Creating the Greatest Work Environment for Your Business: Are You Up to the Task?

AG--norman photoWe’ve often been asked over our years of consulting what creates the best work environment for employees.  Let me share with you what I’ve discovered and see if you agree.

The work macro environment in any workplace, we think, can be defined by looking at the top and at the bottom of the employee chain.  Middle management can contribute, can help to shift opinion, can even move mountains if necessary, but the real satisfaction starts at the top and the bottom of the employee model.  Let me explain.

If your leader in your group—be it a boss, a manager, an owner, a CEO, even a Chairman—doesn’t enjoy what he or she is doing, the business doesn’t stand a prayer of being a workplace environment that people will embrace.  And that’s what you want your employees to do—embrace their workplace.

There are always going to be people who love their jobs, and there will be those who tolerate their jobs at every level.  Some would even say that there are those who are going to be “haters”– no matter what. The difference in inspiring the first type—those who love their jobs– to perform and in creating a climate of motivation where the “haters” or “tolerators” will perform acceptably can best be defined by what those at the top and bottom do.  Top down leadership exists in every company.  What your owner or supervisor does, says, and helps to support– will get done, because the boss is the boss.

Now, you may say, what about the bottom rung?  We’ve mentioned that the bottom rung of employees helps to create the work environment.

Let’s do a quick think-through.   Whatever your job is, think of the lower positions and what they do.  If your job is like most jobs, what they accomplish can generally be considered to be “menial” work…work that is important to the task at hand, but just about anybody can be trained to do it, or can be coached how to do it properly, or can be instructed to “just do it,” to borrow a trademarked slogan of Nike.

The bottom rung is also most likely to be the group that interacts most with the real Boss of the business, the consumer/customer/client.  This is generally true, whether you’re dealing with a product or service driven business.

How that job gets accomplished with the consumer/customer/client helps to create the entire work environment.  Lower level employees can challenge the mid-level employee, and create a work environment that is negative for all employees.  What is normally found is that the lower level employee is responsible for the work that middle level employees aren’t really happy to do, right?  If you’re a mid-level employee, you may have been promoted out of a lower level job.  You remember what it was like to work at that level, and you don’t want to go back there.  So, as a middle level supervisor, you may actually let the lower level of employee slack up just a bit, just to be sure that he or she stays in that position and does that job.  After all, if they quit—worse of worse—you’d have to go back and do that job.  And you worked your way out of that position.  There’s no way you want to go back there.  And it would be a real black eye for you if Senior Management saw that you were losing employees and couldn’t keep your subordinates in their places.

So the work environment can be impacted—positively and negatively—by upper level and by lower level employees.

Let’s think for a few minutes what this means to a business.

  • Businesses need leaders.  If there are a number of employees in a business, they need to see leadership exhibited.  The senior leaders can inspire, can mandate, can set goals and direction, they can hold employees responsible for action or inaction, they can hire and they can fire.  They can change your pay and they can change your work expectations.  All of these things impact your work environment.
  • Businesses need followers.  The lower level employee needs to understand the objectives of the business, needs to understand the reasons they are being asked to do whatever it is that they are being asked to do, and needs to understand why they are important to the business goals.   Top Down “Do it my way or the highway” supervisors and management generally find that the “highway option” is too readily accepted by those to whom that pose it.  Turnover costs untold dollars, and should be avoided in most cases.  Turnover requires time for someone to train a replacement, money for the training effort, expenses involved with new hiring, loss of efficiencies on the job, and upsets the overall business environment.  Don’t believe it?  Think back to the last time that an employee left or was terminated.  The entire atmosphere of the environment changes.
  • Businesses need real customers. When we define the business, we generally look to see who is being satisfied, what is being satisfied and how the customer’s needs are being satisfied.  You’d hope that employees understand the mission and vision of the company for which they work. Every business also has values…standards that help to define the expectations of everyone that works there.
  • Businesses need profit.  Every employee needs to understand the impact that they have upon the operation of the business.  If they don’t understand their importance to the business, they won’t be able to make the contributions that we want them to make.

I’ve had employees make the following comments to me:

  • “This business couldn’t make it without me.  I really run the show.”
  • “I’m nothing here.  I’m just a peon.  Nobody even knows that I exist.”
  • “What I do is absolutely immaterial to the big boss.  He never even speaks to me.”
  • “I believe that my peers are important, but the hourly employees?  No, they come and go. It’s impossible to get good lower level employees to stay.”
  • “I never know if I’ll have a job when I come into work tomorrow.”
  • “Have you ever known a company that is this screwed up?  I’m so happy they hired you.”

Here’s the shock.  All these comments were made by company employees of the same company and they realistically reflect what a company has to deal with in the range of employee opinion.

Now, we probably have some employers saying, “that sounds like some of my employees.  I wonder what I should do if I’m in that situation?”

Well, we’re going to share some ideas with you.

  1.  The first thing that I always advise business owners is:  don’t panic if your business isn’t everything you want it to be.  The range of opinions that I shared is absolutely commonplace to every business we’ve ever assessed.  If every employee tells you that they love their job, you have a very unique group of employees.  If everyone is happy every day of the week they come to work, count your blessings.
  2. If you own or manage a business, you need to understand how important communication is to maintaining your great workplace environment.  Don’t cover up problems or try to hide issues from the employees.  Create an environment where you share positives and negatives and let your employees know that you embrace their input.
  3. Develop ways to communicate with your employees, even if it is something as simple as writing a message on their check stub.  Everyone gets a check stub, right?  Well, communicate a simple message on that.  Communication upward and downward is one of the best prescriptions a business doctor ever ordered.
  4. Let your managers put together suggestions from the lowest level employees and let that influence your strategic direction of your business. Why?  Keep in mind that lower level employees often have the most interaction with customers and clients, and are cognizant of what those customers and clients are seeking.  If you can nail what your customer wants, you don’t have to worry about sales and profits.  They’ll come on their own.
  5. Finally, understand that the best plans often come from the people you’d least expect.  Lore and legend has it that the Egg McMuffin came from a McDonald’s Franchisee in California named Herb Petersen—a former advertising guy– who was experimenting with items that a customer might order for breakfast.  They developed a breakfast sandwich that could be held in the hand while commuting in a car, and the Egg McMuffin was born.   Businesses around the world need to recognize that everyone participating can contribute to the business by offering input and by recognizing opportunity—and finding a way to address it.  Both large and small companies have discovered new and better ways of doing things, as well as new opportunity for sales and profits by simply listening to what their employees tell them.

Jim Harris, the author of “Getting Employees to Fall in Love with Your Company” summarized his book in five points  He said 1) you must capture the hearts and minds of all your employees;  2) you must open communication between all levels of your organization; 3) you must create partnerships between all employees that are based upon trust, equality, and sharing; 4) you must drive learning into every nook of your company; and 5) you must emancipate the action of every employee to increase service and profits.”

So there you have it.   Work with your people at the top and the bottom of the employee chain.  Recognize the middle folks can grow and prosper, they can create great motivational environments, they can offer significant input—but the leaders and the people with first line people responsibilities will be able to highlight what your company needs and what your company will profit from.

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