In the last decade of my professional life, working for a number of companies across various industries — from dental nurse recruitment to student accommodation, from youth travel to money remittance, from fashion to employee benefits; from a tiny team of two to the world’s largest media companies; apart from paying the bills, work has given me an amazing opportunity to experience many different work environments, and more importantly, some clarity on what’s really important in the workplace.
As an employer, your employees are the front line soldiers that make things happen, and are responsible for making your company grow and prosper. Unless you can realistically do everything yourself (which is usually not the case), you’d better find ways to keep your employees happy and motivated — it’s a crucial part of your job as an employer.
There are a few tips I’d like to share with any employer who’s involved in managing the workplace, from allocating a proportion of your busy schedule mentoring others, to providing a flexible and creative environment for them to do what they are best at.
It doesn’t matter what employee benefits or perks you give out to your staff — your employees could be drowning in gifts and wine, but if he/she is not happy with what they do, day in day out, it’s only natural that they’ll consider making a move away. This is why people still leave companies such as Google, Microsoft and Facebook to start their own projects.
As an employer, your unspoken mission is to guide your team to:
- discover the ‘fun’ of the work they do, or
- cultivate the deeper meaning behind the work they do
Whatever your employees spend their days doing, on some level, it can be looked at as a game. All games should be organised, with a set of rules, challenges and rewards. In order to keep employees engaged, the rewards of the game should be a combination of monetary and non-monetary ones.
The monetary rewards are easy guesses: getting paid a decent salary, getting regular pay rises and bonuses. The non-monetary rewards can often be difficult to measure & grasp. For example:
- As a web designer, non-monetary rewards could take the form of tackling individual design challenges, persuading the client to approve a unique design proposal, and eventually the sense of achievement after completing a beautifully designed website;
- As a customer support specialist, your non-monetary reward could be the satisfaction that comes with helping customers to solve complex issues, or receiving compliments from the customers and peers;
- As a university lecturer, the non-monetary reward could be the experience of sharing knowledge to a room full of curious minds; helping students expanding their life perspectives; seeing a student you invested energy gaining major achievement.
Most of us have the opportunity to cultivate non-monetary rewards from most jobs, as long as we have the intention, determination and support to do so. To keep your employees motivated, part of your job as an employer is to help your employees to maximise both monetary and non-monetary rewards within your ability, as a continuous effort.
This principle even applies to very simple jobs.
Fourteen years ago, when I was a student waiting tables in a 4-star hotel restaurant, my team ran an unofficial competition of who could hold the most plates comfortably and serve the table perfectly (not risking dropping any). On a different day, my colleague and I decided to count how many tables we served each day: we left that night brimming with pride after having counted a total of 125 tables in less than 4 hours.
In an attempt to make workers’ lives more fun and meaningful, Amazon has started installing a video game to ‘gamify’ the process of very manual work in Amazon’s storage space.
We’ve all seen highly skilled chefs making food with incredible speed and precision, an art form in itself.
That being said, different employees have different levels of capability to develop their own sense of job satisfaction, and discover what rewards are important to them personally. It’s also important to recognise that not all jobs are equally easy to be enjoyed: it’s easier to enjoy the work that takes 4 hours a week behind a comfortable desk and gives you the freedom to create things you as you wish, than working 12-hour night shifts in a physically demanding job, making tough decisions minute-by-minute.
The Most Mundane Tasks and Rituals
Most of us have worked one or many jobs that involve mechanical and mundane tasks like cleaning tables, pouring coffee, filing documents, copying & pasting data, etc. These tasks can be boring and dreadful to deal with if you have to do them regularly.
However, the beauty of tasks that are mundane & mechanical is that, you are 100% confident and in control with the task itself. This gives you an opportunity to practice the Zen mentality of mindfulness, as an act of keeping your mind tidy and organised.
Doing mundane tasks with the right mindset can help you to reach a state of calmness, acceptance, groundedness. This is why you probably have seen or heard of people who are able to enjoy doing jobs that appear to be mundane for decades.
Simple routines like making your bed after waking up, cleaning your house or washing the dishes can all be meditative practices if you have the right mindset. Religious practitioners build routines into their daily schedule as a preparation for deeper work, such as meditation. The important thing is that these tasks aren’t taking up so much of your time as to keep you from progressing in your goals.
In a podcast by London Real, Hindu practitioner Dandapani addressed that, we have three separate ‘minds’: instinctive, intellectual and intuitive. He explains that soldiers, for example, can use rituals and routines to move their consciousness out of their ‘instinctive’ mind of fear, thereby creating a safe mindspace of “familiarity” which overrides their instinct to flee.
In the first few years of my career, I spent a lot of time doing manual data entry work: copying and pasting data from one Excel table to another. It wasn’t the most exciting tasks, but I was able to accept the situation and make the most of these tasks by enjoying them as much as I could.
For example, I set myself realistic goals for improvement, like logging my task speed and accuracy metrics, with the aim of getting better each and every time. I also treated the tasks as mindfulness practice to keep my mind clear and organised in the midst of other, more creative tasks & projects (such as managing people). Now, I intentionally integrate a small amount of time first thing in the morning dedicated to very basic tasks, to warm up my ‘focus’ and build a momentum of ‘groundedness’.
Very often when you feel that you are losing control, there is a chance that you are in need of a set of routines or rituals to help ‘grounding' your mind. If your employees’ jobs involve a lot of mundane tasks, it’s important that you work with them to make sure that they are looking at these tasks with the right mindset.
Routines and rituals breed culture.
When I was working at Contiki Marketing Lab, in a small team of seven, the director enforced a daily 20-minutes ‘scrum’ every single morning to briefly go through what had happened the day before, and what was about to happen. Everyone, across all job functions, would be in the loop on what everyone else was working on, whether or not it was personally relevant to them. Initially, we found this meeting unnecessary: somedays you just want to get on with your work. Gradually, however, it became an instinctive routine and a team forum we kind of looked forward to — it was a platform on which to express our concerns of an issue, our appreciation for colleague’s support, to share a plan to complete a project, or even quickly crowdsource ideas.
At Student.com, we had a weekly Friday Huddle, where 50 employees in the London office would jump on a VC call with the other 80 employees from all over the world to go through all company-related subjects.
At Azimo, we had a weekly team lunch which gave us an opportunity to chat and bond with our colleagues. We also had a yearly company offsite plus a separate team offsite which took place in different European cities every time. These allowed us to share adventures and experiences with our teammates.
At Mindshare, hundreds of brand representatives, motivational speakers and even celebrities are invited to a yearly Huddle event to give talks in a fun and educational environment.
You can start building a set of small routines and rituals that work well for your employees individually, as well as the team as a whole to help them:
- claim control of their mind, instead of letting sporadically triggered negative thoughts take over their decision-making and disrupt their progress; and
- form a company culture that’s unique, adaptable and memorable.
- Make sure your team members understand why you’ve introduced these routines, and how they’re going to benefit from them.
The Deeper Meaning of Work
On Tim Ferris’ podcast featuring Chip Conley, Chip addressed the two key ingredients that make a person happy about their work: freedom and creativity.
This does not necessarily need to be about letting your team travel the world on a whim, or encouraging them to learn how to paint. For most of us, it simply means that the framework of the work itself should be aligned with (and certainly not in strong direct conflict) our goals. In other words, the work we do should be a playground for us to better explore and express our inner selves.
In the book Flow, the Psychology of Happiness, the author highlights that “enjoyment (of an activity) appears at the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act… with the clearly defined goals, and clear feedback against an objective or visualised outcome.”
In simple terms, happiness arises when you are solving problems that lie on the boundary of familiar and unfamiliar territory. It’s at this point that you experience a sense of ‘freedom’ and ‘creativity’.
The key to job satisfaction is being aware of where you are at now, having mental clarity or confidence in what’s happening next, and most importantly, the perspective to see progress being made, checkbox by checkbox, towards your goals.
Progress isn’t just about the work itself — often, you can feel stuck in a job even if you are making progress in your work. A sense of learning and self-growth is another key ingredient: if you are not learning new things, expanding your knowledge and experience in your current job, then you won’t be fulfilled.
One ritual that keeps me focused on my goals and progress towards them is something I picked up from the book The One Thing.
Every morning, before leaving my house or after arriving at my desk, I take 5 minutes to sit down and meditate on the following:
- What do I want to achieve in ONE month, and in ONE year’s time? This gives me a sense of direction for the day’s work: anything that doesn’t help me achieve my month’s and year’s goals is not a priority.
- What is ONE thing I will learn TODAY?
- What ONE change will I make TODAY to move the work I’m doing forward?
Before beginning each day and after finishing each day, I document my plan and the work I did.
If I had a productive day, I probably ended up finishing a lot more work than I had planned. This process may look trivial, but it helps to keep your sense of growth in check on a daily basis.
Checking things off the to do list produces a minor dopamine rush, which can leave you feeling rewarded and fulfilled with your work.
To sum up — part of your job as an employer is to find ways to guide your employees to organise their workflow better.
This means that, as a business owner or manager, you should allocate time to have regular catch-ups with your team, hear out their visions and ideas, and stay up to date with the work they are undertaking. Show interest in the details of the work they carry out, make efforts to help them enjoy their work more, and look out for opportunities for them to grow in their professional and personal lives.
Quality and frequency are both important: having a monthly 1-on-1 is not probably enough — it’s like trying to bring up a child by visiting them once a month.
Again, it is part of your job.
MANAGING YOUR EMPLOYEES’ EXPECTATIONS
Apart from guiding your employees toward enjoying their work more, it’s also important to learn how to manage their expectations, as well as keeping them feeling appreciated with appropriate rewards.This means giving them the right amount of praise, recognition and tangible rewards (treats, bonus, promotion and pay rises) they deserve.
People have a tendency to recognise their own achievement more than others do. This is important to keep in mind when managing employees, so that you can manage their expectations appropriately.
Investing time and effort in learning about your employees is the first step to understanding where they are in their career and life stage, what they expect from their job and career, what they want to achieve and in what timeframe. That way, you can start keeping a mental checklist (or a spreadsheet, if you’re an organiser) of what your team expect from their jobs (and from you as an employer). This will give you some clarity about how you should manage your fulfilment of their expectations.
The key principle that professional managers use is never to “over-promise and under-deliver”, but always and ALWAYS to ‘under-promise and over-deliver”.
It can be tricky to get the balance right: you also don’t want to be promising peanuts, causing you to come across as a ‘stingy boss’. Make decisions based on whether they make sense for your business, learn from trial and error, and calibrate your choices based on experience.
On the flipside, you also shouldn’t take advantage of your employees or bleed them dry. At the end of the day, you have to work as a team to survive in the face of competition. If you treat your employees like shit, you have to be prepared to accept the disastrous output that comes back to your and your business.
On top of understanding their expectations, learn to show your employees appreciation for even trivial things they’ve done for the team or company — sure, you give them a paycheck every month, but many of them pour their life’s energy into the work they’re doing, directly benefiting your company and making your life easier. Make sure you acknowledge them so that they feel the ‘feedback’ of appreciation. In fact, you as an employer need to build the rituals of showing appreciation and ingrain them into your communication habits.
Besides making the work itself more interesting, building the best (and coolest) work environment possible is the single most important thing you can do to attract and retain the best talent ever.
A strong social life and social ties between colleagues
Like most of you, each company I worked at has introduced me to at least one (or in some cases, many) good friends, who I still keep in touch with. Our network grows throughout our professional lives and these “work” friends that we shared stressful days with are a valuable community which will continue to help us overcome new challenges.
Providing your employees with the framework to create and foster meaningful connections is an amazing gift that will not only increase their happiness and productivity, but will also help your team work cohesively together. Regular social activities, company and team offsite events are great ways to promote team bonding.
Work Chat Messenger: Slack or Fleep
I’m surprised that some form of workplace messaging platform hasn’t yet been adopted by EVERY SINGLE company on earth. Email is great for exchanging condensed and thought-through communications. It’s also important as a form of written confirmation to ‘cover your ass’ in case shit hits the fan. What email isn’t great for is for short, high-frequency communication: we’ve all been on an email chain where 15 people each send a one sentence reply, dragging the thread out so long that the important information gets buried underneath.
This is where workplace messaging tools like Slack and Fleep step in to save the day: users can carry on long conversations with multiple people in specific topic channels, tune in and out as they need to, and decisions can be made quickly, based on where the conversation is going. This eliminates a lot of the hurdles you’d encounter conducting the same conversation over email.
Flexible Work Policy
Counter-intuitively, providing your team with a flexible work-from-home policy can actually improve productivity, especially for those employees who have long commutes, children who require care, or those employees who benefit from regular quiet time to focus on getting work done.
Of course this doesn’t mean that everyone should work from home all the time: it’s important to find the balance that will enable your team to work efficiently and collaboratively.
If you do implement a work-from home-policy, it’s important to establish a high level of trust between employees and managers. If employees feel that they are constantly being checked up on while working from home, this will inevitably damage their relationship with their manager. At the same time, it’s important that work-from-home time is used efficiently. The key to making a work-from-home policy work for everyone is to have a structured and transparent way of measuring employee performance, such that employees know what KPIs they need to achieve, regardless of where they are spending the working day.
A Beauuuuuutiful Office
This is self explanatory — Friday afternoon doesn’t get much better than at a desk with a view over the city and a beer in your hand. Who wouldn’t enjoy working in an aesthetically pleasing office, even if it’s just for the occasional ego boost when you bring a bunch of friends (or a date) to check out the rooftop that you have 24/7 exclusive access to with your keycard.
Employee Discount Schemes
Subscribing to an employee benefits platform is a great way to show your employees that they’re valued and appreciated. With a service like Staff Treats, employees can take advantage of discounts on everything from their weekly grocery shop, sportswear to cinema tickets, gadgets and booking hotels.
Free Foods & Snacks
Following in Google’s footsteps, a lot of startups have started to provide free food and drinks at the office.
At Azimo there were plenty of snacks, fruits, drinks, and a great coffee machine. It definitely felt like a great bonus to be able to help yourself to a healthy snack when your stomach started rumbling in the afternoon.
Plus, the ability to make a sandwich using nutritious ingredients found in the office fridge can make a big difference to helping your employees’ paychecks stretch a lot farther.
Workstation, tools and privacy when needed
Unless your job is 100% conducted over the phone, it’s likely that you often need a private space to get some work done without distraction.
It’s crucial to provide your team with the space to be alone with their work when they need peace and quiet.
Don’t forget that providing a desk space conducive to work is also important. Nothing is more distracting than having to scoot in your chair every time someone walks by, or having people discuss what happened in the pub last night right by your desk. Little things like that reflect on your employees’ efficiency, and cost you money.
Many (if not all) of the suggestions above may be familiar to you already. KNOWING, however, does not equal implementing, or implementing correctly.
Keeping your employees happy, like most things in life, is something that’s easier said than done. Managing human beings is simply one of THE most complex tasks to undertake, so the right attitude is always to keep an open mind, keep experimenting, and learning from experience.
Of course, the bottom line is never to take your team for granted. The fact that you sign their paycheck simply does not mean you own them — especially the ones who are most enthusiastic about what they do and about serving others.
Treat them as if they might leave the next day, and do your best to serve them so they won’t want to.
The crux of this article lies in one word: CARE. Let’s start from there.