The Art of Building a Fun Environment with Happy Employees

October 29, 2008

By Mike Dubose

In 2007, I began the journey to build six great, profitable, and fun companies with happy staff. Being profitable turned out to be the easy part. Taking good companies to greatness where fun was part of the formula was difficult.

We are not perfect, but here are some tips that work well in promoting employee happiness:

• Select the Right Employees: Screen the daylights out of your applicants. In Good to Great, Jim Collins stresses the importance of getting the right people on the bus to take companies from good to great.

• Fit Employees into the Right Jobs: Look for positions where the new employee will fit best. If one position doesn’t work out, try others.

• Help the Wrong Employees Find Other Jobs Outside the Company: When you make a hiring mistake, terminate quickly (but with care) and help the person find another job.

• Send a Positive Signal: Show that negativity, whining, and gossip are not welcome. Reward employees who demonstrate positive, can-do, fun behaviors and coach employees who are negative. Consider termination if they fail to make positive changes.

• Develop an Employee Liaison Committee: Create a committee to plan fun company-sponsored events, like an annual party for all employees, socials, birthday parties, etc. Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton say in their book The Carrot Principle that celebrations give you a hundred opportunities to thank everyone and communicate, ‘We’re in this together.’

• Play Fun Games: We often play a game called Secret. One senior team leader comes up with a riddle and distributes clues to teams one at a time. The first two groups to successfully guess the answer win cash. This fun builds teamwork.

• Share the Profits: If your organization does well, consider sharing the success with employees. Spread out the profits you have decided to share so there are unexpected lumps of cash coming to your team at different times.

• Create a Balanced Work Environment: Be sure that staff members are not overwhelmed—don’t kill them with heavy workloads and long hours. Focus on quality, not excessive quantity.

• Do Wild Stuff to Show You Appreciate Your Employees: We took our entire company to Hawaii with their airline, hotel, and convertible car rentals paid for. We all had a ball!

• Develop an Execution Environment: Abolish unneeded rules, excessive hierarchies, and bureaucracy that frustrate employees. I value timely decisions and input into how our companies work. I also speak honestly about issues in my life.

• Allow Employees to Blossom: Give employees as much control over their jobs as possible, including power through involvement in committees. We recently created a committee that allows employees to volunteer at approved charities during work hours.

• Create Liberal Fringe Benefits, Salaries, and Leave: Happy employees need enough money to pay the bills with some left for savings and fun, benefits that pay for most medical expenses, and good leave to ensure they have time to spend on themselves and their families. When I tell leaders from other organizations about our liberal benefits, they gasp or almost fall out of their chairs!

• Management Should Loosen Up! While it is important to have basic rules and structures and hold each other accountable, fun begins with the leader and radiates out. We play jokes on each other, laugh, and enjoy each other’s company.

• Try to Understand Each Other: All of our employees took online psychological profiles whose results indicated different leadership styles and personality types and then they went through a three-day training with Don Jenkins of the Leadership Academy. We all began to understand each other better and to respect others’ needs as illustrated through their profiles.

• Encourage Professional Development: We created a reading program called Live and Learn, that pays cash to employees to make pre-selected professional development books they read fun and rewarding. We kicked off the program with Marci Shimoff’s book Happy for No Reason. Employees met in small groups for two one-hour meetings to talk about important points. They developed confidential write-ups on how they planned to improve their personal happiness and signed a statement confirming they read the book, met as a group, and completed their write-up.

• Improve Job Security: In 2008, we established that the company would set aside a large amount in savings, which makes staff feel more secure (and thus happy) in their jobs. We also maintain our budget like hawks to ensure there are no surprises!

• Enact a Casual Dress Policy: A casual (but still professional-looking) dress policy saves money on dry cleaning, energizes productivity, increases comfort, and creates an informal environment that generates fun.

• Start a Wellness Program: Employees receive points that can be redeemed for cash for voluntarily participating in preventative maintenance (like teeth cleanings and yearly physicals) and various physical activities (including weight lifting and aerobic dance classes).

• Maintain a Good Physical Office Environment: We created large offices for our employees with individual thermostats in most to allow temperature control. We replace stale air with outside air to promote health and use only environmentally safe poisons like boric acid to rid the office of pests.

• Provide Employees with the Latest Technology: Employees receive the latest computers and software so they are not frustrated with outdated technology, including GPS navigation systems through company-issued Blackberries!

• Respect Others’ Beliefs: Our staff members also have a variety of political and religious beliefs, but we encourage everyone to treat one another with respect and kindness, which are not limited to a particular political group or religious denomination.

• Be Thankful and Nice: A couple of years ago, I began signing, Thanks, Mike to the end of most of my e-mails, and many others in our organization followed suit. Little things like expressing appreciation for each other add up to make the workplace (and employees) happier in the long run. Look for things that employees do right instead of things they do wrong. Smiles are contagious!

Creating a great organization filled with happy employees takes everyone working together to make it happy. We’re not there yet, but we are headed in the right direction!
Mike DuBose is a field instructor with USC’s graduate school and has been in business since 1981. He is the servant leader and owner of six debt-free corporations, including Columbia Conference Center, Research Associates and The Evaluation Group.

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