By Paul Spiegelman
Whose job is it to infuse fun in the workplace? And why should I care if my workplace is fun? People need to work not play, right?!
After 20 years of very hands-on experience, I have become convinced that fun-raising in the workplace is not only essential to alleviating worker stress, it is a key employee retention tool. My brothers—and business partners—never set out consciously to provide an atmosphere of fun and frivolity, but we always sensed that how we treated our people made a big difference. We didn’t start actively cultivating a culture that puts employees first until we saw the direct results in the bottom line. After five years of double-digit revenue increases and a triple-digit surge in profits, I continue to build on that culture with a vengeance today. And in an industry where turnover usually averages 80 to 90 percent, ours is only a fraction of that.
I’d like to see fellow business leaders stop treating their co-workers like commodities and begin to more fully understand the profound impact they can have on the lives of the people who work with them. Sadly, far too many of the new hires at Beryl describe criminally demoralizing environments at former places of employment – a situation that we should all refuse to allow.
For a program of acculturation to work, business leaders must first have the fundamentals in place or all culture-building efforts seem disingenuous. Essential components of any healthy work environment are fair pay and benefits, proper training and advancement opportunities, competent managers, and access to the necessary tools to get “the jobs done.” Also vital to a nourishing workplace is an ethos of caring. We have a system in place called Beryl Cares, in which employees can share the personal circumstances of their own or their coworkers’ lives so we can support or celebrate with them as appropriate. Through Beryl Cares, we have assisted a single mother whose children’s Christmas presents were stolen from her apartment; replaced the eye glasses of a co-worker whose were broken in an accident; and paid for an airline ticket for a man to be with his mother who was dying of cancer in another state. The essence of Beryl Cares is simply to let people know that we really do care about the circumstances in their lives…just as a family should.
Most people spend more waking hours at work than they do with their loved ones, which is why we need to “lighten up” at work. A little levity can relieve stress, build relationships and spark creativity. My own experience has also shown that it also makes for happier employees. Remember, senior executives set the tone for the entire organization. By showing a sense of humor and their lighter side, company leaders flatten the organizational chart and make themselves more accessible to employees.
Making it Fun
You can’t have a good culture without having fun. That is why we conduct many events throughout the year expressly for that purpose. For instance, we believe that dressing up doesn’t have to mean a coat and tie. So we have theme days like “Dress the 70s,” “Pajama Day” and “Crazy Hat Day” where employees can really show their creative side. On “Movie Night,” we’ll take 50 to 100 people to a local cinema tavern that serves dinner. On “Ranger Night,” we’ll treat another big group to watching the local major league baseball team. Our schedule is always changing, usually packed, and people really get into these events. Organized potlucks and barbecues help staff escape the mundane and encourage socializing. We even integrate families through our annual “Family Day,” “Breakfast with Santa,” and other events.
On the more elaborate side, we produce an annual “Gong Show.” This extremely popular talent contest allows people to show off their gifts — real or imaginary. One of the prize categories is “Most Painful to Watch;” and, for me, these acts are often the most fun to watch. We also conducted a very challenging six-week “Survivor” competition that gave people a chance to earn a trip to New York to visit an important client. This meant a lot to many of our folks who had never been out of Texas. In “March Madness,” the COO and I dared any two people in the company to beat us at two-on-two basketball. The tournament ran over the course of four weeks; and we ultimately lost in the finals, which is always great for morale.
Little things like job titles can enliven a culture. We don’t hesitate to play with titles because we’ve always looked at ourselves as a very flat organization where titles don’t mean a lot. Our receptionist’s title is Director of First Impressions. The person who heads up the Department of Great People and Fun – usually called Human Resources – is the Queen of Fun and Laughter.
We do everything we can to have fun. When management shows its fun side, the whole organization breathes easier. Every year we create comic videos for our holiday party that depict senior leadership in embarrassing or compromising predicaments. This tradition makes everyone realize that there is no class system – or caste system – at Beryl. We don’t need any senior execs who are too uptight about their status and image to walk around all day wearing a baby bonnet. My brother Barry was gamely – and repeatedly – dunked in a
carnival water tank by crowds of baseball-flinging co-workers who shrieked with delight the whole time. I have taken pies in the face, and been forced to perform wacky dance routines in a lime green leisure suit and a goofy red wig.
Did this undermine anybody’s authority? On the contrary, it underscored the fact that we’re all just human beings here; and we’re all going to work together and enjoy one another’s friendship and have a good time.
The last time I spoke to an MBA class, students from companies like Lockheed and Burlington Santa Fe were strongly questioning the feasibility of doing all this fun “stuff” while trying to run a practical business operation. One student had some call center management experience and knew how important it was that companies like ours keep people on the phones to maintain service levels. He was particularly challenging about what he kind of derisively called “the strategy of fun.” I told the class that, “Look, I don’t run a theme park. First and foremost, we’re in business to make money and perform. But we do have technologies that allow us to monitor performance and schedule people in a way that makes smart use of culture and training and development. And they pay off for us in a big way in terms of dollars.” I think a few of them got the message.
Of course, there is a serious side to our corporate culture as well. We have a set of values that people truly live by: Passion for customer service, never sacrificing quality, always doing the right thing, and spirit of camaraderie. Culture is something people create at all levels of the organization, so we use committees to involve as many co-workers as possible. Our main culture committee decided to call itself the Better Beryl Bureau (BBB). They took the job very seriously and made it clear early on that the focus of the BBB was not going to be “fun.” They wanted to work on enhancing and improving the culture through a wide variety of practical applications, some of them fairly sophisticated. The BBB is managed by a full-time internal enthusiast: our Queen of Fun and Laughter.
“Employer of Choice”
In fact, creating a culture based around our values is at the core of our success and is evidenced by the seven awards we’ve won as a “Best Places to Work” employer. For four years, the Dallas Business Journal named Beryl one of the “Top Ten Best Places to Work” in the Dallas/Forth Worth market, and the Texas Department of Business has ranked us twice on their roster of best employers in the state. And just this summer we were chosen as the number 2 best medium-size company to work for in America by the Society for Human Resource Management. Winning these awards regularly has been very useful and important to us.
First of all, they generate great pride throughout the company. We celebrated the first award by renting a limousine and driving to the presentation luncheon with ten co-workers who had either been nominated by their peers or won a contest. I’m sure that not all these folks had ever before sat through a fancy lunch in a big hotel ballroom. Their reactions while the waiters served them were touching. One call advisor who may never have owned a suit bought one especially for the occasion. As we were riding to the hotel in the back of the limo, he looked at me and said, “This is the proudest day of my life.”
Public recognition of our culture has helped us recruit co-workers. Knowing we’re an employer of choice makes applicants want to work here – at all levels. We just made a very important senior level hire who told me she had no interest until the headhunter mentioned our awards. Finally, these awards mean a lot to our clients. If they have to outsource their customer interaction function, why not give it to the happiest workers in the nation?
Good leaders nourish their people on as many levels as possible. You’ll be surprised how that nourishment can translate into happier employees and lower turnover. The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that it costs nearly $14,000 to replace a solidly performing employee. Some higher estimates range from 29 percent of yearly salary to several times an employee’s annual pay.
Even if focusing on fun and frivolity runs counter to your own corporate culture, emphasizing the following key areas will go a long way to ensuring employees feel satisfied and empowered:
• Credibility – Does management keep people informed and deliver on its promises?
• Respect – Are employees involved in decision making, training and development?
• Fairness – Are employees paid fairly and treated fairly?
• Pride – Do employees feel like they make a difference?
• Camaraderie – Is the organization a friendly and fun place to work?
For Beryl, fun-raising has been a very successful employee retention tool. We will continue to take great pride in making work like, well, child’s play.
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Paul Spiegelman is Chief Culture Officer of Stericycle, a NASDAQ listed global services organization with 13,000 employees and is the Founder of BerylHealth and The Beryl Institute. Paul also co-founded the Inc. Small Giants Community, an organization that brings together leaders who are focused on values-based business principles. As the former CEO of BerylHealth, Paul led a unique, people-centric culture for a company that won nine “best place to work” awards, including the #2 Best Medium Sized Company to Work for in America. Paul was honored with the Ernst & Young 2010 Entrepreneur of the Year award. He’s written several books on employee engagement including Why is Everyone Smiling? and Smile Guide and is the New York Times best-selling author of Patients Come Second: Leading Change by Changing the Way you Lead. He’s also an entrepreneur-in-residence for Office Depot’s SmallBizClub.com. For more information, please contact Paul at email@example.com.
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