The pull and tug of managing employees' happiness is like a game of blackjack. As the metaphorical dealers, employers carefully scrutinize what's on the table and hedge their bets accordingly. They must satisfy the bottom line while retaining the best and brightest around. At the same time, workers don't want to settle for a low hand. But demanding too much may get them axed.
Who wins after the cards are dealt? On the employee side, the Harvard Business Review wagers its chips on the upbeat crew [source: Fleischauer]. The team players who contribute cheerfully around the office have the greatest chances of surviving lay-offs.
During economic downturns, employers benefit from a drop in absenteeism, according to a study published by The Academy of Management Journal. But the odds aren't solely in favor of the bosses. Dissatisfied, disengaged workers show up more, which hurts productivity [source: Cornell University]. Also, the office stars may look to jump ship for companies that can better fulfill their needs.
Whether the Dow soars or plummets, employers bear the burden of protecting their human capital. In addition to trimming the chaff, businesses must cultivate a satisfied, engaged workforce to succeed. Job satisfaction defends against daydreams of greener pastures, and engagement propels employees to perform above and beyond baseline expectations. In return, businesses profit from markedly higher customer satisfaction, lower turnover and greater returns on investments.
The following 10 tips illustrate that making employees happy usually doesn't include dollar signs, either. Rather, it's intangible incentives that produce the concrete results.
The nine-to-five office culture that developed in the 20th century may be nearing the end of its reign. Sure, people are expected to put in their 40 hours and complete projects on a deadline, but they're no longer tethered to a desk chair. Mobile devices and WiFi networks allow employees to get the job done virtually anywhere. This has sparked a growing trend of businesses offering flexible work options. Flex work includes everything from telecommuting to compressed work weeks and taking extended leave time.
Georgetown Law School and the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation have spearheaded the Workplace Flexibility 2010 initiative to develop a public policy program for promoting flexible work options. According to the initiative's research, 80 percent of employees would appreciate more flexible work options [source: Georgetown University Law Center]. Of those already enrolled in a flex program, 90 percent said it eased the burden of work-life balance [source: Georgetown University Law Center].
Best Buy Corporation exemplifies this shift toward flex scheduling. The Fortune 100 company switched to a result-only work plan (ROWE) in 2002 that allows participating employees to set their own schedules as long as their work is consistently finished on time. Since then, corporate departments involved in ROWE experienced a 35 percent boost in productivity [source: Brandon].
The difference between a mediocre manager and an effective one often boils down to communication. Specifically, a lack of transparency from the executive suites down to entry level employees gets at the heart of problem.
Consider, for example, the results of a 2009 workplace satisfaction survey among federal agencies, including NASA, the State Department, Homeland Security and the Transportation Department. Barely half of the 212,000 employees polled said they were satisfied with the quality and consistency of information they receive from management [source: Vogel]. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which had the happiest employees in the survey, attributed its organizational success to senior leaders' stellar communication skills [source: Vogel]. That trait outranked salary and benefits in terms of importance to the federal employees.
The onus of effective communication doesn't rest solely on the shoulders of the chief executives, however. Business research repeatedly underscores the important role of the middle mangers in building an open and honest rapport with employees. This goes beyond regurgitating the company line, which employees can usually spot as easily as an elephant in a driveway [source: Boyle]. Managers can't be afraid to field questions and must remain straightforward about what can be addressed [source: Mazin].
In short, communication gets at the core of employee engagement.
Businesses and corporations strive to build up brand loyalty on the customer side while also shoring up internal loyalty. Yet without some outlets for person-to-person interaction, employees may feel removed from the corporate identity. E-mail and conference calls have made conducting business far more convenient. But some of the details can get lost in the shuffle of laptops and mobile devices.
Neuroscience research examining how our brains respond to office work has underlined innate human desires we wish to fulfill through work, including the need to bond. In fact, studies have shown that addressing this bonding desire is the most effective way to boost employees' dedication to the company. It also serves to uphold the business mission and values [source: Nohria, Groysber and Lee].
In the face of an economic recession, many companies are cutting parties, outings and conferences from the budget. But giving face time doesn't have to cost money. Intel, for instance, tested a no e-mail day one Friday per month to encourage in-person communication. The results weren't exactly through the roof because of the IT employees' busy schedules that took them away from their desks; but, 60 percent of participants recommended expanding the program to other departments [source: Zeldes].
Even if e-mail is necessary, supervisors should promote teamwork, collaboration and sharing best practices that help employees bond with another [source: Nohria, Groysber and Lee]. If no man is an island, companies ought to act accordingly.
Effectively engaged employees are self-motivated to go above and beyond the call of duty. They take ownership of their tasks and feel pride in completing them to the best of their abilities. It's also up to the employer to recognize jobs well done. According to the principles of Six Sigma, a business management system initially developed at Motorola, employee recognition isn't a tool to incentivize success, but rather to establish a standard for excellence [source: Pyzedek]. Some business management guides have even discouraged outright incentives as they may promote laziness and cutting corners. Rewards also aren't meant as a method of punishing under-performing employees or as a last-ditch effort to jumpstart productivity [source: Pyzedek].
Businesses don't have to attach a monetary value to performance rewards for them to be effective. Basic public recognition reinforces company values and provides examples of its mission in action. For the recipient, an intangible reward comes with elevated social status, the joy of praise and, possibly, increased responsibility [source: Jex].
Remember, a reward system will make employees happy only if it's designed to value departments equally and tailor measures of success to the various job descriptions. To do so, see the next tip on goal-setting.
An inspirational poster of a kitten clinging to a ball of yarn that reads "Hang in There" probably won't motivate employees to forge happily onward. Many times, people need something more concrete to drive them to achieve. Even if someone's job entails punching out widgets on an assembly line, he or she should know how many widgets to make in a day and the measure of quality the company expects.
Likewise, while mangers must grant their employees a degree of independence over their tasks, they should also set clear-cut goals. Psychologists agree that people work their best and hardest when endeavoring to meet a specific, challenging goal [source: Macey et al]. Definable goals also give employees a roadmap to chart their progress and determine the resources needed to accomplish them down the line.
More importantly, setting goals infuses daily work with a sense of purpose. Happier workers consider their jobs meaningful, not aimless. A study conducted by researchers at the University of Alberta found that people who focused on the meaningfulness of their jobs exhibited a 60 percent drop in absenteeism and a 75 percent reduction in turnover [source: University of Alberta]. Invest a little time in goal-setting and reap the bountiful returns.
In addition to setting goals, employers can also boost satisfaction by ensuring that their employees understand the business's big picture. This isn't just about organizational flow charts and canned mission statements. People should understand how the goals that they accomplish contribute to the overall success of the company. If the company has a list of core values, people should understand what they mean and how they relate back to the products and goals. This further reinforces bonding and loyalty among employees. Nike, for example, offers specialized training programs for new hires to immerse them in multiple areas of the corporation. Participants gain a richer understanding of how various departments and teams collaborate and fit into the extensive corporate structure.
Transparency is a key part of employees' recognition of the roles that they play. In the midst of a recession, it's arguably even more important as thousands of people sit on pins and needles in fear of downsizing. Although managers can't always announce if a merger is in the works or if the business is perilously close to bankruptcy, they should still attempt to maintain openness and communicate to employees how actions at the top will trickle down. After all, when employees can't see the forest for the trees, they won't be much help if a forest fire breaks out.
Engaged employees who exhibit that optimal blend of job satisfaction and initiative won't want to toil away on the same tasks day in and day out. To maintain and encourage high levels of engagement, employers should offer career growth opportunities. This can come in the form of compensating advanced education, funding conferences and even establishing an internal mentorship program. Whether facilitated on- or off-site, career development enriches employees' skill sets, which will further enrich the business. It also communicates to employees that they are important members of the company team who are expected to learn new and better ways to meet goals and objections.
Some career experts rate career development opportunities as one of the top five most important benefits that employees wish for [source: Gardner]. This especially rings true among the emerging Generation Y workforce. Although millennials are characteristically disloyal to companies, they yearn for fresh learning opportunities [source: The Wall Street Journal]. Integrating that need for variety and feedback while potentially improving job performance could prove to be the perfect storm for honing the newest wave of recruits.
In light of the grim job market, employee engagement has dropped across the board, but some employers aren't concerned about mass desertions because people have few options for finding employment. That type of logic is deeply flawed since companies are always on the lookout for sharp talent. Instead of assuming employees are tied to their current jobs, smart employers and managers will seek to enhance engagement and respect their workers' contributions [source: Boyle].
A crucial part of nurturing engagement is acknowledging and utilizing the unique skill sets that employees bring to the table. Thomas Britt, an organizational psychologist at Clemson University, suggests that if people aren't tapped for their talents, it squanders engagement and diminishes job commitment [source: Clemson University]. Promoting departmental collaboration and maintaining open lines of communication with employees will help managers recognize underused skills and give employees more opportunities to put them into action.
Respect also goes beyond the projects and tasks assigned. Employers should take it into account when designing benefits and reward systems. Someone caring for an aging parent might appreciate more flex options rather than sick days, and a young parent might enjoy a grocery store gift card as a reward more than a free dinner for two. In exchange, effective managers and executives will win mutual respect from their employees.
As the work world braces for the incoming tidal wave of Generation Y employees, psychologists and experts are anxiously attempting to decode how to manage them. Stereotyped as pampered and flakey, the iPod-toting cohort seems arrive at the office with a lengthy list of demands. And while their characteristic job-hopping makes employers nervous, Generation Y's desire for work-life balance and insatiable need for feedback may spur a positive cultural shift.
Providing consistent feedback opens up communication between employees and managers -- and the resulting benefits go both ways. Employees gain a better understanding of where they're succeeding and what requires more attention; managers glean insight into office dynamics and daily work flow. Peer-to-peer feedback can also foster collaboration and steer people out of organizational silos that limit their interaction with fellow employees.
Effective performance feedback systems must overcome communication filters that can disconnect meaning from interpretation. For example, a subordinate may interpret a suggestion for improvement as chastisement. To combat these biases, supervisors and peers must deliver feedback objectively and fairly [source: Garber]. As with reward systems, performance feedback should be treated as a tool of instruction, not punishment.
Employers shouldn't read this tip as a cue to schedule in a companywide ropes course that involves people taking "trust falls" into the awaiting arms of co-workers and supervisors. In fact, for some employees, this may be the No. 1 way to dismantle a trusting environment.
Joking aside, trust and accountability are indispensible assets in a business. Employees want to feel respected and valued, but they also want to trust that their jobs will be there when they come to the office in the morning. In a turbulent economy, building and restoring that trust can be challenging. According to organizational behavior research, pay cuts, layoffs and benefits reductions in the face of corporate downsizing erodes trust between the boardroom and the cubicle [source: Catt]. People are putting in more hours in hopes of dodging firings, but fear-driven motivation isn't a healthy signal.
Abraham Maslow, the father of humanistic psychology, places trust at the foundational level of his emotional model, the hierarchy of human needs. Traveling to the peak of the pyramid, you find the qualities associated with engagement: self-actualization, creativity and problem-solving. Employers must bridge that gap between the bottom and top of the hierarchy by considering employees' perspectives [source: Catt]. Instead of forming assumptions, supervisors should facilitate dialogue to address potential problems and establish themselves as reliable resources.
Companies can throw piles of cash at team-building retreats, seminars, conferences and pizza lunches, but bolstering genuine employee happiness amid the daily grind doesn't have to cost a cent.
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Related HowStuffWorks Articles
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