A couple years ago, an employee of a major medical provider in Maryland suffered a devastating tragedy. Her story, which I paraphrase here, was originally published in Baltimore Magazine, as supplementary material for the February 2013 article “The 24 Best Places to Work.” This employee and her husband lost their home, along with all of their possessions, in a sudden home fire one night in January. After calling her insurance company and booking a hotel room, she left a voicemail for her manager explaining what happened. Naturally, she was a wreck. This woman had not just lost everything she owned; she was also worried for her job because she had recently taken significant leave time after her husband underwent back surgery. That Monday, she received a call from a coworker who asked her if she could meet at the hotel. Her co-worker showed up with an envelope of money collected from her colleagues. And that was only the beginning. Soon, nearly four hundred staffers had made donations in the form of cash, furniture, clothing, a flat screen TV, and even a free apartment. When asked about the experience, she explained that she was not a native of Maryland and had no family here, “But it was just like family pitching in to help.” We all want our workplaces to feel like families. We all want to work in an environment in which employees respect, like, and have compassion for one another. But how can managers create these environments? What makes a company a “best place to work?” And why do so many businesses struggle to cultivate and retain talented staff? I’ll give you a hint: favorable workplace policies matter more—much more—than wages.
Implementing Policies that Benefit Employees
As I discussed in the prior two installments in this series, higher compensation does not lead directly to higher motivation or greater productivity. The “carrot and stick” approach—the promise of a reward accompanied by the threat of punishment —pales as a motivational tactic in comparison with intrinsic value factors such as fairness and respect. Employees also desire purpose, as TOMS, the shoe company well-regarded for its social impact, clearly demonstrates. That’s not all. Here are several top attributes of a “best company to work,” according to Baltimore Magazine:
- Flexible work schedules
- 100% paid medical and dental benefits
- Paid maternity leave
- Tuition reimbursement
- Free access to fitness classes/gym
- 401(k) or retirement benefits
- Paid life insurance, short term disability, long term disability
- Discount cell phone plans; company/store discounts
Handbooks are Still Essential Workplace Tools But of course there are the required policies. Every company, no matter how big or small, needs a handbook that includes policies covering workplace harassment, discrimination, retaliation, overtime, paid time off, pay days, etc. HR officers should also closely examine, and call into question, the company-specific policies contained therein. For each policy, determine its necessity from the perspective of an employee. Is it superfluous or overbearing? Offensive or demeaning? Is it really applicable to the entire workforce? Eliminate the policies that pertain to one negative incident, or one bad actor. For example, an overly detailed dress code—put in place due to one improperly dressed employee who resigned two years ago—unreasonably restricts, and even insults current employees who need no reminder to practice acceptable dressing and grooming habits. Ditto for the granular, step-by-step instructions on how to courteously answer a telephone, brought about by one ill-mannered receptionist who has long left the company. Handbooks should cover only the basics. The fewer policies employees have to contend with, the more autonomous employees feel, and the more productive they become. Put faith in your workforce to behave appropriately, and employees tend to reciprocate with a positive corporate culture.
Beware of Legal Considerations With Flexible Work Schedules
Unfortunately, several regulatory obstacles stand in the way of beneficial employee policies and perks. Employers should be especially aware of the legal matters accompanying flexible work schedules, recently established by the Sixth Circuit in its April 2014 ruling on a high-profile case concerning telecommuting. The case arose when the Ford Motor Company fired resale buyer Jane Harris for alleged poor performance. Harris suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, and had requested to work from home four days a week. The suit, filed by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Harris, alleged that Ford failed to accommodate Harris’ disability by not allowing her to telecommute when it had approved telecommuting arrangements for other non-disabled co-workers. In a vastly overreaching decision, the court reversed a prior federal court dismissal, asserting the EEOC (as reported in Bloomberg BNA) “raised a triable issue [that] Harris could perform all the job’s essential functions through regular attendance by technological means without causing Ford undue hardship.” In dictating when and under what circumstances an employee is needed physically, and which technology is appropriate and acceptable for telecommuting, the court overstepped its bounds. Expect employers, as dissenting Judge David W. McKeague anticipates, to “tighten their telecommuting policies in order to avoid legal liability.” This is also a regrettable development for the increasing number of employees who benefit from telecommuting, particularly the “sandwich generation”—people in their 40s and 50s simultaneously caring for their young children and aging parents—for whom flexible schedules provide an essential route to work/life balance. Importantly, telecommuting is also proven to reduce absenteeism, decrease common health problems, increase morale, and create trust between managers and staff. In fact, according to Bob Nelson’s 1501 Ways to Reward Employees, telecommuting can increase efficiency by almost double thanks to fewer interruptions—not to mention the commuting time saved. Basic Employer Tips For a Positive and Friendly Workplace Even if companies are unable to offer employees flexible schedules, there remain plenty of ways to become a “best place to work.” Though it may seem obvious, it bears stating that relationships with employees are key: Say hello. Know everyone’s name. Give employees credit for their ideas. Recognize an employee for a job well done. Ask employees for feedback: What would make their tasks easier and more enjoyable? What adjustments can team leaders make to their management style to make employees feel more comfortable and better respected? Often, minor changes in working conditions can lead to substantial improvements in morale. Take suggestions seriously; if your workplace cannot implement certain practices, employees deserve an explanation why and will appreciate being given the honesty and respect they deserve. No, the workplace can’t always be fun, but it can be positive and inviting—a place where employees want to be, a home away from home.
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