Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Keep 'Em Happy - And Productive

Treat Employees Well And Reap The Rewards In Good Times And Bad.

Minnesotans received some good news recently: The state's unemployment rate hit 5.6 percent in January, the lowest since 2008.

But this news should be a wake-up call to local employers who may be taking the plentiful supply of eager workers for granted. When you take something for granted, it's easy to begin to treat it with indifference or even callous disregard. Sadly, data about workplace satisfaction suggests that is exactly what has been happening.

The Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index, which has been polling more than 1,000 adults every day since January 2008, indicates that Americans now feel worse about their jobs -- and work environments -- than ever before. People of all ages, and across all income levels, are unhappy with their supervisors, apathetic about their organizations and detached from what they do.

Could it be that companies have forgotten about the importance of keeping employees engaged and productive at work? While the tough economy may be distracting managers, those who have invested in employee engagement are most likely to retain star performers even as the economy continues to improve and employees start exploring their career options.

"If you give your employees the chance to learn and grow, they'll thrive -- and so will your organization," counsel business management professors Gretchen Spreitzer and Christine Porath in an article titled "Creating Sustainable Performance" in the January-February issue of Harvard Business Review.

"Happy employees produce more than unhappy ones over the long term,'' the authors conclude. "They routinely show up at work, they're less likely to quit, they go above-and-beyond the call of duty, and they attract people who are just as committed to the job. Moreover, they're not sprinters; they're more like marathoner runners, in it for the long haul."

Still not convinced that employee happiness should matter, particularly during challenging recessionary times? Consider the results of a 2010 study by Gallup's James Harter that found that lower job satisfaction foreshadowed poorer bottom-line performance. And Gallup estimates that a staggering $300 billion is lost annually due to "employee disengagement."

Despite the clear link between happiness at work and productivity, tough-minded managers might be rolling their eyes at the words "happy" and "employees" in the same sentence. Perhaps they're imagining indolent workers lazing about eating bon bons and watching soap operas in the company cafeteria.

Professor Spreitzer, from the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business, and professor Porath, from the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown University -- and many others who are engaged in workplace research -- are quick to explain that workplace happiness is not about complacency or even contentment. Rather, happy employees thrive for two basic reasons: They believe what they do at work makes a difference, and they are continually learning and gaining new knowledge and skills.

It may seem self-serving for me, as the CEO of a technology training and consulting company, to tout the benefits of training. But I have seen the power of learning new skills at work with my own employees. We are so committed to professional development that every employee must identify a substantial learning objective as part of his or her annual performance review. Progress toward advancement is tied to meeting these goals. If we don't offer the classes they need, we are happy to pay for courses taught elsewhere. It's a matter of putting our money where our mouth is, so to speak.

Smart, motivated top performers want to keep developing their talent. We want to keep those people in our firm and to provide them with challenging, meaningful work. And, in a classic positive feedback loop, top performers help us attract interesting clients who allow us to do great work.

Of course, retaining great employees involves more than providing learning opportunities. Spreitzer and Porath found in their research that providing decisionmaking discretion, sharing information, minimizing incivility and offering performance feedback were other crucial pieces of the puzzle.

Why go to the trouble of consciously cultivating a positive work environment? Engaged employees who know they are valued tend to be highly productive and highly loyal. In the 20 years that we have been in business, I can count on one hand the number of employees who left us feeling disgruntled or thinking they could find a better job elsewhere.

That not only feels good, it's good for our bottom line.

Tom Salonek is founder and CEO of Eagan-based Intertech, a software consulting firm.

Thanks to Tom Salonek / Star Tribune / StarTribune


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