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10 steps to a happier workplace

Nic Paton

Nic Paton shows that it’s possible to achieve a more positive office in 10 easy steps

Let me guess: you’re feeling really happy to be back at work following the long Christmas and New Year break? That’s assuming you weren’t one of those who spent it slaving away surrounded by a sea of empty desks and limp tinsel.

If you’re not so sure, you won’t be surprised to learn that the number of people job hunting does tend to shoot up every January (just as it does in September after people return from their summer holidays). However, most of us will quickly settle back into the routine of our working lives because we’re, hopefully, relatively engaged and motivated by what we do.

Also, if we’re honest, most of us – particularly those who have reached managerial or executive positions – may in fact be quite happy about being at and in work, with our careers giving us a sense of identity and fulfilment beyond the fact that they pay our bills and give us an income.

Happiness is important – we all want to be happy, loved and valued, both at work and in our personal lives. Our satisfaction with life and, from there, our sense of wellbeing, dynamism and resilience, are all conditions that are of increasing interest to politicians and employers. They are starting to be recognised as important factors in terms of how, and how fast, the UK raises itself up from the current grim and uncertain economic environment.

The key to workplace happiness is the extent to which employers and employees engage with each other and have an open and meaningful dialogue.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) launched a 12-week consultation in October 2011 to investigate the 10 key themes or ‘domains’ of individual wellbeing. The findings are due to be published in the spring, and the goal is to create a ‘happiness index’ to complement other measurement tools such as gross domestic product, and allow civil servants to assess the effect that future policies may have on the public’s wellbeing.

While the ONS project incorporates wide societal themes, such as how human relationships and the natural environment can affect happiness, the issue of contentment and engagement at work is equally – and perhaps even more directly – relevant to any analysis of our economic resilience and performance.

Kevin Friery, clinical director of business consultancy Right Corecare, believes the potential competitive advantage to be gained from a happy, engaged and motivated workforce can be enormous.

“Most companies are struggling and everything is being kept lean, so if you can focus on getting the most from what you have, from your workforce, that can make a huge difference,” he says. “Sometimes you can see as much as a 50% improvement in productivity levels in a workforce that is motivated 
or happy.”

But in a climate where money is tight (leading to a lack of pay rises) and jobs themselves are uncertain, how can managers go about creating a happy, contented, productive place to work?

1) Keep them healthy

In 2008, shopping channel QVC decided to identify and tackle any cases of stress or mental ill-health among its workforce and promote health and wellbeing initiatives in general. The company, which employs around 2,200 people in the UK, now runs employee workshops to tackle stress, also encouraging flexible working. 
The company’s HR director Frank Robinson says this campaign has led to a 20% drop in employees taking long-term sick leave, and has also reduced levels of short-term absence. “We have seen increased levels of staff engagement and improved perceptions of QVC as a place to work,” says Robinson.

Staff surveys show that nearly three quarters of its employees now feel QVC supports their health and wellbeing, compared with under two thirds in 2009. Three quarters say they are now better able to successfully balance their work and personal lives, 71% are happy with their working hours (up 8% in two years) and staff engagement has risen by 20%.

While the process was initially prompted by a desire to deal with stress and absence, it has long since widened out to encompass “wellness” and productivity in a more generic sense, says Robinson, with QVC running initiatives on male and female health, blood pressure, and other schemes such as fitness and diet classes.

“It’s about how to improve levels of health education around the workforce, promote a better environment and encourage more healthy activities,” he says. “Why should you just focus on the 2% who are off versus the 98% who are actually still there working?”

2) Make them feel valued

The extent to which employers and employees engage with each other and have an open and meaningful dialogue,” says Valerie Todd, director of talent and resources at train company Crossrail. “That relationship is critical and really sets the psychological contract between the two.”

Whether, or to what extent, your employees feel they are valued is vital to their levels of satisfaction, engagement and happiness, says Todd. This can include any number of individual factors: whether they feel they are treated fairly, compensated fairly (which may not just mean money), being used to their full potential, and properly supported by management.

“Do you respect the person above you, do you understand what they – and the organisation – is trying to achieve, and are you willing to follow them? Those are key questions,” she points out.

3) Explain why they’re there

“One thing that will always count is: do people feel what they are doing is making a difference?” says David Pendleton, chair of business psychology consultancy Edgecumbe Group. “It is easy for senior managers to talk about key performance indicators or objectives, but you need to connect with the individual on a day-to-day level – what are they doing at work that is making a difference?

“It’s the classic story of the person sweeping the floor at NASA who is asked, ‘What do you do?’ and replies, ‘I’m helping to put a man on the moon.’ Or, more prosaically, the employee who may be handling claims forms in an insurance company, so deals with masses and masses of paperwork that can, on the surface, appear very boring.

“You need to get that person to recognise that what they are doing is helping someone safeguard their property or livelihood, or making sure their radiators don’t burst this winter. The emphasis needs to be not on how many forms they have processed but how many people will be able to stay warm this winter because their claim has been settled.”

4) Stretch and engage them through training and development

The fact that the Strand Palace Hotel in London’s West End won a prestigious customer service training programme award in November may have pleased HR manager Nadia Simmonds, but it won’t have surprised her. The 786-bed hotel, which employs around 240 staff, has put comprehensive training and development at the heart of its employee engagement strategy.

“Good training and development, and focusing on improving skills, have been very important to us,” says Simmonds.

The hotel has been accredited with Investors in People status since 1998, and its latest award recognised that 80% of its staff have now been trained to meet the standards of the WorldHost customer service training programme in preparation for the London 2012 Olympic Games.

The hotel also runs a range of NVQ programmes accredited by the Institute of Leadership & Management, as well as programmes run by such providers as hospitality sector skills council People 1st.

“I am always on the lookout for what training is out there,” says Simmonds. “It’s about creating a culture of learning. Our employee surveys consistently highlight the importance of career development and training for our staff.

“It has created a different buzz. The fact that we are an independent hotel [since being sold by Compass Group] makes it less bureaucratic – once the budget has been agreed I have the freedom to source the training I want. So it’s a very liberating environment.

“Traditionally, hospitality is an industry with a high staff turnover. But in the time I have been here I have seen that drop. Although last year [2011] it did creep up from the year before [2010] – it is now around 40% compared with 30% – this is still quite a bit less than the industry average, which is more like 60-70%.”

5) Give them balance, flexibility and security

Job security in the current climate may be challenging, but even if you can’t guarantee a job for life you can still try to make the work environment balanced, flexible and accommodating, advises Ben Willmott, employee relations adviser with the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development.

“Work-life balance is one of the biggest challenges when it comes to workplace happiness. Balancing what is going on in our lives outside work – children, caring responsibilities and so on – with the pressures inside it can be difficult. So it comes back down to flexibility on both sides, with employers treating employees like adults,” he says.

6) Recognise that money isn’t everything

“Compensation in line with the job you do is important because the compensation is commensurate with your skills,” says Carole Miller, director at business coaching firm Tinder-Box.

“That alone is not enough, yet it is too often relied on by employers to keep people happy. It is easy to fit people’s skills to a job, but it is important to look at the individual and their aspirations. It is about listening to people and what they want rather than just giving them a pay rise. A pay rise by itself is fairly cold.”

7) Make work not always about work

“Putting something back into the community can be valuable,” says Friery. “It may be encouraging corporate social responsibility initiatives or it could be things such as ‘time banking’ where people put a certain number of hours into a community pot.

“Google, for example, allows its employees to devote 20% of their working week to projects that are not work-related. So it lets people work beyond the horizon of their immediate job and makes them more engaged. People will normally have a package of skills but be employed for a particular skill-set.

“You need to recognise that people are not just units of production. People also need to be sold on the goal or goals of the organisation.”

8) Listen to what people are saying

“Being super clear about goals and objectives always helps. How much latitude is there for people to work under their own steam and what is being expected of them? People often worry most about the unsaid stuff,” says Jessica Pryce-Jones, chief executive of HR and management consultancy iOpener, which specialises in examining the effect of happiness on work.

The consultancy published research in 2010 that argued the happiest workers are by far the most productive, spending 80% of their working week focusing on what they are paid to do, compared with 40% for the least happy workers.

While a lot of leadership is really just repetition (so don’t be scared of repeating key messages), it always makes sense to take time to really listen to what your staff have to say, stresses Pryce-Jones.

“It is about more than just having an open door policy; you need to be getting out there, talking to people, gauging feedback. You must find out what motivates each person on your team, and then take the time to connect with them.

“Watch out, too, for signs of flagging resilience. Letting someone go at 4pm on a Friday is not going to cost you the earth, but it may earn serious brownie points,” she points out.

9) Stop worrying about bums on seats

Clearly, you want to ensure that people turn up to work and are productive when there (hence it makes sense to focus on health and wellbeing), but presenteeism – struggling into work when unwell or just being present in body but not in spirit – can be just as damaging as empty desks, suggests Willmott.

“We have laws such as the Working Time Directive but, in many respects, your health, wellbeing and happiness at work is less about how many hours you are working but what is actually happening during those hours, the intensity of the work, how ‘good’ the work is, to what degree you feel your skills are being fully utilised, and how you are being managed,” he says.

Todd agrees with this point: “The key is discretionary effort. It is about not just watching the clock or narrowly thinking about the job. It is not just about giving people clarity of purpose but also the freedom to act. Are you giving them the space and freedom to meet objectives and targets you have set in their own way?” she says.

10) Two small words

“A bit of praise and thanks can go a long way,” says Duncan Ward, operations director at recruitment firm Badenoch & Clark, which has created its own Happiness at Work Index (for more information, visit: www.happinessatworkindex.co.uk).

“Keep talking about performance. Even if the company news is not good, by communicating it you are allowing people to feel they have control. So it is vital to get communication right.

“Employees need to understand their role, the common purpose of the organisation and the function they are performing within it. It is about creating a shared vision and strategic direction, allowing people to share in the direction the business is travelling.”

 

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