HR & Management

A family that works together, stays together

6 min read

19 January 2011

"Families that eat together, stay together" – I think that the world of work could take a few lessons from the world of home.

Family is one word that may explain why some businesses are called “special”. It isn’t a biological definition, more a state of mind. Not every business has it, but for those that do, it’s a delicate – but potent – part of what makes them strong.

It refers to the closeness, affection and attitude that bind people together and makes them win. It’s an ideal. The reality of many families in the home is of course a darker one than the surrogate family of the workplace.

So, it seems to me that many entrepreneurs are running companies that are special because they act more like committed parents than plutocrats.

“Our people are just like family.” It can sometimes sound like a terrible cliché, but people say it for a reason.

Belonging

The word family is an emotive and powerful one. Employees who feel part of a working family have a sense of belonging; customers sense the magic; and the business glows if its brand halo is brightened by the sense of family.

There are very practical reasons why people respond so powerfully to the working family ideal. The average person spends about 48 to 50 “conscious” hours in a week with working colleagues as compared to only 34 “conscious” hours with family members.  If you’re going to spend so much of your life at work then it’s natural that you want to have a sense of belonging.

Creating a sense of belonging means you’re more likely to give more, work harder, be more committed. So, for any business leader it’s something to think about.

Many are wary of firms that celebrate the family ideal. It infers hierarchy, sentimentalism and false ideals. I think they’re wrong – the rewards far outstrip the risks.

It’s the very absence of a sense of family that makes many bureaucracies and large corporations struggle to find the same sense of identity and purpose as those that have it. No amount of branding gloss can fabricate the authenticity of family. So if you’ve got it, flaunt it.

The most dangerous moment for any family brand is when it reaches a size where it risks losing the magic. Then the family must be turned into a tribe.

So, beware the moment when the people around you start to describe your team as “human capital”, or when the tragedy of redundancy becomes “natural wastage”. Modern management speak is the antithesis of the businesses I’m referring to.

In turn, it’s a myth to believe that family can only apply to businesses of a certain size. I think it’s a concept at the heart of many entrepreneurial businesses, both large and small.

Virgin is a company that oozes family ideals. From a commitment to “fun and a sense of competitive challenge”, to the benign baby boomer patriarch Sir Richard Branson, this is a business with family written into its DNA. 

Continue reading on page two.

“I agree with Nick”

When you create a business, you create a family. I experienced this a year ago when I set up my own firm with my business partner Nick.

It seems to be a combination of civil partnership meeting Coalition government. “I agree with Nick” is a phrase I seem to say a lot and as two men I am also not sure which one of us is Mummy.

The business has its brothers and sisters, the baby of the family and the moody teenager. Dysfunctional yet devoted, bonkers yet brilliant, it all seems to me that it is a particular mix of family that makes the firm special.

Our politicians certainly are wise to the potent symbolism of the family. When they champion “hard working families”, it is as much about an ideal as it is actual people.

But politicians struggle with evoking the authenticity of family. All too often the magic seems to disappear into fabricated and manufactured mantras. It is a concept that somehow seems to diminish when a political stranger tries to apply it to you. 

In the home and certain workplaces it is different. Why? Because it’s authentic and true.

Strength through adversity

My Granny used to say, “I know I shouldn’t say it, but the war was the happiest time of my life.”

She spoke for a generation that lived and bonded together through the Blitz. A time of great austerity and misery was also a time of community and closeness for many. It was a time of a national family.

There can be little doubt that times of adversity do change things, and in the uncertain world of the post-financial crisis, conditions may make some of us closer and some companies more united.

The reality of recession means that within the business world more of us want to work together, stay together and succeed together.

Michael Hayman is founder of the public relations consultancy Seven Hills. You can also follow Michael on Twitter.

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