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How To Build a Better Workplace

HR can help make workers happier and more productive.

A group of business people jumping in the office.

A good culture isn’t about free food and lava lamps—or even about the money, says Laszlo Bock, who oversaw the rapid growth of Google’s workforce from 6,000 to 76,000 people between 2005 and 2016 when he was senior vice president of people operations there.

It’s about ensuring that employees feel valued and respected, says Bock, who shared his vision for making workplaces better in his keynote speech at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2017 Annual Conference & Exposition in June and also in his book Work Rules! (Twelve, 2015). 

Bock, who is now founder and CEO of the learning company Humu, offers the following six tips for making workers happier and more productive.

1. Give jobs meaning. 

Employees’ productivity increases when they learn how their efforts positively affect others, according to research by Wharton professor Adam Grant. 

“Across industries and job types, roughly a third of people find meaning in their jobs,” Bock says. The trick is helping the rest of your employees feel similarly connected. “Find out why people are doing [their jobs] and what’s meaningful to them.”

2. Build trust. 

“If you believe people are fundamentally good, you’re going to treat them that way,” he says. And research indicates that trusting workers—in other words, showing you have faith in their innate goodness—greatly benefits companies, whether the workers are Harvard MBAs or high school graduates. 

“If you give people freedom, they will repay you by being more productive and effective,” he says. “But most organizations are not structured like that.” He noted that leaders typically don’t share information freely or trust workers to figure out for themselves the best way to do their jobs. “You want to give people a little more freedom than you’re comfortable with.”

3. Hire people better than you. 

That can be hard to do using traditional interviewing techniques. People tend to select candidates mainly because they can relate to them—perhaps based on a shared interest or background—and not because such individuals can actually do the job. To minimize this problem, Bock recommends assessing each candidate based on previously identified job attributes and leaving the hiring manager out of the process entirely. 

4. Pay “unfairly.” 

Strong performers produce disproportionately higher dividends for employers than those in the middle of the pack. Yet most companies have a mere 20 percent difference in compensation between their average workers and their very best.

“The problem is that if you’re good at your job, you get a couple big raises and then you flatline,” Bock says. That’s why he advocates implementing at least a 50 percent pay spread among employees. It might feel wrong, “but unless you do this, your competitors are going to pick off your best people.” 

That said, make sure you can clearly explain the compensation process to ensure that pay is not based on factors other than performance.  

5. Offer a nudge. 

Bock and his team at Google found that new employees were taking an average of nine months to become fully productive. They discovered that those who got up to speed faster had a few things in common: They met more people, asked more questions and had fully functioning computers from the outset. So the team started sending e-mails to new employees and their managers that stressed the importance of connecting with others and securing the right equipment. Through this simple act, they reduced the average time to get fully productive to six months. 

“If you give people these small interventions—these nudges, these checklists—it does make a difference,” Bock says.

6. Repeat. 

Your work is never done. Keep repeating it again and again, he says.

Putting in that continual effort is worth it because, at the end of the day, HR professionals—and all leaders—have only two options: “Every day when we show up, we can fight and work and slog through our jobs and just survive like most of our workforces do,” he says, “or we can do something, anything, to make work get better.”  

Christina Folz is editor of HR Magazine.

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