Employee Engagement

Creating a healthy workplace culture can increase employee engagement

By Yasmeen Qahwash

Jan. 28, 2020

Michael O’Malley, co-author of “Organizations for People,” spoke with Workforce to discuss the best (and worst) practices when it comes to structuring a healthy workplace culture to maintain high employee engagement.

Workforce: What inspired “Organizations for People”?

Michael O’Malley: It came about because I had heard so many ugly stories about workplace issues. I wanted to write an anecdote to that, that there were companies out there that were quite different, and people should know about them. I wanted to provide some social science to provide some context. I also wanted to put principles behind what these companies do so people aren’t just trying to mimic the practices, but what they really should be thinking about is what these practices afford these companies to do.

Workforce: What are some best practices when it comes to creating a healthy workplace culture and maintaining high employee engagement?

O’Malley: It starts with the premise that there are institutional rules, like the foundation of the workplace is mutual respect and that that’s enforced so that there are certain ways of behaving that are acceptable and ways that are unacceptable, and that those are widely known. It’s not only a general attitude that you have toward one another, but it carries over to incidences of respect. So, you show up for meetings on time, you respond to people’s questions and you’re helpful — all of those kinds of interpersonal rules that enhance the pleasure of the workplace. It starts with basic rules of respect and values.

The companies that I visited tend to put the employees at the center of their organization and that means that there’s a lot of employee involvement. I can’t say there’s complete transparency, but there is significant transparency on how the company is doing and there’s general openness about news, events and finances and so forth about what’s going on in the company. When decisions are made, employees are fundamentally a part of that decision process.

There are lots of principles, but one other one that I thought was important was they foster this sort of sense of abundance that the employer has their backs and that the processes are fair. If one opportunity, for instance a career advancement, passes them by, they know that there will be other opportunities that will come along because their employer is working with them to find what they’re passionate about, what they want to do and is willing to readily move people across the organization into other roles and will put money into training them. A lot of these companies actually allow people to do internships in other departments or shadow people in other departments. So, rather than have this aggressive competitiveness for things that are in short supply, there is this feeling that through training, growth and ample career opportunity, you can actually take pleasure in other people’s successes because you know that the company is working if you work. I think that this notion of abundance is very important in these companies.

Workforce: Why is this a challenge for many organizations?

O’Malley: I think it’s because a lot of what these companies do seems unbusinesslike and risky from an organizational point of view. I think they are slightly afraid of trying out things that are a little bit different and may seem odd in business settings that people have grown accustomed to. So, these places are oddities, they do things that other places don’t do and I think the challenge is for people to break away from this strict notion of “this is the way it’s done” and to try something that’s a little bit different.

Maybe it’s a fear of looking a little bit foolish by trying something that may not work. I have to say that not everything that these companies do does work, but there is a very high tolerance internally for trying things and if it doesn’t work, then learning from those experiences and modifying their approach. Over time people become acclimated to these different ways and are very patient with one another in trying out things that are new. I think the fear really has to do with outmoded conceptions about what the workplace should look like.

Workforce: What organizations have you come across that you think are doing it right?

O’Malley: A lot of the companies in my sample are private companies, so they’re not really beholden to shareholders. But, Instructure, a technology company in Salt Lake City, was different because they’re a public company that creates learning platforms for higher educational and corporate institutions. They have a nice combination of being a very kind and caring organization, but at the same time they seem to have a very aggressive culture, in a good way — they want to win in the marketplace. They have managed this fine line of maintaining a culture that is genuine and pleasurable and at the same time going about their work without denying themselves the usual life satisfactions with friends and family. I think Instructure does it very well. Finding that balance between market aggressiveness and getting results, but at the same time innovation, is difficult to do but I’ve seen them do it.

Another company that has done it well that comes to mind is Pure Insurance, a premium property casualty insurer outside of New York. They, too, have instilled this sentiment that they want to be the best, they want to do things their way, differently, but at the same time have maintained this sense of belonging and all the things that people want like — belonging, autonomy, growth and self-confidence in their abilities.

EngagementSo, those are two companies that I think people should visit and see how they manage these two worlds. There is this conception that kindness means soft and that isn’t it. Kindness means that you want people to fulfill their potential. So, one of the principles behind all of these companies, but certainly in Pure Insurance and Instructure, is that we want you to live a satisfying life, we want you to do what you want to do and we want you to be as good as you can be. A part of that caring is helping people to improve and become better people.

Workforce: What is the difference in approaches between private and publicly traded companies when it comes to maintaining a healthy workplace culture?

O’Malley: What happens is that, with a public company, people get overwhelmed by the financials — that most of what is communicated is financially-oriented — so a lot of times the rewards really are for revenue growth, profits and so forth.

I think that privately held companies often have the founder-owners who have started the company — not only with a market idea but with an idea about values in what a company should be — and those values carry through on the organization. All the companies that I visited in the book started with founders who had very definite ideas about what companies should do and what they should afford people who work within their companies, so they are very value-rich places to work. I can tell you that the profit isn’t the purpose of these organizations. I think they all have very caring and charismatic leaders who actually wanted the company to be formed with certain principles and values in mind. Sometimes with public companies, the longer they’ve been around, the bigger they get, the further they get from those principles that they had at their inception.

Workforce: How does this differ with a remote workforce? 

O’Malley: TCG, which is an information technology consultancy in Washington, D.C., and Intuitive, which is an engineering consultancy in Huntsville, Alabama, are both consultancies, so a lot of people are out of the office most of the time. First of all, they have recurring staff meetings that bring people back in the home office occasionally, or sometimes they can be online meetings. Another company is Concord Hospitality in Raleigh, North Carolina. They have properties all over the place, so they have routines that people abide by, but they do a lot of things in parallel or take time to do things collectively.

For instance, every month TCG has some kind of charity drive that a committee of employees select, and the company will make a donation to that charity, but everyone will volunteer for a day.

For Concord Hospitality they’ll have charity week at all of their properties where people are dedicating time and resources to charities in their local environment but everybody is doing it the same week, same time throughout their properties. Additionally, every month Concord prints a poster-sized agenda for all of their properties that show everything happening that month. Consistency, routines and doing things in parallel are things that help remote workforces.

Workforce: Do you think organizations should come up with an alternative name for their staff, rather than use the term employee?

O’Malley: Yes. I don’t think any of the places I visited refer to employees as “employees.” They actually view that as a subservient relationship and they want a culture that’s more even, where there’s open, two-way communication. They want people to act independently and “employees” sort of has this dependency that they want to discourage.

The Motley Fool, an investment advisory house, they call each other “fools.” People at Patagonia are “patagoniacs.” I think this does two things; it fosters a bond that I think “employee” doesn’t have, but it also denotes a relationship with each other and the company that is more egalitarian, which is what these companies want.

Workforce: What are some goals that organizations should keep in mind while structuring or restructuring a healthy workplace culture? What would you advise them to do?

O’Malley: When you want to change a culture, you have to look at the people who behave consistently with that culture or who, through feedback, are able to change the way that they approach their behaviors in the workplace. Sometimes I think companies are slow to purge the negative out of the workplace, but I do think you have to have people who are in tune with the culture, and sometimes there are cohorts within organizations that just aren’t. Then, I would probably reestablish things with a new set of values and then actually change the way you hire and socialize, so you change the way you introduce people to the company. I would do that in either case. In either case, the thing you want to communicate from the start is that you have certain performance expectations of people, but you also have certain expectations about how they conduct themselves when they’re in the office. That starts with how you select people. You want not only people who are technically proficient but people who share the values of the organization.

Workforce: What are some common business fables that you have come across that you think are important for organizations to know as untrue?

O’Malley: There’s a fable that being compassionate or empathetic will interfere with people’s business judgment and that somehow they will be led astray by their emotions. To me, that’s a fable because you make wiser and better judgments when you have a sounder perspective of the situation, and that really involves understanding the emotional tenor of the situation. This concept of business objectivity is a falsehood. We would have better, wiser managers if they allowed themselves to entertain a broader range of information, including emotional information.

Yasmeen Qahwash is an editorial associate for Workforce.

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