How can em­ploy­ers cre­ate a hap­pier work­force?

BC Business Magazine - - Front Page - by DANIELLE EGAN photography by ADAM BLASBERG

Is the corporate push to boost job sat­is­fac­tion a gen­uine ef­fort to im­prove peo­ple’s lives, or a new twist on busi­ness as usual? B.C. or­ga­ni­za­tions have taken un­usual ap­proaches to an­swer­ing th­ese ques­tions—with sur­pris­ing re­sults

That’s bad enough on a fair-weather day, but add a wind­storm like the big one in Au­gust 2015, when more than 700,000 BC Hy­dro cus­tomers lost power, and it could lead to trou­ble.

Bianco wanted to boost pro­duc­tiv­ity and morale, and min­i­mize the risk of in­jury at the busy ware­house. “But we couldn’t make dras­tic changes and had a lim­ited bud­get. And from a crew per­spec­tive, when change comes from the top down, there’s of­ten re­sis­tance,” he says of the staff of no-non­sense union work­ers. It’s their job to keep things mov­ing. That’s what makes them happy.

What makes you happy? How do you de­fine it? Did you know that your hap­pi­ness is cru­cial to your or­ga­ni­za­tion’s suc­cess? So says an ex­plo­sion of re­cent re­search show­ing that hap­pier em­ploy­ees are more pro­duc­tive, re­silient and loyal, all of which can boost rev­enue. They’re also health­ier, sav­ing com­pa­nies bil­lions of dol­lars thanks to re­duced med­i­cal costs and sick days, fewer work­place ac­ci­dents and er­rors, and lower turnover. Hap­pi­ness has be­come a quan­tifi­able re­source, a key in­di­ca­tor of eco­nomic sta­bil­ity and a global fix­a­tion—for na­tions, econ­o­mists, and cor­po­ra­tions and the con­sul­tants they hire to cul­ti­vate a cheerier work­force.

Since the United Na­tions be­gan pub­lish­ing its World Hap­pi­ness Report in 2012, Canada has con­sis­tently ranked among the world’s top 10 hap­pi­est coun­tries. But in the past two years, we’ve slipped from fifth place to sev­enth. Mean­while, 47 per­cent of us are un­happy at work, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 na­tional study by Hays Spe­cial­ist Re­cruit­ment (Canada). B.C. ranks low­est among the prov­inces for job sat­is­fac­tion, Sta­tis­tics Canada re­ports, and Van­cou­ver is the coun­try’s least happy metropoli­tan re­gion. Con­tribut­ing to this deficit are the grow­ing gap be­tween in­come and hous­ing costs, along with a pop­u­la­tion boom strain­ing the city’s eco­nomic and social in­fra­struc­ture.

B.c.-based or­ga­ni­za­tions need to work even harder to at­tract and keep em­ploy­ees who are sat­is­fied with their work. But while eco­nomic stud­ies such as the World Gallup Poll and the Euro­pean Social Sur­vey point to a liv­ing wage as the biggest con­trib­u­tor to work­place hap­pi­ness, re­turn on in­vest­ment di­min­ishes with up­per-in­come salaries, the World Hap­pi­ness Report con­cludes.

Other trendy perks—nap rooms, free lunches, manda­tory paid va­ca­tions—typ­i­cally don’t make work­ers hap­pier. And when com­pa­nies try to im­prove things with change pro­grams, they fail up to 75 per­cent of the time, ac­cord­ing to re­search in­clud­ing a 2013 sur­vey of some 270 U.S. or­ga­ni­za­tions by Tow­ers Wat­son, a global pro­fes­sional ser­vices firm.

There’s also a dark side to the pur­suit of hap­pi­ness. Lead­ing in­dus­tries, in par­tic­u­lar Sil­i­con Val­ley, have ex­ploited this bur­geon­ing field, cre­at­ing a smi­ley-faced Big Brother corporate cul­ture staffed by chief hap­pi­ness of­fi­cers and po­liced by Or­wellian tech­nolo­gies that mon­i­tor em­ploy­ees’ moods, be­hav­iours and per­sonal lives. Even as dis­rup­tive, mood-free tech­nolo­gies— driver­less vehicles, au­to­mated gro­cery stores, ro­bot work­ers—threaten an in­creas­ing num­ber of jobs, hap­pi­ness has be­come a work­place must-have.

Mak­ing change from the bot­tom up

At the BC Hy­dro ware­house, Chris Bianco was aware of th­ese chal­lenges and threats, and he wanted to spear­head an un­con­ven­tional grass­roots change pro­gram. “We had to do it on our own, and I knew that if I gave the crew the power and the tools to solve their prob­lems, they could do it,” he says.

To start, Bianco called upon Ger­vase Bushe, a con­sul­tant, coach and pro­fes­sor of lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tional de­vel­op­ment at SFU’S Beedie School of Busi­ness who takes an unortho­dox ap­proach to work­place hap­pi­ness and or­ga­ni­za­tional change.

“Build­ing a busi­ness cul­ture in which em­ploy­ees thrive is good for peo­ple, prof­its and the planet—the triple bot­tom line,” con­tends Bushe, who turns the tra­di­tional or­ga­ni­za­tional change model on its head. The

BC Hy­dro and Power Au­thor­ity’s ma­te­ri­als man­age­ment ware­house is the de­pot for ev­ery nut and bolt of the prov­ince’s power sup­ply—from light switches to 40,000-pound spools of power line. When the Sur­rey fa­cil­ity faced ship­ment de­lays and staff morale is­sues in 2016, the boss knew he had to act fast to im­ple­ment change. “Our team is part of a vast net­work of 170 peo­ple, spread across the prov­ince,” says Chris Bianco, who heads a crew of 110 em­ploy­ees at the Crown cor­po­ra­tion’s sup­ply hub. “Ef­fi­ciency and team­work are es­sen­tial to our op­er­a­tions, but we were op­er­at­ing as si­los. That led to de­lays of up to four days get­ting sup­plies from our ware­house to re­gional shops.”

typ­i­cal ap­proach is top-down: con­sul­tants sweep in, in­ter­view lead­ers and ex­ec­u­tives to iden­tify weak links among staff, crunch the data, stage an in­ter­ven­tion with em­ploy­ees and write a pre­scrip­tion for fix­ing prob­lems.

“But peo­ple don’t want to be fixed, so this method usu­ally fails,” Bushe says. “The other dilem­mas of top­ness are that lead­ers are of­ten clue­less about what’s re­ally go­ing on in their com­pany, and they take on too much re­spon­si­bil­ity when they should spread it around. An­other fun­da­men­tal mis­take they make is think­ing, I’m re­spon­si­ble for other peo­ple’s ex­pe­ri­ences. Ev­ery­one cre­ates their own experience, so the goal is to cre­ate a space where em­ploy­ees feel safe to say what they think, feel and want.”

Bushe fa­cil­i­tated a pro­gram with the 110 front-line staff at the BC Hy­dro ware­house. He calls his method “bot­tom-up di­a­logic” change—a mix of team-build­ing and group talk ther­apy ses­sions. But “talk ther­apy” is a loaded term, and per­haps too touchy-feely for the group in ques­tion, so the ses­sions were called “crew shop.”

“I ad­mit I had my doubts ini­tially,” Bianco says. “And I knew my lead­er­ship style was im­por­tant. You have to be will­ing to say, I don’t know the an­swers. And of­ten you have to drag it out of em­ploy­ees and em­power them to try things and make mis­takes. You have to be 100-per­cent com­mit­ted to say­ing, It’s OK to fail, and How can I help you get there? The more the crew talked, the more the think­ing was, This isn’t so bad. I can fix it.”

The ses­sions were a smash hit. The crew quickly iden­ti­fied ways to in­crease pro­duc­tiv­ity and cut ser­vice wait times down to 24 hours; within six months they met that goal. On their own time, staff have planted a com­mu­nity gar­den out­side the fa­cil­ity, ini­ti­at­ing friendly com­pe­ti­tions like see­ing who can grow the biggest tomato. Stress lev­els have plum­meted, and the ware­house is bet­ter or­ga­nized.

“The pro­gram gave ev­ery­one a voice and em­pow­ered them to make a dif­fer­ence and feel re­spected. It brought out their ba­sic hu­man virtues,” Bushe says. He notes that his main role was trust­ing em­ploy­ees to “un­leash in­stead of get­ting in their way,” a key rea­son so many tra­di­tional change pro­grams fail.

“Ger­vase helped us de­sign a for­mat that lets em­ploy­ees en­gage with each other on a reg­u­lar ba­sis to solve is­sues and prob­lems,” Bianco says. “Be­sides the faster or­der turn­arounds, we have im­proved safety, em­ployee at­ten­dance and em­ployee en­gage­ment.”

A safe place to work

Work­place re­search sup­ports this new di­a­logic ap­proach, which has many catchy, even culty monikers, like Ev­ery­one Cul­ture (where ev­ery em­ployee is con­sid­ered “high po­ten­tial”) and De­lib­er­ately De­vel­op­men­tal Or­ga­ni­za­tions. The process mixes team-build­ing and psy­cho­anal­y­sis, some­times go­ing deep into staffers’ psy­ches to iden­tify hur­dles.

The goal is for peo­ple to get along, partly be­cause col­lab­o­ra­tive work has jumped 50 per­cent or more in the past two decades, tak­ing up more than three quar­ters of an em­ployee’s day, ac­cord­ing to a 2016 Har­vard Busi­ness Re­view study. Pos­i­tive work cli­mates are also linked to im­proved health, while poor social re­la­tion­ships are deadlier than obe­sity and smok­ing, re­search led by Sarah Press­man at the Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Irvine, has shown.

But what makes a suc­cess­ful team? In 2012, Google’s Peo­ple Op­er­a­tions Depart­ment set out to an­swer that ques­tion with Project Aris­to­tle. Do­ing what they do best—pat­tern recog­ni­tion an­a­lyt­ics and data crunch­ing—they were sur­prised to find only a few char­ac­ter­is­tics. The key fac­tor: psy­cho­log­i­cal safety. Suc­cess­ful teams are sen­si­tive and em­pa­thetic, Google dis­cov­ered. Other re­search has es­tab­lished that a psy­cho­log­i­cally safe en­vi­ron­ment al­lows staff to take risks, be more cre­ative, mo­ti­vated, re­spon­si­ble and con­nected to each other, their work and their com­pany cul­ture. Em­pa­thetic, fair and self-sac­ri­fic­ing bosses also foster higher em­ployee loy­alty, re­silience, trust, co­op­er­a­tion and com­mit­ment.

Stud­ies have con­sis­tently val­i­dated this three­p­ronged psy­cho­log­i­cal safety model of hu­man needs: au­ton­omy, com­pe­tence and re­lat­ed­ness, which equates with social bond­ing. The model has been around since Sig­mund Freud, be­came em­bed­ded in busi­ness de­vel­op­ment in the 1950s, peaked in the ’70s and with­ered on the vine in the free-mar­ket ’80s.

Re­search sug­gests that hap­pi­ness isn’t a trick­le­down com­mod­ity. Although a liv­ing wage is key, when

We know that work­place stress wreaks havoc on or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the U.S., it con­trib­utes to at least 120,000 deaths an­nu­ally and racks up as much as

US$190 bil­lion in health-care costs, a 2015 study by re­searchers at Har­vard and Stan­ford uni­ver­si­ties re­vealed. The Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mates that each year, such stress gouges more than US$500 bil­lion from the na­tional econ­omy and re­sults in 550 mil­lion fewer work­days

house­hold salaries rise above US$75,000, peo­ple are no hap­pier. The pur­suit of hap­pi­ness can also lead to lone­li­ness, de­pres­sion and ad­dic­tion. One long-term study that be­gan in the 1920s and fol­lowed chil­dren through life found that those rated as very cheer­ful by their teach­ers died younger. Peo­ple also tend to be hap­pier in col­lec­tivist and mul­ti­cul­tural na­tions like Canada than in in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic ones such as the U.S., which is suf­fer­ing a se­ri­ous hap­pi­ness short­age, ac­cord­ing to the lat­est World Hap­pi­ness Report.

“I don’t think we should be look­ing to Amer­ica for hap­pi­ness ad­vice,” says Bri­ana Lau, a mar­ket­ing spe­cial­ist at Van­cou­ver IT ser­vices man­age­ment firm Soft­land­ing. “But it’s hard for small Van­cou­ver com­pa­nies to at­tract and re­tain great tal­ent like the big U.S. firms can.”

Soft­land­ing is a fast- grow­ing busi­ness with 55 em­ploy­ees that hires up to five peo­ple a month. To draw staff and keep them happy, the com­pany has a profit-shar­ing pro­gram for ev­ery­one; monthly social events; an open-con­cept of­fice with an en­ter­tain­ment lounge and foos­ball; and a kitchen stocked with free food, wine and beer.

“Sixty-three per­cent of our em­ploy­ees have been on­board five years or longer,” says Lau, who pre­vi­ously worked at Lu­l­ule­mon Ath­let­ica, a com­pany that some for­mer staff have called a hap­pi­ness cult. Lau says she liked Van­cou­ver-head­quar­tered Lu­l­ule­mon’s cul­ture but moved to Soft­land­ing be­cause she “needed more chal­lenge and bet­ter pay.”

At Un­bounce, a Van­cou­ver tech com­pany that builds and mar­kets web­site land­ing pages, one of the six core val­ues is hap­pi­ness—specif­i­cally, “de­light ev­ery­one, cre­ate op­por­tu­ni­ties that bring un­ex­pected joy to those around you.” The gen­eral phi­los­o­phy of its six founders is sim­ple: “Look af­ter your peo­ple, your peo­ple will look af­ter cus­tomers, and the rest fol­lows,” says Melissa Isaza, peo­ple and cul­ture busi­ness part­ner.

Un­bounce’s 160 em­ploy­ees en­joy foos­ball, ta­ble ten­nis, net­work­ing events, a $500 health and well­ness al­lowance and a paid four-week va­ca­tion, in­clud­ing $1,000 in spend­ing money. In an in­dus­try known as Bro­topia be­cause most of its en­trepreneurs and staff are young white men, the com­pany also pro­motes di­ver­sity. As of May, women ac­counted for 33 per­cent of Un­bounce’s se­nior lead­er­ship, 38 per­cent of its en­gi­neer­ing and tech­nol­ogy man­age­ment staff and 42 per­cent of its peo­ple man­agers.

The gen­der ra­tio is 50:50 at Van­cou­ver mar­ket­ing firm Kimbo De­sign. “Artists and cre­ative peo­ple of­ten do their best work when they’re un­happy,” says Kim Pick­ett, founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of the 10-per­son out­fit. “We have harsh dead­lines in ad­ver­tis­ing, and we can’t fail be­cause mis­takes get broad­casted to the world. In­stead, I fo­cus on look­ing for ways to in­spire cre­ativ­ity and im­prove em­ploy­ees’ work-life bal­ance.”

Pick­ett offers flex time, gives all staff fam­ily mem­ber­ships to the Van­cou­ver Art Gallery and does com­mu­nity out­reach, in­clud­ing spon­sor­ing lo­cal artists and char­i­ta­ble or­ga­ni­za­tions. “Small busi­nesses have a huge ad­van­tage,” she says. “We’re like a fam­ily. Ev­ery­one has a say in our poli­cies.”

Heal­ing pow­ers

With much of the re­cent hap­pi­ness cheer­lead­ing em­a­nat­ing from the U.S., and espe­cially Bro­topia, how much does it come back to stok­ing the fires of cap­i­tal­ism? Is the new pur­suit-of-hap­pi­ness par­a­digm about mak­ing own­ers and share­hold­ers happy by forc­ing work­ers to do more for less, with a grin on their faces? Em­ploy­ees typ­i­cally don’t have the power to fix fun­da­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tional flaws—toxic bosses, low wages and stress­ful work­ing con­di­tions.

We know that work­place stress wreaks havoc on or­ga­ni­za­tions. In the U.S., it con­trib­utes to at least 120,000 deaths an­nu­ally and racks up as much as US$190 bil­lion in health-care costs, a 2015 study by re­searchers at Har­vard and Stan­ford uni­ver­si­ties re­vealed. The Amer­i­can Psy­cho­log­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion es­ti­mates that each year such stress gouges more than US$500 bil­lion from the na­tional econ­omy and re­sults in 550 mil­lion fewer work­days. In this coun­try, highly stressed work­ers are 26 per­cent more likely to visit the doc­tor, ac­cord­ing to a 2011 anal­y­sis from Statscan’s Na­tional Pop­u­la­tion Health Sur­vey.

Stress also causes disen­gage­ment, an­other driver of work­place un­hap­pi­ness. A 2013 Gallup poll found that even when em­ploy­ees are of­fered perks like flex time, work-from-home op­tions and higher salaries, en­gage­ment is the best pre­dic­tor of job sat­is­fac­tion.

Could such a seem­ingly sim­ple rule hold true at large pub­lic or­ga­ni­za­tions—say, at a health-care provider, where the stakes are sky-high and fail­ures can lead to death? In 2015, the Fraser Health Au­thor­ity em­pha­sized en­gage­ment when it em­barked on a rad­i­cal change pro­gram for the al­most 28,000 staff at its 12 acute-care hos­pi­tals.

“Ask­ing nurses and doc­tors to do more is a hard sell, and the lead­er­ship wanted to see quick re­sults,” says Shel­ley­lynn Gard­ner, a re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion as­sis­tant at Sur­rey Me­mo­rial Hos­pi­tal’s emer­gency depart­ment. Sur­rey Me­mo­rial runs the prov­ince’s busiest ER, and the city’s grow­ing pop­u­la­tion has cre­ated a GP short­age and hos­pi­tal over­crowd­ing. That’s prompted com­plaints from the BC Nurses Union and pa­tients of chaotic and even hellish con­di­tions, in­clud­ing out­breaks of in­fluenza and C. dif­fi­cile bac­te­ria, so-called hall­way medicine and as many as eight pa­tients per nurse rather than the rec­om­mended four.

When Fraser Health’s change pro­gram be­gan, branded En­gage­ment Rad­i­cal, or E-rad, Gard­ner leapt at the op­por­tu­nity. “At first I was alone. It was tough,” she ad­mits. How am I go­ing to get peo­ple to buy into be­com­ing more en­gaged when they al­ready work 12-hour shifts in a very stress­ful en­vi­ron­ment? Gard­ner won­dered. “I’ve never seen such amaz­ing, ded­i­cated nurses and staff than we have here,” she says. “But peo­ple can only give so much. I knew I had to en­gage the front-line work­ers to make it stick. The whole idea is a bot­tom-up kind of thing.”

“Health care is a high-stress world,” says Yabome Gilpin-jack­son, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor, lead­er­ship and or­ga­ni­za­tion de­vel­op­ment, at Fraser Health. “That can of­ten lead to burnout and mis­ery, espe­cially if staff are un­able to use their best skills, and lead­ers are un­will­ing to give up per­sonal power.”

Iron­i­cally, the hu­man re­sources depart­ment is of­ten part of the prob­lem. “HR de­vel­oped from the old era of in­dus­trial psy­chol­ogy and the re­ward-pun­ish­ment model, and it still op­er­ates from this par­a­digm meant to han­dle low-per­form­ing peo­ple and de­viants that abuse the sys­tem,” Gilpin-jack­son says.

Most peo­ple aren’t like that, she adds. “This old­school ap­proach doesn’t work long-term, and it strips away the po­ten­tial for trust, re­spect and full en­gage­ment, cre­at­ing a joy­less en­vi­ron­ment where em­ploy­ees do just enough to sur­vive. The work­place needs to be a place where they can thrive.”

At Fraser Health, the or­ga­ni­za­tion de­vel­op­ment team launched en­gage­ment pro­grams, fo­rums and con­fer­ences with lead­ers and hos­pi­tal staff that evolved into E-rad. “The goal was to bring front-line staff to the ta­ble, ask­ing them to de­velop and im­ple­ment work­place goals by en­cour­ag­ing them to go against the grain and take risks,” Gilpin-jack­son says. “From a lead­er­ship per­spec­tive, it’s re­ally quite sim­ple. Make the com­mit­ment to change, give up con­trol and let front-line staff in­no­vate change, and be con­sis­tent and com­mit­ted over the long term.”

Back at chron­i­cally stressed Sur­rey Me­mo­rial, Gard­ner, the sole ini­tial E-rad mem­ber, in­tro­duced some heavy weapons: pup­pies from a group that brings ther­apy dogs to hos­pi­tals for pa­tient re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion and well­ness. Gard­ner’s Puppy Love Day was a big suc­cess. “Three-hun­dred-and-twenty-five staff at­tended. It was great for morale,” she says. “They got to chill out with pup­pies and meet other staff.” Sur­rey Me­mo­rial now has Puppy Love Day twice a year, and other Fraser Health hos­pi­tals have fol­lowed suit.

Gard­ner then in­sti­gated a pro­gram grant­ing wishes to pa­tients—fish and chips, a Coke Slurpee and, in one ex­treme case that made head­lines, two horses brought to the park­ing lot to visit with a pa­tient. Nurses of­ten spent their own time and money to ful­fil re­quests. “It made pa­tients feel val­ued, like we’re not just a ster­ile in­sti­tu­tion,” Gard­ner says. “It gave us all a strong sense of com­mu­nity pride.”

The Fraser Health E-rad pro­gram now to­tals more than 500 staff. Pos­i­tive out­comes across the or­ga­ni­za­tion in­clude some 34,000 fewer pa­tient bed days, a shift that re­duces mor­tal­ity.

Gard­ner says the change pro­gram has in­creased col­lab­o­ra­tion and trust among staff and im­proved ser­vice de­liv­ery. “To me, hap­pi­ness is about ca­ma­raderie, com­pas­sion and re­spect,” she as­serts. “It’s feel­ing ap­pre­ci­ated, chal­lenged by dif­fer­ent opin­ions and ideas, hav­ing a deep sense of com­mu­nity and know­ing there’s so much still to learn.”

Iron­i­cally, the hu­man re­sources depart­ment is of­ten

part of the prob­lem. “HR de­vel­oped from the old era of in­dus­trial psy­chol­ogy and the re­ward-pun­ish­ment model, and it still op­er­ates from this par­a­digm meant to han­dle low-per­form­ing peo­ple and de­viants that abuse the sys­tem. This old-school ap­proach doesn’t work

long-term, and it strips away the po­ten­tial for trust, re­spect and full en­gage­ment, cre­at­ing a joy­less en­vi­ron­ment” —Yabomegilpin-jack­son

HEALTHY WORK Fraser Health Au­thor­ity's Yabome Gilpin-jack­son thinks em­ploy­ees need to thrive, not just sur­vive

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