Saturday, March 5, 2011

Geoff's Commentary on the 2011 WSM Employee Survey

Lest I disappoint those of you who expect me to 'share' about Weaver Street Market Co-operative every time I tie my shoelaces, here's the letter I just sent to the WSM Board of Directors, the WSM corporate office and my immediate Managers:

"These are some observations, and this e-mail does not require answering.

I am bound to say I was pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the Employee Survey allowed for quite honest input on the state of The Weave, both as a business and as a co-operative.

I guess one consequence is that we may all learn whether the points I have been making these past few years are, indeed, a reflection of what others have been saying to me (as has always been my contention), or have been and remain my viewpoint alone (as some of you have, quite bluntly, stated to me).

Of course, the real test of the usefulness of the Survey will be the extent to which you allow the results to be fully discussed at the Department, Store and Co-op level, and whether or not employees will be involved meaningfully in the design of the resulting action plans.

In the meantime, two points: one minor(-ish), one more important:

1) I understood the need for a multiple choice element to the Survey. It allows the results to be quantitative, as well as qualitative.

Yet, I think that making employees wait until the end of the multiple choice element before adding commentary to the answers may have had the consequence of diluting the commentary.

Frankly, even I lost track of all of my thoughts after the entire Survey. I think any commentary would have been more precise and more comprehensive if the commentary had been allowed after each question.

2) The Survey was not anonymous.

When you required that we gave information as to Store, Department and Section, you pretty much reduced the possibilities to about two or three people in each case.

Frankly, I can see no advantage having been gained by such information with this Survey. Certainly, you will have learned nothing that you did not already know from the 360 degree Annual Employee Review.

You may dismiss this point as irrelevant. You would be wrong. No less than three fellow workers from Southern Village have already said to me that, as a consequence of their view that the Survey was not anonymous, they did not complete the Survey as fully as they would have liked.

This will clearly have implications for the accuracy and bias of the results.

For myself, I made the same points I have been making consistently these past few years, not least since Expansion:

A) As a worker-consumer co-op, and by definition, we are supposed to provide for the common needs of our workers and consumers, both in what we do and how we do it.

This is not airy-fairy idealism. It is the root of the thinking behind the economic success of all co-op's.

Namely that, unlike traditional grocery stores, we are not supposed to rely on impersonal and expensive marketing trickery to attract custom, and reactive management practices to inspire workers (as, in fact, we do now).

Rather, we are supposed to determine on a regular basis the common needs of worker and consumer, with continuous two-way communication, so that we provide what our consumers genuinely want, in a way that truly inspires workers, because they were asked.

In other words, if we involve consumers and workers consensually in our major decision-making, they will be invested in the results, and will buy more, and work harder.

B) We do not engage in that regular two-way communication. We do not hold enough Department or Store Meetings. We hold no Full Co-op Employee Meetings at all. And if and when we hold any of these Meetings, they are devoted almost exclusively to presentation by the WSM corporate office, and not to meaningful question-and-answer and discussion sessions with employees on policy and direction. On the why and how, as well as the what.

I have already made the suggestion that we might well encourage greater interest from all employees in the minutiae of WSM if we were to allow the employee Market Messenger to be a genuine employee-run newsletter, with access granted to the corporate office, but not sole access, as we have now.

To be honest, I take the view that the very existence of this Employee Survey is in itself an implicit admission of failure to communicate both ways, which should be the very essence of co-operation.

Employee Surveys are the sort of management tool found in conventional corporations, not in co-operatives. They should not become a substitute for genuine co-operation, communication and democracy.

C) I think the Survey will find that a large number of shopfloor workers feel that the work environment at WSM (pay, benefits, dividends, staffing levels, equipment, etc.) is not what it could or should be.

I continue to maintain the view that this is because we are currently forced to devote too much of our resources to paying off the debt on an Expansion, which can now only be determined to have been a failure, rather than on much-needed investment in that work environment.

I hope that discussion following this Survey and the consequential action plans will allow employees to have genuine input as to the state of WSM's finances, the availability of 'excess' funds (above and beyond normal operational costs), and the use to which those funds should now be put. Even if such discussion and planning moves into areas of quite radical alternative to the corporate office's current gameplan.

To say that any area of discussion is off-limits, or to provide insufficient information to permit such discussion, would be effectively to castrate the discussion before it begins. Wouldn't you say?

After all, you have said that you want us to become more 'financially literate' this year. So, you should want us to have the necessary information. Isn't that right?

On which note, when may I be expecting a copy of the WSM Audited Annual Accounts for 2010 (together with all supporting documentation from the Auditor), which copy I have requested as a worker-owner more than once since last September?

D) The last remaining pathway for employees to have meaningful input to policy-making is through worker-ownership.

Not enough workers become worker-owners. I am prepared to bet that the primary reason for this will be shown by the Survey to be the exorbitant cost of $500. I have already suggested the cost be reduced to, say, $200.

If there were more worker-owners, we would not find workers being represented on the Board by a Manager and a Finance staff member from the WSM corporate office.

As I always say, I mean no disrespect to the individuals concerned, but it is a nonsense to suggest that shopfloor workers can be represented by other than shopfloor workers.

I believe that, if the above three points were fully addressed, all the other questions in the Survey about pay, benefits, work environment, staffing and the like would follow naturally, because the co-op as a whole, collegially, would be making the decisions from which those matters flow. In other words, the people affected by those matters would be the ones deciding those matters. Which is what the co-operative business model is all about.

I look forward to the Survey results, and to meaningful discussion and input to the action plans.

All the best,
Geoff Gilson"


You can see my completed WSM Employee Survey on Facebook.