Keeping workers challenged, connected, helps create a vital workplace

It takes more than a quick fix like a promotion or salary bump to keep employees happy, says Ron Friedman, author of “The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace.” “These are some examples of what would make us happy in the short term,” he says. “Six, nine or 12 months from now, you’ll go back to feeling as you did.”

What people want from their workplace is to have their basic human needs fulfilled, he said, speaking at the National Business Group on Health’s fall well-being conference in Washington, D.C. The key to fulfilling those needs, he said, lies within three key areas:

  • Competence: feeling good about your job but knowing where you can grow
  • Autonomy: knowing you have a say in how you do your job.
  • Relatedness: feeling connected to your colleagues.

“Unfortunately, most organizations do a dreadful job of creating psychologically fulfilling experiences,” he said.

When employees begin a new job, he said, their first few months can be stressful. They often struggle to find what’s expected of them and to negotiate the organizational culture. But after a few years, those challenges disappear, and jobs can become predictable or boring.

“What we need is an opposite trajectory,” he said. “Employees need a job that starts out moderately difficult and continues to get difficult as their skills grow.” How do you create an organization that consistently offers employees new challenges without taking up too much of their time?

There are a number of simple, inexpensive programs employers can put in place to help challenge employees, Friedman said.

For example, some employers have begun offering a reading budget so that employees can expose themselves to new ideas and perspectives. “They feel like they’re growing at work,” he said, “and that means engagement.”

In industries where not all employees may have time to read a book, such as manufacturing, he said, a similar concept would be to encourage employees to scan industry blogs or participate in lunchtime discussions. “Just expose them to conversations,” he said.

Cultivating growth through challenge

Another avenue through which employers can challenge workers and cultivate growth, Friedman said in his talk, is to reward failure. “Not all failures are created equal,” he notes. There are of course bad failures, he said, but there are mistakes that happen when employees try something new — something he called “intelligent risk taking.”

“When we [try to avoid] all types of failures, growth grinds to a halt,” he says. “Demanding perfection makes success impossible. You don’t want perfection to be the goal of your team; you want improvement to be the goal of your team.”

In addition, he said, creating a sense of community can help employees be better at their jobs. “There is more focus, and there is no need to wonder if they fit in,” he said. “There is also more honest dialogue.”

Employers can help create community, he said, by investing in their social spaces. Real connections rarely form in the conference room; they more often happen in informal social situations. “Having friends at work is essential to retaining your top workers, but at most companies it’s an afterthought,” he said.

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