Poor employee engagement rates and unhappiness at work seem to be problems without solutions. And it’s much worse than we think. If people aren’t engaged in their work—or happy in their workplaces—then they’re probably not having a great employee experience. Cue sad clown face. And who wants to spend part or all of the work day being miserable? I’m not seeing any hands shooting up.
It’s time to fix this, and that means we need some new rules. Now, if we put the task to Bill Maher we’d get a sassy dose to set us straight. However, in the absence of Mr. Maher’s talents, I’ll attempt to tackle this with the same punch but without the profanity.
Here we go:
New rule #1: It’s about success, not happiness
Here’s a show stopper. Turns out engaging employees is not about making them happy. Rather, it’s about helping them be successful and creating the conditions for success in your workplace. Culture and engagement expert, Jamie Notter, recently shared this non-obvious solution to the employee engagement equation.
Organizations have been trying to close the happiness gap, but the real answer to engagement lies in building a culture of deep success across the organization. We need to find and fix the patterns, behaviors, and attitudes that get in the way of this success.
Bottom line is, if you’re focusing on the wrong problem, you’ll come up with the wrong solution. So, if you’re planning your next engagement survey, stop what you’re doing! Instead, analyze what’s going on in your organization, and then create a culture playbook focused on what success means to your organization and your employees. Let the engagement follow.
New rule #2: Make play part of your day
Regardless of your organization’s purpose, you want your workforce to be firing on all cylinders. When this happens you might see that creativity abounds, ideas are buzzing, and there’s laughter and a sense of delight and enjoyment. Hmm. Sounds like a kindergarten playroom.
If we focused on being more playful in our day-to-day work, giving people and teams the space to explore, collaborate, experiment with problem solving, perhaps we’d open up the pathways to deep success that Jamie Notter advocates for. Furthermore, providing time and opportunity for employees to de-stress and take a break through play, benefits more than just the individual.
“Research has found evidence that play at work is linked with less fatigue, boredom, stress, and burnout in individual workers. Play is also positively associated with job satisfaction, sense of competence, and creativity. And research suggests that the upsides of play extend beyond the individual. Teams of workers can benefit from play via increased trust, bonding and social interaction, sense of solidarity, and a decreased sense of hierarchy.”
If you’re struggling to understand what this might look like in your work environment, perhaps you can introduce play on a project by project, or problem by problem basis. There are many ways to facilitate this. I recently attended a workshop led by Kirsten Anderson and Paul Lopushinsky to sample the use of LEGO as part of a design thinking framework to improve the employee experience. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to play with LEGO and completely underestimated its utility to mediate problems and stimulate expression.
For example, in the workshop we built small individual LEGO structures to represent our best and worst employee experiences. As a group we were challenged to build a structure that showed a solution to a workplace problem. Each participant was provided with a box of random LEGO pieces, with little or no meaning attached to them. It was fascinating to see how every person used the pieces and expressed themselves differently.
But play doesn’t have to be instituted via a framework or training program. You can easily incorporate elements of play by bringing the same stimuli that we see in children’s environments, into the workplace. Make your next social event about building something with Playdough, or challenge the Sales team to a game of Jenga. Or if you’re like my team, have a jigsaw puzzle on the go at all times (thanks Vince!).
New rule #3: Don’t make people work harder than they need to
This may sound counter-productive, since we all want hard working employees, right? I’m not saying that people shouldn’t work hard. I’m suggesting that you make it easier for them to get access to the people and things they need to do their jobs well, so that they can be active agents for your culture. That frees them up to focus their energy and talents on the things that matter, instead of exhausting them with unnecessary drains on their time and attention.
I’m looking at your constricting policies, your complicated employee manual, that stale document repository, and the “was out of date the minute it was printed” org chart (don’t even get me started on the phone list). These are all things that hinder engagement tremendously. It’s tiring even thinking about them, let alone working in an organization that operates this way.
Think about ways to facilitate connection and communication in all directions and at all levels. There are many terrific technology solutions that can aid this quest, not least of which is a modern intranet. This isn’t about yet another tool for people to learn how to use (and then quickly discard). It’s about creating an effortless go-to place for documents, projects, people information, and news about your company.
When you remove some of the usual kinks that make it hard for people to engage, you can focus on things like improving teamwork, manager effectiveness, and project efficiency. Help your people work hard on the things that deserve their attention and effort, and make the rest as easy and frictionless as possible.
New rule #4: Fire toxic employees (even if it’s your best salesperson)
Are you ready for some tough love from Gary Vaynerchuk? If you want to improve your workplace culture and your employee experience, get rid of the bad apples. If there are people in your organization who are making others miserable or behaving badly, you need to fire them. It doesn’t matter who these people are—maybe it’s your CEO or lead software engineer or receptionist. And the sooner the better.
This is the smartest thing you can do, and your good apples will love you for it. Keeping difficult, negative or mean people on staff wreaks havoc with morale, trust, productivity, customer relations, and ultimately your culture and business performance.
Most of us have felt the pain of a problem peer while management tolerated the bad behaviour because of the perceived contributions or importance of that person. Whatever value the bad apple is adding, is most certainly overshadowed by the ripple effect of negativity throughout their team and the organization.
When you act quickly to remove people who are a drain on everyone around them, you signal that you’re serious about creating a workplace where this type of behavior isn’t tolerated—and conversely, that you’re serious about building a culture that’s positive, supportive, open, and respectful. At the same time, you’re doubling-down on an extraordinary employee experience.
New rule #5: ICYMI, the key word is "experience"
This should be self-evident, but somehow in all the effort to generate a positive employee experience, we sometimes miss what’s really key: the experience. This is about how you make people feel, from the start to the end of every work day.
Perks are just one tiny part of this. It’s fine to provide fresh muffins with a shot of freshly brewed espresso (thank you in-house barista) every morning, but what else are you doing to create a meaningful and lasting experience? How are you helping each person stretch their knowledge and grow in their career? What are you doing to make them excited about work each day, with hard problems to solve and new solutions to ideate?
If you really are committed to providing a positive employee experience, think past the surface. Make it fun to be in your workplace (see new rule #2), but make it even more compelling to contribute to the challenges that your business is tackling. You can start by recognizing the power of managers in creating a positive experience. According to Gallup’s State of the American Manager report, "managers account for at least 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores." Don’t let your managers derail your culture or be the reason people leave your company.
Finally, be ready for different interpretations of what “experience” actually means. Just like each human is unique, so too are the things that make us feel interested, enthused, valued, and happy. If you can create an environment that helps people be themselves, and are recognized for it, you might just find yourself with an engaged workforce on your hands. Wouldn’t that be nice?
It’s time to put an end to poor engagement and improve the experience that people have at work. I know I’m tired of seeing little progress on Gallup’s stats year over year—hopefully you are too. It’s only through the words and actions of many people together that we’ll see the state of workplaces, and the happiness of people in them, change for the better. Hopefully these new rules inspired you to take action. If you have any of your own, please reach out. Onwards!