Imagine arriving for work on a rainy Monday morning, after spending an hour in traffic and spilling coffee on your shirt as you ran for - but missed - the elevator. You slump into your chair and open your email. "Surprise!" one subject line reads. The message: "Free pancake breakfast for all in the kitchen!"

Did that gray Monday just get a smidge brighter?

Leaders at The Online 401(k) would bet so, which is why one of the cornerstones of its company culture is encouraging employees to perform random acts of workplace kindness, or RAWKs. Since implementing the practice at its San Francisco offices about two years ago, the firm - which specializes in providing affordable, Web-based 401(k) plans to small businesses with fewer than 50 employees - has seen its employees fully embrace the concept and start RAWK-ing out all over the place, treating colleagues to pancake breakfasts, fresh-baked cookies, help with filing paperwork, cleaning the office fridge and more.

In researching happiness - company leaders prefer "happiness" to the more clinical-sounding "engagement" - "we learned that the element of surprise really fires up the dopamine [also known as the happiness hormone] in the brain. So, getting something unexpectedly has a much bigger effect on happiness than knowing you're going to get something and knowing what it is," says Carrie Brandes, The Online 401(k)'s director of people and culture. "So, we introduced RAWK and opened it to anyone at the company to do at any time. We do company-sponsored ones and small individual ones - either announced or anonymously. It's just one simple way to get people thinking about their co-workers beyond doing their job."

Brandes and her team discovered that in addition to enhanced happiness, a positive side-effect of RAWK has been increased employee empowerment. "We've learned that it's telling employees, 'You control your work environment; you have the power to make someone's day," Brandes says. "It's also telling them that you get what you give."



Culture shift

No employer - let alone one in the buttoned-up financial services industry like The Online 401(k) - transforms from a clinical cubicle environment to a rollicking RAWK one overnight. Brandes affirms this, saying the company's culture shift was years in the making.

After being founded in 1999, "we've had a major culture shift in the last two years, moving away from a command-and-control work environment to [one that gives] freedom with responsibility - focusing on collaboration aligning [work processes] with our core values and higher purpose," Brandes says.

So, what exactly does that mean? Simply put, Brandes says, "rather than tell employees, 'Here's how you do your job and here's the end result we want you go get to,' freedom with responsibility is, 'Here's the end result and why we want to get there; here's a framework to work within, but how you get there is up to you.' It's allowing people to think for themselves," she explains. "When you give people the why and let them work out the how, you get a much better result."


Quantifying happiness

While quantifying happiness levels might seem as difficult as nailing Jell-O to a wall, Brandes and her team do believe the culture shift and infusing RAWK is indeed achieving "better results."

"We do a quarterly internal survey using the Net Promoter score," she says. "Most companies use it externally, asking: How likely are you to refer this product or service to a friend? We use an anonymous survey on Survey Monkey and ask that same question internally: On a scale of one to 10, how likely are you to recommend The Online 401(k) to a friend? When we first started in the fourth quarter of 2010, our score was a -10 [on a scale from -100 to +100]. I thought, 'We have so much work to do, but we can only go up from here!' But I'm happy to report that in Q4 of 2012, we were at a +56."

The firm definitely is on the right track, according to national research results from the Temkin Group that show engaged employees are twice as likely to do something positive for the company - like a RAWK, perhaps? - even if it's not expected of them. Such engaged (or "happy") employees also are twice as likely to stay late at work to get something done or help a co-worker without being asked. Lastly, a highly engaged worker is reportedly more than six times as likely to recommend a friend or relative apply for a job.

"It may not show up on any balance sheet, but a highly engaged workforce is one of the most valuable assets that an organization can possess," says Bruce Temkin, a customer experience expert and managing partner of Temkin Group.



Recruiting future RAWKers

A culture shift like The Online 401(k)'s is unsustainable without a redesigned recruiting strategy to go with it. "We absolutely revamped our job postings to speak to our culture, and use it as our first screening," Brandes says. The company infuses culture clues into its position announcements, she explains, like asking applicants if they were raised by wolves and saying the firm is seeking people who are "yogis" in the way they work. "If you can't identify with it, then you won't fit our culture," says Brandes, adding that although the company's top priority in hiring is to onboard talent with the best skills, hiring for culture fit is a close second.

Recruiting for culture fit is key to keeping programs like RAWK alive, she says. "[With] our cultural shift, we've been layering in programs to help inspire workplace progress and employee happiness. People generally want to make a difference and to help each other. But by putting a term on it, it legitimizes it and underscores the cultural movement we're trying to make."




The Online 401(k)'s 4 pillars of happiness

Carrie Brandes, director of people and culture at The Online 401(k), recently authored a blog post on how the firm keeps its employees happy. Focusing on "happiness" rather than "engagement" (she says, "engagement sounds a little clinical to us"), Brandes outlined four pillars that sustain the firm's culture. According to Brandes, it's important for all employees to have:

1. Perceived control, or autonomy, over their work.

2. Perceived progress or measured results.

3. Connectedness or relationships.

4. Vision and meaning - reaching for something bigger with purpose.

The company helps reinforce the four pillars by encouraging random acts of workplace kindness among its staff. Brandes and her team even conduct company-sponsored RAWKs, like a "Zen RAWK" in January that featured Zen music throughout the office, healthy snacks and Numi organic tea, and chair massages for all employees.

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