Tuesday May 27 2014

Creative employees make great friends

By Richard Branson

Q: Our company, N7 Creamery, will soon open its flagship location in Southern California. This has been one of the most difficult undertakings of my life, but I find myself thinking about the team I have built rather than any concerns about money. This leads me to my question: How close is too close? Is it OK to develop tight bonds with and even to grow to love the people who work for you?
- Brett Bingaman

A: I have met some of my closest friends through my work, and I am delighted when our employees at the different Virgin companies tell me the same thing. In most jobs, people spend more time with colleagues than with family and friends.

So why not turn professional relationships into real friendships? A warm and friendly atmosphere can only benefit your team and customers.
The guidelines you put in place on this subject will shape your company’s culture for years to come. Some managers frown upon their staff having fun at work, becoming the best of friends or even falling in love, but I disagree.

At Virgin we have managed to create a fun, inclusive, energetic atmosphere at work, and the friendships and romances that have flourished have enriched our lives – we have celebrated many employee marriages over the years.

Such bonds encourage employees to collaborate and help them to stick together through tough moments. A couple of years ago, after Virgin Money acquired the British bank Northern Rock, I travelled the country, welcoming the new employees into the Virgin Group.

The atmosphere

One of my goals was to get a better sense of the atmosphere at the branches, and I was thrilled to find that at many offices, there were not only husbands and wives working together, but sometimes their sons and daughters too! There is no stronger endorsement than when an employee tells a relative that a company is a great place to work, so I knew that our new business would fit well with the Virgin Group.

I guess I must have said something similar to my son Sam, because he has decided to follow in his sister Holly’s footsteps by taking a position in our London office, where he will work with our non-profit foundation Virgin Unite, and with many of the other companies within the group. I am looking forward to seeing them both when I am at that office - such a great treat for a proud father!

We have also been able to use the welcoming atmosphere we have created to make our large number of employees - 50,000 - an asset. Other companies of this size might become rather impersonal, but instead we use our size to give employees the opportunity to move between businesses in the group.

Jean Oelwang, for example, moved into the position of CEO at Virgin Unite after working in another role at Virgin Mobile Australia. We also run transfer programmes that allow employees to swap companies for set periods of time, which Virgin Australia and Virgin America staff say are tremendously beneficial. These programmes have helped the companies to share best practices and to better understand one another.

Such flexible policies encourage collaboration, as when digital experts from across our group get together to “hack” various projects. On any given day, I might see Virgin Trains’ social media team working at the Virgin Media office or the marketing group from Virgin Limited Edition, our luxury hotel business, heading over to our space tourism company, Virgin Galactic, to share updates and tips.

Some would say that managers should avoid forging friendships with employees because it makes hard decisions even more difficult. To my mind, that is the point. When you start up a company, you and your employees either give the business and the team everything you have got, or you should not bother with that launch at all. And if you work together through thick and thin, but despite all your efforts you are forced to let an employee go, then that decision should be difficult; it should hurt.

Brett, your decision to focus on creating a warm and respectful culture throughout your company, rather than to narrowly focus on profit, will undoubtedly pay dividends in the long run. When you are first starting out, it can be difficult to attract the right talent; you will find it a lot easier to do so if you can offer employees a pleasant working environment along with a mission that matches their ambitions.

Mr Branson is the founder of the Virgin Group. Email: RichardBranson@nytimes.com.