Q: I'd like to offer my employees some nonpaid incentives, such as flex time and casual dress. How do I make sure employees know I still mean business?
A: Offering a relaxed work environment has become more common. Yet there's a fear the message sent is, "We no longer need to treat our business seriously." Keeping people relaxed and working requires separating out managing culture and performance. By being clear with cultural and performance expectations, you'll be able to balance the competing needs of relaxation and work ethic.
- Communicate about culture and what it means. When you announce your new policies, don't just say, "Starting today, come in at 10 a.m. wearing flip-flops." Discuss the changes you're making and why you're making them: "I know you have families to take care of in the morning, or maybe you just do better working from 10 to 6 instead of 9 to 5. Starting Monday, we'll be implementing flex time. You can set your own starting and leaving time, as long as you're here for the 'core hours' of 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., so we can schedule meetings during those hours."
- Ask your employees if the changes will meet the goals you laid out. Then enlist their help in fine-tuning the policies to produce cultural norms that they will find truly meaningful. If they help make the decisions, they'll likely be more engaged in the company once the changes are put into place.
- Communicate about performance expectations. If the corporate culture says "relax," you need to send a message about results. Being specific with performance expectations makes it clear that "casual" is an environment, not an approach to business results.
When you tell people what you want them to do, make your request so specific that everyone involved will know if the request has been completed. If you say, "Find the relevant information on the ABC contract," it could be confusing. You may find yourself holding a discussion of ABC's inventory strategy when you really wanted sales figures. Instead, if you say, "Find ABC company's sales figures for the past three years, plus all direct costs we've incurred on the ABC project," everyone will know if the request gets satisfied.
Let people know when you need it--both the date and time. Say, "Please deliver the report by Friday," and you might get an e-mailed report at 11:59 p.m. Friday evening. If that isn't what you want, make it crystal clear by asking for the report "by Friday morning at 10 a.m." Remember, the person you ask may have competing commitments, so be sure to ask him if he can deliver when you ask, and if not, help him evaluate conflicting priorities.
If you specify quality level when you make a request, you can help everyone involved. If you're the boss, people will often assume you want it perfect, bound and typeset. Rather than letting people waste time unnecessarily, tell them what quality you want. "Give me your five-minute estimate of 1999's sales figures" is different from "Give me the sales figures from 1999." Both are fine requests, though they set different expectations about the quality level you're expecting.
The key is to make sure you measure productivity by output, and not by how "serious" the employees seem. Fun and productivity aren't mutually exclusive (in fact, there's evidence they go together). And if you ever think the casual atmosphere drags down productivity, talk it over with your employees. With clear performance goals, they'll know if they're doing less, and the door will be open for taking their suggestions about whether formality is the key in your particular company.
You can get great results and have a relaxed atmosphere. The more specific you are about performance expectations, the more people will be able to reach them, whether they wear suits or sneakers.
As an entrepreneur, technologist, advisor and coach, Stever Robbins seeks out and identifies high-potential start-ups to help them develop the skills, attitudes and capabilities they need to succeed. He has been involved with start-up companies since 1978 and is currently an investor or advisor to several technology and Internet companies including ZEFER Corp., University Access Inc., RenalTech, Crimson Soutions and PrimeSource. He has been using the Internet since 1977, was a co-founder of FTP Software in 1986, and worked on the design team of Harvard Business School's "Foundations" program. Stever holds an MBA from Harvard Business School and a computer science degree from MIT. His Web site is a http://www.venturecoach.com.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.