Taking Employee Satisfaction From Bust To Boom

A look at what organizations can do to help employees love their work and propel themselves and their companies to success.

Nothing was noticeably wrong when energy utility consulting firm E Source launched its culture survey in 2017. “We weren’t trying to fix anything,” recalls VP of Operations Kym Wootton. Yet, it turns out that things actually did need fixing. The survey revealed gaps between employees’ ideal corporate culture and the E Source culture.

That’s true at many organizations today. They may sense something is off. Perhaps turnover or the number of sick days is high, and they decide to fix it. “Usually,” says psychology expert Robert Mack of Robert Mack Consulting, “they focus on the symptoms of the problem without diving deep enough to discover the root cause. For example, engagement is just a surrogate marker for satisfaction,” he points out, “and even people who are ‘in the flow state’ or ‘in the zone’ at work may say they’re unsatisfied.”

How can organizations help employees love their work and propel themselves and their companies to success? Surveying employees anonymously—which E Source did—and talking with managers to get a sense of general satisfaction is a good first step, Mack says. “Science shows that if you improve employees’ sense of fulfillment and well-being, it leads to success.” Study after study shows that satisfaction at work improves morale, increases productivity, and reduces turnover and absenteeism. (AuthenticHappiness.org at the University of Pennsylvania offers a variety of free assessments and resources organizations can turn to for help.)

Making Changes

Once E Source realized it had a problem, management took immediate steps to address the root of it. One of the big issues, Wootton says, was that “managers didn’t feel connected to one another. They had strong intra-team communications but felt siloed within the broader organization.” To address that, E Source started monthly manager socials during working hours, such as luncheon get-to-gethers. This helped managers expand their networks, enhanced their feelings of connectivity, and improved the exchange of ideas across the company.

The commitment to improving satisfaction also changed E Source’s approach to goal setting. “Before, people didn’t understand our top priorities,” Wootton says. “We had no clear top-level, organizational goals. Now we have top-level goals, departmental goals linking to them, and two personal goals for individual contributors that link to those goals.” The company’s top priorities, for the record, are to create financial growth, excellent customer service and engagement, and outstanding internal experiences.

“We also piloted ‘Flexible Fridays,’” she adds. “If you can complete all your work—care for your customers, write your research, and meet your demands more efficiently—you can take Friday off,” Wootton says. This encouraged employees to work more efficiently, and reduced the number of meetings. “There’s been no lapse in productivity. It’s an empowering way for employees to get things done, and is now a permanent benefit.”

As a research and consulting organization, “curiosity is our superpower,” Wootton notes. Therefore, E Source knew that before trying to change other things, “we had to listen to learn what our employees wanted and to involve them in change. Organizations can’t just dictate.”

As such, last January, E Source hosted a sort of “speed-dating for ideas” in which employees spent 10 minutes at topic-themed tables. They wrote six different ideas around what they wanted the company to be for each other and its clients, and what they expect of their leaders. Afterward, Wootton says, “we created word clouds from the 1,400 resulting Post-it Notes.” That ensured everyone’s voice was being heard, and is the basis for the “Path to Blue” culture statement that began rolling out this spring.

The color-coded plan aims to move employees toward self-actualization and affiliative behaviors (color-coded as blue) from oppositional or avoidance-based behaviors (color-coded as red or green). As it rolls out, it includes focus groups and a Google document “so everyone can comment,” Wootton says, plus a plan to embed the desired behaviors into performance reviews. “We’re also developing new interview questions to help recruit people who embody the desired behaviors. We plan to create artifacts throughout the building—maybe a chalk wall with the mission statement—as tangible reminders.”

Compass Invests in Managers

National real estate brokerage Compass sees a correlation between job satisfaction and good management. As the firm transforms itself into a national realty brokerage, growing from 200 to 2,000 employees in the last 18 months, Chief People Officer Madan Nagaldinne maintains that “investing in the manager has a more positive outcome than investing in a free lunch (or similar benefits).”

Research from Glassdoor supports that approach. A 2016 correlation of benefits to satisfaction found health insurance, paid time off, and a 401(k) retirement plan had the most significant correlations to overall employee satisfaction. Furthermore, increasing the quality of health insurance by one star (in a five-star rating system) resulted in a 0.34-star increase in job satisfaction. In contrast, improving a 401(k) plan—the befit with the second-greatest impact—by one star only netted a 0.08-star increase in employee satisfaction.

Other benefits, including employee discounts and maternity/ paternity leave had no statistical effect on employee satisfaction, possibly because of the small number of employees using them at any given time. Compass offers fully paid health care and aims to offer 401(k)-matching plans once the firm becomes profitable.

Founded in 2012, Compass retains a decidedly entrepreneurial culture that it continuously fosters. “Dream Big is not just one of our principles, but our agents’, too,” Nagaldinne says. “So is Learn from Reality. For us, that happens daily. If something isn’t working, you have a chance to course correct. That philosophy is a living, breathing part of our company.”

Compass’ goal, he says, “is to build and develop the world’s greatest managers. That’s measured by the percentage of employees who say they would recommend their managers to others. We got to 84 percent this year. We don’t count that as a success, though, because our target was 90 percent.”

Managers are evaluated quarterly using a green, blue, and red system. “If you keep getting reds, you cease being a manger,” Nagaldinne explains. Compass leadership understands that employees who have bad managers won’t continue to be engaged.

As Mack points out, “in terms of satisfaction, relationships with peers and managers are even more important than employees’ work and commuting times.” Recognition is important, too, he adds, especially for Millennials.

Transparency Is Key

Perhaps the greatest determinant of employee satisfaction, Nagaldinne says, is transparency. Have authentic conversations with context. For example, he says, “we can’t offer 401(k) matching until we’re profitable,” and he tells employees that.

Nagaldinne says his job is to create a dialog within the company rather than a monologue. “Dialog means taking tough question. Every week on Facebook, we have a forum that answers employees’ and agents’ questions.” (The questions are voted up or down in advance.)

Compass also values inclusion. “Belonging is when you bring your true self to work, and the company embraces that.” To do this, Nagaldinne advocates asking questions in a way that generates real answers rather than merely validating one’s own opinions. For a simple example, Nagaldinne says asking, “How are you?” elicits a stock response. “But asking, ‘How are you feeling?’ pulls people into you so they stop and actually answer.”

Satisfaction at work has multiple components, but they invariably can be distilled to these few precepts:

  • Create a transparent culture.
  • Clearly communicate the organization’s goals.
  • Develop highly capable managers.
  • Value individuals’ contributions.

Organizations that do these things tend to have satisfied employees who love their work and, therefore, drive themselves and their organization to success.


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