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Which Workplace Perks Enhance Employee Engagement?

perksNo potential superstar employee is going to reject the trappings of success you offer but will the free petrol, subsidised healthcare or at-desk massages actually improve their engagement and performance. Some perks do and some perks don’t and it depends. This post citing some recent Gallup research is revealing.

“Gallup found that access to flexible work time, which is considered a more mainstream workplace perk, is related to increased employee engagement.”

“…remote workers are slightly more engaged than onsite workers…”

One of the usual drivers of motivation and engagement is autonomy – a sense of control or, at least influence, over if not what we do, at least how we do it. That’s tough to create or allow in many jobs, especially routine or entry-level ones but if you can generate it to a degree, it can positively influence engagement and thus drive the associated productivity benefits. Something like flexi-time is a good compromise, where it is do-able, in generating this sense of influence / autonomy. Gallup does warn though of the “diminishing returns” which is worthy of note.

“…an engaged management team and a positive work environment are more beneficial than housecleaning and bowling alleys.”

Don’t deny already engaged employees their perks if you wish to provide them and it makes you feel good but clearly many are not drivers of engagement or motivators. Far more effective are the low-cost but disturbingly rare ‘perks’ of positive feedback and non-tolerance of poor performance. Perks, by definition, are extras and these two I just mentioned shouldn’t be extras, yet the behaviour of many workplace leaders makes it seem like they are. It’s easier to throw trinkets but far less effective.

Although, if the trinket you’re throwing is a bowling ball in the company lanes, that’s almost certainly a health and safety issue.

Jerry Seinfeld’s Variation On The Endowed Progress Method Of Self Motivation


There’s a chapter in my book ‘The Brain-Based Boss’ about the influence the perception of endowed progress has on our behaviour. Simply, we feel more inclined to pur in effort towards a goal when we think we’ve already made a committed start. There are neat studies showing how a loyalty card with two stamps already given from day 1 get better results than cards starting from scratch.

Seinfeld tells a story of how he got good at comedy writing. Who’d have thought? He got good at comedy writing by writing a lot of comedy. I recall reading Jules Verne’s biography. Verne said, “Writers write.” Except he would have said it in French. Good call though Jules. Tres bien.

Read Seinfeld’s story here. It’s a simple yet powerful idea that obviously brought him great results. The 2 principle traits of successful people are grit and self discipline. Seinfeld’s idea can help you improve both. If, as a side effect, it makes you funnier, well, that’s a side effect we can all laugh about.

Why Care About Employee Engagement?

Here’s an except from an article in Training Magazine by Rob Tartell that succinctly validates Employee Engagement not as a ‘nice-to-have’ or something workplace leaders ‘should’ do but as an approach that generates productivity and profitability and no one has to get crushed under the metaphorical wheels of industry on the way.

“The payoff of an engaged workforce is highlighted by two studies conducted by Towers Watson:

  • A one-year study of 50 global companies compared those with highly engaged employees to those with low engagement. This study reported a 19 percent increase in operating income and 28 percent growth in earnings per share for companies with highly engaged employees. Companies with low levels of engagement saw operating income drop by 32 percent and earnings per share decline 11 percent.
  • Another study looked at 40 global companies over a three-year period. This study found a spread of 5 percent in operating margin and a spread of 3 percent in net profit margin between companies with high employee engagement and those with low engagement.”

It’s not all about the money but that’s often why some workplace leaders don’t even entertain the prospect of ‘having a go’ at creating a workplace culture that is supportive of employee engagement. Sure, there are lots of noble reasons for doing it but it also pays off – literally.

I Like The Product So Much That I Bought The Company

I recall an advert from a couple of decades ago where a chap was so enamoured with his electric shaver that he bought the company.

This article references a four-year study showing that simple share ownership, not owning the entire company or a majority or even a significant slice but mere share ownership, improves employee engagement. No doubt the Microsofts, Apples and Googles of this world would agree with that. Actually, I have no idea. In my mind or imagination I have an image of their creative types slaving away out of a sense of purpose and mission. Might just have been a movie. Or three movies.

Here are some other perspectives and some more depth.

My problem with surveys, once again, is the futility of asking people if they would work harder if they had owned shares in the company for which they worked. Asking people their intended conditional behaviours is lazy. Better to observe and compare their actual behaviours under different conditions. ie working with and without share ownership or before and after.

But let’s take the predictable findings at face value. I am a sole contractor. I own my company. I am my company. I’ve never worked harder or been more engaged. I think share ownership as part of remuneration might work pretty well and move people in the direction of hugely engaged owner-operator types but it’ll never quite get to that level. I like my product so much that I AM the company.

Has Employee Engagement Become Nothing More Than Cliche?


Is all the talk around employee engagement just fluff?

This HR Magazine editorial is hopefully a slap in the face to those employers who enter ‘best workplace’ contests or initiate workplace culture surveys for the wrong reasons. I always ask people why they do things – not just these things but any things. The primary driver for such contests and surveys should be to improve performance, productivity and profitability. The driver should not be about winning a trophy. By all means win trophies but they are means to an end not ends in themselves. As the editorial itself says, “…is there a risk that the purpose of engagement – ensuring colleagues apply themselves to their jobs, for a better overall performance – is being lost in the race for points?”

“…the real commercial benefit comes when actions are taken on the findings, driving broader business strategy.”

One interviewed HR Director commented, “”Perhaps it’s because I spent too much time analysing our Best Companies data and noticed all the questions are about how good people feel, with barely a nod to how conscientiously they apply themselves to their work.” And that is what employee engagement is, not that people feel happy or not. Or even whether they feel engaged or not. It is their observable behaviour of applying discretionary effort.

In the interests of consistency I’d also like to point out that I like this editorial because it agrees with me. I am nothing if not consistent.

Best Friends At Work?

Best Friends

I read this New York Times’ article about how it is supposed to be harder to make friends once you pass the age of 30 and it reminded me of some old Gallup surveys I saw on employee engagement citing “having a best friend at work” as an indicator of employee engagement.

The article itself is quite interesting as someone myself who recently nudged over the line of [SPOILER ALERT] being closer to 60 than 30. Just. Recently.

“Gallup also observed that employees who report having a best friend at work were:

  • 43% more likely to report having received praise or recognition for their work in the last seven days.
  • 37% more likely to report that someone at work encourages their development.
  • 35% more likely to report coworker commitment to quality.
  • 28% more likely to report that in the last six months, someone at work has talked to them about their progress.
  • 27% more likely to report that the mission of their company makes them feel their job is important.
  • 27% more likely to report that their opinions seem to count at work.
  • 21% more likely to report that at work, they have the opportunity to do what they do best every day.”

I don’t know if ‘having a best friend at work’ really is a major driver of employee engagement. It stirs up conversations for sure whenever I bring it up in workshops. Even Gallup referred to it as “controversial” but they stuck by it. I guess I can see it as symptomatic of a workplace culture that allows trust, belonging, contribution, support and all those good things that do definitely drive engagement. Certainly, on the flipside, those without employment at any time also lose a massive chunk of chance to interact socially which us humans definitely need. Losing a job isn’t just losing a pay-cheque.

So, what does work provide that potentially generates and builds friendships?

“As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other…”

Where these days (or ever) do those conditions occur? Schools and workplaces. And if you’re over 30, you’re probably not at school anymore. (Maybe we all should be?) Unless you’re a teacher. But then, that also counts a workplace. Teachers must have lots of friends.

Who Says Work Has To Be Fulfilling?

This HBR Blog post  poses a challenging and provocative question for those of us who seem to always be championing that workplaces should attract engaged employees and provide them an environment and culture that nurtures employee engagement. I’m one of those champions who sees a bedrock foundation of such a culture as having to include providing meaning for the people from their work – a purpose to get out of bed and zip in to work beyond the mere collecting of a paycheck. (Not ‘instead of’ but ‘as well as’, although there are many for whom it is ‘instead of’ and good on them but that is neither practical nor desirable for everyone.)

My scan of their post makes me think that they’re saying, “fageddaboutit.” Its too hard to find a fulfilling job. You have to make rent. Suck it up and suffer a crappy third of your day every day and whore yourself out for a buck. Even if you do luck your way into a fulfilling job, it won’t last. Get your jollies in your spare time. Be realistic.

They make many good and fair points. We do have to make rent. So do the people you lead. If everyone really was solely out to get fulfilled by their work above earning a wage, wouldn’t a lot more of us be working on water purification projects in Sub-Saharan Africa? But I can’t just let it slide. My view on getting meaning or fulfillment from your work (and the guts of what I try and advise my kids) is, Be realistic and aspirational.

Starting out, a lot of people flip a lot of burgers, push a lot of trolleys and pump a lot of gas. Substitute whatever jobs you personally perceive as being unfulfilling. I work with a lot of senior and highly qualified professionals who get an immense amount of achievement and satisfaction from their work on top of a kickass paycheque. But I work with a lot more front-line and first-time supervisors who don’t have that kickass paycheque and who don’t YET get an immense amount of achievement and satisfaction from their work – but they might.

I’m not extrapolating from the 100 or so employees I’ve worked with in the past year who stack vegetables that everyone can be fulfilled by such a routine and repetitious set of tasks. But some people can and do. I’ve met and worked with them. Most don’t. They punch a clock, make a buck and move on. Maybe their lettuce-stacking enables them to buy the turntable that launches their MC / DJ career? The moving on in the search for the possibility of eventual fulfillment is as much a driver of employee engagement as actually ever arriving at some magical and transitory arrival point called ‘fulfillment.’

Paid Work Isn’t The Same As A Job


Workers are searching for something but it aint necessarily a job

This really provocative ‘Democracy In America’ blog in The Economist got me thinking. They make various observations about all the noise from politicians and agencies about the need for, and urgency of, job creation. Jobs as a source of income and a sense of worth for those who need it are obviously critical. But as a tributary off the main argument flowed some thinking on the subset of people who had either lost a job or opted out of traditional fulltime employment. This, to me, was the provocative bit.

The blog suggests that a significant group of talented and educated people of a certain age were certainly searching for work but not necessarily for a job. They throw in a bit of terminology like ‘Post Materialists’ and ‘Threshold Earners.’ A threshold earner has an amount they think they need / want. Once they reach it, they choose not to work anymore. Enough is good enough. This might be a great philosophy for someone like me (or subscribers to The Economist – or, more likely, people reading bits of The Economist’ free online or in libraries.)

To me, time with my kids and being fit and creative is important. I don’t just say that, I live it – now. I didn’t always used to. I think I can label myself a ‘Threshold Earner’ although I doubt I’m a Post Materialist. Certainly my kids aren’t!

Work, be it paid or otherwise, provides us humans with a lot more than money. That said, whatever the amount is, we all do need money. I’ll hug a tree but I won’t live in one. Work gives us connection, purpose, health, development, esteem and so much more. A lack of money can mess with our heads but mere money itself is not such a drawcard anymore. If, as a leader, you want to truly start to spark genuine employee engagement at your workplace you need to understand the implications and benefits of this. Lots SAY they do.

So, by all means, let Government try and do their best to stimulate job creation or, at least, get out of the way but if you’re an employer searching to attract and retain the best talent you can, you must reconsider if the old ‘jobs’ paradigm will work for you in the future or the now. If they have the talent and can improve your business’s productivity, what can you do to make it easy for Post Materialists and Threshold Earners to work for you? Actually, let’s revisit that wording because it’s important. They don’t want to work FOR you – that’s the whole point. They want to do some of the work and get paid but they don’t want to work for you. Just because you’d love to work for you doesn’t mean everyone else would.

It’s raining heavily and I am so glad I’m not living in a tree right now.

How To Destroy An Employee’s Work Life

This Washington Post article
by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer takes a delightfully tongue-in cheek approach to what drives talented employees out of organisations. By reverse-engineering their faux recommendations, we can glean what it is we’re supposed to do to attract and retain talented people.

Their research is primary. Rather than surveys or post-exit interviews which can be self-serving, inaccurate, subjective and occasionally fictional, they chose to provide daily electronic diaries to 200+ people. Rather than Bob or Kate saying out loud that they left ABC Limited for a better paying position at XYZ Limited, there is a trail of clues. It might actually have been an escalating and deteriorating relationship with “that jerk Barry from Accounts” which, over time, led to their departure. Accumulating all those trails of clues, Amabile and Kramer have come up with their list of commandments.

Their ‘advice’ to leaders wanting to “completely and utterly destroy an employee’s life at work” were:

  1. Never allow pride of accomplishment
  2. Miss no opportunity to block progress on employees’ projects
  3. Give yourself some credit
  4. Kill the messengers

My building blocks of a workplace that allow and generate self motivation amongst employees are self awareness, mastery, autonomy, purpose and influencing others. Human minds need them like human bodies need food. Mostly, people are only going to get that at work. Without accomplishment, a sense of progess, recognition, or blame-free communication, people are not going to attain or even move towards mastery, autonomy or a sense of purpose. If you, as a leader, prevent your people from getting them, they will leave because they’re hungry for a basic need.

After all that, if you still really do want to destroy an employee, take their advice and, as a cherry on top, wait until that employee leaves their PC, sneak on and hack their FaceBook account…

‘Un-Thinking’ – Are Instincts Useful At Work?


Sometimes thinking is bad for us

This article by Ian Leslie discusses how performance in critical moments can be enhanced by removing your ‘thinking self’ from the equation. It reminds me very much of the writing of W. Timothy Gallway and his ‘The Inner Game Of Work’ book, especially its reliance on examples from tennis. The voice of ‘Self 1’ in your head saying judgemental and outcome-focused things like, “Hit it to his left,” and “Ouch, you didn’t hit it far enough to his left.”

The trick, apparently, is in knowing what to ignore. Our brain’s inner chatter can drown out the really important steps in the process to success. Successful people focus on the process. They might be motivated by the potential outcomes but they focus on the process. The sentence that best summarises the crucial distinction is, “Unthinking is not the same as ignorance; you can’t unthink if you haven’t already thought.” Leslie and Gallway argue that with the practice and experience and, for want of a better term, ‘pre-thinking’, top performers succeed because they trust their instincts when moments arrive in their performance when there just isn’t time to stop and think. Well, not at the very pedestrian pace that our conscious minds are capable of anyway.

Atul Gawande’s book ‘The Checklist Manifesto’ tackles the same subject but from a different angle. Rather than saying that in critical moments we should rely on our subconscious instincts, he favours a simple checklist. We cannot be trusted. I need to point out that he isn’t talking about tennis games or run-of-the-mill job tasks. He is writing about life-and-death work scenarios – airline pilots and hospitals. The evidence is there that educated, experienced and confident (ie egotistical) experts need to have a simple but formal checking step in their process. It is their very education, experience and confidence that makes that necessary.

To my mind, if the question is, “Are instincts useful at work?” the answer lies in my stock answer, “It depends.”

It depends on the experience of the person and the seriousness of the consequences. Is hitting a tennis ball comparable to making a sale? If you hit a tennis ball thousands of times, you’ll get used to instantly assessing the physical steps needed, regardless of how the ball is coming towards you. It might not be exactly comparable but the same lesson applies – deliberate practice and feedback over time will make you more effective at making decisions in the sales process that will improve your chances of success. It might get talked about as, “Oh Lauren’s just got an amazing instinct for sales,” but, more likely, Lauren’s put in a ton of time and effort through practice and feedback that makes it look instinctive. Just like Djokovic gets accused by Federer of being “lucky,” maybe the harder he works, the luckier he gets.  Maybe, if Lauren is such a great salesperson, she could sell Djokovic a decent haircut?…

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