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The Stranger at the Water Cooler

10/30/2006 --

Building community in a world of free agents.

Company badge. Building keys. Cubicle. These are some of the accoutrements new hires expect when they join a company. For many, the sense of belonging that comes with the job is just as important.

For temporary staff, independent contractors and others who move from organization to organization — free agents — feeling part of a community is not a given, says Carl T. Camden, president and CEO of Kelly Services Inc., a leader in providing staffing solutions to some of the world's largest companies, including Johnson & Johnson, Intel, Baxter Healthcare and Sara Lee. Camden, who holds a doctorate in communications, has a scholarly as well as professional interest in the rapidly changing workplace.

"Permanent employment already is an oxymoron," says Camden, who admits even he is astounded that free agents make up a fifth of the U.S. workforce.

Given this workscape, how do free agents who are physically, administratively and temporally separated from the employing organization and from each other find a sustaining workplace community?

It is a question that Camden and Ross School student Ruth Blatt, PhD '08, set out to answer. Their findings are part of "Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation," to be released in November. The book is co-edited by Jane Dutton, the William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration at the Stephen M. Ross School of Business. It is the first book to focus on positively deviant relationships at work — relationships that are marked by higher than normal degrees of such characteristics as trust, vitality and respect — and features the work of scholars from Michigan and other universities.


Carl T. Camden, President and CEO of Kelly Services

"We read in the literature about the unraveling of the country's social fabric," says Camden. "It has been a popular topic among social scientists. People don't bowl together anymore. They don't join community groups like the Kiwanis that provide a sense of place and community. Still, there are a lot of people who care a whole lot about belonging."


Ruth Blatt, PhD '08

For many, a sense of community comes from work, says Blatt. It meets what many psychologists identify as "the fundamental need to belong" and provides a powerful source of attachment. Incentives that might motivate permanent employees — benefits, promotions and raises — carry little weight for temporary staff because they probably will not stay. The payoffs for firms that nurture a sense of community for temporary staff, many of whom are hired for their special knowledge or expertise, include a more motivated workforce comprised of people who are excited about coming to work and are willing to help other people and share their knowledge rather than hoard it.

Camden says it is easy to spot the detached. "You can see them. They're not engaged. We don't want a temp to feel like that. Plus, if temporary workers don't like the customer or assignment, they quit."

From in-depth interviews, Blatt and Camden discovered that temporary workers' sense of community is developed through small acts of positive connecting with other co-workers, something as simple as a meet-and-greet over coffee. For temps, Blatt says, a sense of community develops swiftly and involves immediate connections that generate feelings of inclusion, a sense of importance, perceptions of mutual benefits and shared emotions.

"We found that positive connections — being invited to lunch by co-workers, attending staff meetings or participating in celebrations — boosted temporary employees' motivation to come to work and increased the likelihood that they would stay despite alternative job offers," Blatt says.

The best thing executives can do to foster positive relationships at work is to allow them to form naturally by not creating obstacles. "Relationships will happen," she promises. Too often exclusionary practices, like not inviting temporary employees to the company picnic or describing a temp who works full-time as a half-time person, are dictated by management.


"Exploring Positive Relationships at Work: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation"
Jane Dutton and Belle Rose Ragins (Editors)
LEA, Inc., 2006

Camden's own experience confirms that permanent and temporary staff do create positive connections independently. For example, he cites recent joint celebrations organized by Baxter Healthcare and Kelly workers at several Baxter locations to celebrate Kelly Services' 60th anniversary and Baxter's 75th anniversary. The spark for the community-building activity came from employees, not corporate headquarters.

"Successful free agents come to a sense of community quickly," says Camden. "We do 75 percent of our hours with 25 percent of our employees. They wouldn't take a permanent job if offered. The other 75 percent of our employees work for Kelly as part of career transitions.

Blatt and Camden's findings, says Dutton, have ramifications for executives dealing with workforces spread across the globe, projected labor shortages among white collar workers in the United States and the imminent retirement of baby boomers.

In fact, retirees already serve as a rich talent pool for Kelly. "This has been the demographic destiny for 20 years," says Camden. "Boomers have many more productive years. Their health is better than that of their parents. They are willing to work longer. They just want to make work adjust to their own life needs and passions."


Jane Dutton, William Russell Kelly Professor of Business Administration

Each school day, 8,000 to 9,000 classrooms in the United States are staffed by Kelly substitute teachers, many of them retirees. "We have people who love teaching but can't teach on a permanent basis. They have child care or elder care responsibilities or hobbies. We're better at recruiting than most school districts," explains Camden, who says a typical district can fill only 70 percent of its needs for substitutes while Kelly fills 98 percent. One reason: Kelly Services provides benefits such as vacation time and a 401(k) plan, which are usually not available to substitute teachers.

Camden already has identified a new research question: "I'd like to study what helps people decipher the codes in new situations. How do you know which employees are going to figure out the nuances of the organization?"

The free agents who are good code breakers are able to merge with the host culture or community more quickly, he says, adding value to the business and helping to build a sense of community through work relationships that are professionally and personally satisfying.



For more information, contact:
Mary Jo Frank
Phone: 734-647-4626
E-mail: mjfrank@umich.edu