Autonomy, Civility and Sense of Meaning Are Key to Happy Workers

By Dana Wilkie Jun 16, 2016

At a time when job satisfaction has suffered a “striking” decline, U.S. companies can—for little to no cost—create a workplace that promotes people’s strengths and leads to high engagement and productivity, according to a new report from the SHRM Foundation and Globoforce.

The report, released May 9, is titled Creating a More Human Workplace Where Employees and Business Thrive. Copies will be available at the SHRM 2016 Annual Conference & Exposition in Washington, D.C., from June 19-22.

“The current state of the workplace is depleting, dispiriting and stressful for most people,” the report authors wrote. “Demands are exceeding our capacity, draining us of the energy we need to fulfill our potential. More competition and a leaner, post-recession workforce add to the stress. Technology links us 24/7 to a flood of information and requests. The time Americans spend at work has continued to increase over the past four decades, and we now work an average of 1,836 hours per year, up by 9 percent since 1979.”

According to a survey conducted by Nielsen Company for The Conference Board in 2012 and referenced in the report, fewer than half of all employees (47 percent) are satisfied with their jobs. Since the survey began in 1987 with a 61.1 percent satisfaction level, “there has been a striking and consistent decline,” the authors wrote.

The authors examined Fortune magazine’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and concluded that the companies have something in common: They all “have leaders who care for and listen to their employees, crafting policies and programs that help people thrive. Though perks may matter, the underlying common denominator of these firms is that they value employees.”

Among the suggestions in the report for helping workers thrive:

Share information about the organization and its strategy. Southwest Airlines sends daily news updates via its intranet, and the CEO delivers a weekly telephone message to all employees. The airline provides detailed information about quarterly earnings, referred to as Knowing the Score, and holds town-hall-style meetings each year. “These strategies can be implemented effectively in large or small organizations,” the authors wrote.

Provide decision-making discretion and autonomy. Firehouse, a small advertising agency in Dallas, moved from a billable hours model—the industry norm—to a policy of billing per project, with no time sheets, several years ago. 3M and other organizations allow employees to schedule time for projects they especially want to tackle. 3M found that this encourages its workers to become more innovative, the authors wrote. Google allows employees to spend 20 percent of their time on projects of their choosing.

“Another simple way to give employees more discretion is to involve them in the hiring process,” the authors wrote. “This provides people with a say in who their future teammates will be and increases the probability of eliminating candidates who will not fit the organization’s work culture.”

Create a civil culture and positive relationships. Danny Meyers, the owner of 27 New York City-based restaurants, won’t tolerate uncivil behavior, even from an exceptional chef. If the behavior does not improve, the chef is let go. “Meyers is convinced customers can taste incivility, and research supports his assumption,” the authors wrote. “Studies demonstrate that incivility not only hurts employees, but also influences customers’ willingness to do business with an organization.”

Microsoft uses courses such as Precision Questioning to build emotional agility and calm, even in intense situations. Participants are taught to improve their ability to listen and respond to constructive criticism. “The company views this kind of civility as crucial to innovating on a daily basis,” the authors wrote. “As a result of the training, Microsoft reports greater employee, customer and partner satisfaction along with improved retention.”

Ochsner Health System, a large Louisiana health care provider, adopted what it calls the 10/5 Way. If employees are within 10 feet of someone, they should make eye contact and smile. Within five feet, they should say hello. “Ochsner has seen greater patient satisfaction and an increase in patient referrals as a result of this simple formula,” the authors wrote.

Financial consultant Motley Fool, based in Alexandria, Va., offers employees $10 Starbucks cards to take each other out to chat and form new relationships. CEO Tom Gardner encourages using the cards as ways to learn about others’ projects, identify best practices and collaborate.

Provide a sense of meaning. Leaders at Medtronic, a medical device company, provide meaning to employees who have no day-to-day contact with customers by inviting customers to annual meetings to provide testimonies about how a device saved or improved their lives.

Organizations also can encourage employees to think about how they would change or craft their jobs differently if given a chance. “Employees who ‘job craft,’ whether individually or in collaboration with teammates, perform significantly better than those who do not,” the authors wrote.

“One of the most efficient and potent ways to appreciate the meaningfulness of work is to become a customer or client,” the authors wrote, noting that at Four Seasons Hotels, new employees are given a “familiarization stay” overnight. After being treated like royalty, they are more inclined to lavish customers with the same experience.

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.


Job Finder

Find an HR Job Near You
Post a Job


Find the Right Vendor for Your HR Needs

SHRM’s HR Vendor Directory contains over 10,000 companies

Search & Connect