Pod Based Employee Management

Blog | Management Mindset | Other Observations

Pleased in a Pod: Could a Pod-Based Approach Help Your Teams Thrive?

Location, location, location.

It’s not just a mantra for real estate. It might also be one of the secrets to getting the best performance out of your employee teams.

Despite today’s global and web-connected marketplace, it might seem contrarian to preach a down-home business philosophy. But the truth is that business, like politics, is still mostly a local proposition. To best understand and address customers’ needs, you need talent, expertise, and resources close to where your customers are.

Larger and more widespread organizations may struggle with this reality. How do you maintain the local connection to your customers from some big regional office?

The answer may be to rethink how, or even whether, you’re deploying teams from the head office. Would it work better to set up multiple, smaller, decentralized teams in local “pods,” if you will?

In my experience, this more agile approach can have a powerful impact.

Earlier in my career, I was a manager in a nationwide photography business serving schools and community organizations coast to coast. In my three-state region of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana, we kept a stable of four teams and a total of about 250 seasonal photographers, all hired out of the regional office.

Well, I don’t know if you’re good with geography, so let me just tell you that this was a huge territory to cover.

During those three-month segments in fall and spring, employees were routinely being sent on jobs up to 100 miles from their homes. They’d start their days at 4 or 5 in the morning, packing up 400 pounds of gear, then traveling to the site, unloading, setting up, herding hundreds of snotty-nosed, moody, distracted children through photo shoots, tearing down, reloading the van, making the long trek back and unloading. Only then did they get to go home.

All in a (very taxing) day’s work.

No wonder we had woefully low employee retention rates 40 percent. And if the photography staff wasn’t happy, neither was the rest of the team: having to replace so many employees every season was maddening.

Not only that; our revolving door also meant high training costs and the product suffered, too. Tired photographers make tired photographs, it seems. And they struggle to provide that all-important service with a smile. All of which made it harder to retain customers, let alone grow our business.

We were stuck in our own “Groundhog Day” loop, only unlike Bill Murray’s Phil Connors, we weren’t learning much.

The Power of the New Pods

Things were slogging along this way until one day I recalled an idea I’d heard a while back from a veteran of the photography business.

What if we split these large, downtrodden regional teams into many more locally based “pods”? What would happen if, rather than following a command-and-control philosophy from the regional office, we turned these pods loose to see what they could achieve more on their own, closer to home?

We put together teams in their own communities, where they often already knew the schools and organizations we served. In addition to much shorter commutes, the familiarity with local customers gave our pods a head start on knowing the jobs and satisfying the customers.

Here’s another key point. We gave the teams more ownership and accountability for their schedules and processes. So they weren’t just closer to home. They were emotionally closer to the job itself.

Then we set up a system for celebrating and rewarding their successes, including everything from simple morale boosters and team builders like posting positive comment cards, to cash-based bonuses for the best reviews and highest customer retention rates.

It’s easy to say you’ve got a team or in this case a “pod.” But to get real results, you have to include some real empowerment to the mix – real responsibility for decisions, and real incentives for meeting goals. Otherwise, you have more than a group of people following orders. You might do all right, but you’re not likely to see breakthrough success.

Speaking of which, what we soon found was that the newly localized teams functioned in a way that was more agile, engaged and self-sufficient. All those attributes shined through in the vital stats, including:

  • Higher customer satisfaction scores
  • Reduced employee absenteeism
  • A jump from 40% to 85% in our seasonal employee retention rate
  • A 5-point lift in our account retention rate
  • Overall sales growth

Not too shabby!

Granted, not all situations are as ideally suited to organizing teams into local pods as a photography business that provides on-site services over a wide area. Then again, although location is a fitting parameter for forming employee pods, it’s not the only one in which a decentralized approach to teams makes sense.

Project-based pods focused on specific initiatives or pods that zero in on a business or customer issue are among the other potential scenarios.

Whatever situation you might identify to form a pod, the name of the game is to empower your people. Self-directed, accountable teams can be a key part of a growth strategy because those who are close to their work – physically or mentally, or both – tend to care more about their jobs. And do a better job.

If you’re wondering whether a pod-based approach might work for your organization, I’d love to hear from you. Maybe we can “locate” some a new opportunity to grow and thrive!


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