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David Zinger says workplaces can learn from how bees collaborate. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)
David Zinger says workplaces can learn from how bees collaborate. (Jeff Vinnick For The Globe and Mail)

Monday Morning Manager

What workplaces need to learn from bees Add to ...

David Zinger is a Winnipeg-based consultant who hosts a human hive, the 5,900 member Employee Engagement Network, for whom collaboration is a vital concern. Phil Veldhuis is a professor of philosophy at the University of Manitoba who also happens to be a bee whisperer and bee hive keeper, hosting 1,200 hives with about 48 million swarming bees each summer. Aganetha Dyck is an award-winning artist who has created art with honeybees for two decades.

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In recent years, the three got together to look at what could be learned about human collaboration from studying bees, and also to mix objects from the office with honeybees. The result was a reaffirmation of some prevailing wisdom on collaboration, some new insights, and a few computers and a cellphone encrusted in honey that have made for some unusual art objects.

“I thought there were a lot of connections between the way the bees work and the way we work in an office and use social media,” says Mr. Zinger in an interview.

For bees, the waggle is an essential approach. A waggle consists of figure-eight dances performed in the mosh pit of honeybees, designed to give direction. The scout bee’s waggle indicates to the rest of the colony where essential resources lie. Similarly, Mr. Zinger has collected a number of waggles – important directions for managers – that he shares in an e-book called Waggle, including:

One bee matters: At one point Mr. Zinger’s daughter Katherine was shooting a video of the installation of a computer in the hive when a bee landed on the beekeeper’s hand and began to sting him. When a worker bee stings, she dies. With 48 million bees, one bee seems insignificant – but not to Prof. Veldhuis. He gently wedged the stinger out of his palm, and set her free, demonstrating that one bee mattered. Often in our organizations, there seems to be so many people that we don’t have the time or energy to focus on their needs. But that teaching moment by Prof. Veldhuis suggested to Mr. Zinger “a level of caring we should be showing for people in our organizations. If you can care for one bee like that we can raise the ante in our organizations.” So while working collectively, he urges you not to lose sight of the individual, indicating with your daily actions that each person counts.

Small steps add big value: Honeybees are responsible for pollinating the entire crop of almonds in the United States. Their contribution is considered to be worth $2-billion. But each individual bee pollinates just 19 cents of almonds. “It’s never one bee that builds all those cells for a honeycomb,” adds Mr. Zinger. So at work, help each employee to understand how they can create value. Know that each employee makes a small, but important contribution, and think of the small steps that they can take to help your organization get ahead.

Success is in succession: Honeybees don’t live very long – perhaps a month in summer and six to seven months in winter – but during that brief lifetime they cycle through 15 to 20 tasks, including cleaning, brood tending, Queen tending, comb building, food handling, ventilation, guard duty, orientation flights and foraging. “The work flow and succession planning is phenomenal,” says Mr. Zinger. With that in mind, he suggests you consider whether you are ensuring there is someone ready or being trained for every role and function in your organization to make transitions seamless. Help employees to experience career progress and stop packaging work within tightly defined jobs and roles.

Go girl: Hives are female-dominated workplaces, with all the work done by females. Drones, the male honey bees, need help looking after themselves and have the sole purpose of mating with the Queen Bee. “Could being female or more female in how we work be the vital elixir of collaboration?” he asks in his book. In the interview, he is more cautious about going too far in differentiating between female and male characteristics. But research, he says, shows that certain behaviours associated with women – notably collaboration – can help organizations and it needs to be acknowledged that the highly productive beehive has a female culture.

Waggle while you work: You may not literally need to communicate by dance, but pay attention to communication in your leadership activity, letting people know where resources are and what is happening. Bees vote on a new home in quite a democratic way and organizations need to rethink in a social media world how better to tie everyone into decision-making. Perhaps the tendency of leaders to go off on private retreats for major decisions has to be replaced by more inclusive, social media gatherings to decide on strategy and purpose.

Pollinate profusely: Honeybees pollinate while gathering nectar from outside the hive. Similarly, you need to reach out beyond your hive, collaborating with others as you share and gather new ideas from everywhere.

He stresses you can go too far in the beehive metaphor, but still feels it’s helpful to employ this biological metaphor and look at our organizations differently. “It has been a fascinating project. I hope it’s a little nudge for people to think differently in their hive,” he says.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Harvey Schachter is a Battersea, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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