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FIFO – Money won’t cut it

At last count, Fly-In Fly-Out (FIFO) workers were making up more than 50 per cent of the workforce at a number of mining sites throughout Australia. With FIFO becoming the new ‘normal’, it’s time to consider what it means for organisational culture and what we need to do differently in order to minimise the impact and maximise the return.

While big dollars can draw people to the mining industry, it’s that very same reason, coupled with working conditions, that might start to erode the company’s culture and cause people to look inward rather than become a part of the bigger picture. Most people are ‘doing it for the money’ meaning that they are primed to think of themselves more than the company or people that are surrounding them.

The overarching problem is that people become immune to financial reward. While it is a great reason to start a FIFO job, it will eventually be for other reasons that workers stay or leave.

Negative impacts
One of the biggest negative impacts exists between working groups that ‘take over’ one another’s work. That is, one team flies out and the team flying in picks up where they left off.

In this situation, there is an assumption that people have the same goals and that the teams taking over will do their best work to help support each other. In fact, the opposite is often true. Working in a situation where you execute a piece of the work, and then leave it to someone else to finish off, can mean that you don’t pay as much attention to detail and that you lack some ownership. This seems to be one of the biggest contributors to workplace animosity: a feeling that the people ‘taking over’ don’t do a good enough job.

This leads to frustration and a lack of motivation to do the best job possible.

Often employees have never even met the person on the other end of their work.

Ask teams doing similar jobs on opposing shifts about their work aims and you’ll likely get very different answers. In one group that I worked with, a quick check revealed that the two teams had completely different priorities and goals.

Another negative impact is that many FIFO workers see the job as a temporary means to boost finances and this has two knock-on effects.

Firstly, workers aren’t as interested in forging meaningful relationships at work. What this means is that we see smaller sub-cultures rather than an overriding team culture. In temporary situations, employees tend to connect only with very similar people as we build rapport quickest with those similar to ourselves.

And secondly, employees are less inclined to identify with the workplace culture, which is a long-term proposition. They don’t want to make the commitment to living the culture if they are only in it for a short-term fix.

A different kind of team building becomes incredibly important when we work with a FIFO workforce.

Of absolute importance is setting common goals and a common working approach amongst teams that rely on each other to get the job done. Bringing teams together to set collective goals and rules of engagement may be a challenge for employers but this will help them identify and uphold the standards that they all expect. It will also give them some more ownership over these things and, most importantly, gives managers a set of rules with which to manage their workers’ behaviours and standards.

It’s also important that workers get to know the people who will be taking the reigns while they are on their down time. This allows them to humanise each other and make a greater commitment to supporting one another in upholding the standards.

Making a positive impact
With all these potential negatives, however, there also exists the opportunity to create a high performance workforce.

One key benefit is being able to maintain a higher level of intensity. If you think of the workweek that you have before you go on holidays, then you’ll realise that you tend to work harder when there is an end in sight. And this is the week-to-week reality for FIFO workers; they are always working toward taking a break and getting some downtime.

Managers would be wise to capitalise on this, ensuring focus and intensity for the period that the workers are there, knowing they are going to get a break at the end of it. This actually primes people to work a bit harder as they get closer to their goal.

The other opportunity is to build a sense of belonging because everyone is in the same boat, facing the same challenges.

Because people are away from their families, there is an opportunity to create a ‘family away from home’ atmosphere, however, my experience is that not many companies are doing this wisely.

FIFO leadership – the ultimate challenge
Underpinning all of this – the ability to get people to connect with the culture (either of the organisation or of the team), to create the right team environment and to manage the right behaviours – is the need to develop our front line leaders to do this effectively.

These are leadership skills that we usually reserve for development at a more senior level but the new reality is that we need to fast track these skills in order to manage the FIFO workforce effectively. This ability will help to make the workforce more efficient, more positive and more cohesive.

Creating a healthy work culture becomes even more important as the FIFO workforce becomes more diverse. Women now make up 10 per cent of FIFO workers in the mining industry, with single people, couples, parents and empty nesters also represented.

With the rapid growth in the resources sector, there’s significant competition for the same kind of workforce among the various large companies.

In this tight labour market, it’s challenging to find the right people with the right skills, so its important that employers take a strategic view on cultivating unity between their workers.

The right culture – specifically for FIFO workers – might make the difference between attracting the right talent and having an unproductive workforce.

Tony Wilson, MBA BSc, is a Workplace Performance expert. He has spent 15 years working with elite performers in business and sport and many corporate leaders throughout the country now apply his philosophies with outstanding results. See www.teamcorp.com.au for more information.

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