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Keeping employees happy isn't rocket science Written by Matthew Bostock on 12. March 2013


Here in Startup Land, nobody’s doing it for the money and the glory isn’t certain. So how is a founder supposed to keep morale, her or his most important asset, intact?
Any job can get stressful. But in Startup Land, where the vast majority of companies fail, it can be more potent than ever. Teams are generally small and work closely as a unit day in, day out. Throw in some late nights and weekends, the odd pivot, and you’ve got the perfect conditions for grumpiness.
During these times of stress, founders and managers are generally busy strategising, organising and putting out fires – so busy, in fact, that the general well-being of the team can take a back seat. Stress at a startup is something people have to deal with, some say.
But left long enough this stress can fester into unhappiness – one of the biggest factors that causes people to under-perform or leave altogether. These kinds of blowouts have already graced the startup stage spectacularly; former employees from Square took to Quora and spoke out about the demotivating work atmosphere last year, and there were a healthy number of articles written about the “long hours and stressful deadline periods” at Zynga.
What’s interesting is that startups are meant to stand for culture and fun, just as much as work. We hear it time after time, and we can see it too – whether that’s through lavish parties or local events. But in the case of Square and Zynga, these stressful moments evidently got the better of them – it filtered down through the ranks until employees began to leave. So as a startup without a ton of money or man power, how easy is it to avoid or dampen these grumpy periods and keep people motivated and happy? Luckily it’s much easier than most think.

Reward, help, repeat

width="224"A former boss once said to me: “What gives me the right to tell you what you’re doing wrong, if I don’t tell you what you’re doing right?”
Reward can play a huge part in increasing team morale and alleviating stressful situations. A Japanese study last year showed that praise has the same positive effect on someone’s work as receiving cash does — with participants performing exercises more efficiently after receiving a pat on the back.
There’s always the worry of people giving up when they’re in a lull, but celebrating people’s accomplishments can spur them on to make more of the situation at hand. It can bring a company together and create oneness, which is an apt trait to have when we think of a startup.
Talking of oneness, one of the most beneficial qualities of a startup — one that manages to drag the most experienced people from bigger companies – is the ability to work closely with different departments. So closely, in fact, that you’re usually only a few steps away from a designer, or developer, or marketing person.
The ability to share knowledge and learn from one another is unparalleled in this working environment. A UK study last year showed that the biggest factor of happiness in the workplace, a whopping 82 per cent, is placed on the fact that people enjoy working with their colleagues.
When we look at stressful scenarios at a startup, lending a helping hand can only increase this sense of happiness, and can counteract any grumpiness as deadlines loom and the pressure mounts.

WoogaWooga’s CEO says team autonomy is the most important part of its culture.

Trust employees, and respect their time

Startups are creative places; their main purpose is to attack a problem from a novel angle. There are as many failed experiments conducted at a startup as many there are successful ones. But as Eric Reis puts it, a “build-measure-learn” loop is essential for growth and validation.
Trusting your employees to experiment with things, even when those things are new to them but not you, breeds trust in a company. It can make employees feel valued during stressful situations, and can make them feel like their contributions genuinely matter.
An APA study showed that 93 per cent of employees that felt valued produced their very best work, and with stress threatening to cloud the vision of some, a founder or manager would want nothing less.

How much work is too much work?

But aside from these things happening inside an office setting, another point arises that seems contradictory during a stressful company period – how much work is too much work?
A Socialcast study concluded that 46 per cent of people constituted a work-life balance to general happiness, and it’s not breaking news that too much of anything is bad for you. People do have other things in life that make them happy aside from their desk.
You can’t necessarily measure passion or drive in working hours, but you can in end results. Sheryl Sandberg leaves work every day at 5pm. It’s not a blueprint for every startup, but it does show that people work in different ways and can still accomplish incredible things. If your team looks haggard and tired from all the work, it’ll do them no good to do any more.


It isn’t rocket science

Although things like company retreats and wacky office decals breed fun, they aren’t the easiest things to get right. A comfy beanbag is great, but when deadlines are tight many just want a pat on the back, some motivation, and a good night’s sleep.
Luckily we’re all given a boost when the little things surface – whether that’s a text from a loved one or that last piece of cookie dough at the bottom of the tub. It’s all about making people feel good. And when people feel good, they feel inspired. And when people feel inspired, they land on the moon. It’s a domino effect that can ripple through your company, and keep that dreaded stress at bay.
Image credit:
scream: flickr user chantel beam photography
Steve Jobs: flickr user acaben
Wooga: Nina Fowler
pocket rocket: flickr user jurvetson


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The “Feelgood Manager”: is ensuring workplace happiness a full-time job?
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