Lessons From the Road: On Being Engaged

Recently my friend and colleague (and fellow Slaw-yer) Joan Rataic-Lang and I spent five six weeks walking the historic pilgrimage route, the Camino Frances, which for us started in St. Jean Pied-de-Port, France, and carried us through the Pyrenees and across northern Spain–a total of 780 km. We learned many personal lessons along the way, but surprisingly we also learned many things that apply to work. I thought it time to start sharing some of what I learned.

Most days we got up at 6 am and started our walk at 7 am. Ideally we would have some yoghurt and fruit on hand to get us started for the day, and then take a number of breaks throughout our 25 km walk for food, drink and to rest our feet. Breaks in Spain typically meant a stop at a local bar which also serves as the local cafe throughout the day. In the morning bars were often staffed by just one employee–or the owner–who worked the counter, made the food, and cleared the tables.

The minute we walked in we could tell how engaged the person working the bar was. Those who did not care about their work were unfriendly, slow, and reluctant to serve us food. If we had the choice we would go to the next bar where hopefully we would be more welcome. Sometimes we had no choice, and so the experience was not so happy for any of us. We noticed the food itself was lacking, and we couldn’t wait to finish up and continue on our way.

Contrast that with the bars that had an engaged person behind the counter. We felt welcomed. The food on the counter looked fresh and tasty. We were served with a smile, and were enticed to linger a bit longer. During one of our favourite stops, the man behind the counter chatted us up, offered us a nice range of delicious-sounding food to tempt us, and sang between customers. His joie de vivre was infectious. His cafe was hopping with customers, many of whom were ordering more than the usual because everything looked so delicious. We were reluctant to leave, but as we did so, we let other pilgrims passing by know that this was a “must try” location.

Second breakfast on the Camino

The difference was readily evident–while we were willing to spend money for some good food, we spent a lot less at the places where the staff member was not engaged. The places where the staff member was engaged had us enthusiastically recommending it to others. We could immediately see the impact on sales.

In the legal industry we don’t always think about employee engagement. We are often so wrapped up in getting our own things done and complying with “doing things right” that we forget about the human aspect. Are all employees enjoying their day to day work? Do they love it, or are they just putting in time until they can escape the office?

The more engaged the people inside the organization, the more welcome your clients will feel, and the more likely they are to recommend you to others. Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Here are a few suggestions for engaging staff:

  • hire people with positive personalities – when looking for new staff, don’t just think about qualifications. Think about the attitude a person brings. So often just one negative person can poison the work atmosphere and bring everyone else down. Everyone else on the team will be thankful.
  • give staff a say in how they accomplish work. By its nature, legal work has many rules and regulations; unfortunately, working with these can have a tendency to stifle. But staff often see how to get things done in a better, more efficient manner. Let them have some freedom in how they get things done. Encourage them to make things even better. You may be surprised at the results.
  • help them see the opportunities for development. Staff may be more engaged if they are given ways to expand on their existing skills or to develop new skills. They may become more engaged if they are given an opportunity to advance.
  • encourage creativity. Let people flex their creative side when coming up with new ideas for work, including services your organization offers. Or perhaps there is a social event, charity fundraiser or volunteer opportunity that could use someone’s graphic arts, musical or photographic skills.
  • speaking of which, find out the hidden skills of staff and try to use them. What languages do people speak? What hobbies do they have or other activities do they enjoy outside work? Do they have a passion for editing or organizing events? You don’t always have to bring expertise in from outside if you get to know your staff’s true passions. 
  • take on a new project. Ensure it has value to the organization, and is a project everyone on your team is interested in. Ensure everyone has a role, and has a say in how it is to be done. Having a concrete goal–and later, a success–can help pull people together.
  • build in time and tolerance for humour, breaks, and failure. Creating a fun workplace where people can breathe and try something new that may benefit everyone is not an easy feat. Is your office a place where people can be human and still live up to their potential?
  • ensure people take breaks. Consider whether they are taking sufficient break time during the day, and taking their full allotment of vacation time. Personally, I am not a fan of tracking every minute people work. If they are allowed the time off to do what they need to do–even if it is a bit more than perhaps the rules allow–they tend to be even more committed and focused when they are working.
  • and of course: be sure to have fun at work yourself. People like to work with others who are happy and engaged. Work on your patience with others, loosen up, and learn to laugh. If you are not feeling engaged, perhaps it is time you either take a break or find a way to change things up to become re-engaged.

It can be a challenge to lighten up and inject humour in the workplace, especially when things are intense and stressful; however, laughter is one of the best way to let go of some of that stress. You will be surprised at how contagious a positive attitude can be.

Now it is your turn to share: what engages the people in your organization?

Other posts in this series:

Image: “Second breakfast” on the Camino. Photo by Connie Crosby, May 2013.


  1. Yosie Saint-Cyr

    Wow… I am envious… I have always wanted to do this pilgrimage and hope I will soon!