January 23, 2012

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All in a Day’s Work

Creating a Caring, Fun Workplace

Heather L. King

January 23, 2012

It’s no secret that employees come to work to make a living and companies are in business to make money. But what makes the difference between a company that employees love to hate and one they just love? Oftentimes, it’s the corporate culture surrounding the business. Owners and CEOs who have learned to cultivate a culture of caring and sense of community will often see bottomline success in a number of ways including retention rates and reduced inventory shrinkage—regardless of whether that was their underlying goal or not. But perhaps the most noticeable benefit to corporations is that happy employees are often healthy employees—which amounts to fewer sick days, lower insurance premiums and a host of other monetary benefits. “We place a very high value on the mental and physical well-being of our employees,” Jason Langston, managing partner and CFO for GPS Capital Markets, explains. When the 32-person, Utah-based company reached its five-year anniversary a few years ago, the company bought Lifetime Fitness memberships for its West Jordan employees. “That’s been really well-received and people use that gym membership a lot. We encourage people to take an hour out of their day and go over to the gym and unload some stress.” GPS has also put together a RAGNAR team for the past two years and feels that the 12-person relay race is a great team-building activity in addition to helping employees get in shape. In the high-stress world of this foreign exchange brokerage firm, Langston and the two other managing partners of GPS believe that “if we’ve got happy employees then they are going to be more productive and that is very key, especially in a sales organization.” The Human Element While higher productivity and retention rates do mean a greater chance for business success, many companies go the extra mile to make sure their employees understand that they are valued for their talents and contributions outside of the company as much as what they bring to work every day. Fran Pruyn, a senior principal at the Salt Lake City-based architectural firm CRSA, states, “We don’t make the assumption that the firm is always your top priority. We don’t assume that your family isn’t going to be first or your church or your non-profit organization or even your golf game. At some period in your life it’s going to be more important than a small job we are doing. The overwhelming thought is get your job done and then get your life done. We respect them, we respect their lives and we try to support them.” Realizing that employees are human beings with complicated lives may seem like a basic principal in the employer/employee relationship, but as reality TV shows such as “Undercover Boss” illustrate, many corporate guidelines are developed without considering the human element. This idea that happy employees are indeed critical to a successful business is the underlying motive of most decisions at SnugzUSA, a 175-person, second-generation promotional products supplier in Salt Lake City which boasts a 99 percent retention rate. President and CEO Brandon Mackay and Executive Vice President Charley Johnson enjoy pleasantly surprising their employees with various methods of recognition on a regular basis. “Every company has some incentive and every HR department boosts morale,” Johnson says. “We like to do things differently. That keeps [employees] guessing as far as the fun things that come their way.” Some recent SnugzUSA events have included drawings for cash, giving everyone a copy of a new book that might be inspirational and an e-mail encouraging each employee to change one small thing (like cologne) to get some new perspective on their daily lives. Another small but significant company morale boost at SnugzUSA is the presence of pets in the workplace. Johnson’s three Yorkies are officially on the human resources staff. Harold handles the complaint department, Junior is head of security and Zoe is assistant to the traveling secretary. They are featured on the company’s Website and make appearances in the catalogs in addition to coming to work every day. Not only do pets set a company apart in the minds of employees, but the effort displays a humanistic touch to the outside world that is often missing in mission statements and regimented corporate business plans, and promotes goodwill far beyond the walls of the office. Little Perks, Big Results In reality, many companies with positive corporate cultures have determined that it really is the little things that make the difference in the day-to-day happiness of employees. Not surprisingly, food is a wonderful bonding agent. At GPS, Langston explains, “Every Wednesday we buy lunch for the office. We used to call it Tostada Wednesday because we would go to Café Rio and get tostadas for everybody but we’ve branched out a bit.” This weekly lunch isn’t a pep talk or meeting, it’s simply a way for the company to socialize in a relaxed setting. CRSA’s Pruyn continues, “We are still small enough that our bonding activities are pretty organic. If we decide to have a potluck, we have a potluck. If everybody decides to go out to lunch every other Friday it just happens.” And while no company is naïve enough to believe that all employees will be best friends, liking each other on a purely social level helps when stressful times (such as the economic downturn) demand that employees sacrifice for the greater good of the company. For example, one of the drafters at CRSA started what is now the We Care Fund. Each paycheck, employees can donate whatever amount they would like to this fund and when a desperate need arises for someone in the company, Pruyn explains, “people can apply to the We Care Board for assistance. It can be something work related like the need to work at home because their wife just had a baby, so we chip in money to buy a laptop or we’ve bought food for people in desperate situations. On a very human level we want to help each other.” SnugzUSA has taken the concept of helping the community at large to the world. The company created the Pay It Forward bracelet and the PayItForwardToday.org blog. The concept behind it is simply to encourage people to do kind things for others and the blog is filled with hundreds of stories about regular people doing random acts of kindness who then give and receive the Pay It Forward bracelet. “We’ve sent out 600,000 of those bracelets to 55 countries all on our own dime,” Johnson explains. “We are really about pay it forward, we are really about changing the world, we are really about helping people without knowing who’s helping them. Building a fun atmosphere is about truly caring about people.” And companies who not only recognize that their employees are their most valuable asset, but also their biggest supporters will do well. “We value our people first and we know we’ll get the best work from you because we value you but that’s not why we value you,” Pruyn says. “We respect you because of what it takes to put together a life. That’s the single most important thing that started with [founder] Wally Cooper—to be understanding, passionate and as generous as we can be but still be in business.” In closing, Johnson has determined, “We will try to build an atmosphere simply because we want [employees] to be happy, not because we want more productivity. The way the world is now, building a fun atmosphere is about security.” And security is working for a positive, caring company that makes going to work each day about more than just a paycheck.
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