How to create a happier workplace

Happiness in the workplace involves more than table tennis and craft beer on tap. A few B.C. organizations are finding out what else it means

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Chris Bianco and his team at BC Hydro took charge of building a better workplace

Is the corporate push to boost job satisfaction a genuine effort to improve people’s lives or a new twist on business as usual? B.C. organizations have taken unusual approaches to answering these questions—with surprising results

BC Hydro and Power Authority‘s materials management warehouse is the depot for every nut and bolt of the province’s power supply—from light switches to 40,000-pound spools of power line. When the Surrey facility faced shipment delays and staff morale issues in 2016, the boss knew he had to act fast to implement change. “Our team is part of a vast network of 170 people, spread across the province,” says Chris Bianco, who heads a crew of 110 employees at the Crown corporation’s supply hub. “Efficiency and teamwork are essential to our operations, but we were operating as silos. That led to delays of up to four days getting supplies from our warehouse to regional shops.

That’s bad enough on a fair-weather day, but add a windstorm like the big one in August 2015, when more than 700,000 BC Hydro customers lost power, and it could lead to trouble.

Bianco wanted to boost productivity and morale, and minimize the risk of injury at the busy warehouse. “But we couldn’t make drastic changes and had a limited budget. And from a crew perspective, when change comes from the top down, there’s often resistance,” he says of the staff of no-nonsense union workers. It’s their job to keep things moving. That’s what makes them happy.

What makes you happy? How do you define it? Did you know that your happiness is crucial to your organization’s success? So says an explosion of recent research showing that happier employees are more productive, resilient and loyal, all of which can boost revenue. They’re also healthier, saving companies billions of dollars thanks to reduced medical costs and sick days, fewer workplace accidents and errors, and lower turnover. Happiness has become a quantifiable resource, a key indicator of economic stability and a global fixation—for nations, economists, and corporations and the consultants they hire to cultivate a cheerier workforce.

Since the United Nations began publishing its World Happiness Report in 2012, Canada has consistently ranked among the world’s top 10 happiest countries. But in the past two years, we’ve slipped from fifth place to seventh. Meanwhile, 47 percent of us are unhappy at work, according to a 2016 national study by Hays Specialist Recruitment (Canada). B.C. ranks lowest among the provinces for job satisfaction, Statistics Canada reports, and Vancouver is the country’s least happy metropolitan region. Contributing to this deficit are the growing gap between income and housing costs, along with a population boom straining the city’s economic and social infrastructure.

B.C.-based organizations need to work even harder to attract and keep employees who are satisfied with their work. But while economic studies such as the World Gallup Poll and the European Social Survey point to a living wage as the biggest contributor to workplace happiness, return on investment diminishes with upper-income salaries, the World Happiness Report concludes.

Other trendy perks—nap rooms, free lunches, mandatory paid vacations—typically don’t make workers happier. And when companies try to improve things with change programs, they fail up to 75 percent of the time, according to research including a 2013 survey of some 270 U.S. organizations by Towers Watson, a global professional services firm.

There’s also a dark side to the pursuit of happiness. Leading industries, in particular Silicon Valley, have exploited this burgeoning field, creating a smiley-faced Big Brother corporate culture staffed by chief happiness officers and policed by Orwellian technologies that monitor employees’ moods, behaviours and personal lives. Even as disruptive, mood-free technologies—driverless vehicles, automated grocery stores, robot workers—threaten an increasing number of jobs, happiness has become a workplace must-have.

Making change from the bottom up

At the BC Hydro warehouse, Chris Bianco was aware of these challenges and threats, and he wanted to spearhead an unconventional grassroots change program. “We had to do it on our own, and I knew that if I gave the crew the power and the tools to solve their problems, they could do it,” he says.

To start, Bianco called upon Gervase Bushe, a consultant, coach and professor of leadership and organizational development at SFU’s Beedie School of Business who takes an unorthodox approach to workplace happiness and organizational change.

“Building a business culture in which employees thrive is good for people, profits and the planet—the triple bottom line,” contends Bushe, who turns the traditional organizational change model on its head. The typical approach is top-down: consultants sweep in, interview leaders and executives to identify weak links among staff, crunch the data, stage an intervention with employees and write a prescription for fixing problems.

“But people don’t want to be fixed, so this method usually fails,” Bushe says. “The other dilemmas of topness are that leaders are often clueless about what’s really going on in their company, and they take on too much responsibility when they should spread it around. Another fundamental mistake they make is thinking, I’m responsible for other people’s experiences. Everyone creates their own experience, so the goal is to create a space where employees feel safe to say what they think, feel and want.”

Bushe facilitated a program with the 110 front-line staff at the BC Hydro warehouse. He calls his method “bottom-up dialogic” change—a mix of team-building and group talk therapy sessions. But “talk therapy” is a loaded term, and perhaps too touchy-feely for the group in question, so the sessions were called “crew shop.”

“I admit I had my doubts initially,” Bianco says. “And I knew my leadership style was important. You have to be willing to say, I don’t know the answers. And often you have to drag it out of employees and empower them to try things and make mistakes. You have to be 100-percent committed to saying, It’s OK to fail, and How can I help you get there? The more the crew talked, the more the thinking was, This isn’t so bad. I can fix it.”

The sessions were a smash hit. The crew quickly identified ways to increase productivity and cut service wait times down to 24 hours; within six months they met that goal. On their own time, staff have planted a community garden outside the facility, initiating friendly competitions like seeing who can grow the biggest tomato. Stress levels have plummeted, and the warehouse is better organized.

“The program gave everyone a voice and empowered them to make a difference and feel respected. It brought out their basic human virtues,” Bushe says. He notes that his main role was trusting employees to “unleash instead of getting in their way,” a key reason so many traditional change programs fail.

“Gervase helped us design a format that lets employees engage with each other on a regular basis to solve issues and problems,” Bianco says. “Besides the faster order turnarounds, we have improved safety, employee attendance and employee engagement.”

A safe place to work

Workplace research supports this new dialogic approach, which has many catchy, even culty monikers, like Everyone Culture (where every employee is considered “high potential”) and Deliberately Developmental Organizations. The process mixes team-building and psychoanalysis, sometimes going deep into staffers’ psyches to identify hurdles.

The goal is for people to get along, partly because collaborative work has jumped 50 percent or more in the past two decades, taking up more than three quarters of an employee’s day, according to a 2016 Harvard Business Review study. Positive work climates are also linked to improved health, while poor social relationships are deadlier than obesity and smoking, research led by Sarah Pressman at the University of California, Irvine, has shown.

But what makes a successful team? In 2012, Google’s People Operations Department set out to answer that question with Project Aristotle. Doing what they do best—pattern recognition analytics and data crunching—they were surprised to find only a few characteristics. The key factor: psychological safety. Successful teams are sensitive and empathetic, Google discovered. Other research has established that a psychologically safe environment allows staff to take risks, be more creative, motivated, responsible and connected to each other, their work and their company culture. Empathetic, fair and self-sacrificing bosses also foster higher employee loyalty, resilience, trust, cooperation and commitment.

Studies have consistently validated this three-pronged psychological safety model of human needs: autonomy, competence and relatedness, which equates with social bonding. The model has been around since Sigmund Freud, became embedded in business development in the 1950s, peaked in the ’70s and withered on the vine in the free-market ’80s.  

Research suggests that happiness isn’t a trickle-down commodity. Although a living wage is key, when household salaries rise above US$75,000, people are no happier. The pursuit of happiness can also lead to loneliness, depression and addiction. One long-term study that began in the 1920s and followed children through life found that those rated as very cheerful by their teachers died younger. People also tend to be happier in collectivist and multicultural nations like Canada than in individualistic ones such as the U.S., which is suffering a serious happiness shortage, according to the latest World Happiness Report.

“I don’t think we should be looking to America for happiness advice,” says Briana Lau, a marketing specialist at Vancouver IT services management firm Softlanding. “But it’s hard for small Vancouver companies to attract and retain great talent like the big U.S. firms can.”

Softlanding is a fast-growing business with 55 employees that hires up to five people a month. To draw staff and keep them happy, the company has a profit-sharing program for everyone; monthly social events; an open-concept office with an entertainment lounge and foosball; and a kitchen stocked with free food, wine and beer.

“Sixty-three percent of our employees have been onboard five years or longer,” says Lau, who previously worked at Lululemon Athletica, a company that some former staff have called a happiness cult. Lau says she liked Vancouver-headquartered Lululemon’s culture but moved to Softlanding because she “needed more challenge and better pay.”

At Unbounce, a Vancouver tech company that builds and markets website landing pages, one of the six core values is happiness—specifically, “delight everyone, create opportunities that bring unexpected joy to those around you.” The general philosophy of its six founders is simple: “Look after your people, your people will look after customers, and the rest follows,” says Melissa Isaza, people and culture business partner.

Unbounce’s 160 employees enjoy foosball, table tennis, networking events, a $500 health and wellness allowance and a paid four-week vacation, including $1,000 in spending money. In an industry known as Brotopia because most of its entrepreneurs and staff are young white men, the company also promotes diversity. As of May, women accounted for 33 percent of Unbounce’s senior leadership, 38 percent of its engineering and technology management staff and 42 percent of its people managers.

The gender ratio is 50:50 at Vancouver marketing firm Kimbo Design. “Artists and creative people often do their best work when they’re unhappy,” says Kim Pickett, founder and creative director of the 10-person outfit. “We have harsh deadlines in advertising, and we can’t fail because mistakes get broadcasted to the world. Instead, I focus on looking for ways to inspire creativity and improve employees’ work-life balance.”

Pickett offers flex time, gives all staff family memberships to the Vancouver Art Gallery and does community outreach, including sponsoring local artists and charitable organizations. “Small businesses have a huge advantage,” she says. “We’re like a family. Everyone has a say in our policies.”

Credit: Adam Blasberg

Fraser Health Authority’s Yabome Gilpin-Jackson thinks employees need to thrive, not just survive

Healing powers

With much of the recent happiness cheerleading emanating from the U.S., and especially Brotopia, how much does it come back to stoking the fires of capitalism? Is the new pursuit-of-happiness paradigm about making owners and shareholders happy by forcing workers to do more for less, with a grin on their faces? Employees typically don’t have the power to fix fundamental organizational flaws—toxic bosses, low wages and stressful working conditions.

We know that workplace stress wreaks havoc on organizations. In the U.S., it contributes to at least 120,000 deaths annually and racks up as much as US$190 billion in health-care costs, a 2015 study by researchers at Harvard and Stanford universities revealed. The American Psychological Association estimates that each year such stress gouges more than US$500 billion from the national economy and results in 550 million fewer workdays. In this country, highly stressed workers are 26 percent more likely to visit the doctor, according to a 2011 analysis from Statscan‘s National Population Health Survey.

Stress also causes disengagement, another driver of workplace unhappiness. A 2013 Gallup poll found that even when employees are offered perks like flex time, work-from-home options and higher salaries, engagement is the best predictor of job satisfaction.

Could such a seemingly simple rule hold true at large public organizations—say, at a health-care provider, where the stakes are sky-high and failures can lead to death? In 2015, the Fraser Health Authority emphasized engagement when it embarked on a radical change program for the almost 28,000 staff at its 12 acute-care hospitals.

“Asking nurses and doctors to do more is a hard sell, and the leadership wanted to see quick results,” says ShelleyLynn Gardner, a rehabilitation assistant at Surrey Memorial Hospital’s emergency department. Surrey Memorial runs the province’s busiest ER, and the city’s growing population has created a GP shortage and hospital overcrowding. That’s prompted complaints from the BC Nurses Union and patients of chaotic and even hellish conditions, including outbreaks of influenza and C. difficile bacteria, so-called hallway medicine and as many as eight patients per nurse rather than the recommended four.

When Fraser Health‘s change program began, branded Engagement Radical, or E-Rad, Gardner leapt at the opportunity. “At first I was alone. It was tough,” she admits.  How am I going to get people to buy into becoming more engaged when they already work 12-hour shifts in a very stressful environment? Gardner wondered. “I’ve never seen such amazing, dedicated nurses and staff than we have here,” she says. “But people can only give so much. I knew I had to engage the front-line workers to make it stick. The whole idea is a bottom-up kind of thing.”

“Health care is a high-stress world,” says Yabome Gilpin-Jackson, executive director, leadership and organization development, at Fraser Health. “That can often lead to burnout, especially if staff are unable to use their best skills, and leaders are unwilling to give up personal power.”

Ironically, the human resources department is often part of the problem. “HR developed from the old era of industrial psychology and the reward-punishment model, and it still operates from this paradigm meant to handle low-performing people and a mentality of people as deviants that abuse the system,” Gilpin-Jackson says.

Most people aren’t like that, she adds. “This old-school approach doesn’t work long-term, and it strips away the potential for trust, respect and full engagement, creating a joyless environment where employees do just enough to survive. The workplace needs to be a place where they can thrive.”

At Fraser Health, the organization development  team launched engagement programs, forums and conferences with leaders and hospital staff that evolved into E-Rad. “The goal was to bring front-line staff to the table, asking them to develop and implement workplace goals by encouraging them to go against the grain and take risks,” Gilpin-Jackson says. “From a leadership perspective, it’s really quite simple. Make the commitment to change, give up control and let front-line staff innovate change, and be consistent and committed over the long term.”

Back at chronically stressed Surrey Memorial, Gardner, the sole initial E-Rad member, introduced some heavy weapons: puppies from a group that brings therapy dogs to hospitals for patient rehabilitation and wellness. Gardner’s Puppy Love Day was a big success. “Three-hundred-and-twenty-five staff attended. It was great for morale,” she says. “They got to chill out with puppies and meet other staff.” Surrey Memorial now has Puppy Love Day twice a year, and other Fraser Health hospitals have followed suit.

Gardner then instigated a program granting wishes to patients—fish and chips, a Coke Slurpee and, in one extreme case that made headlines, two horses brought to the parking lot to visit with a patient. Nurses often spent their own time and money to fulfil requests. “It made patients feel valued, like we’re not just a sterile institution,” Gardner says. “It gave us all a strong sense of community pride.”

The Fraser Health E-Rad program now totals more than 500 staff. Positive organizational outcomes from similar recent programs include some 34,000 fewer patient bed days, a shift that reduces mortality.

Gardner says the change program has increased collaboration and trust among staff and improved service delivery. “To me, happiness is about camaraderie, compassion and respect,” she asserts. “It’s feeling appreciated, challenged by different opinions and ideas, having a deep sense of community and knowing there’s so much still to learn.”