Creating a Turbo-Charged Work Force

In part 1 of a 3-part series, learn how to make work feel like play for your employees.

I popped into a donut shop while doing research for my book on employee motivation. Well, not just any donut shop--this happened to be the busiest Dunkin' Donuts store in the world, located outside Boston on Route 18 in South Weymouth, Massachusetts. This one store serves between 2,000 and 3,000 cups of coffee per day.

I was there to speak to the fired-up employees who keep the lines of customers moving, and keep customers coming back. I wanted to know (as I always do when I visit high-performance businesses) what it is that motivates these people to work as hard as they do.

Amy McCaul, age 21 at the time of our meeting, works the front counter. Does her job ever become kind of boring? "No way," she says with a big smile. "It's fun. It's busy, time goes by fast, you're always doing something."

Fun? Did she say fun? As a customer I have personally set foot in other donut stores, and whatever it was the employees there were having, I'm pretty sure fun wasn't it.

McCaul's co-worker Tracy Brown works in the small out-building from which drive-through customers are served. Must be pretty dull work in pretty cramped quarters, right? "No," she blurts without hesitation, "I like it. The time goes by fast, because I deal with millions and millions of customers every day." Brown describes how her regular customers keep coming back. "I like seeing them every single day," she says. "That's what makes me happy."

I ask Brown if one day she might like to own a business similar to the one she presently works for. Her boisterous reply is, "Yes, I would like this one."

Both of these employees independently mention their impression that "time goes by fast" on the job. This is of course the very opposite of the traditional "clock watcher" image of an employee bored stiff. But why does time seem to pass quickly in this workplace (and in every other similarly energized business I've visited and written about)? Time passing quickly is a characteristic usually associated with a pleasant game, hobby, or pastime--forms of play. To help us understand how some businesses make work feel more like play, we need to review the four elements that make play itself enjoyable.

1. The element of challenge: Ask any employee who dislikes his or her job to give a reason, and the reply will almost certainly include words like "boring," "repetitious" and "pointless."

Now, visit any bowling alley. Each time a bowler manages to knock all the pins down, a mechanical contraption promptly sets them right back up again. An observer unfamiliar with the game might conclude this must surely rank as one of the most boring, repetitious and pointless human activities ever devised.

Yet the bowlers themselves seem to having a grand old time. In fact, many of them can't wait to get away from their boring jobs in order to pay money for the pleasure of knocking pins down over and over again.

Would bowling be even more fun if the pins were closer, and therefore easier to knock down. Everyone understands that it's precisely the challenge of attempting something difficult that gives structured play activities like bowling, golf and billiards their basic appeal.

Children's games like paddle-ball, leapfrog, skip rope and others are often based on a "keep the kettle boiling" theme. In businesses like our donut store, the challenge is to "keep the lines moving through the store," "keep the cars flowing through the drive-through," "keep the shelves stocked with fresh product." The whole operation is one big keep-the-kettle-boiling game from opening time to closing time, and the workers love the challenge.

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