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Creating a great work environment, and a great brand.

Fun can also be productive.

One of the themes I have recognized in my life lately is that of corporate culture. Because I work with a number of companies, and am often invited into their businesses, I get to peek at their office spaces and get to experience a variety of corporate cultures. And what I find over and over, is that the environment that people work in definitely makes the business. 

In some cases, I see great teams working together in not so attractive spaces, but the staff has countered that with enhanced team building and creativity. A work environment where there are great working relationships and departments really working as a "team" just doesn't happen by accident, it takes thoughtful planning and some courage for a leader to allow the team to work in unconventional, creative and sometimes noisy ways. Innovation and creativity in meetings and in the day-to-day office interactions, spills over into work, employee satisfaction and the all important retention. 

In other case, you see elaborate and plush work environments, which are great, but it needs to be coupled with strong corporate culture as well. Beautiful spaces, without beautiful and engaging energy inside are just Faberge eggs. Great to look at, but empty and hollow on on the inside. Beautiful spaces alone won't keep employees for long. It is a bit like a new house or new carpet, beautiful, but if the kids can't walk on it, or have fun in the house, be themselves, the is it really worth having?

So, why is corporate culture so important?

1.) Retention. I have seen figures which indicate that it can cost upwards of 30% of the salary of a position to recruit and secure a new employee. Keeping the right employee is worth the investment. You need to value the institutional memory and their contributions. However, allowing them to grow in their position and encouraging them to grow as individuals is also key. 

2.) Customer Service. I have been in work environments where the tension in the air is so thick you can cut it with a knife, and customers pick up on that. In contrast, in environments where staff and enjoying being there, are supportive and helpful of others, they tend to treat the customer the same. You really can hear the smile in peoples voice. 

3.) Branding, yes branding. While it is true that an aesthetically pleasing exterior and customer space is important, creating a space were employees feel welcome as well is equally important from a branding perspective. Why? Because your brand is only as strong as your weakest link. Today, with the prevalence of blogging, Facebook, Twitter and other social media, any company or brand is just a few keystrokes from being unravelled. One nasty blog whether true or not from an "insider" at your company could create a PR nightmare. Your employee experience and your customer experience better reinforce your brand or you better have an extensive budget to overcome that. 

Great, but were do you start?

Be authentic. First, being professional doesn't have to mean being boring. Employees who are engaged with each other, and challenging and inspiring each other will be more productive. Yes, it is a fine line between engaged and unruliness, but having employees who are passionate about what they are doing, will keep them focused. Having well defined goals, dreams and aspirations, both measurable and unmeasurable will become that roadmap. Encourage them to be themselves, share of themselves and their dreams, connect with one another on a level outside of work. Also be authentic to the brand you are presenting to the public. If your latest ad campaign is touting you environmentally friendly you are, look at your own employee practices. Are you; using styrofoam cups in the break room, recycling printer paper, going paperless, leaving computers on all night? Do what you say, and say what you do.

Encourage them to be authentic. While it may seem counter productive to spend a few minutes each morning in team meeting discussing the news, tv shows last night, new grandchildren, pets, or the weather. Personal sharing helps team members find common ground, similar interests and gained empathy for each other. By taking 10-15 minutes and allowing community in your team, you can turn then and focus on the tasks at hand. That time would have probably been spent in them emailing each other, talking on the phone, or one-on-one anyway. 

Share. Employees at all levels need to engaged in how the company is doing and where it is going. I have been in companies where they have fully opened the books to employees, sharing in yearly meetings the financials of the previous year, goals for the future and engaging them to help the company get there. Transparency is important, while not feasible in all cases, goals and initiatives can be shared, even created with the collaboration of all staff. Great ideas often come from the bottom up and having employees who feel trusted and understanding what is going on in the business is going garner better ideas. 

Celebrate. When your team achieves a goal, comes up with an new idea, or finds a new efficiency, take time to celebrate. Acknowledge innovation and those who are excelling, in a thoughtful and genuine way, while also acknowledging that without the support of the full team, said achievements wouldn't have happened. 

Reward. I recommend providing options for reward. Different employees feel valued in different ways, don't assume that the same type of reward will be received the same way by everyone. Find out what are the triggers for your team and give them a choice. I like to keep these options relatively small in order to keep them from creating an environment where sabotaging another gets you ahead. Provide them with several options and allow them to choose. Here are some thoughts on how you might reward an employee for performance;

  • Monetarily. This might be a gift card, or a $20 bill, don't make it too excessive. 
  • Time off. Maybe this is an extended lunch hour, or an unexpected afternoon off. 
  • Public Praise. This can be as simple as an announcement and recognition at a staff meeting, inclusion in a company newsletter, or their picture in the lobby. Be considerate of the individual, calling them out in front of a large group might make them uncomfortable. 
  • Gifts. A new plant for their office, a better keyboard, flowers, or even something you sell. By giving something that your company sells, the value if often greater because of your margins as well as having an employee who actually uses the product is often better at selling that product. 
  • Physical proximity. No, you aren't moving them into your office, but lunch on the boss or an executive of their choice in the company can be valuable as well. Having the opportunity to spend time in getting to know or in mentoring an employee will reap great rewards for both parties. Physical proximity might just be as simple as a parking space as well. 

Remember, this is a small token, a reward, not a bribe for doing something. It is a celebration, not the compensation for carrying the greatest burden, or enduring the most trauma. Don't worry about everyone getting the reward, it loses its credibility if it just becomes a rotating perk. Allow team members to nominate each other for the reward, and always reward only those actions which are going to strengthen the environment, the business, or move you toward your goals. 

The Physical Environment

This can be expensive, but doesn't have to be. I have seen a bucket of paint, some brushes and the promise of pizza do wonders. Let employees dream about what might be interesting to them. If your office environment isn't conducive to full out creativity, perhaps you can inject some fun into a common area or break room. Here are some thoughts...

  • Allowing for creativity in your space could be as simple as passing out Mr. or Mrs. Potato heads and allowing each person to create their own character on their desk or displayed in a common area.  
  • A couch or funky chairs in the breakroom
  • Holiday decorations hanging from the ceiling
  • Lighting with lamps instead of overhead fluorescents, each person selecting a style that represents their personality. 
  • A pool table, TV, wii, or guitar hero. 
  • Music, is it conducive to play music in the background? Maybe just half a day once a week. Headphones isolate, being caught singing loudly, or the wrong lyrics can make for office fun.
  • Bubbles, they cost pennies, but get people breathing and how can you not have fun with bubbles.

Here are some more great ideas form Alexander Kjerulf, the Chief Happiness Officer. 12 ways to pimp your office.

The bottom line is, not everything will work for every team, it might take time to figure out what works for you and your company. For some it will be small doses of fun, other environments are conducive to all out creativity. Remember, you aren't there to entertain them, and productivity and professionalism is still key but you can have both. What is important is to explore what works for you and your team.

So when you are working on branding, or on corporate culture, instead of spending money trying to "appear" to be a exceptional place to work or having exceptional products or services, how about actually being that. That story spreads faster than any purchased media can. Great companies and great managers know that.

Go out there and have some fun!

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