People watching – are we more similar or different?
Have you ever been to an airport, in a foreign country, and watched on as people similar, and yet in so many ways different to you, came and went, crossing your path as they continued on a very similar journey to you?
What were the things that you noticed and observed? Were you more taken by the commonalities of being complete strangers from perhaps different sides of the globe who were now living in the bubble of shared experience, or were you more struck by how differently you inhabited this shared experience?
Observing the unfamiliar:
Perhaps you noticed that you and all of these unknown people were all there for the same purpose, going to the same destination, all with passports to that place, boarding cards, suitcases and travel bags, maybe wearing similar clothing and all headed in the same direction.
Or perhaps what caught your attention was how differently you all looked, one from another, the unfamiliarity of overhearing languages that weren’t your own, or the rituals and traditions of families that were so unlike your own. Maybe you noticed that your passports were different colours, and that the clothes you wore were of contrasting styles.
It is fun to notice similarities and differences when we observe people passing through shared spaces such as airports, train stations, bus stations and such like. We can observe without being overly affected because we are all just passing through our shared experience and going on to perhaps a shared destination, but one in which we can part ways with our fellow travellers and continue on our own journey.
The similarities and differences can therefore remain interesting facets of our experience without being intrusions on our more familiar ways of living life.
When ‘cultures’ collide:
However, sometimes cultures ‘collide’ or come together in a more permanent situation that causes quite different reactions than those of amusement, fascination, interest or curiosity for the traveller. What if the shared spaces you were inhabiting with unfamiliar people were to be more enduring than the fleeting experiences of passing through an airport terminal for example?
What if the different culture or cultures you find yourself faced with are not those of people you will see only briefly, but those you will spend time with day after day on a very regular basis? How would that change the way you perceive and experience change? What if the ‘cultural differences’ are not to do with countries, nationalities or location, but are new and different ‘company cultures’? How would you feel then?
I’m learning about this in real time. Last year my organisation was absorbed into its parent company, and particularly into one specific department of that company. The merger brought about a new name for the department and a new identity.
I was involved in the preparatory work of ‘business transfer’, novation and helping to coordinate certain formal aspects of the due diligence and legal work that needed to be done. It was a good opportunity to be involved in something I had never done before, and good to work as part of a wider team from both sides, as the formal transfer of the business was progressed.
Formal and Informal Transitions:
That was the formal side of things. Management often talked of it as a ‘lift and shift’ approach. Priorities were covering all aspects of due diligence, legal compliance, HR, payroll and physical moves, etc. Staff obviously had to be communicated with, but once again this focused on the formal and practical changes and logistics of the merger.
What was not as high on the agenda, however, as the key goal was to legally process these formal changes, was addressing the ‘softer’ transitions that were taking place, particularly in regards to communicating the ‘little things’ to staff, things that may take shape over time, and thinking about how to successfully bring two differing company cultures together.
The situation now is that fellow travellers from one location have now arrived at their ‘destination’ together. However, this new and shiny destination is already inhabited, and this is not a temporary ‘holiday home’ – it is where all of us, old, new and everything in between, will share a space and work together under the same new banner of what we have all merged into. However, being in the same place doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all of one mind, and that is going to be a fascinating and interesting learning curve for all involved.
Birds of a Feather:
Initially, as people began working in their new location, there was a tendency for those who knew each other, even only slightly, from their previous workplace to stick together, have lunch, and take comfort in the familiar. Totally understandable, and shared human nature. They were learning that the ones already here were also having to adjust to changes – changes perhaps in and between teams, working with new colleagues, perhaps even saying goodbye to people they had worked with for a long time who thought it was a good time to move on, and dealing with physical moves and relocation of desks, rooms, and teams. There was also the uncertainty for all regarding ‘what happens next?’, therefore finding comfort in the familiar was a totally natural and expected occurrence.
“The Times they are a ‘Changing”:
Now we’ve reached the stage where most people have relocated into the same building (although others work in different parts dotted around the city, but the majority of the workforce for this newly formed department is now in the one building). People are less reticent about mixing, work has been progressing and new faces are gradually, slowly but surely becoming more familiar. People are gradually settling into new routines, finding their way around, and the new is less daunting. There is more discussion and collaboration between teams. So everything is going smoothly, right? Well, not quite…at least not yet.
“Where Everybody Knows Your Name”:
I wonder if you’re familiar with the old American sitcom set in a bar / pub in Boston, starring Ted Danson as the main barman, and featuring regulars and staff such as Carla, the sharp-tongued and tom-boyish barmaid, contrasted with Dianne the gentle, feminine and intelligent waitress, and many other lovable characters from different walks of life including a baseball coach, a postman, a psychiatrist (who later starred in his own programme – ‘Frazier’) among others.
If you’re familiar with the programme, “Cheers”, then you’ll also be familiar with the nostalgic theme tune, and it’s reassuring lyrics:
“Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got,
Taking a break from all your worries, sure can help a lot,
Wouldn’t you like to get a way, and go someplace where
Everybody knows your name, and you’re always glad you came,
You wanna’ go where you can see people are all the same,
You wanna’ go where everybody knows your name”.
Isn’t this what we all long for? However, management of change when it comes mainly from the top down, is often focused heavily on strategic objectives, and forgets the human touch. I’ve been involved in some new emergent work following the formal transfer that is focused on engaging with staff to find out their views and to work alongside the Communications team to create a strategy for engaging staff, addressing issues of company culture, of communication, and finding out what they really think. Unfortunately, this has been an afterthought with the powers that be, but the good thing is that at least now, something is beginning to happen.
In one of the staff engagement sessions, I was struck by some feedback where one person commented on the lack of introductions, and the management of change, such that they didn’t even know the names of the people sitting in the desks next to and around them.
Everyone wants to be somewhere where people know their name, and where they know the names of those around them. It takes time, and some may be pessimistic but I view this as a great opportunity not to let slip by. And I am excited to be part of a new piece of work that I haven’t been involved with before.
So as I share these initial observations with you, I encourage you also to find a way in your day today to make someone feel a little more ‘at home’, known, and valued….because sometimes the greatest impacts for positive change are the collection of ‘small things’, little acts of genuine kindness that start from the ‘grassroots’ and grow to eventually reach the top.