What Makes Employees Happy?

Business.com / Strategy / Last Modified: February 22, 2017

Employers are trying to crack the happiness code to retain top talent. Here are some ways you can make your business a great place to work.

When LinkedIn released a report on the world’s most common dream jobs, “employee of a giant corporate retailer” didn’t make the list. But even if every big-box worker harbors a secret desire to become an astronaut, that doesn’t mean they’re all miserable. Right?

It depends on whom you ask. Recently, Books-A-Million claimed the No. 1 spot on 24/7 Wall St.’s list of “America’s Worst Companies to Work For.” According to employee satisfaction data collected via Glassdoor, only 17 percent of Books-A-Million’s workforce would recommend the company to a friend. High stress, low pay, and a weak corporate culture all contribute to the bleak assessment.

How could Books-A-Million turn it around and become a great place to work? There’s no doubt that better salaries and hours and more opportunities for career development would increase baseline employee satisfaction — but there’s a difference between being satisfied and being happy.

So what makes employees happy?

Blurring the Lines Between Work and Life

As Millennials come to dominate the labor pool, the concept of work/life balance has become sacrosanct. Many top employers are trying to crack the employee happiness code by responding to employee demands for a schedule that allows them to spend less time at work and more time living life.

Yet despite all the lip service paid to work/life balance with unlimited vacation and flexible hours, some of the companies with the happiest employees are the ones that intentionally blur the lines.

Take Eventbrite, for example. In the company’s San Francisco headquarters — which Business Insider once called “one of the happiest places we’ve ever seen” — employees bring their dogs to work, go bowling during lunch, and meditate whenever they please. Here, work mirrors life, much to everyone’s delight.

And over at health startup Greatist, senior writer Shana Lebowitz says, “I can’t imagine working in a place where employees weren’t psyched for team cooking on company retreats and collaborative sweating at modern yoga classes.” Pingpong and puppies have been touchstones of startup culture ever since Google broke ground in Mountain View.

The basic philosophy is simple: Give employees space to have fun, and they’ll enjoy working, which will eventually make them more productive. But the psychology of fun goes deeper than that.

Notice that Lebowitz points to getting psyched about team cooking and collaborative sweating. Group activities — both inside and outside the office — bring employees together and create an environment conducive to making friends.

Not to sound like a heartless managerial robot, but friendship in the workplace is in the company’s best interest. A classic Gallup survey found that employees who had a best friend at work were significantly more likely to feel committed to both the quality of their work and the mission of the company.

In my experience, I’ve seen employee friendships contribute to company loyalty, the discovery of hidden talents, and the development of a silo-free corporate culture. And considering that 71 percent of Millennials say they want their co-workers to be like a second family, it’s safe to say that facilitating interpersonal connections may also help attract and retain talent.

While creating an environment of fun and friendship is certainly in everybody’s best interest, there are a few things businesses should consider before they start budgeting for employee beer-making courses:

1. Boomers and Millennials have different needs.

While 88 percent of Millennials want a fun and social environment at work, only 60 percent of baby boomers feel the same. And once the workday ends, boomers are more likely to want to return home to their families.

To create a culture that caters to its employees’ needs, companies should take a look at the age breakdown of its workforce. If it skews toward the older end of the spectrum, efforts to replicate Google’s corporate culture could end up backfiring.

2. Only Weird Al can pull off “Mandatory Fun.”

After-hours events and weekend retreats — no matter how wonderful and creative — should always be voluntary. If you’re worried that nobody will show up to your events, put employees in charge.

According to Deanna Hartley of CareerBuilder, you shouldn’t try to force fun down anyone’s throat. “Nobody is going have fun simply because you have demanded it,” Hartley wrote. Activities that happen organically are more likely to foster a sense of ownership and participation.

3. A happy workplace doesn’t guarantee business results.

A few years ago, Eventbrite’s headquarters was developing a reputation for being the Disneyland of workplaces. Meanwhile, President Julia Hartz realized that the company was about to miss its major goals for the first time.

Rather than chopping up the pingpong tables for firewood, Hartz began deliberately weaving the notion of high performance into the existing culture. By taking the long-term view, Hartz was able to get the company back on track without compromising Eventbrite’s commitment to a fun company culture.

While happiness is a noble goal for business leaders, it’s important to understand that happiness is a product of company culture. A pingpong table and free yoga classes can’t erase major underlying problems, and even happy employees won’t necessarily translate to increased profits. But by giving employees opportunities to connect, learn, and grow, Books-A-Million can become a great place to work, and your company can, too.

Paul Spiegelman is the chief culture officer at Stericycle and founder and former CEO of BerylHealth. He also co-founded the Small Giants Community with Inc. editor-at-large Bo Burlingham. He is an entrepreneur-in-residence for Office Depot’s SmallBizClub.

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