Ping-pong tables, candy buffets, unlimited vacation -- more and more, companies are offering creative perks to recruit and motivate employees. But as workplace benefits become increasingly gimmicky, it begs the question, Is entertaining employees really the same thing as engaging them?
A high level of engagement or proactive commitment of employees' full brain power and passion while on the job has been shown to significantly increase companies’ productivity, profitability and workplace safety while reducing absenteeism and turnover.
But according to Gallup’s Employee Engagement Q12 Study, engagement isn't influenced by workplace perks nearly as much as by the intangibles suggested in the following questions:
1. Do I get something out of this role?
2. Do others value my work?
3. Do I belong?
4. Can I improve, learn, grow, innovate and apply my ideas?
It turns out the building blocks of engagement are not entertainment or even career aspirations, but passion and love. With that in mind, here are five key ways for executives to build a work environment that employees will fall in love with:
1. Understand the biology of human interaction.
Give a man a candy bar, and he’ll have an hourlong sugar high. Give a man a genuine, earned compliment, and the serotonin rush will build a longer lasting bond.
Human brains are hardwired to aim toward rewards and away from threats, so a performance-based "attaboy" triggers a dopamine release that's sought out again and again. In the absence of feedback, the body defaults to a state of stress.
So even a sensitively delivered, constructive criticism can trigger the reward center by feeding the need for certainty.
Oddly, most managers don’t take advantage of these basic biological tenets. One of the lowest-performing statements on Gallup’s Q12 survey was: “In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.”
Train managers to provide frequent feedback about expectations and performance. That's one of the most important things a CEO can do to foster a culture of engagement.
2. Forget arms-length oversight.
Southwest Airlines co-founder and former CEO Herb Kelleher was famous for his pioneering approach to leadership. He trained staff to focus on nurturing employees’ deeper psychic satisfaction by connecting with them as individuals.
“We want to show them they’re important to us as who they are, as people. It’s not formulaic,” Kelleher said in a 2013 Fortune interview. “The way I describe it is this huge mosaic that you’re always adding little pieces to make it work. It’s something you do every day.”
Some executives try to keep at arms-length to maintain a facade of power, but Kelleher demonstrated that a culture of connectedness and personal interest -- from the top ranks to the bottom -- could become a corporate asset, even as his company grew to massive proportions.
3. Make love the center of company values.
A culture of love became ingrained in Southwest Airlines employees’ decision making. Kelleher championed a clear set of values: “If somebody makes a proposal and it infringes on those values, you don’t study it for two years. You just say, ‘No, we don’t do that.’ And you go on quickly. So I think that contributes to efficiency.”
While Kelleher’s values system was “employees first,” other CEOs focus their philosophy of love on customers. Entrepreneur Mark Cuban, for instance, is passionate about providing customers an unforgettable experience.
A former employee of his, Tim Sanders, recounted in Love Is the Killer App how Cuban had a motto, "‘Make love, not war.’ Not original, but to me it felt like the elixir of life. Mark passionately believed that customers should be happy. ... I’d never known anyone like that before. I was thrilled. It was freedom, baby!"
When a company has a clear philosophy, team members gain something to use to weigh every decision. And when it’s a philosophy of love, expect amazing things to happen.
4. Hire servant leaders.
Gallup’s research has found that direct supervisors play the biggest role in employee engagement levels. So companies need to make employee engagement part of their formal review process.
Many companies treat management roles as rewards for the best-performing employees in each department, rather than as jobs requiring a specific skill set or personality. Companies like United Services Automobile Association, on the other hand, hire managers based on their ability to lead a team.
“Servant leaders” are managers who have the ability to connect with employees on a human level, supporting not only company goals and deliverables but staff members' career fulfillment and sense of belonging. Before promoting based on tenure or job performance, ask whether a star employee is also a servant leader.
5. Encourage personality.
One of the most interesting Gallup Q12 survey questions focuses on whether an employee has a best friend at work. Positive responses have been highly correlated with loyalty and engagement with the company.
Kelleher once told CNBC, “We’ve always encouraged people to be themselves, not to be robotic, not to be automatons. We don’t expect you to surrender your natural personality when you join Southwest Airlines.”
This cultivation of personality starts with recruitment. My company, RealMassive, attracts the type of talent that will thrive within its culture by leading job postings with the phrase "Seeking freaks, geeks, and beautiful hippies."
And once these culturally minded team members are on board, candy buffets might start to provide value. As long as other elements of engagement are in place, office parties and watercooler interactions can be a great way to build friendships and achieve engagement. So ping-pong on. Just don’t forget what employees truly need for fulfillment and success.
6. Love always wins
Kelleher said, “A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear,” and Gallup’s research indicates he was right.
If a manager understands what makes employees engaged the opportunity for personal growth, appreciation, belonging and a sense of providing value), making work and love the same thing is entirely possible. In fact, it’s what makes a group of employees a team. And when everyone is passionate, actively engaged and in love with work, that’s “freedom, baby!”
Related: 7 Ways to Say I Love You