For the past five years, Idexx Laboratories, a Maine-based veterinary technology firm, has encouraged employees to garden together on its premises during company time. In Sweden, many organizations call for workers to take a long coffee break daily -- also while on the clock. (It's called fika, and it's less about caffeine than it is about socializing.) 

"Have they all gone mad?" asked entrepreneur Margaret Heffernan. "Quite the opposite. They've figured out that when the going gets tough ... what people need is social support."

Heffernan has been chief executive of several businesses including the ZineZone Corporation and the iCAST Corporation and is the author of the book "Beyond Measure: The Big Impact of Small Changes." She delivered a talk Thursday at TED Women 2015 in Monterey, California. Heffernan argued that building a culture based on helpfulness, rather than on competition, is imperative to a company's success.

"What drives helpfulness is people getting to know each other," she said. 

While that sounds obvious, managers are usually puzzled when they find out that, despite spending so much time in the same place, employees don't immediately bond with one another. This dawned on Heffernan when she was running her first software company, and she saw that her employees weren't moving forward on problems anymore.

"I gradually realized that the brilliant, creative people that I'd hired didn't know each other. They were so focused on their own individual work, they didn't even know who they were sitting next to," she recalled.

But achieving a culture that rejects individualism hardly comes naturally to most workplaces where awarding high performers is the norm, she acknowledged. 

"Once you appreciate truly how social work is, a lot of things have to change," Heffernan said. "We need everybody. Because it is only when we accept that everybody has value that we will liberate the energy and imagination and momentum we need to create the best beyond measure."

Published on: May 29, 2015