The idea of work/life balance is being adopted by businesses across the country. Workers today want a voice in what the company does and how it interacts with the community.

Sharon Marnien, vice president of human resources at Sparta Systems at 2000 Waterview Drive in Hamilton, and Scott Needham, president of Princeton Air at 39 Everett Drive, will share their experiences in working with a diverse and mobile workforce during a panel discussion at the Mercer County Economic Summit on Thursday, February 27, from 1 to 6 p.m. at Mercer Community College Conference Center.

The workforce panel discussion, which will be moderated by Kevin Cummings, CEO, Investors Bank, and also include Kristen Ballinger of Otsuka at 1 University Square, and PSE&G’s Sally Nadler, is part of a summit with the theme of “Capitalizing on Mercer’s Competitive Advantage.”

The program begins with a keynote address by Princeton University economics professor Christopher A. Sims, a 2011 Nobel laureate in economics. Herb Taylor from the Federal Reserve Bank will provide a regional economic update, and Mercer County Executive Brian Hughes will present an economic development report.

Tickets can be purchased online at princetonchamber.org or by phone: 609-924-1776, ext. 105. Cost: $100, $75 for members.

Marnien, who works with Sparta’s companies worldwide, has firsthand knowledge of what matters to today’s diverse workforce. She recognizes the differences among individuals and groups as strengths and opportunities. Differences give both management and workers opportunities to learn and grow, she says.

Heritage matters to workers, and they want to share it with the company. Recently, a group of Indian employees expressed a desire to share one of their traditions, Diwali (festival of lights), with the company. Marnien embraced the idea, and the company made a day of it. They served a catered Indian lunch, donned Indian attire brought in by employees, received temporary hand tattoos from a henna artist, watched videos, and listened to an employee’s presentation on the meaning of Diwali.

Recently, Sparta held a super bowl lunch. Workers brought in food to share, and also contributed $5 to participate in the event. They elected to donate the money they collected to the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen.

In the face of a crisis, the best way a company can support its workers is by supporting their families. When Superstorm Sandy hit in 2012, many workers lost power, or worse, lost their homes. Sparta set up an area of their facility where spouses and children could spend the day and receive hot meals.

Marnien understands personally the roles that background and family play in the work environment. She grew up in a single parent home in Philadelphia. Her mother worked hard to support the family, moving her way up from public assistance to securing a job as a bookkeeper and advancing to office manager. She is still happily working today, Marnien says. Her mother instilled in her the idea that you can do anything if you are willing to work hard and have the right attitude.

Scott Needham joined Princeton Air in 1987. The company was started in 1971 by Joe Needham, who is the chief executive officer and Scott’s father. As the president of Princeton Air, the younger Needham shares what he has learned about running a “feel good” company.

Attitude is one of the first qualities he looks for when hiring a new employee, says Needham. Since he runs a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning company serving homes and businesses, Needham says he counts on his workers being professional and mindful of a customer’s needs when making a call. Needham doesn’t require expert communication skills from a new worker as long as he or she has a desire to learn.

Role playing is a good tool for showing new workers effective ways of interacting with customers. Needham has found that often his younger workers tend to be introverted and not as ready to make suggestions to homeowners about ways they can improve their heating and air conditioning systems. Role playing with more experienced workers makes them better communicators. “Half our job is fixing the equipment, and half of our job is ‘fixing’ the client,” Needham says. When a worker makes a client happy, Needham likes to share the good news with the rest of the staff. Other aspects of a “feel good” approach:

Acknowledge your workers’ successes publicly. If a customer calls Princeton Air to praise the work of a service or installation person, the office person at Princeton Air transfers the call to Needham’s voice mail. Periodically Needham compiles the messages into an audio file, which he plays at a staff meeting for all to hear.

Offer growth within the company and offer education opportunities. New workers want to know they can grow. A young man or woman who comes to Princeton Air from a trade school will start by servicing home equipment and then move into installation. From there they can move into commercial work, and from there, into sales.

The company also has a home energy performance division, which requires diagnostic skills. Green energy is an important aspect of the company’s offerings, including solar and geothermal heating and cooling. In addition to in-house training, Princeton Air offers school tuition reimbursement.

Embrace technology and don’t shy away from the challenges. Not surprisingly, Needham says that young workers find it easy to work with technology. The company moved over to a wireless work order system in 2008, and most workers learned the new system very quickly. Some of the older workers didn’t take to the wireless system initially but with practice overcame their challenges and are comfortable with the system today.

However, not every employee needs a “feel-good” approach. Different communication styles can hurt or support managers’ goals. Being aware of these differences and being able to adjust one’s style can make a positive impact when resolving issues. For example, Marnien found that employees from the Sparta office in Israel are more vocal and direct about money, titles, and policies than employees from the U.S. or Asia.

One Israeli employee told her, “We will not survive as a culture or a country if we are not assertive.” However, North American managers had been finding it difficult to deal with this directness. Marnien worked with both parties to explore ways they could positively impact their discussions by making some adjustments to their communication styles.

“We have a very diverse population in New Jersey,” says Marnien. “And that’s good. Let’s learn from that.”

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