Category Archives: Managing your people

5 Tips: How to Increase Employee Engagement with Workplace Wellness Programs

The key to a successful workplace wellness program is employee engagement. The reverse is also true. That is, one way to increase employee engagement is a successful wellness program.

Yesterday we were in a client’s break room, waiting for a meeting room to open up , and I noticed several flyers on the bulletin board about various wellness offerings. I was surprised by my initial reaction, which was, “Who would sign up for those?”

Why did they strike me as loser offerings? Because they seemed preachy and goody-goody and completely devoid of anything fun. One sounded like the school nurse was going to take you through a lecture on the five food groups. I’m not suggesting that wellness should be a barrel of laughs, but a good program creates energy and involvement. The more employees you can get to participate, the stronger your program will be.

An effective wellness program will do more than just increase productivity because people feel better and have more energy. It also gives co-workers a chance to do something together that’s unrelated to their usual work roles. It equals the playing field, so to speak, in a way that lets junior employees spend some time on an equal footing with those who rank above them in the company hieirarchy. It will also build relationships between people in different departments, which helps smooth the way to better teamwork and increased collaboration.

So how do you create a wellness program with plenty of employee engagement? Here are five tips:

1. Ask the employees what they want. Particularly in a small company, you can solicit input from the group. You can do a survey, if you want, but it might be easier just to ask people about their wellness concerns. Are they looking for ways to find time for exercise? Do they really wish they could quit smoking? Are they trying to eat healthier?

2. Get their help in constructing the program. Give some influential employees ownership of developing the program. If the group wants a yoga class at lunch, let an employee track down a good yoga instructor willing to do a class in the conference room. If they’re interested in a buddy-system diet, let an employee research South Beach vs. The Zone vs. WeightWatchers.

3. Make sure management joins in. The top level people in the company need to suit up and show up. If you give the impression that the boss is too busy for exercise, for example, employees might interpret the fitness program as something meant only for those who aren’t as serious about their work. Besides making it clear that you’re committed to wellness, it adds extra motivation for participation, at least by those employees who want more chances to rub shoulders with the boss.

4. Add an element of competition. Put together a contest with some level of cash prize, or a free day off, or something employees will see as worth their while. Look for a way to compete that doesn’t automatically give an advantage to the fittest among the group. For instance, instead of a contest to see who can bench press the most weight, compete on who can complete three workouts a week for the most weeks.

5. Create a collaborative goal. If your group tends to get a little too competitive, choose a goal they work towards together. Maybe after the employees collectively walk or run 10,000 miles, the company donates $1,000 to a worthy cause. Or let the collaborative goal benefit the employees more directly. After they lose so many pounds as a group, you’ll hire a massage therapist to give chair massages on Friday afternoon.

Small Business Strategies: Starting a workplace wellness program might be easier than you think

Meditation room at Tribe

What can you do in the new year to improve employee morale and productivity without spending a ton of money? Easy answer: start some level of wellness program in your office. If you’ve ever considered doing something like that, this might be the perfect time.

Wellness programs allow you to give employees something they find meaningful without handing out big pay raises. Many small companies froze salary increases last year. In others, employees watched people in their company lose their jobs, and were understandably meek about pushing for their own salary reviews. But don’t think that means they’re not thinking about what they give the company for what they get. A workplace wellness program can be a very good way to let employees know you value their contributions.

Of course, it’s also the beginning of a new year. The perfect time for fresh starts, healthy new habits and lifestyle improvements. Your employees are probably already thinking about what they can do in 2010 to be healthier. A wellness program can help support them in their individual goals. It’s also a powerful way to bring new energy into the workplace.

How do you do it? You don’t have to build a company gym or pay for an on-site spa chef (although you could). Think in terms of providing flexibility (time) or resources (access). You can pick one element of wellness, like fitness or stress management or healthy eating and focus your program around that area. Or you can put together a small smorgasbord of wellness offerings. Here are a few examples:

• Allow employees extra time for lunch two or three days a week so they can fit in a walk or a run. At Tribe, we tell employees they can put up to three hours a week on their time sheets for exercise during the workday. We’ve found that whenever someone manages to fit in a workout or  yoga class during the day, they’re likely to come back to the office with a good idea or solution for something they’re working on. If nothing else, their energy level is higher that when they left.

• Use one of those empty offices for a meditation room. Move the desk out and put a small couch or a comfortable armchair in there instead. Or just put out a few yoga mats or some big floor pillows.  Add a few meditation CDs and a CD player, and you’re good to go. If employees feel comfortable spending 20 minutes meditating in the middle of the day, alone or with a coworker, that can go a long way towards reducing stress levels.

• Put a bowl of fresh fruit in the break room, and stock it weekly. When employees hit that pre-lunch or mid-afternoon slump, being able to skip the vending machine and grab an apple or banana instead can be a highly appreciated perk. Supporting wellness in the office can actually come down to some very simple (and inexpensive) changes.

The biggest thing employees are looking for in a wellness program is a way for the workplace to support them in living a good life. As a business owner, you do that by providing meaningful work and fair compensation. But lately, many companies have been asking employees to work harder without the hope of a big, fat salary increase. Especially in this economic environment, one of the best things you can do for your employees is to provide the flexibility and resources for them to take care of their own health.

Can you cut your payroll and still keep employees happy?

Most small businesses have already done some belt tightening this year. We’ve trimmed dead wood, become a more lean machine, and every other metaphor you can apply to spending less money. Still, when we see our final projections of where our year-end financials will end up, we might  wonder if we should cut a little more.

Sylvia Ann Hewlett, founder of the Center for Work-Life Policy, wrote in the New York Times this weekend about a creative approach to cutting costs by trading employees money for time. She cites the example of KMPG, the giant accounting firm, and their solution to cutting payroll costs without losing star talent. They presented 11,000 employees with a Chinese menu of choices: work a four-day week and take a 20% pay reduction; take a short sabbatical while earning 30 percent of their base salary; both of those options; or neither of those options, retaining their regular salary for their standard work week. Over 80% of them chose one of the flex options.

Hewlett points out that because KPMG positioned these options as “a strategic response to the downturn, rather than a ‘benefit’ for working mothers, it has gone some distance to legitimizing flex time. Taking this option has become an honored choice — a way to save jobs. As a result, overloaded men as well as overloaded women have felt free to vary their schedules.”

I’ve seen one small company try a flawed version of this plan with disastrous results. Faced with the need to reduce payroll and loathe to eliminate jobs, the business owner asked everyone in the company to take a 15 percent pay cut, assuring them that she was taking the same reduction in salary. She hoped they would see this as a good way to help all their coworkers keep their jobs.

It didn’t work that way. Morale plummeted and some of her best talent jumped ship. Months later, when she was able to reinstate full salaries, she didn’t score any points with her staff because the damage was already done.

The crucial elements of cutting payroll while retaining employees are 1) giving them something back, i.e. time, in exchange for giving up some of their salary, and 2) giving them the choice of making that trade or not. Asking employees to help suck up your losses by getting paid less for the same work week is only going to hurt the company in the long run.

The thing about being an entrepreneur is that you have the potential to make a lot of money in good years. You also have the potential to lose money in the bad ones. We all willingly take that risk, but it’s not fair to expect our employees to share in the down side. On the other hand, in 2010 or 2011, when we see year-end projections that show us closing the year with gobs of money, we’ll benefit nicely from the upside of that risk-reward ratio.

Building a good place to work. Not Utopia.

Tribe studioIn a market where good jobs are at a premium, it’s been surprising that so many of our recent job applicants have been strikingly unprofessional. Actually, self-focused might be a better description. Confused, maybe, about the way business works.

My small company is in the process of interviewing for a new staff accountant. At Tribe, as in most ad agencies, that’s the position that truly requires a buttoned-up personality.  The writers and art directors and other creative types here can get away with being a little flaky or free spirits, but not the person we’re trusting to add up the money and pay the bills.

We had one highly recommended applicant decline a phone interview because she was “busy running errands all day.” Another spent much of her interview explaining how she really needed a company that understood where she was in her life and “what she needed in terms of life balance.”

It’s true; Tribe does support work-life balance. Our company purpose is To Make Life Better, and part of that is supporting our employees in enjoying better lives. We generally don’t work long hours or weekends, we bring in a company-paid healthy lunch several days a week and we have a meditation room that gets a good bit of use. We host an annual company fitness competition and allow employees to use up to five work hours a week for exercise. In the spirit of balance, we also keep wine and beer cooling in the fridge and will often share a late afternoon sip of something as we’re finishing up work.

But that often seems to be misinterpreted by outsiders to mean that work comes second. It doesn’t. Tribe is a business. The first obligation of any business is to make money. If a company doesn’t make money, it won’t be in business for long. If it goes out of business, all those employees have to go, too. (And having a job remains a pretty important part of that coveted work-life balance thing.)

We make money by doing good work for our clients, over and over again, consistently. We do good work by hiring people who are very, very good at what they do. There is not one person at Tribe who doesn’t perform at an extremely high level. To do that, day after day after day, requires a level of professionalism that doesn’t put business obligations or opportunities second in line to running personal errands.

I hope Tribe is a great place to work. I believe it’s smart business to support our employees in living good lives as well as in doing good work. But Tribe would be a much less satisfying place to work without the passion and dedication that makes us all proud of what we do.

How does a small ad agency manage to launch an iPhone app?

APP-001-ScreenshotPageOne-v1bBack in April, I read an article in the New York Times titled “The iPhone Gold Rush” and came into the office the next morning mumbling about how we should try making an iPhone app. Yesterday, Tribe‘s first iPhone application launched in the App Store and on iTunes.

This is a perfect example of how quickly a small company can do something that would take a large corporation months of meetings before they even got going. A small team of talented and capable people can move mountains — or in this case, launch an iPhone app in something under six months.

Here’s how it happened: We took it one step at a time. First, we kicked around ideas for the app and decided to start with a mini-version of a printed product we’d recently developed for entrepreneurs. The Start Your Own Company deck, from our Starter Cards division, is a stack of 52 cards that breaks down the process of launching and building a business into manageable steps.

Second, we started poking around for partners who could supply the programming skills we don’t have in-house. Through a friend, we found a team of developers who wanted to try their hand at an iPhone app. (Extra kudos and love to those programmers: Stephanie Baird and Ladd Usher.)

Next, we went through the process to be approved as a registered member of the Apple  iPhone Developer Program. It’s a somewhat daunting application, but between our designer, our accountant and our programmers, we managed to fill in all the blanks.

Then our creative team worked to design and format all the screen shots required and the programmers did their thing. We went back and forth on whether the screens would flip or slide and if the type should be a point size larger or smaller, and eventually arrived at a design that pleased us all.

We submitted the Start Your Own Company app, and sat back to wait. In less than a week, we received word that it was approved and ready to be launched in the App Store on September 10. In the past few days, we’ve whipped out press releases and shot a demo video for YouTube and figured out how to submit the app to reviewers.

Like many projects in a small company, this one was touched by every hand in the house. I tossed the idea out there on the table, but the team took over from there. Here are what I consider to be some interesting lessons in this process.

1: There is great momentum in making a decision. We didn’t hem and haw about whether to do it or not, and we didn’t overthink what that first app would be. Sometimes there are many right answers, and there’s power in picking one and moving on.

2: A good size for a team is the number of people you can get in a room right now. If you’ve got to coordinate several departments and calendars, you can spin wheels for a long while. A smaller team is less cumbersome and more efficient.

3: It  helps to have a range of skill sets on the team. This particular team included a writer, an art director, two programmers, an account manager, a traffic manager, an accountant, a president and a CEO. That covers a wide range of strengths.

4: If you need outside help, create a win-win situation. We couldn’t have done this without Stephanie and Ladd. We needed people who could program, and they were interested in adding an iPhone app to their resumes, so the partnership worked for all of us.

The 20-minute idea session is perfect for Gen Y

IMG_4133I grew up in the old days of ad agencies, when roles were clearly defined. The copywriters and art directors were in charge of the creative work, and we looked askance at any account executive who ventured to make a creative comment. The account people stuck to marketing strategy, and the media department figured out smart things to do with the media budget, but the domain of the imagination was thought to be the exclusive territory of the creative department.

At Tribe, I’ve learned to appreciate the power of pulling everyone together for an idea session. We generally hold what we call our jam sessions at the big wooden table in the studio, pulling up as many chairs as are needed. Everyone is welcome, from the art directors and copywriters to account people to the receptionist, but we don’t wait until every single person is available. We just gather anybody who happens to be around and start jamming on the project in question.

Today it was a social media plan for a promotional contest that involves airport parking and NASCAR. Other times it might be a YouTube video concept for an upscale baby stroller, or a mobile text contest for equestrian teens or just a birthday card for someone in the office.

The sessions are quick and to the point. We define the goal and then start tossing around ideas. We try not to be idea crushers. If we’re not crazy about someone’s idea, we try to offer another approach, but without slamming the initial idea. The big idea of the day might come from any of us, from the intern to the agency president, and then it’s fleshed out with the benefit of the various expertise sitting around that table.

Within about 15 or 20 minutes, we can usually  have a plan mapped out in Sharpie marker on a giant sheet of paper. We break it down into some actionable steps and then we each pick up the various pieces of the plan that fall within our areas of responsibility. The session breaks up as quickly as it started.

Looking back, the old agency model with unflinching boundaries between roles strikes me as a particularly Boomer-like division of labor. The idea sessions we hold at Tribe are much more appropriate to a Gen Y work force. This new generation of employees tends to define leadership not as a place in the hierarchy but as the ability to harness the thinking of many, to inspire others and to create a strong team. They value collaboration. And they exhibit shorter attention spans than their older peers, so these quick sessions are more palatable to them than longer meetings.

Millennials also have no problem believing that their ideas will be as good or better than those of people who’ve been in the business for decades. That allows them to engage in these idea sessions with confidence, offering up anything that occurs to them. Sometimes that happens to be the best idea at the table. Regardless, people show more responsibility for seeing the project through to the end when they feel that they were present at its birth.

Should the CEO really be sweeping floors?

CEOI’ve been asking Gen Y entrepreneurs for their thoughts on leadership lately, and today a 26-year old business owner responded with a story about the CEO of a Fortune 500 company. This CEO had told him that his success was due to his employees seeing him in the office at 6 am and picking up trash in the parking lot at the end of the day. After seeing that, he says, there was nothing his employees weren’t willing to do for him.

I get that. I can see why employees would appreciate a CEO who doesn’t consider himself too lofty to do the menial things. I understand the symbolic value of that act. Over the years, I’ve heard several variations of this same story about other company leaders and the menial work they’re willing to take on, from sweeping floors or loading coffee mugs into the dishwasher. 

But is it good for the company? Is it a good use of his time? In a Fortune 500 company, would it  be a value to the shareholders, to have  the highly paid CEO spending his valuable time out front chasing litter?

I’d say that sort of parable should be taken with a grain of salt. I would advise that CEO not to spend too much of his time out there in the parking lot. His role is to provide leadership and vision, to steer the company, to make the tough decisions. The cost of one of his hours is a far larger expense to the company than the hourly rate of an employee a bit lower on the totem pole. That CEO is best serving the company when he’s up there in his corner office running the show.

The cost of CEO hours is even more obvious in a company built on billable hours. In a service business like Tribe, where we bill clients by the hour, people with different talents and experience levels are billed at different rates. If someone needs to run an errand for the company, is it better to send the CEO who bills out at $250 an hour or the intern who costs the company only 10 bucks an hour? 

I’d also say the CEO is not demonstrating value by showing up at work at 6 am, unless he’s leaving mid-afternoon to play golf or train for an Ironman. Why set the example of not being able to handle your workload in a reasonable workday? By the time one hits the C-level, one would hope to be operating on a higher level that is more dependent on the value one brings than the hours one works.