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Anyone for tennis? Change of attitude by Irish firms in bid to get best from staff


Novak Djokovic hits a return against Andy Murray in the men's singles final of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic hits a return against Andy Murray in the men's singles final of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne

Novak Djokovic hits a return against Andy Murray in the men's singles final of the Australian Open tennis tournament in Melbourne

There isn't much time for self-reflection when you are advising on company takeovers but at Dublin-based corporate law firm William Fry they are giving themselves some serious thought.

In between drafting contracts and negotiating deals, over 70 of the firm's partners are mapping out how they spend their time, from meetings with clients to games of tennis with friends, and then considering how engaged they were at each activity.

The analysis, charted using an online app, is part of a nine-month programme that aims to help leaders identify what they enjoy and excel at so that they can focus on those activities and become more engaged and motivated in the process.


"The programme is not about eliminating weaknesses and things that you are not good at. It is actually focusing on the things that you are good at and emphasising their impact in your life," said Shane O'Donnell, head of William Fry's corporate department.

"There has been an immediate and very positive reaction from participants."

Increased competition for talented staff, technological changes and an influx of people aged between 20 and 32 - often referred to as Millennials - into the workforce have prompted companies to think afresh about how to motivate their staff, particularly in the wake of the financial crisis.

"It's not like you work 9 to 5 and then you leave your work at home. Given technology and given the evolution of things, work and life are not separate anymore," said Tal Ben-Shahar, chief learning officer and co-founder of Potentialife, which developed the programme used by William Fry.

"People are not just looking for meaning at home and on Sunday but they are looking for meaning from work too. People are looking for much more from their lives. This is a real need whether you are working in shipping or in high-tech."

While higher pay and bonuses are usually the first things that come to mind when thinking about motivating staff, an annual all-industry survey by consultancy Aon Hewitt in recent years has shown salary is not the biggest driver of employee engagement; career opportunities, performance management and the reputation of the organisation come first.

People working in the financial services sector are a little more mercenary - they rank pay as the third most important motivator - but are similarly more concerned with career opportunities and recognition.

That's good news for banks, particularly in Europe, where the financial crisis has been followed by a debt crisis that has left many lenders unable to afford significant pay hikes anytime soon and where bonuses are political hot potatoes.

In the headquarters of Bank of Ireland, across the Liffey from William Fry, management rolled out a programme called "Be At Your Best" last year, focusing on developing employees' mind, body and career.

The financial crisis hit bank staff hard in Ireland. With thousands of job cuts, career progression was a pipe dream, pay was frozen and public anger towards the sector was so strong that some staff were spat at and verbally abused in branches.

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Working in "the bank", once a mark of respectability in Irish society, became something to hide. Nearly seven years later, morale has improved and the Bank of Ireland, the only Irish lender to avoid nationalisation, wanted to help its people shift gears as it moved from survival mode to recovery.

"We felt that it was very important to support staff in making the transition to normalisation," said Julie Sharp, the bank's head of human resources. "Creating a positive, can-do, will-do attitude that is aligned to the bank's strategy."

Having happy employees makes business sense. Companies with higher worker satisfaction generally produce above-average stock returns, according to research carried out by Alex Edmans, a professor of finance at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and outperform rivals in sales growth, according to annual surveys by Aon Hewitt.

"The roughly 20pc of the workforce that are highly engaged have a far greater impact on outcomes than even the moderately engaged," said Ken Oehler, global engagement practice leader at Aon Hewitt.

Potentialife chief executive Angus Ridgway and Ben-Shahar, a former Harvard University lecturer who has written extensively about happiness and well-being, say their LifeMap app is particularly attractive to banks.

"They know that the corner has been turned or they would like to feel that the corner has been turned and it is time to put the foot on the accelerator," said Ridgway, a former partner at McKinsey.

Some lenders have been developing programmes to support their careers and encouraging them to eat right, sleep well and exercise to improve their mental and physical well-being.

The Bank of Ireland has held talks about personal resilience, career workshops, organised fun runs and held health and fitness seminars.

The number of staff studying for professional qualifications has risen 80pc since the program was rolled out, according to Sharp.

Bank insiders who were sceptical when "Be At Your Best" was first launched have been surprised at how sincerely staff have embraced it, reviving old social clubs and getting involved in charity work.

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