How important are teamwork and a “family atmosphere” in the bus yard? Well, if you polled this year’s selections for “Great Fleets Across America,” the answer would be “very important.” It seemed to be the common thread among these operators. In researching this year’s profiles, I had the opportunity to ask dozens of managers of exemplary transportation programs the following question: What do you do to keep morale high in the bus yard? I didn’t expect — or receive — any extraordinary responses. No one said, “I bring in my guitar and sing ‘Kum Bah Ya’ when I see long faces in the drivers’ lounge.” Nor did anyone answer, “We break out the wine coolers every afternoon after the runs are completed.”
What do you do?
Some managers were momentarily stumped by the question, almost as if they couldn’t account for the camaraderie among their staff members. When pressed, they mentioned annual picnics, awards dinners, newsletters, birthday cards — activities common to workplaces across America. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not questioning the value of well-deserved perks and pats on the back, but I believe that these efforts only are effective when the employees believe that their boss values their work and fellowship. What I’m saying is that you can’t fake sincerity. Not for very long, anyway. Managers who are willing and happy to get involved in the lives of their drivers, route supervisors, mechanics and anyone else who helps to transport students to and from school safely each day are less likely to have morale problems than managers who try to manipulate their staff with fake smiles, phony glad-handing and empty compliments. If you really care about your employees and coworkers, it shows. Among this year’s Great Fleets, some managers said they invited the staff to their homes for pool parties or barbecues. Others said they used their own money to reward drivers for perfect attendance. Still others said they valued the friendships in the transportation department so much that they’ll stay on the job past their scheduled retirement date. One manager said the laughter of drivers in the early morning, before sunrise, was a sure sign that things were right in her bus yard.
The right mix of people
Good morale is a combination of factors, including luck. Even with a glum, apathetic manager, some operations hum along with perfect regularity and contentment. The right mix of people can overcome a less-than-friendly environment. Drivers, especially, can raise each other’s spirits, even in the face of a management system they disdain. The real challenge is presented when the wrong mix of people is brought together. That’s when good managers earn their money. To encourage and motivate a dispirited group of workers, managers need to spend time interacting with their charges. They have to find some common ground with their employees. The much-vaunted “open door policy” needs to be actively promoted. And, if the employees won’t come to you, you need to go to them. The key to succeeding in that situation is making sure the employees understand that you’re working in their best interests. Finally, remember that morale shifts from day to day and even minute to minute. When difficulties and conflicts arise, as they always do, morale will tend to suffer. Regardless, employees will stay the course if they know that their manager is behind them 100 percent.