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Changing the Equations to Improve the Bottom Line

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When asked for a closing comment at a Forum on Workplace Flexibility sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation last week, Senior Advisor to President Obama, Valerie Jarrett advised those in the audience to look at the eyes of their employees. You can tell from their eyes, she said, whether their jobs are working for them, whether they are truly engaged.

Those words ring very true for me. It was the dull, flat, emotionless looks in children's eyes I was interviewing across the country about learning that told me that children don't have to drop out of school to drop out of learning. It was the look in their eyes that sent me on a ten-year odyssey for what became my book, Mind in the Making, examining the research on children's learning to find out what we are doing to dim that fire in children and what we can do to reignite it. So, not surprisingly, the question I pursued during the day and a half Sloan Forum was: what seems to make the eyes of adult employees' shine brightly? And interestingly enough, this was an issue that arose in the presentations of employers at the Forum.

John C. Parry, the C.E.O. of Solix Inc., a process-outsourcing firm based in Parsippany, NJ , told the story of inheriting Solix as a spin-off from a larger, more traditional corporation. At the time, he could clearly see in his employees' eyes that they weren't happy. Furthermore, there was strong evidence to prove it--too many employees were either quitting (turnover was 15%-20% a year) or they just weren't showing up at work (absenteeism ran at 5% per year). In addition, revenues were flat. In response, Parry met with every employee to listen to his or her concerns and then responded by replacing the command-and-control management style with a style of openness, with greater workplace flexibility so employees didn't have to choose between their jobs and their families or personal lives, and with on-the-job time for community service through an "acts of kindness campaign."

Listening was not a one-time act at Solix--it continues. Parry has provided an anonymous way for employees to ask him anything they want with a promise of his responding within 48 hours. He meets yearly with all 1100 employees in small groups and he benchmarks Solix against best practices at other firms. Keeping the fire in employees' eyes is an ongoing endeavor.

Bottom Line: Solix has changed the equation from a top-down management style to a up-, down-, and across-management style of listening and responding. The business results are impressive: turnover is now 4%, absenteeism is less than 1% and revenues are growing.

Richard Sheridan, the C.E.O. of Menlo Innovations, a software company based in Ann Arbor, MI, told of a turning point in his own career. He was in the software business, a business he describes as a "death march"--employees working around the clock, sleeping in the office, and burning out--no fire in their eyes. He decided that the only way he could remain in this business was to create a company where he would really like to work. The resulting company, Menlo Innovations, has redesigned work by using a team approach--two employees are assigned to a computer and employees switch teams regularly so that there is always cross-training and mentoring going on. Thus, a project never depends on a single individual. In this 50-person firm, employees only work 40 hours a week and the company has never had to deny a vacation or a leave--even a long leave or a leave on short notice--because others can always pick up the work. Most important to Sheridan is creating a culture of happiness and joy and that includes saying "yes" to new parents who want to have their newborns at work with them.

Bottom Line: Menlo Innovations has changed the equation from the notion of the individual at the center of business success to the team--and this approach includes the employees and their families. The business results are strong. Menlo has more than doubled its staff and its revenues in recent years and turnover is exceptionally low.

What struck me in hearing about Menlo Innovations and Solix Inc. is that they illustrate the Families and Work Institute's research findings. Using our large nationally representative study, the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce, we have investigated the ingredients of an effective workplace where employees are engaged, satisfied with their jobs, plan to remain, are healthier, and have a better work-life fit. We find that such jobs are most likely to offer: 1) challenges and learning opportunities, 2) job autonomy, 3) supportive relationships with supervisors who help employees succeed on the job, 4) economic security, 5) a culture of respect, and 6) workplace flexibility.

One can take the examples of Solix and Menlo Innovations and the findings from this study and boil them down to one ingredient: good relationships among people--relationships that are supportive, caring, and--dare I even say it--happier.

Yes, I know that business leaders always say that people are our greatest asset, but there is a difference between saying it and living it. When organizations are willing to experiment with changing traditional business equations and when they are committed to finding ways to respond to their employees' and their own business needs, the bottom line results can be very strong.

Valerie Jarrett is right--we can tell whether companies are walking the talk by looking at the eyes of employees!

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