It’s National Laughter Week. You didn’t know? Your office wasn’t rocked with mirth and rent asunder with guffaws? Shame on you. As you obviously need them, here are some suggestions as to how to mark the occasion, together with a clear injunction:
Be a leader. Start the laughter.”
What, you missed that line on the job profile? Gaiety? Merriment? – oh, where will these dread responsibilities ever end!
For the world’s media, of course, National Laughter Week is a sub-editor’s daydream. Last week’s news made it seem like they were already creasing up in anticipation. ‘Scientists make sperm in labs’, for example. Many commented quietly that this might not constitute news, others that they had already caught engineers playing with the delivery mechanism in dimly lit sheds. But the apparent pre-launch for National Laughter Week – the apogee of that well-mined vein of British ‘ooh look, pink bits!’ nudge-nudgery – popped up perkily in that notoriously salacious rag, The Daily Telegraph, with the eyeball grabbing headline Staff strip naked to improve morale.
I couldn’t help thinking that the basic premise – taking their clothes off will make an office team more honest with and accepting of each other – fell awkwardly between ‘away with the fairies’ and ‘over the hills and fnar away’. The staff said kind things about the process in the paper, but they were pre-selling a TV programme to relaunch Virgin 1 as a cable channel. And there was my natural scepticism to overcome: Quentin Crisp might have been talking about life models rather than State employees per se when he spoke about ‘The Naked Civil Servant’, but I couldn’t see how conceptual – and literal – nudity was going to turn the private sector in the Office of Eden either. What if we still lied even with our figleaves round our ankles? What if the TV station, consultant and guinea pigs had all boobed?
So having had experience of the owners and shareholders of onebestway (a design and marketing company in Newcastle -Upon Tyne) from a previous life and client relationship, I curiously tuned in – along with probably at least another 30 people – to the Virgin transmission on Thursday night. Well, given what the scientists can call “research” …
The onebestway team did have difficulties in communicating – in keeping with countless other businesses, be they small, medium or large. There were definitely one or two ‘elephants in the room’, but the programme left me far from convinced that David Taylor, the business consultant engaged, had diagnosed the best way of getting them to unpack their trunks. Indeed, he suggested an approach that was the most extreme example I have witnessed in many years of using monstrous hammers to crack tiny nuts. (Sorry, that pun was intentional.)
The exercise in Friday nakedness – achieved by increasing frequency of unveiled flesh in the office (including a naked temp, who – with the exception of his largely absent face – was treated less kindly by the film editing process than the main participants, but who was presumably being paid for his discomfort) – was extreme and gimmicky: a crude metaphor for trust, openness, honesty and teamwork. If anyone needed a good “dressing down” here, it was the consultant, not the consultees.
It seemed to me that a ‘Truth Room’ meeting and subsequent session with David Taylor involving the two main protagonists were key to the business progressing. That fully clothed exchange seemed to unlock the problems between them and contributed to their taking the initial steps towards achieving a shared understanding of management and style differences. As that doesn’t make for gripping tv on its own, it naturally also led to a far more speedy erection (here we go again … although this was thankfully clothed) of the tent in the car park: team-play as titillation, part nine.
Senior team behavioural change is a varied and complex process. Making a start on better channels of communication that encourage and support direct and honest exchanges is a key building block and obviously worked for onebestway: they seem to be on their way.
But they’d made that realisation by about the Wednesday of their week-long journey. A bit like Lisa’s decision at one stage to withdraw her initial photocopied picture of her body parts from display, perhaps the team should have reflected to David Taylor that they got it at that stage: that they understood this metaphor for change but that they also realised that the teller actually didn’t need to be as naked as the truth. (And possibly that they were worried that there was a difference between naked honesty and nude advertising.)
If the programme’s intention was to provide a lot of free advertising for onebestway, (who are, in my view, very good at what they do) then I guess it was a job well done. (Well, depending on Virgin 1’s viewing figures: perhaps thousands of Daily Telegraph readers tuned in to learn about workplace communication strategy in the twenty-first century?) The business market is tough: my experience of living in the North East for 6 years tells me it is tougher there than anywhere in these already challenging economic times. (Although I should say that the economic micro-climate that is the North East tends to always appear tough: lowest GDP, highest rate of unemployment, highest rate of adult illiteracy, etc.)
I do understand that any way of drawing attention to your differentiating proposition, or USP, should be looked at. Decency and honesty can be achieved without gimmicks, and in ways that don’t potentially offend your audience. Would this approach have been suggested if onebestway had employed a Muslim woman, for example? And nudity in unusual venues isn’t just about our willingness to display: it’s about our willingness to watch. Forcing people to admit interpersonal failures not just naked and in front of each other, but on camera too, doesn’t sound like a therapeutic activity to me: it sounds suspiciously like something that – in a parallel the programme understandably avoided – soldiers get court-marshalled for.
Even ignoring that aspect of it, I can think of a lot of people I don’t actually wish to see naked. It’s a matter of what you spotlight: why unveil things that will only distract attention from the proper focal point? Sometimes that means some things shouldn’t be visible to the naked eye. And ‘respect me, respect my gimmick’ doesn’t grab me as an argument either.
I am genuinely pleased that the results seem to have been very positive for onebestway. But does the end justify the means? For me the answer is “not really, unless it is an exercise in naked self promotion that you are after”. What do you think?