging around our neck and under our shirts, it was a dreamscape best left to science fiction writers to work with. It was, decidedly, unreal in its unsafeness.
Thais drive with a sense of complete trust in the stranger, careening, jacking, snorting dead-nuts at our grill as they swerve and scrape paint off each other’s vehicles in a spray of yellow jacket sparks. Bowing. This is an ultimate form of trust and can be spoted in many cases to the employee employer relationship at well run companies.
The factory was clean and organized by both Eastern and Western standards. Employees were, as they told us, “taken care of.” This was more a cultural statement than matter of fact delivered in air quotes as we might have been tempted to translate it. It was the first manifestation of Maslow on this trip. He had been here before us.
There was an on-site cafeteria feeding [well] a table of 5 employees for less than 100 Baht [US$3.00]. An outdoor volleyball court, indoor Sepak Takraw, a local variation of volleyball played with the feet and a light rattan ball. There were sprit houses [common] that enjoyed the bows of employees as they filtered off the company run commuter bus. Most of those who did not take the bus participated in a voluntary carbon off-set program. “We pay money to plant trees to balance our drivings,” they said. Almost 100% of the employees participated in this program. They were paid competitive but not excessive wages. Needs met. “Taken care of.” Simple things, but things that are required before we ask more.
To us, the 12-hour shifts working on an assembly line spewing heat on top of the natural 100 degree days seemed excessive but we quickly learned that that was just our cultural misunderstanding. They liked the work. Loved the company, but liked the work. We had seen this at other factories.
“I’m not just making a widget – I’m working for a company that really cares, ” we heard variants of this sentence over and over, hundreds of times. Loving your job as a mark of happiness is false HR hope. Loving your company on the other hand is a kind of HR gold.
There is a “cultural yes” of this Land of Smiles – any and every question is answered in the immediate affirmative. They begin nodding before you can apply the rising lilt of an American question. Are you happy? Yes Yes Very. It’s an infuriating roadblock when studying employee engagement. Everyone is respectful, polite, accommodating to the point of exhaustion. You want to grab them by the shirt collar and shake them and scream “Don’t you know I’m trying to help you? Tell me the truth, damnit. It’s for your own good.” Alas the natives simply can’t get out of the way of their own cultural realities. Nor should they. They know what they are doing. Kurtz learned this as well.
Engaging employees in sustainability, for instance, appears easy in Thailand. To get volunteers to replant a tsunami blasted mangrove stand, all you need to do is ask. But that is not engagement. That is the cultural Yes happening. Beneath it, there is something else. Our job was to find it and understand it. And DO SOMETHING with it.
In between interviews and research, the team would cram 25 pounds of Thailand site seeing into a 5 pound bag – Temple of the Tiger, Bridge on the river Kwai [jackals whistling that song all day back and forth], rattan rafting on same, elephant riding, hanging off the back of motor bikes in the country and, of course, tattoos at Wat Bang Phra, the Buddhist temple known for its manual, stabbing tattoos. Our job is emersion and we do it fast and well.
There’s plenty of emersion into sustainability too. Signage at the factory is everywhere [on the floor, over machines and sinks, in the client showrooms, laminated examples above trash and recycling bins] reminding employees of its important. It is a visible entity. That’s mostly a good thing. Mostly, because too much signage has a tendency to make things invisible. Nilsson made this point over and over as Oblio and Arrow tripped through the Pointless Forest which wasn’t pointless at all – “a point in every direction is the same as no point at all.” You dig?
The sustainability team in Thailand also made it fun, the way only tittering school girls can with skirts and skits and poster-board and glue and bubble gum and glitter can. They mastered one of the early sets of rules of engagement. 1. Make it visible. 2. Make it fun. 3. Make the fun visible.
The fun belies the deeper seriousness of it all, as fun should and does most often. Beneath a good belly laugh is a sadness or meanness. Under this fun is a more intellectual understanding that is seemingly acceptable to ignore, but only if you understand it. During one charrette, these natives improved a sketch, given only 15 minutes of prep time, about what would happen to a local community if water conservation actions were not taken prompted only with: Why is Water Important? There understanding was deep and they called it, prophetically and grammatically stereotypically War On Water. They were predicting the cultural, physiological and economic impact of a world where clean community water becomes as sacred as oil. War for Water. And they smiled and laughed and hid behind their hands the whole time. It was like watching Susan Boyle for the first time only better.
Clean water, they know, is a Commons [like air] about to become a Commodity [like oil]. What happens to the community who is forced to fight for water [political wars, price wars, underground aquifer-fueled border disputes, fight clubs, etc]? They see it all coming. And this was no fluke team during the Charrette. 5 out of 5 of the 8-person teams demonstrated sophisticated understanding of complex ecological issues.
We quickly realized that the low-hanging fruit of employees engaged with sustainability were picked clean. High fruit is all that remained. Start climbing.
Two weeks later, we were wrapping it up, reviewing dailies, reading transcripts, starting to write and edit and put our deliverables to music. On the final day of shooting, we sat on the floor of Khun Ma-Dee’s stilted house with her family – all employees at the same factory. They gave us bottled water, she cooked us noodles and vegetarian fare out of respect for our own dietary shortcomings or evolution depending on your point of view of these things. Sticky rice and rotten bananas for dessert. Rolling tape and audio, we sat cross legged, borrowed fans cooling our unconditioned white skin, and talked. That’s all. Just talked. About making what they make at the factory, about how they do it, and about mangroves and the floods and their community and faith in it all.
In short, about sustainability. \
There is little rest these days for the team and our families. Back at the shop we are writing and editing and producing. And we are planing a client adventure to a manufacturing facility in the Netherlands – our next outpost.
Rooks, some month, 2012
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