The Happiness Factor

September 1, 2013

About a year into our business, my partner and I became concerned that our employees were not as happy as they could be. While we made every effort to be champions of work/life balance, it didn’t seem to be enough. It turned out we were trying to achieve the wrong thing. Our focus was on balance when it should have been on work/life integration.

When you think about it, work/life balance falsely implies that “work” and “life” are completely distinct and competing concepts separated by a bright line. But we are in the service industry, and our clients rely on us to be available when they need our advice. We can’t say, “Sorry, we’re not available!” just because we are on the life side of the bright line. So, we aimed our efforts on achieving work/life integration instead, believing that if people really feel what they do at work is consistent with how they want to live their life, they will be happier, more engaged and profitable. Here are some steps we took that have dramatically increased work/life integration in our office:

Ensure the values align.

Each year at our company retreat, we take stock of the team’s personal values. Recurring themes include achieving a sense of social responsibility and being involved in the community. We then take these values, integrate them into the firm’s values and ensure that all of our clients fit within our value statement. These steps led to a more engaged workforce that is fiercely loyal to our clients, which in turn means better service and more word-of-mouth referrals. A sense of shared values also means that most of our clients have become champions of our brand.

Help each other achieve goals.

In our annual reviews, we openly talk to staff about their goals, what the barriers are and how we can help. We’ve provided loans for down payments on condos, helped staff pay off debt, subsidized education and provided flexible schedules. Once we became seen as a resource to help staff achieve long-term goals (as opposed to an employer that is a barrier to personal success because of time demands, for example), employee loyalty skyrocketed. What’s more, we’ve seen a greater return on staff investments than any other investment— increased loyalty and happiness means increased productivity!

Treat people like they’re owners.

As a business owner, it’s difficult to see staff treat their job like it’s just a job, instead of like it’s their business. By treating our people like they’re owners of the company, we help them feel like they have a stake in the enterprise. To achieve this, we implemented a firm-wide bonus if we hit certain financial targets. Each month, we have an open books meeting, where we review our financials with the team, congratulate ourselves on our successes and prepare as a group to overcome any obstacles that we’re facing. These “mini-partner meetings” help people understand the whys behind our business decisions and empower them to feel like decision-makers through meaningful discussion about challenges. We’ve discovered that financial participation in the firm’s success motivates people to work harder, and treating all staff as owners differentiates us from our competition when it comes to recruiting.

Empower, empower, empower.

Nothing kills employee motivation like shooting down an idea before it begins. If we’re doing a good job during the hiring process, everyone who comes in the door should be someone that we want contributing ideas. And to paraphrase author Daniel Pink: What better way to motivate someone than to unleash their creativity? We empowered staff to spend up to 10 percent of their time developing ideas to provide better service or value to our clients, free from interference from owners or managers. This spawned some of our best ideas to date, including virtual corporate record books; an online incorporation app; “Wacky Wednesdays,” where we rotate office space to see the world from each other’s perspective; and more. By empowering staff, our firm improves and our people stay motivated— it’s a classic win-win!

Remove barriers to exit.

Before we embarked on our pursuit of work/life integration, we had a terrible experience where a staff member was not happy, but for financial reasons, was afraid to leave. Because he felt trapped, he negatively affected morale and productivity, and also provided poor service to clients. To avoid a repeat, we adopted a policy of option-to-leave payments. If a staff member is unhappy, we will voluntarily pay them a set severance amount to help them transition to a new position where they will be happy. Having lived through this in the past, it’s clear to me that the overall cost to us would be significantly less than the cost of enduring a negative influence in the office.

[Originally published on the Entrepreneur’s Organization website]