Tried and tested engagement methods: what goes on in the shed?

Traditional engagement methods can be overlooked in our age of modern technology. Richard Scott looks at some effective methods and explains how effective an old shed can be.

Shed – Photo credit: Jo Cook, Training Journal

When employees are fully engaged with the organisation for which they work and understand how their jobs fit into the organisation’s overall aims, they are likely to be more productive, more prepared to ‘go the extra mile’ at work, and less likely to leave, than those who are not engaged. Understandably, many organisations go to great lengths, and expense, to promote engagement. However, simpler and cheaper measures are often capable of achieving the
same results, but are overlooked.

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Let me explain what I mean. Imagine the scene: A bitterly cold night on a Royal Air Force airfield in eastern England in the early 1980s, with a hard frost on the ground and thick fog in the air. A major NATO exercise is in progress and two young airmen, armed with rifles, are standing guard over what appears to be simply a large, unimpressive and oddly-shaped shed not far from the runway. They have no idea what is inside the shed, but they have been told they must challenge anyone approaching it. They are cold, bored and wishing they could do something worthwhile as part of the exercise, like their mates, some of whom are guarding the missile store.

Three officers approach, all air traffic controllers on their way to the ‘shed’. Once identities have been checked, the controllers enter the shed. After a while one of them, the youngest, invites the sentries, one at a time (while the other remains on guard), into the shed to show them what it contains, and to explain the importance of guarding it from anyone who might try to sabotage it.

The ‘shed’ was the back-up location for the talkdown radar (Precision Approach Radar, or PAR, for the enthusiasts among you), vital for bringing the base’s Lightning jet fighters back through the fog. It would be used if the regular radar sets in the control tower were rendered unusable by an enemy attack or a technical failure. The two young airmen watched spellbound as the controllers used the radar in the ‘shed’ to guide aircraft back to the airfield in spite of the fog, and the effect was enhanced by the fact that each of the aircraft in question changed from a speck on the radar at a range of ten miles or so to the real thing roaring past on the runway only a matter of yards away.

The airmen each thanked the officers profusely for showing them what exactly they were guarding, and explaining the significance of their cold, foggy task. The young air traffic controller, many years later, went on to write articles designed to convince people of the importance of letting people know how their jobs fit into the bigger picture.

Whether they are sentries, receptionists, cleaners, workers on an assembly line or any other group of employees, knowing the connection between their work and the key objectives of the organisation they work for is likely to have a positive effect on their performance at work.

If you leave employees in the metaphorical cold and fog, unaware of how their job fits into the work of the organisation, they will be less motivated, less productive, less efficient, and less loyal to the organisation. Show them ‘what goes on in the shed’, and its relationship to their own work. The shed is any ‘black box’ environment, in which a few specialists in an organisation carry out the glamorous tasks which bring in the big bucks, but cannot do so without the less showy work done by a much larger body of employees who feel distanced from those in the shed.

But this approach is hardly new. According to William Philpott’s book Attrition, Fighting the First World War, in 1918, during the First World War, the Aircraft Production Department of the British Ministry of Munitions ran a programme of shop-floor talks and leaflets explaining to factory workers the actions of the aircraft they were building, in order “to give the worker some appreciation of the importance of his personal contribution towards winning the war”. To cement this connection their pay envelopes carried pictures of the aircraft in action. Workers in factories in Britain were thus shown the connection between their work and the overall task of their organisation, in this case, winning the war (shades of the NASA employee with a broom in the 1960s).

If the managers of a century ago, in the midst of a war, were able to devise and deploy methods of helping employees to see the connection between their own individual jobs and the overall objectives of their organisation, why are we so often so bad at doing this today? We have infinitely more efficient means of communication at our disposal, and yet, as CIPD surveys between 2013 and 2015 have shown, around 60 percent of employees are still not engaged.

We should not be sniffy about methods of engagement simply because they were used a century ago. People have not changed that much in the last hundred years, and certainly not since that foggy night in the 1980s. They still want to know that their work is relevant and worthwhile, and how it fits into the bigger picture. So alongside the social media, apps and other technology-based means of engaging employees, let’s not lose sight of the simpler methods. Something seemingly as simple as showing people what goes on in ‘the shed’ can do wonders for their commitment and motivation.


About the author

Richard Scott is the Chief Researcher for HR in Flow. He served as an air traffic controller in the RAF and subsequently in L&D roles in the Civil Service and as a police intelligence analyst. He can be contacted through


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