Joy to the workforce
Dave Holmes is the ‘mayor’ of G Adventures, a company that offers its employees ice cream, hammocks, and beer on Fridays. It found that boosting staff morale is also good for business
Phone and you may reach him, neck-deep, in the company ball pit. Drop by his downtown Toronto office and you’d better be ready for a lightsaber fight. If you’re keen to work with him, be prepared to prove your worth by rapping the theme song from The Fresh
Prince of Bel-Air. Dave Holmes is not your typical business executive. But he may be the happiest. And if you’re not prepared to be happy too, don’t bother sending in a resumé.
G Adventures, which sends travellers to more than 100 countries on small-group tours, didn’t push its annual revenues to $300 million by hiring grumps or “intelligent jerks,” as they are called around the office.
In G parlance, Holmes is the mayor. In other companies he might be called the chief happiness officer, an executive hired to keep morale high, foster company culture and keep the workers engaged and connected.
“Some people call me the head cheerleader, which I’m OK with. I like to describe my job as the person who keeps people happy,” says Holmes, 37, who grew up in Scarborough.
“We want to provide our employees with every tool they need to be happy. Whether or not they choose to be happy, that’s up to them. We think it’s important because, first of all, there are all kinds of studies out there that show that happy employees are more likely to innovate, more likely to come to work every day, less likely to burn out. But, ultimately, life’s too short not to be happy. We spend so much time in the workplace — why can’t you be happy in the workplace?”
Holmes, who is quick to laugh, is at the centre of a noticeably upbeat atmosphere at G’s three-storey Base Camp, as its main office is called, and he proudly shows off a workspace that looks like it was decorated by a teenager with an unlimited budget.
In the bright main-floor gathering area, known as the Bitchin’ Kitchen, there are bubble hockey, foosball and arcade-style video games. Snacks are always available, too. Near the kitchenette is a chest freezer like you’d see in a corner store, stocked with ice cream treats. Beside it is a popcorn machine.
If this were a Friday afternoon, beer, wine and cider would mysteriously appear for what is known as Beer O’Clock — 4 p.m. to outsiders — as the 200 Toronto employees gather to toast the week that was. Some will drift up to the rooftop “Party-O,” where they are always invited to take their work, have a break or stretch out in a hammock.
Surrounding the common space are eight themed meeting areas decorated based on employee suggestions — from a Star Wars room, complete with a Chewbacca cos- tume that anyone can pull on — to Dr. Seuss and Wright brothers rooms.
But there is also a push for workplace bliss that’s more profound than the whimsical decor and cute monikers. Company founder Bruce Poon Tip encourages what he calls the “four pillars of happiness”: the ability to grow, being connected, being part of something bigger than yourself, and freedom. Poon Tip has also established more than 40 philanthropic endeavours in countries where G Adventures sends travellers — a restaurant in Cambodia that employs former sex workers for example — giving his employees a greater sense of purpose.
It is what brought Holmes here three years ago, landing a job at Base Camp on his third attempt. He targeted the company as a future employer in 2006 while on the Inca Trail of Peru during a vacation with G Adventures.
Most people do that 40-kilometre trek for the breathtaking scenery and self-discovery. Holmes found a career path. As he hiked towards Machu Picchu, Holmes was intrigued by his guide, Percy Ayala, and the two spoke often. Holmes was not only impressed with how funny and well spoken Ayala was, but also by his passion for his country and his employer.
“Meeting him got me obsessed with this company,” Holmes recalls. “He’d never left Peru. He was born and raised in the mountains and what really stuck with me was how passionately he spoke about this Canadian company and the opportunities it not only gave him to show his passion, which was his community, but also how this company helped his community by providing jobs for their women, at the women’s weaving co-op, and their men as porters, cooks and guides on the Inca Trail.”
Holmes has always been the type of kid who enthusiastically immersed himself in everything. He was captain of both the football and rugby teams while at Sir John A. Macdonald Collegiate and even directed a school play.
The son of two high school teachers who were “kind of like old ex-hippies,” Holmes says he was always encouraged to “just do whatever makes you happy” and not to compromise on that.
Working in marketing for a large downtown law firm made him “most unhappy in every way, work-wise,” he says. “It became apparent to me to me that I needed that purpose to come to work. Lining the pockets of rich lawyers was not a motivator for me.”
He returned to work for Kids Help Phone, where he was previously employed. Its important work was satisfying but Holmes felt an urge to move on. G Adventures sat atop a list of five companies he targeted.
After two failed attempts at marketing jobs, Poon Tip offered him a position in special projects. A year and a half ago, Holmes became the company’s second mayor. “He has one of those infectious personalities that transcend cultures,” says Poon Tip. “When we send him all over the world, he’s a great ambassador.”
“Creating community, that’s a huge part of my role,” says Holmes, a married father of two young girls.
That might mean the biweekly newscasts, dubbed GNN, that he and his team put together to keep more than 1,500 employees in more than 100 countries connected. Or it could be encouraging staff to wear a colourful headpiece on Wig-out Wednesdays, something that began in support of an employee who was battling cancer.
But why the ball pit? It is part of the G Adventures hiring process. If a potential hire passes through initial interviews, that candidate is then brought to the ball pit along with three employees picked randomly from Base Camp. The job candidate must then spin a wheel that selects questions such as “If you had a tattoo on your forehead, what would it be?” or “How much of the theme song from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air can you remember? Prove it.”
The idea is to see how the applicant reacts and whether he or she might assimilate into the company culture. The three employees can nix the hire if they don’t feel the newcomer is a good fit.
“People are finally realizing that work doesn’t have to be miserable,” Holmes says of companies installing a happiness officer. He notes it helps with employee retention and with the quality of candidates who apply for jobs.
“You can make work a happy place,” he says. “We see the results from it. We see double-digit growth as a company every year. Our happiness model is working for us.”