In the late 1950s, my mum started working in a factory’s typing pool. She had to call the head typist “Miss” – and any of the many men whose typing she did, “Sir”.
People with more senior jobs were “them”. The scores of girls in the typing pool and the hundreds of men working on the shop floor were “us”. There was a group of people known as “management” and beneath them were “staff”.
“Staff” ate in the staff canteen. Management ate in the managers’ restaurant – or went to their clubs.
In the class-divided society of the 1950s and 60s, this felt right and comfortable to many. People knew their station. They were happy if their kids went to work in the same jobs that they’d had. Upstairs downstairs. Rich man in his castle, poor man at his gate.
This situation might still be in living memory – but when you set it down in a few paragraphs it feels like you’re describing feudal history.
You can’t imagine not being on first name terms with any of your colleagues or clients (well, I certainly can’t). You can’t imagine having to raise your hand to ask if you can leave your work station. You can’t imagine not being chuffed that your kids have got a university degree and want to get on in the world.
So why do we keep this antiquated word “staff” and its associations with a Downton Abbey-style relationship between “betters” and their minions?
We work with lots of lovely companies who are doing wonderfully innovative things to make their cultures even more customer-centric and their offer ever-more relevant to modern consumers.
Sometimes I chat to them directly about using the word “staff”. Sometimes I just remove it from all of their communications by stealth and see if they drop it without realising.
What do I use instead? That beautiful word, “team”.
“Staff rooms” become “team rooms”.
“Staff canteens” become “restaurants” and “cafés”.
The “Staff handbook” becomes “The way we work”.
“Our staff” becomes “our teams”.
And suddenly, your philosophy feels different. You’re don’t have a “them and us” culture any more. You have a “we’re all in this together” company. You’re a place where the MD says hello to everyone and is seen in the café having a latte. You’re encouraging participation rather than having people (sometimes resentfully) respecting lines of demarcation and thinking no-one will listen to them even if they do have a good idea. You’re encouraging everyone to talk to each other rather than file themselves in one “class” or discipline (silos, anyone?).
So what I’m saying is this: If you’re trying to introduce a collaborative, creative, customer-centric culture, you can do something powerful today. Decide to stop using the word “staff” and talk instead about “teams”.