Richard Branson on Trusting Your Employees

This Freakonomics interview with the founder of the Virgin group was interesting for a lot of reasons, but this exchange I found very telling:

BRANSON: Well I mean, I think, I find that some American companies are anything but good at motivating people.  And I find that hard to understand, because if you’ve got a happy, motivated group of people you’re working with, you can achieve anything. And you know, you can ride the good times together, you can ride the bad times together. If you treat your people badly, they’re not going to go that extra mile when things get tough. I just think you should treat your people in the same way that you treat your family. I mean, however you would treat your brothers and sisters or your children, the same should apply exactly to the people you work with. And it’s so much more pleasant. I mean you know, I mean a lot of our time we spend at work, and work should be fun. It should be enjoyable. And you should also have policies that follow through with that, so you know, if people want to work from home, let them work from home. If people want to work from home on Fridays and Mondays, let them work from home Fridays and Mondays. If people want to take a month off and go around the world, let them take a month off and go around the world. I mean, people will give everything back if you give them the flexibility and treat them like adults.

DUBNER: I hear you and I so want to believe that that’s the way to be. But the sceptic in me just thinks well, if every company let everybody work from home Fridays and Mondays and let them take a week off and go take balloon trips or climb a mountain that, you know, productivity would plummet and economy would fall apart. Why do people not exploit that, at your firm, at least?

BRANSON: Because they feel trusted.  And also, look — let’s just look at this business of forcing people to come to an office. First of all, you’ve got maybe an hour or an hour and a half of travel time in the morning, another hour and a half of travel time in the evening. And, you know, when you’re at the office, it’s important that you say hello to everybody and that you’re friendly with everybody, so you use up another hour or two, you know, socializing with people. Then, because you’re not at home, you need to communicate with your family. So you spend another bit of time communicating with your family. And so the day carries on and you might get a couple hours of work done. If you’re at home, you know, you wake up. You can spend a bit of time with your family. And be a proper father, which is perhaps the most important — or mother — most important things that we can do in our life. But you can also find the time to get whatever your job is done, because you’ve got another four or five hours free to do it. And you know, we’ve never been let down by people that we’ve given that trust to. I think treating people as adults, giving people trust, is so important. And I mean — I’ll just give you one other example — slightly different. But I mean, we have a policy of giving ex-prisoners a second chance, and taking on as many people who’ve been imprisoned as possible into our Virgin companies. Because we give them that trust, not one of them have ever re-offended. And, we’re talking, you know like in Virgin Trains, I think we have 35 people. Well, the person who is head of our security at Virgin Trains, she comes out of prison on a Monday morning, works until Friday night, goes back to prison for the weekend, comes out. But she’s absolutely brilliant at her job. And somebody who will do everything they can for the company because the company has given them that second chance.

This is the sort of thing that makes people want to come work for you. Not just because I can have some flexibility and maybe even take advantage of you, but because I want to be trusted. He’s not wrong. We’ve gotten so far away from what he describes in our current management/labor relationships that it almost seems quaint when he talks about caring for the people who work for you. But think about it. What’s the one thing that attracts people to the gig economy rather than working for someone? It’s the flexibility, the freedom to work anywhere, at whatever hour makes the most sense for you.

What if you could have something close to that, but still have the security of a full time job? Wouldn’t you work your ass off for the person who wanted to make that possible? Wouldn’t you value the company and the work that you have been entrusted with, instead of constantly feeling like your boss doesn’t trust you and is only ever concerned with how many hours you’re in the office? (Not to mention all of the horrible ways that measurement disadvantages people who don’t need to spend as many hours in the office.)

I imagine the most talented folks in your industry would work pretty hard for a place that valued them that much.

Alas, most companies can’t be bothered with all of that. I guess that’s why they aren’t Virgin.

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