Maybe you bought your employees a ping pong table or let them telecommute one day a week. Maybe you brought in a massage therapist or offered free fresh fruit in the conference room. Whatever perk you offered, you probably weren't doing it 100 percent out of the kindness of your dear entrepreneurial heart—you also expected your investment to pay off in improved morale and increased productivity. But everyone's puttering around not looking noticeably happier or getting much more done than before. What went wrong?
It's a question tackled by a couple of thoughtful posts recently. The first, a piece on Fast Company by Dr. Serena Reep, a communication and management coach, argues that no matter how generous your sweeteners, all your efforts to engage and inspire your employees will come to naught if you get your company culture wrong:
Some work/life solutions in the workplace do not produce the magnitude of improvements they are hyped or expected to. Why? So long as employees view these tools as the employer’s way of getting more from them while paying them the same wage, they remain less useful as tools of increased productivity and loyalty. The problem is one of perspective.
When a corporate executive asks me what I recommend they do to change the paradigm of an ineffective corporate culture, I respond, "Concentrate on the soil." Concentrating on corporate soil isn't providing "more stuff." And while it is laudable to give new mothers nursing stations to breastfeed their infants, on-site gyms or gym memberships for athletic employees, and childcare facilities for young parents, this isn’t the soil. These perks should be a result of good soil, not the soil itself. Perks such as these should be part of a larger cultural context, one that the employees believe in.
This perspective—that your team will see your incentives for exactly the self-serving carrots they are unless you've convinced them of the importance of the larger mission of your organization and their value within in—is echoed by venture capitalist Brad Feld in another recent post with the pithy title "You Can't Motivate People."
Feld agrees that trying to bait employees into working harder with cool office design or lifestyle enhancers often simply doesn't work. Using his own efforts to encourage himself to get cracking on a book he's supposed to be writing by transplanting himself to sunny Miami as an example, Feld writes:
There is no external force "motivating me" to write this book. I'm doing it because I want to, find it interesting, challenging, and think it'll be a useful thing for the world…. If you generalize this, it plays out over and over again every day. The great entrepreneurs I know work incredibly hard at creating environments that are motivating. They don't pound away at the specific task of "motivating people," rather they pay attention to creating context, removing barriers, being supportive, putting the right people in the room, and leading by doing. All of these things create a context in which people are motivated.
It could be as simple as a warm day on the ninth floor of a hotel overlooking the beach, which I know is an ideal place for me to write. Or it could be an awesome office environment with incredibly challenging problems. Or it could be a set of people who are amazing to spend time with. In any case, the context is the driver of motivation.
It seems that Reep's somewhat opaque term "corporate soil" lines up nicely with Feld's more straightforward idea of "context." Whatever you call it, both these authors seem to feel that the larger environment, including the apparent worth of the work itself and the interaction between team members, is far more essential to motivation than gym memberships or an office espresso machine. These perks are nice, of course, but they're like sprinkles—they're of little interest to anyone if you don't have the cupcake of a good corporate culture to add them to.
Are you putting the cart before the horse by focusing on perks before you have your company culture sorted out?