There’s a noticeable difference between work environments where people enjoy their lives versus where they don’t. Some circumstances can’t be controlled — like a lunch rush while waiting tables or the holiday madness at retail stores — but workplaces that emphasize employee happiness just seem to feel better.
Before we talk about making employees happy though, let’s get something out of the way: employee happiness does not translate to productivity, at least not directly. The advantages of a happy workplace are mostly not monetary, and while some studies have linked happiness to productivity, it seems irrelevant.
Happy employees may not always outproduce their less happy peers, but they’re more likely to produce better work, avoid burnout, reduce absenteeism, and maintain retention. A holistic approach to employee well-being helps teams support each other through thick and thin, and the result is a workplace culture where everyone feels comfortable showing up and pitching in.
Let’s talk about what it takes to make employees happy.
Treating employees like people
There’s no better advocate for employee happiness than late Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher, who wrote, “employees come first.” His philosophy was that employees are your first customers. If they don’t like how things are going, Kelleher says, managers can’t expect stellar performance at work.
“You can’t abuse or maltreat an employee and then say, ‘Now I want you to put on a big smile and go outside and entertain and charm the passengers.’ The employee’s heart has to be in it to make it sincere and real.”
A couple years after he published this op-ed, airlines were in hot water (yet again) from the Asian financial crisis. A spike in oil prices threatened to stall commercial aviation’s slow recovery from the Gulf War in 1992, and many airlines were being acquired or going bankrupt. Yet somehow, Southwest’s revenues increased by nearly 10 percent over the ensuing three years.
On top of that, in 1999, Fortune named them the most admired airline in the world and one of the best places to work in America.
Clearly, focusing on happy workers is not a losing strategy.
Human-focused human resources
With the caveat that other things surely influenced this growth, Southwest succeeded not because of their affordable fares, but because their employee-first culture and positive work environment pleased flyers.
Their lack of workforce austerity was a refreshing departure from the airline industry’s usual tight-fisted demeanor. At least, that’s how I remember it as a kid. Neither customers nor employees like feeling like a number, and Southwest went the extra mile to prevent that from happening.
Treating employees well is more than a few perks; it is an attitude that persists even during stressful times. It’s taking time to thank team members for staying late. It’s rewarding them when they take initiative or get projects done early. Things won’t always be sunshine and roses, but treating team members like human beings instead of soulless machines is a reliable strategy for happier employees.
Recognizing good work
Machines may not care about recognition, but human beings do. A heartfelt “great job!” goes a lot further than you might think, and recognition programs that express appreciation for their work can keep them on task for jobs they may not particularly love or feel great about.
Beyond verbal recognition is a promotion. No, hard work doesn’t always result in upward mobility, but when it does happen like in that order, it’s hard not to feel a renewed sense of commitment and morale. According to SHRM, good promotion practices can increase job satisfaction and employee retention, and prevent unhappy employees from feeling like they were passed over unfairly.
Of course there are only so many senior positions available, and they are reserved for top talent. Instead of a litany of promotions, consider handing out extra cash. Bonus programs encourage people to get more done and can take some of the misery out of a long day at the office. Restaurant workers—a difficult job with low job satisfaction—come back day after day because their hard work is rewarded with additional cash. It works.
Equal employee recognition is also important. Some people have no problem showing up, filling their quota, and clocking out. Others need a little more incentive to keep up. Both deserve opportunities for recognition.
Enforcing a work-life balance
Everybody has to work. Until we automate all tasks and divvy out the resulting profits equally, this will remain a fact of life. However, most people are more interested in their personal lives.
Happy workplaces respect the desire of workers to go home. Employee satisfaction starts with giving people the space and tools they need to be successful, then letting them go home and unplug when it’s all over.
Some might argue that certain jobs require availability beyond normal working hours, but this is a mistake. Everyone needs a limit, and that includes customers. Employee health depends on having enough vacation time, half-days, and sick days to keep going.
While it’s fine to ask people to stay late—such as with software deployment schedules—that time needs to be made up elsewhere. Set clear customer expectations early on about response times so that going the extra mile feels extra. Except in some strategic accounts, customers should only do business during business hours.
Building the right environment
Perhaps the biggest business takeaway of Covid-19 pandemic was the overwhelming desire of workers to work from home. As more and more people left the office, confidence was high. Spending continued despite a sudden spike in unemployment. In fact, many businesses saw more profits during 2020-2021 than ever before. Somehow, working from home was the missing ingredient from their benefits package, and they gained the confidence to be productive while thriving at home.
Office culture is a huge factor in creating a good work atmosphere. If people are encouraged to stay at the office for as long as possible without adequate breaks and vacations, that company will eventually suffer higher employee turnover. And those employees who don’t quit probably won’t be too happy with their work life.
Giving people a chance to go home and rest after a full day isn’t a benevolent sacrifice; it’s a basic tenet of doing business. Send people home to relax and recharge once their day is over, and, as mentioned before, show gratitude for the work they put in.
Gym memberships and comprehensive healthcare plans can also drive support for employee mental health.
Building social circles
While work isn’t an ideal hangout spot, making friends at work is an undeniable part of the employee experience, and it should be encouraged, not shunned.
Eight hours is a long time to be at work, but if there are friends around to occasionally disengage and head out for a walk with, those eight hours become much more bearable.
Does this mean enforcing hangout policies? Of course not. Some people will be engaged employees regardless of how they socialize after work, and good for them! For the rest of us, it’s nice to see familiar faces and build friendships.
Seating charts are one way to foster effective workplace relationships, with different skill mismatches that can benefit employees who need personal development. Putting the right people next to each other can help you cultivate a work culture where friendships are valued and more collaboration takes place. Some people just work well together, and most of us feel more comfortable at work when we have a friend.
Again, some people simply aren’t that concerned about workplace relationships, and that’s to be expected. An occasional invitation to join in a brainstorm or share their opinion about something will still encourage the kind of environment where people feel happy at work.
Onward & upskilling
Let’s face it: jobs aren’t as secure as they used to be. There are no pensions anymore. Loyal employees are laid off just as often as disloyal ones. Most people feel that the only real job security today is their ability to find another job should they lose their current one, and that requires having transferable skills.
Assembly line-type arrangements dominate the modern workforce, as they produce the most efficient results. Unfortunately, most business owners aren’t too concerned with the link between employee engagement and capability-building investments. More and more, those companies are suffering higher turnover.
Jobs that don’t value personal development are as special as employees who don’t value company goals: not super special. Beyond inviting career growth and better performance, jobs that prioritize development help employees feel happier about their next day at work.
Get started on new projects
While not everyone wants to develop new skill sets, employees benefit from seeing different aspects of the work done at their company. People who spend their days behind a computer screen may feel inspired by interfacing with customers (or at least watching it happen). Sales reps may gain a better understanding of what they’re selling by seeing how products are developed and delivered.
Sharing different perspectives draws boundaries and builds understanding around different approaches to work. Consider bringing team members onto projects they don’t usually work on. Introduce them to different teams and invite everyone to share valuable tips about the nuts and bolts of their job. The more people understand how their job impacts the rest of the company, the more eager and happy they are to do a good job.
Invoke more training
Along with meeting with other teams and getting to know different job roles, companies should also create opportunities for employees to get better at their jobs. Regular training and ongoing education programs are a staple of a happy work experience. No, there’s no need to drop thousands of dollars on the latest and greatest science, but offering real opportunities to develop and advance is exciting to employees.
Training programs—even just unrelated elective courses—offer a chance to gain new perspectives about performing better at work. Employees can get invested in becoming something, and it doesn’t have to include changing job titles or shelling out cash after work.
It’s important that the training be valuable. There’s plenty of aimless pep talk in the professional development sphere, most of which we’ve learned to tune out. Just because a Navy SEAL has a novel idea about staying focused doesn’t mean it’ll have applications at work. Cookie-cutter motivational speeches also tend to be ineffective.
Good training helps people see their own abilities to be better team members. It gives them the confidence to offer up new ideas that only they could have imagined.
Invest in good training where possible. This could be reimbursing someone’s MBA program or simply purchasing a company-wide education platform similar to LinkedIn Learning, but should tangibly contribute to career advancement.
Keep hunting for shareable content
There are so many resources available today that sharing helpful content is easy. A cursory search of YouTube yields playlists full of valuable lessons that employees can digest and internalize. However, as long as it comes from someone they trust and respect—managers and executives—there are plenty of ways to share knowledge.
Consider letting employees hear what inspires their upper management teams. A company video playlist is one option, but just as effective is an occasional sincere letter about how their work is appreciated and what the future holds.
Plenty of managers take their teams’ continued day in, day out efforts for granted. It’s rare that they express appreciation for it, making it easy to stand out and make employees happy.
Take time where possible to show how employee efforts matter to the company’s overall mission, and how it creates a better company culture for reaching goals and uplifting each other.
In short, taking the opportunity to create an uplifting environment helps to ensure a better future for the company.
Employees who don’t respond positively to efforts to make them happy aren’t bad employees! In fact, some of the worst workplaces use toxic positivity to demonize anyone who won’t don a toothy grin all hours of the day.
Happiness in the workplace hinges on the right to feel however one feels. Yes, it can be a bit disheartening when people don’t respond to good-faith motivation. No, it’s not okay to have a bad attitude at work, but as long as people are getting their work done, there’s no mandate for them to be happy doing it.
Earnest offers to make work a happier place are more than adequate.