Are You Happy at Work?

Employers Attempt to Create Workplaces That Support Employee Satisfaction (from the HR perspective)

Smiley face corkboard
Image courtesy of

Admit it. Yes, of course, you have complained about work. We all have! As one of my best friends reminds me whenever I grumble about work—there is a reason it is called work and not a vacation. Your employer is paying you to do a job, and presumably, most of us are trying to be able to pay for and have an excellent life. That said, ideally, you are performing work that you find personally stimulating and gratifying, in an environment that supports your optimal performance—which is the definition of employee satisfaction. We all spend a lot of the hours of our lives at work, why shouldn’t they be happy ones? Moreover, OK, what do we even mean by happy?

In 1999, I entered the new tech start-up world. Transitioning from a big established corporate environment (Mattel) to an early-stage Internet business was quite jarring—but exciting. Not only did I have to make the shift, but I also needed to be part of the revolution, as I learned very quickly. Our space was an uber-cool former warehouse with exposed pipes and polished concrete floors. In no time, the complaints started. It was echo-y. People were too close to their neighbors. The printer’s fan was annoying. The floors were so hard and cold. If someone needed to have a private conversation with me, we had to take a walk outside. If we were going to survive, much less thrive, we needed to make sure people were happy—and getting work done. The different-thinking Millennials (yet unlabeled at the time) were very helpful, and I memorized the playbook. We bought neon green padded fuzzy slippers for the whole engineering team.

Fuzzy green slippers
Sometimes you must be creative to solve a problem! Image courtesy of BuzzFeed.

We played with a fleet of remote-control (toy) cars that sometimes even delivered messages and presents. We instigated spontaneous Aeron chair races down the strips of concrete floor between the open-plan rows of un-desks. In short, we solved the unique problems as they arose, to keep spirits high. No one ever left voluntarily, in those early days. Moreover, we worked incredibly long hours. The complaints were minor, and if we addressed them, employees were satisfied. We were building something amazing. We had 50 million dollars. There was virtually nowhere to park. However, who cared? You could wheel your bike into the building and park it next to your desk.

Employee Satisfaction-What Does That Mean?

Employee satisfaction is a topic that has received more and more attention lately, though it is hardly a new concept. A commonly accepted definition would be “the extent to which employees are happy or content with their jobs and work environment.” Another term we see a lot is “Employee Engagement.” Employee engagement is the extent to which employees feel passionate about their jobs, are committed to the organization, and put discretionary effort into their work. “Satisfaction” is more passive, and “Engagement” is more proactive. Both have pros and cons. For our purposes here, we will use Satisfaction—and consider engagement as part of the term.

The tech world, where the revolution started in thinking differently about the workplace space, has inspired other organizations to think differently. I doubt that major banks are sporting “nap nooks” or meditation pods, but some more traditional companies are taking notice. In my last year at Mattel, we were concerned that some of the best candidates we were interviewing would accept competitive offers at Internet start-ups. The aggressive competition for young talent was previously unheard-of. These innovative new companies were poaching some of the brightest and most talented graduates. Moreover, our generous annual bonuses, subsidized cafeteria, and other such benefits were not enough of a carrot to draw them away. They were excited by wearing jeans to work every day, bringing their dog to the office, and flexible schedules. The work in both places would be interesting, but being able to shower at the office after biking to work was just too tempting. It was an intriguing lifestyle choice.

The tech world and influx of millennials brought more emphasis on providing space that supports culture and work space function. Image courtesy Doug Duran/Bay Area newsgroup.

Recent studies confirm that employee satisfaction impacts your business in multiple ways—from your ability to attract and retain the best talent to affecting the bottom line. Employers are looking more actively to determine what their employees value most, and then provide those policies and programs to boost satisfaction and engagement. Now that tech firms have been around for a while; it seems both types of businesses are borrowing from one another.

Attractive programs and policies can include what might seem obvious, such as generous salaries and benefits, offsite team building and social activities, telecommuting, free food, and other perks. At the beginning of the tech revolution, the more outrageous the perks were, the better. Foosball tournaments and Karaoke were standard at the weekly office beer bash. A sliding board to access the floor below. On-site massages. A chef is coming in and cooking lunch. Daily. However, as time has passed, these perks are still appreciated, but the more traditional benefits have become less poo-poohed. Employer-match 401(k)? Um, that is free money, folks. An office where you can have some quiet to get your work done? How about management that cares if you are hot or cold?

Quicken Loans
Employee satisfaction is directly related to employee comfort and happiness with their physical space. Image courtesy Quicken Loans/Cleveland Scene.

In one company where I worked as the HR Director, when we solved the battle over the thermostat there was rowdy cheering the moment that we announced that the problem was resolved. We had listened to complaints about the regions of Arctic Tundra and Saharan Desert in the office and had the building engineer come in and create a solution. It was not free—but worth every penny once everyone was comfortable. No more did we have the Marketing team sporting an array of winter wear while the Engineering team was mopping perspiration and using personal fans. We made the workplace comfortable and removed an obstacle to satisfaction and productivity. So, the key to keeping your work environment a happy place is to be sensitive to the changing circumstances of the office (and of your company) and to be prepared to adjust. It is not just about salaries, raises and 401(k).

Figuring Out What Employees Value Most

In a research report published by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) in 2016, 600 US employees were asked to assess 35 aspects of employee satisfaction. The top 5 contributors to employee satisfaction, according to the results of this survey are:

  • Respectful treatment of all employees at all levels
  • Overall compensation/pay
  • Overall benefits
  • Job security
  • Trust between employees and senior management

The next three contributors were: opportunities to use your skills and abilities at work, the organization’s financial stability, and your relationship with your immediate supervisor. Notably, career and professional development were at the bottom seven aspects surveyed.

Though most of the results were not surprising, it also indicates that employees’ values may not be what you assume. Therefore, it makes sense to find out. At one company I worked for, the employees always mentioned how much it meant to them when our well-known founder would walk around the office and engage in casual conversations about what they were working on. He hated doing it, being exceptionally shy, but he understood that it made the employees feel that they had a purpose, and it was very motivating. Our open-plan office, segregated into pods/areas by department, was very conducive to casual collaboration and drop-by conversations.

Using feedback tools to monitor and measure employee engagement are one way to track issues that affect employee well-being and issues. Image courtesy of TINYpulse.

Measuring Satisfaction

How to correctly measure employee satisfaction can be a formidable task. Many companies use surveys. There are numerous good ones, like 15Five, TINYpulse, and even just using Survey Monkey. If the questions are the right ones, the company interprets the data correctly, and most importantly—the company communicates and acts on the results, such surveys can be very useful. Studies conducted at regular intervals can be tracked and compared, to see if employee satisfaction is moving in the right direction. Then you can ensure that the company’s resources are being allocated efficiently by putting the right programs and practices in place, rather than spending money on things employees do not value.

Some time ago, a company I was working with decided to go from offering free catered lunches three days a week to hosting meals periodically, as an expense-curbing measure. We asked about this change in our quarterly survey, and not one employee cited doing away with free meals as a complaint. When someone resigned soon after we changed our generous lunch policy, I asked him about it. “Well, that was fun, sure, but it did not affect how I felt about the company one way or the other. In fact, it was nice to go out with work colleagues for lunch more often.” Apparently, we had assumed that catered lunch was an excellent and valued benefit—and we found that those same dollars could have been spent on something else to truly affect satisfaction.

The value of eating lunch is being together, the catered lunch while a nice perk, was less important than having a place to gather and relax over a meal. Image courtesy Richard Perry/New York Times.

What we did learn, though, was how much the employees loved eating lunch together in the dining area. They did not stop doing that when the catering buffet disappeared. Sometimes they would all go out together and bring lunch back and eat it in the dining area. Alternatively, they would eat together what they brought from home. So that aspect of our attractive space, though designed with daily catering in mind, was still successful and appreciated, even if we did not provide the food! The camaraderie reigned.

There are other ways besides surveys to gather insightful information, such as exit interviews, or to have selected employees meet in small groups to come up with ideas and suggestions. Whatever method the company uses, it is reporting the results, providing updates and taking action that is important. Otherwise, employees will not trust the process, and will either not respond, or will not give honest answers. Why should they bother, if the company is not prepared to act on the feedback?

“Happiness is the New Employee Engagement.” CEO Tony Hsieh’s book Delivering Happiness suggests that employers should follow the science of happiness. He writes that focus on the company culture should be the number one priority. Hsieh’s website offers a survey and a program to improve happiness in your workplace. The survey asks about personal resources, a sense of purpose, is there room to grow, and is the respondent set up for success. Hsieh says that based on results of their Happiness clients, employees are;

  • 43% more productive,
  • 86% more creative,
  • 66% will use fewer sick days,
  • 51% less turnover

(these statistics were each attributed to one client each). Hsieh bases his program and beliefs on 12 years of research into engagement, well-being, and happiness at work.

Hsieh’s Downtown Project, an experiment in using shared spaces, is using a new metric: “collisional hours,” or the number of probable interactions per hour per acre. His happiness research has yielded data that suggests the more that different people from different departments (and in the case of the Downtown Project, different companies and walks of life, among other criteria) have chance encounters, the more innovation, and productive energy result. So collaborative work spaces contribute to satisfaction.

Image courtesy of

7 Ways to Improve Employee Satisfaction

Gretchen Rubin, the author of the popular book The Happiness Project, identifies seven ways to improve employee satisfaction in her blog:

  • Give Employees More Control

Flex time, four-day weeks, any policies that promote work/life balance are    appreciated. Allowing customization of work areas, stand-up desks, and other ergonomic accommodations as needed.

  • Ease Commuting Stress

Telecommuting policies, and lightening up on adverse consequences for being late. Long or arduous commutes are a tremendous stress factor for many people. Knowing they will not be “punished” for being late can make a huge difference in satisfaction on the job.

  • Stop Wasting Time

Plan shorter meetings, stand-up only meetings, replace some in-person meetings with conference calls/call-in meetings. Make sure the office is set up for efficient operation. For example, train everyone on how to use the scanner, the conference phone, the projector; ensure the copier always has paper, train plenty of employees on how to send a FedEx, and engage other services to support their work. Given that there are so few administrative employees these days set up procedures so that no one is wasting time trying to figure these things out.

  • Encourage Social Connections

Provide a friendly office environment, have a place to sit for lunch, plan activities outside the office, set up volunteer/community programs for giving back. Socialization is a big key to happiness.

  • Promote Good Health

Encourage employees to lower stress levels, have lunchtime walks, healthy snacks, use the office kitchen, offer a gym discount. Illness is costly for employers.

  • Create an Atmosphere of Growth

Provide training, acknowledge benchmarks, celebrate accomplishments. Employees value learning new things and taking on a new responsibility.

  • Break Up Routines

Surprises are the spice of life! A spontaneous treat, a pie eating contest, something fun and different. “Even a small treat can boost people’s happiness – and people get a bigger kick from an unexpected pleasure,” says Rubin.

In each of her “7 Ways,” the office environment is part of the improvement equation. Being able to customize your work area, ease of administrative tasks, areas for casual socialization, a fully equipped kitchen—these things can impact how employees feel about their jobs. Interestingly, satisfaction with the physical workplace is rarely an item that finds its way to any employee surveys. Work space planned with a designer and maybe a senior executive or two is not the ideal process. Including employee feedback and then translating that into some innovative features could elevate satisfaction. Taking this step is a critical consideration if you happen to be planning new space, or modifying your current space.

Does Employee Satisfaction Improve the Company’s Value?

Is it worth it to invest in making sure employees are satisfied? Investing in these programs, policies and work spaces is costly. Alex Edmans writes in a paper in the Academy of Management Perspectives the results of studying 28 years of data. He found that firms with high employee satisfaction outperformed their peers by 2.3% to 3.8% per year in long-run stock returns. Additionally, the results suggested that employee satisfaction caused improved performance, not the other way around.

Image courtesy of Steelcase.

Employee satisfaction contributes to overall morale, motivation, and productivity; all of which lead to enhanced business results for your company. Whether it is offering catered vegan organic lunches (in a cozy communal dining area!), or a quarterly bonus plan, or ergonomic task chairs and sit to stand desks, it makes sense to determine what makes employees motivated and productive. Motivated and productive employees are happy employees. Apparently, the design elements and overall look, feeling, and functionality of a work space are critical factors in ensuring that the work place works. The physical environment is an essential ingredient in calculating how employees measure their overall job satisfaction. When people want to BRAG about where and how they work, it is a likely result of mindful planning, taking the full measure of what is needed to create that place where happiness can occur.

Jealousy, in this context, is a good thing.


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