Removing physical barriers to communication can create a more collaborative environment. (photo: )
Removing physical barriers to communication can create a more collaborative environment.
07.04.2014, 08:31

Tear Down This Wall

Psychologist, Gillian Graham, discusses vortex cannon and a 440 per cent profit increase with Ben Churchill, Managing Director of Dubai-based Emrill.

Psychologist, Gillian Graham, discusses vortex cannon and how removing physical barriers to communication can improve employee collaboration (in addition to the minor matter of a 440 per cent profit increase) with Emrill’s Managing Director, Ben Churchill.


Ben Churchill is speaking enthusiastically about Emrill’s recent staff conference. “We built a vortex cannon that fired talcum powder smoke rings; except only larger and stronger since the vortices were able to knock paper cups off people’s heads!” He then stops briefly to chuckle when he realises how whacky this must all sound, before stating his firmly held opinion that there is a solid link between the company’s new cannon and improved sales figures.

Churchill then discusses the impact of first seeing Emrill’s new Values video and the “powerful moment that can’t be bought” when an employee who is interviewed during the course of filming it discloses that his initial apprehension about leaving Nigeria for Dubai evaporated on joining Emrill. “Abi even tells the producers that his mother, who is ill, cried with pride when she first heard he’s found a new family away from home and can send money back to his country for what they need”, Churchill says.

Next up is Emrill’s famous Blackboard Wall. “One day, we used blackboard paint to create a huge blackboard on one of the office walls, placed a pile of chalk next to it and waited. The wall soon filled with messages from colleagues either thanking or congratulating each other or even the entire team”.

Interestingly, the Blackboard Wall is one of few that remains in the building since, as Churchill explains: “early into my appointment I decided to remove the walls surrounding my office and sit right in the middle of the room. I then knocked down all walls in other offices so people could talk to each other and the reaction was overwhelmingly positive. Now, it really is a collaborative environment”.

On hearing these stories you begin to realise that Emrill is no ordinary business. And it is anything but ordinary when measured by its results.

During the last four years profits have risen by 440 per cent, 2,500 new jobs have been created, and the company has been contracted to provide services for 22,000 new people.

Moreover Emrill has been voted, in no particular order, Best Overall Company (Middle East) and Best Green FM Company (Middle East) at the 2013 FM Awards; and Best FM Company (Middle East) at this year’s European CEO Magazine awards. So what’s the secret?

Churchill attributes Emrill’s success to three things: common purpose, a commitment to continual growth, and genuine employee empowerment.

It has long been recognised that employees who find purpose in their work exhibit the highest degree of motivation. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Ernest L. Arbuckle Professor of Business Administration at Harvard University, argues this is what differentiates successful from less successful employees and explains why they often go the extra mile. “People can be inspired to tackle impossible challenges if they care about the outcome”, she writes.

Suddenly, building vortex cannon capable of knocking paper cups off fellow employees’ heads at annual conferences takes on deeper significance. As Churchill himself admits, “I’ve been to a number of corporate conferences over the years and have found them all to be dry affairs lacking in inspiration”.

The challenge this time, he says, was to organise something different, memorable and inspiring. “A hunting and farming theme came out of a pre-conference brainstorming session we ran; with farming representing working with existing customers and hunting, the process of getting new customers - in May we landed the Etihad Towers contract in Abu Dhabi which was a challenge that had once seemed impossible”. Continual growth is a sound that chimes loudly around Emrill: it helped Abi, the once frightened young man who left his family in Nigeria to write home and announce he had found a new one in Emrill.

Daniel Pink, author of the paradigmatic book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, argues that organisations pursuing continual growth must raise their goals whilst simultaneously providing individuals with the tools and support that are required to meet new challenges.

...we must live and breathe openness and collaboration. We have to demonstrate it all of the time and if we’re not doing this, we’re not being true to ourselves

Ben Churchill echoes this sentiment when he says: “one of the principles I have is that we must live and breathe openness and collaboration. We have to demonstrate it all of the time and if we’re not doing this, we’re not being true to ourselves and it won’t work”.

He also defines his role as a Managing Director as creating an environment where “everyone can be the best they can be”; before adding that needlessly criticising employees who make wrong decisions is usually less effective than inviting them to ask themselves: “what am I going to do differently the next time the same situation crops up?”

Edward Deci, Professor of Psychology and Gowen Professor in the Social Sciences at the University of Rochester, has long argued employees only become truly empowered when they feel confident in their work abilities, are attached to the teams they work in, and believe they are in control of their goals; although it is important to stress that this state is not achieved overnight but as a result of patience and hard work.

Indeed, creating the right conditions for employee empowerment at Emrill took time. Churchill remembers the situation when he first arrived at the company. “Emrill had a reasonable reputation but no voice. It was a business that had undergone change and was on the right journey but was not going anywhere quickly”.

Indeed, it was only after introducing radical new ideas and approaches; sometimes in consultation with workplace psychologists, that Churchill created the conditions which have supported Emrill’s phenomenal recent growth.

Given the company’s performance, perhaps we should all be arranging annual conferences that fire vortex cannon smoke rings to knock paper cups off people’s heads!

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