Positive work environments need more than ping pong tables

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On a recent site visit, I asked a client at a manufacturing location about his absenteeism rate. He shook his head and said, “It’s pretty non-existent.” And turnover? “Same.”

When walking into the factory itself, you get the sense of a positive culture immediately. It’s in the employee’s eye contact, the easy conversations, and spontaneous laughter around.

While chatting with him just before lunch, an employee came in the door, signed in, said hello, and went back into the plant. After he left I asked, “Is he just now coming in?”

“Yeah, his shift doesn’t start until four, but he’s coming in to hang with the guys before it starts.”

This is exactly the kind of positive workplace culture that should lead to greater productivity, over and above the flatlining absenteeism and turnover. In fact, the plant manager also let me know that their production schedule had increased dramatically over the past six months. Although orders were way up, they hadn’t been able to fill the slots needed to meet the demand. Instead, employees are putting in overtime to the tune of six and seven days per week.

Despite this extra work, the employees were upbeat, positive, contributing to the common goal, and showing up to work with no one grumbling.

Clearly they established a healthy culture reflected in decreased absenteeism and increased productivity within an environment that employees want to come to work in. This is the ideal. But how did this happen?

The most visible element of their wellness culture is the ping pong room. It began with a single table just less than a year ago, and has expanded to three tables over time. In this room, the bulletin board contains the brackets for the competitions and the walls are painted with images of hip ping pong players. To encourage participation for those who are not as skilled, they have established a “developmental league.”

My conversation with the plant manager frequently returned to the fun and engaging table tennis challenges, but what made this cultural transformation work was not about the tables at all. They’re just a specific instance of a general principle.

Soccer leagues help employees reach the goal

For example, we witnessed a similar cultural change at another manufacturing workplace in Europe. They could not care less about ping pong, but they loved soccer and set up four-person teams in rotating leagues that swapped around periodically. Almost everyone played. They couldn’t wait to get in, play and talk smack with their mates about this form of competitive comradery.

Absenteeism? Negligible. Turnover? Non-existent. Productivity? Consistently high.

In both cases, the tables and teams were necessary but by no means sufficient to bring about the cultural change. There were far more important elements at work that were not so obvious. For example, behind the scenes there was a clear commitment to the health of the employees from the middle and upper management. This commitment was expressed in two-way communication by reaching out to employees, gathering their thoughts, then taking those comments seriously. There were no punitive measures to compel participation. In fact, employees played over their allotted lunch hours and rules were relaxed around getting back to work.

Traditional thinking would consider all of this as sloppy work practices because the employees weren’t showing up exactly on time, fun is considered frivolous, and communications are more horizontal than top-down. However, the payback on productivity and good attitudes went well above any stray minutes missed here and there.

Even though the teams and camaraderie were the most visible expression of these healthy culture examples, had the sites not implemented key elements of support, communication, and common purpose, the ping pong rooms and soccer fields would have remained unused.

The bottom line is that a positive worksite ecosystem must be grown first, regardless of your field of play.

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