What Makes People Happy at Work?

Four questions to ask your workplace on its journey to becoming a great place to work

For fifteen years, my team and I have studied some of the coolest workplaces on the planet—places that hand out free M&Ms on Friday; companies with gyms, nap rooms and chefs; organizations that send employees off on month-long, all-expenses-paid sabbaticals after five or more years of service. The kind of places where many dream about working.

In the April issue of this magazine, you’ll discover many of Madison’s own best places to work. Until then, here are four questions your organization can ask itself on its journey to becoming a great workplace:

1. How do our company’s purpose and values resonate with our people?
When the Maytag plant closed in Newton, Iowa, workers tied their boots to the fence around the plant, a symbolic gesture that their hearts—and soles—would forever be tied to Maytag.

Despite what you may believe, employee loyalty is not dead; employees are aching to be loyal to a cause they believe in. Trouble is, most of us lose sight of our cause. Think about the last meeting you attended. How much time was spent talking about your organization’s purpose and its values?

It doesn’t have to be that way. You can make a choice to reinject more heart and cause into your workplace. We know a nonprofit music
association that starts each board meeting with a short performance by its musicians, a subtle gesture to remind the board and staff of the business at hand.

What’s your company’s purpose? How can you put it front and center—at your meetings, in your employee celebrations and beyond?

2. Are our people working in a job or working in their strengths?
When people work in their strengths, they are ten times more productive at work. Not ten percent more productive; ten times more productive.
But corporate America—and today’s human resources department—hasn’t evolved to deal with unique human beings. Most HR departments and managers still treat employees with tools of a bygone age: uniform benefit packages, rigid job descriptions and thick policies and procedures manuals designed to rule out the very worst behavior instead of inspiring the very best.

What would it take to get people working in their strengths?

3. Do we reward the right things the right way?
Last November, PricewaterhouseCoopers launched PowerPitch, a firm-wide American Idol–style contest to generate new ideas for the business. The purpose, the managing partner said, was to unleash transformative ideas and creativity within the company. Sounds great so far, right?

Here’s the problem: PWC put up a $100,000 booty for the best idea.

Money may motivate partners at large accounting firms, but it doesn’t motivate creatives and innovators. In his book Drive, Dan Pink found that money may actually obscure people’s innate impulse to innovate. Several of PWC’s own contestants affirmed this. Said one, “We had proposed this idea in the past (before there was a cash prize) but were directed elsewhere.” Said another, “The bigger thing (beyond the money) is that your ideas get acted on.”

If you want an innovative workplace, don’t throw money at it. Tap into people’s innate drive to do great work and recognize them for it.

4. Are we marching twenty miles a day?
In Jim Collins’s book Great By Choice, the key metaphor is that great companies choose deliberate, disciplined movement toward goals. They don’t let external circumstances stop them. We see this all the time at enduring “great workplaces.” One of our clients has been named a “Best Place to Work” by The Wall Street Journal and others. But they never rest. They are relentless about being even better.

And really, that’s what separates the good from the great. The great will always reach farther and march a little longer.

Editor’s note: The author’s company administers Madison Magazine’s Best Places to Work survey.

Rebecca Ryan left corporate America to start her consulting firm because she wanted to create a company that could be a great workplace, offering five weeks of paid vacation, “Beer-Thirty” on Tuesday afternoons and, yes, a room where you can take naps.

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