Not Just Lip Service Anymore … Creating Space for People to Unwind and Unplug

Published December 17, 2013

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. What is the impact on professionals who feel they are ‘on call’ 24-7 but aren’t being paid to render this service? Turns out, others have been asking the same question. Recognizing that anxiety, burnout, and being overworked leads to poor productivity, loss of quality employees, and poor decision-making, a growing number of smart companies are demanding that their employees not only unplug after hours but check-out completely – yup, that means creating blackout periods where the entire shop, other than customer relations, shuts down.

From a sport perspective, we might call this strategy “rest and recovery to enhance our sport organization’s performance” – sound familiar? We program our athletes to rest because we know it is essential for their performance. I find it interesting how ‘on the field strategies’ can often translate into the executive office and boardrooms when we give ourselves permission to carry them over. What was once labeled the domain of ‘soft skills’ and ‘fluffy strategies’ is now being examined more closely by business strategists, researchers, and management consultants who are increasingly concerned with the impact of today’s business architecture and the demands on people’s well being. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that happy people + positive work environment + good strategy = business success. Let’s unpack this further:

Happy People

Rather than cite research, I’m going to speak from my personal experience. I’m happy. I’ve carved out the right mix of work-life balance by staying true to my values. I am inspired by my work. I respect and admire my colleagues. I am passionate about the sector in which I work. I love and spend quality time with my family and friends. I work out … daily. I volunteer. I find ways to give back to things that are meaningful to me. Being happy is not easy. It requires discipline, the ability to stay focused, the courage to say ‘no’ and confidence in the internal knowledge of what drives us.

So how does this apply to running a highly effective and successful sport organization? Here are some tips to consider:

  • Treat your people well: Give them a flexible work environment that speaks to their uniqueness and skill. Provide opportunities for growth. Be kind. Be consistent. Be fair. Acknowledge great work and be prepared to firmly follow up when performance is lacking. Do yearly performance evaluations and regular check-ins. Recognize they are human beings first before they are employees. Sounds obvious doesn’t it? Harder to apply when you are busy putting out fires.
  • Give them time to sign off: My clients often cite burn-out as one of the high level risks facing their organization. So too is succession planning and managing expectations from multiple stakeholders. I believe that great leaders recognize that we all need time to think, reflect and re-charge. Without this, we cannot think critically. And in a knowledge economy, this is what we are counting on to move us from good to great. One way to do this is to implement a no-emails-after-hours rule. Some offer really radical solutions like institutionalizing a blackout week once every four months where all employees other than customer service reps are not allowed to work … this means no emails either! Think this is a recipe for disaster? This firm just won a $30 million contract which they attribute directly to the ‘blackout inspired creativity’. Their words, not mine (check out Quirky, the New York based start-up for more ideas).
  • Reward them: Find out what makes your people happy. Remuneration is one way. Pay them fairly and pay them well. But remember that this only accounts for about one-third of what motivates people to stay in a job. Other factors include recognition (thank-yous, trips, flowers, gift cards, awards) can all go a long way to making people valued and valuable. Remember that this is deeply personal so you have to customize the recognition to each individual.

Positive Work Environment

Increasingly countries, organizations, and multinational businesses of all kinds are turning to the ‘happiness factor’ to measure productivity. Asking questions like “how happy are you at your place of work” and “what are ways we can enhance your happiness at work” or “on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your organization in terms of being a fun place to work?” are more common now than they ever were before. Why is that? It turns out that on a global scale, countries are being assessed against their “Gross National Happiness”, an index that measures the population’s general level of well-being.

The idea behind this interesting concept is that if we begin to measure the levels of happiness and compare them to other factors like Gross Domestic Product, we might be able to paint a more holistic picture of the strengths that exist within the country. If we extrapolate this reasoning to a different unit of analysis – that of an organization for instance – we can better understand the relationship between inputs (people) and outputs (products and services). It’s safe to say that factors like skill, education, reputation and experience are all important ways to measure an employee’s fit with the organization’s culture. So too though are things like values, leadership style, personality traits, and communications competencies that are often the difference makers in retaining good people and determining which ones are not a good fit.

So how does this connect with happiness? It turns out that measuring an employee’s level of satisfaction can predict how long they will stay on a job, their productivity, their ability to manage risks, and their effectiveness. All are key components for running a ‘best-in-class organization’. For more research on this you can Google Stavos, Collins, and Miyashiro.

Good Strategy

My daily work environment is focused on helping my clients create smart strategies. Increasingly I've been curious about the ‘why’ before focusing on the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. If you can get people to a place that they are comfortable with the ‘why’, it becomes much simpler to articulate the ‘what’ and the ‘how’. Here are some tips that I've acquired and written about here before … maybe using different language, but the idea is the same:

  • Plan: Have a clear sense of where you want to go. Then map out the best way of getting there.
  • Be flexible: Adapt in real time. Be clear on ways to measure and monitor your progress along the way. Don’t be afraid to say ‘oops’, let’s start over.
  • Be positive: Good people will follow good leaders. Having someone positive to look up to just makes it so much more fun. And we know the difference that fun can make. When we are having fun, we are learning. And when we are learning, we are providing value to our organizations. Performance flows from this.

It is well-established that the things we measure are the things that get done. Human beings will naturally move towards what they are being measured against. If we start to care about and measure things like ‘happiness’ in our workplace by using different metrics, our staff will apply these elements in ways that will enhance our business success. So next time your employee leaves you an email at 11 PM on a Saturday night, don’t respond. On Monday morning tell them you are going to fine them for each e-mail that comes in after hours. Watch their jaws drop … and their productivity soar.

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