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Engage your workers and set them free

Empowerment and purpose are more important to job satisfaction than pay and perks.

I’ve worked in many places and I’ve visited many places of work as an ad agency account director and as a marketing consultant and I can tell the good places to work from the bad very quickly indeed. The difference is tangible. In the good places it’s in the way people look you in the eye, the confidence they have, the sound of laughter and spontaneous fun. In the bad places it’s the slumped shoulders, the nervous glances, and the all pervading sense of fear.

Why does it matter? Well, according to Jennifer Robin and Michael Burchell in their book, “The Great Workplace: How to Build It, How to Keep It, and Why It Matters”, a significant competitive advantage is delivered to the companies which set out to become great places to work. Such companies perform better financially and are better prepared to weather economic downturns, receive more qualified job applications for open positions, experience less voluntary turnover, have employees who are less affected by negative stress, enjoy higher levels of customer satisfaction and loyalty and foster greater innovation, creativity and risk taking.

Conversely, if a company has dissatisfied employees, they will probably not perform to the best of their abilities; they may even woefully under-perform. Such businesses risk not only poor performance in the workplace, but also unhappy customers and ultimately declining revenues. A happy workforce is, therefore, not just nice to have, it is absolutely fundamental to business success.

So, how do you set about making your company into a great place to work? When formulating any strategy, the first step is to know where you are today. A survey of your employees is an obvious starting point. Don’t be afraid to ask your employees if they are happy, but be prepared to hear some things you’d rather not; in fact encourage your employees to tell you what they think, without fear of censure, warts and all. The point is, if you don’t know about the problems, what chance have you got to fix things?

Engagement is crucial. You want as many of them as possible to answer the survey. If they get a whiff of danger they won’t go near it with a bargepole. In organizations I have worked in, I have seen this survey process handled very badly. I was once confronted by an angry line manager who took me to task for comments I had made in confidence, which had been relayed to him word for word. Employees must be made to feel secure that their views won’t later be used against them. Another problem I have encountered is that these surveys often disappear into a black hole afterwards – no one knows the outcome or if anything will change as a result.

The results of the survey will give you a good idea of whether your workforce is happy or not. The chances are, quite a few of them are dissatisfied and unmotivated for one reason or another. How do you turn things around? Unsurprisingly, there isn’t a simple answer. They may be selling bulk goods or commoditised services, but people are not commodities. What motivates will differ from person to person and leaders must manage this differentiation or risk losing their most precious assets.

One would assume that most employees would choose pay as the most important element of job satisfaction, but in fact it is quite far down the list. Competitive pay is essential, but workers are usually looking for more than money. If they stay with an organisation for pay alone it is unlikely that they will perform at their best; absenteeism and tardiness often increase, and poor collegiate relationships are also commonplace.

It is only when the employee identifies emotionally with the organisation he works for and shares their goals and values that they can be satisfied at work. In this case, pay will be less of a motivator. Indeed, the employee may even come to believe that their individual financial well-being is dependent on the financial health of the parent organization and therefore will be willing to take the rough with the smooth, for the good of “the team”.

Part of the secret to good internal communications is not keeping too many secrets. Being proactive with news stories, even bad ones like the one generated by the IDS report, is essential. Employees need to know what’s going on with the company good and bad, but obviously some information needs to be handled with care. The worst thing is the unchecked rumour and the best way to deal with this is to have the truth out in the open and invite employees to ask questions about it.

For example, rumours of falling orders and likely redundancies can paralyze a workforce and have them all looking for alternative employment. Downsizing may be impossible to avoid, especially in the current economic climate, but the information process must be controlled if you want to keep your best employees. Good internal communication helps control the rumour machine. It informs employees about the company they work for, the products and services they market, and ultimately makes them more valuable to clients. It can also help to promote trust and it may even make employees proud of the company they work for.

One of my past employers, Orange UK, was fantastic at internal communications. For example, one of the key marketing programmes, a customer loyalty programme called “Orange Wednesdays” (a two for one ticket deal with all major cinema chains) was introduced to employees by a set of branded cinema curtains which were fixed to all desktop PCs overnight.

Employees are motivated to work for companies whose ethics and values match their own. More and more people are demonstrating that they prefer to do business with companies that have a clear social conscience, and the same is true of employees. When a company behaves in a socially responsible way, perhaps through being actively engaged with the local community, by building a sustainable business, or by being generous and charitable, its workers are generally more productive. Such companies are typically valued up to 5% higher than comparable organizations which lack this focus.

This is not the place to go into huge detail about what it means for a company to be socially responsible, but in a nutshell it’s about developing a reputation of integrity and gaining the trust of staff, customers, suppliers and investors alike.

The most able employees want to feel that they are continually developing and moving forward. Training is, therefore, a big motivating factor for the most valuable workers and one which also benefits the entire organisation. It may seem obvious that if a company wants to impress its customers it needs to have impressive people within its organization, not just at the top, but at all levels. Hiring policy is obviously vital, but an organization must also take responsibility for training its employees both to fulfil the technical responsibilities their role demands and also to shape them into the kind of employees which exemplify the type of company it wants to build.

Unfortunately, in times of economic downturn, many companies think of training as one of those items that can be cut to improve the bottom line. It is, after all, expensive and difficult to directly measure the financial benefit to the company. The Container Store, which regularly tops the Fortune 100 Greatest Places to Work, has an unbelievable training programme – 235 hours of training for its first year, full-time employees, compared with 7 hours a year, which is the average for the retail industry in the US. It enjoys much lower rates of staff turnover than average as a result. The benefits of an organized and integrated staff training programme are significant and essential to the success of the organization.

Training improves the core competencies of staff and therefore improves the quality of the work carried out by the company as a whole. In the words of Johan Stael von Holstein, founder of Icon Medialab, “If you think competence costs, try incompetence.”

Companies that are great places to work are filled with great people to work with. They like and support each other. There is a lot of laughter and spontaneous fun between colleagues who really enjoy each other’s company. I worked in such an environment at CIA International 1990-2000 and many of my co-workers from those days are good friends still. Working within a fun-filled workplace builds confidence, improves team work, lifts morale, sparks enthusiasm and stimulates creativity.

Companies can foster this kind of atmosphere through paying close attention to the working environment and workspaces, making sure that teams work closely together and by avoiding the creation of silos through poor use of space and the placement of walls where none are necessary. Give people space to think and to talk together and to congregate by the water cooler.

The best companies encourage fun as well as hard work; after all, employees spend an awful long time at work, so they might as well enjoy it.

The role of management and leadership is to enable them to do the best job possible by letting them use their expertise to improve their performance and by removing any obstacles which stand in their way. Microsoft is widely recognised as being one of the best organisations to work for in the world. Michael Brundage, a software engineer (or “Emulation Ninja” as his actual job title had it), identified this sense of “personal freedom” as one of the key benefits of working for Microsoft.

“Microsoft gives software developers a lot of personal freedom over both the work and the work environment. I order my own supplies, customise my office as I see fit, schedule my trips and meetings, and select my own training courses. I choose when I show up for work and when I leave and what to wear while I’m there…for the most part I determine what I work on and when it will get done. There are exceptions – tasks others ask you to do for them, external deadlines or dependencies – but these goals are set cooperatively with your management and co-workers, taking into account your interests and abilities.”

Perhaps the most powerful motivating force in the workplace happens when employees see that their contribution is somehow making a difference to the wider world or that it is important in other ways which have personal meaning to them. It is obviously easier for employees within public service organisations (healthcare, police, armed forces) than for commercial companies; however, it is still possible to promote a sense of wider purpose. This can be as simple as helping workers to keep in mind the end result of what they were doing. Michael Brundage of Microsoft described this sense of purpose in his blog as influence.

“Very few projects at Microsoft have ‘small’ impact…the projects people are working on are likely to be used by thousands or millions of people. You have the opportunity to earn, save or cost the company millions of dollars through your work. It’s an awesome responsibility.”

Your people make your company what it is. Their energy and creativity can make your company’s products and services great. The way in which you manage and lead them will have a massive impact on your company’s chances of success. You have to attract the right people, motivate them and keep them. The way to do this is through genuine engagement with your employees and by supporting them in the workplace and in their careers, which in turn has a great positive impact on your business.

Mark Finney

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