Bees, Bumble and Work/Life Balance: What Beekeeping Can Teach Us About a Happy Workplace

Thoughts from GemCap UK Chief Executive Stuart Alexander on his passion for keeping bees, and what the hive can teach us about keeping a team happy.

Now some of you who know me, who follow my LinkedIn updates or, dare I say, my Instagram feed, will know that I keep bees. Just two hives, but they produce enough honey for my family, friends and many others in the village where I live. 20kgs and counting so far this year! But what has that got to do with business? Well, quite a lot actually. At times work can feel like a hive with the queen dictating everything that goes on in the hive, to ensure the workers deliver the pollen and the nectar to provide the stores for the new laid eggs that will eventually become new workers and drones. However, the last few weeks has demonstrated that sometimes if you don’t get it right then the hive can change. Whilst the queen is the leader, she can be usurped by her workers. They will craftily raise another queen without her knowing, hiding the egg and subsequent larvae so the queen doesn’t find it. Eventually the new queen will face off to the old queen and in the subsequent battle one of them will be forced to leave the hive, taking with her a number of workers. This is a swarm; it takes place April to May every year and is a natural event that beekeepers try to manage carefully. Why do the workers do this? Simply put, they are not happy. The queen may not be doing her job properly, not laying enough eggs and raising a strong enough colony to survive the coming years, so, in effect, the workers revolt for their own good and that of the colony. It is therefore important that the queen recognises this and creates an environment that makes her workers want to stay – and that is ultimately the role of the CEO.

Some of you will have read about Whitney Wolfe Herd, CEO of Bumble, the dating app that recently listed on the NYSE and made her the youngest female self-made billionaire. She announced this week that Bumble is shutting down for a week to allow employees some time off after a very hectic year. This will allow her colleagues to recharge their batteries after a very successful year and come back fitter and stronger. Now all credit to Ms Herd and her very responsible attitude to her staff and their wellbeing, but realistically how many firms can do that? Clearly certain companies would need to have cover to ensure that vital elements of their businesses were still operating; I’m thinking the legal profession, administrators in the Funds industry and ManCos for example. However, it begs the bigger question: where are we heading when it comes to the workplace and the time we spend at work compared to homelife? Recent talk about moving to a 4-day working week raises the question: ‘does anyone actually work on a Friday?’. The old acronym POETS day comes to mind (if you don’t know what that is, Google it!).

The working environment over the last 18 months has demonstrated that with the right technology we can work anywhere and at anytime, as long as the work is done and as long as colleagues know when you are available and when you are not. Equally technology means we can communicate with clients and suppliers when required but all of this causes the issue that Bumble and others have struggled with; the ability to switch off. We all need downtime, but for those who are passionate about what they do and want to do more, or for those who feel peer pressure or worse, have a boss that expects that “going the extra mile” is the norm, then you have a problem. No one ultimately wins and the downside is that you get a meltdown, stress levels rise and productivity falls, coupled with a dramatic fall in morale across the business. It is really important to ensure that the business functions well at all times. Many firms spend huge amounts on training and creating a workplace that is fun, with ping pong tables, beer fridges etc but they are missing the point in my view. You are still in the working environment. You are still surrounded by your work colleagues and that work is never far away. Many large firms have their own restaurants in the buildings, based on the simple premise that if your staff ate in the building either at their desk or nearby then they would be back to work more quickly. Altruism it was not. I remember talking to a friend who works at one of the big investment banks in London who could feed herself from breakfast to dinner and even get a cab on the business after 9pm, all at the business’s expense. Noble, you would think, but the cynic in me says that whilst it sounds generous it is a classic way of getting staff to work extended hours without the pay and a risk of burnout vey quickly if not managed well.

The last 18 months have taught us all that we can work from home and be as efficient as if we are in the office, although we miss the social interaction and the immediacy of decision-making in my view. However, there is a huge risk that, if not managed, a colleague can end up working far more hours than agreed so as to clear their inbox. It is far too easy to say, “I’ll just check my emails and clear them before tomorrow”. Before you know it, you are working 5 ½ days and that quickly ends up at 6 days or 60 hours a week. I have been there, and I know the pressure it has on people. I once had a boss who was surprised that I wanted to spend some time with my wife and our newborn child. He was a dinosaur in so many ways, but the guilt I was made to feel for not being in the office for the three or four days that I took off was nothing compared to the guilt I still have 25 years later at not being there to support my wife in the first few weeks of our children’s lives.

So let’s give our colleagues the flexibility they require, and whilst we may not all be able to be as flexible as Bumble, we should be looking at how as employers we can get the best out of people with working practices and not with guilt.

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