Q. How can I keep good labour? It is hard enough trying to find the right people but even harder to keep them.
A. It does seem that workers are less inclined to stay in one place for any length of time. Maybe it is just an illusion, but years ago staff were taken on and trained to the standards required by the firm then stayed on to become chargehands, building their skills base from hands-on artisans to lead gardener or foreperson in an almost seamless pathway. I know that is not a correct picture of reality, but I also know of growers, garden contractors and landscapers who did retain staff from school-leavers to retirement.
Consider how your company is seen by others, either by public perception or within the industry. There are many very small firms that have a strong brand name and enjoy an enviable reputation in every respect. They have built that reputation over several years, not only for the quality of their work but their attitude to business in general.
Only by offering high-quality service backed with a professional foundation that includes settling their accounts promptly, arriving on time and working to specification and budget, with a respectful regard to their clients and site etiquette, can such companies gain a positive reputation. For these firms to grow, they must find suitable staff. Finding the right employees is a very complex and variable subject, which I do not have space to dwell on here. Having found those people, the difficulty in the modern world is retaining them.
It seems that there is pressure on individuals to stay for no longer than a certain period of time, usually around five years. People are frightened that unless they regularly change their job they will be seen as somehow tainted by virtue of becoming institutionalised - unable to be of use to another employer.
It therefore falls on the employer to offer the right circumstances to ensure that the employee becomes a respected member of the company. It is important to begin this process as early as possible because trying to adapt and alter existing work practices can be fraught.
Long-term staff strategy
The first requirement, the very foundation of your company policy, should be to formulate a long-term staff strategy with the aim of retaining good staff, even before you need to take them on. Think ahead positively. What do want from your staff and how can you manage them in the future? What is your ambition for the firm? Do you want to grow into a medium sized outfit or remain small and focused on your speciality? Having produced this forward plan, specifically as a staff-training tool, it should be issued to every member on your payroll.
By involving people in your plans and ambitions, setting out a clear path for growth, they will be far more likely to want to buy into the venture. Let us assume that you are currently operating as a five-person firm - the proprietor plus four others. Say two teams of two, with one person in charge of another. You are not a member of any trade organisation, neither have you enjoyed any public appraisal, say a local show or RHS show garden. You may be just one of 100 similar small firms in your county. However, you have ambitions to set your firm apart from others, perhaps specialising in hard landscaping or seaside gardens.
You should try to build in a meritorious system that recognises a progressive number of rewards. These may simple pay rises at a given stage (eg annually). Perhaps a bonus system that is easy to understand and administer. If someone passes an examination that is useful to the company, first aid or safe handling, even if you have paid for the course an annual modest bonus should be added to their wages. Only by setting out a clear path of advancement, negating any thoughts of "leaving to better themselves", will staff be able to reconcile their ambitions with those of the employer.
It is essential to produce this pathway document and not deviate from it. If you introduce a betterment system, you cannot alter it - unless by agreement with the staff - without losing their respect due to your management skills. You must not offer a carrot then withdraw it and beat them with a stick, as the old saying goes.
I suggest, too, that you consider your firm's progress at the same time as your staff. Perhaps apply for membership of one of the strictly meritorious trade associations, those that demand a high standard of business professionalism before entry is granted. This ambition should be shared with the staff and perhaps a "thank you" lunch arranged to celebrate a milestone in the company's growth.
If you have the opportunity to become involved in a major show, either as an exhibitor, contractor or supplier, then this is another occasion that should be celebrated by the company as a whole. Everyone, from the managing director right through to the newest recruit, should be included in any successes.
Retaining staff is not easy and the art of managing people goes well beyond simple hands-on training. But by involving workers in positive ways, sharing your ambitions and walking along the pathway to success together, you have a greater chance to build and retain your greatest assets.
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Alan Sargent is an independent gardens consultant at the School of Garden Management - www.tsogm.org.