A happily married couple we know advises that you should treat your spouse at least as well as you do a stranger. This advice holds true at work as well. What would it look like if managers were as polite and nurturing to one another and their subordinates as they are to customers? What if C-suite executives valued caring for co-workers as much as clients?
There’s a reason law firms and advertising agencies still take clients out to the ball game, theater, or even to Las Vegas. The plan is that what happens in Vegas doesn’t stay in Vegas, but instead spills over into trust and collaboration in future business endeavors. As Wharton professor Adam Grant put it in a recent New York Times editorial, “[w]hen friends work together they’re more trusting and committed to one another’s successes . . . they share more information and spend more time helping” and can even “make better choices and get more done” if there’s still room for constructive criticism.
Psychologists call this relationship-building “social affiliation” or “tending,” and it helps sustain both health and wealth. And yet when it’s employee-to-employee, rather than employee-to-customer or employee-to-client, it’s often belittled as “office housework” and performed by the women on the team – think of your office’s birthday celebrations, retirement parties, and team-building outings. Who schedules them, orders the food, and tidies up afterward? But organizations hurt themselves by ignoring or devaluing those efforts that keep the office warm and sociable.
Corporations and LLCs are controlled by human beings with pulses, hearts, families, loyalties, and a preference for working with people they trust. Recognition of humanity goes a long way. Just last week one of us was struck by the generosity of a New York bank that picked up the tab for the post-memorial service dinner of an employee who was grieving the loss of his father. In business, as in love, you earn trust. Once earned, you’re a fool to take it for granted.
So we propose a three-step solution to properly value the office tending work that lubricates its operations: identify it; understand its impact; and find ways to assign it value.
1. Identify the tending work.
Lots of tending tasks are hidden in plain sight. They’re invisible if done well, as with pre-planning for a productive offsite. Or they’re personal enough – like arranging to cater that post-memorial service diner — that they look more like common courtesy than work. Consequently they’re often implicit instead of specified in job descriptions or portfolio assignments.
To bring tending into the light, managers could assess tending across three dimensions: organizational, team, and peer.
At the organizational level, someone has to plan retreats, holiday parties, bring-your-child-to-work days, and other culture-enhancing special events. Any smooth-functioning team includes someone who onboards new members, organizes team building activities like lunches or running clubs, and makes sure that extra efforts get publicly acknowledged. Finally, peer-level tending can take the form of an engagement party or welcome-baby card, staying late to help a colleague, coaching, covering for one another, and figuring out who, when, and how to explain an employee leaving the firm. Some of these tasks provide their own rewards – onboarding gives the onboarder power to shape new employees, for example – yet others get valued about as much as dusting and vacuuming.
2. Understand its benefits.
Plenty of organizations believe that money is how you keep score: their standard measures for assessing employees’ impact are tied to obvious metrics of profitability. But tending also increases productivity and, hence, profitability, so it should be measured too. Who sustains your culture, retains employees, and engages your workforce? These activities – like tending – can be difficult to pin down to a dollar amount, but nevertheless plump up every business’s bottom line. Consider these three factors:
Culture. Culture doesn’t just happen. The culture of an organization is a function of its humanity. Ping pong tables and cafeterias create value by bringing employees together to eat and play, and the relationship-building banter that comes with both. Google ups the ante by offering on-site bike repair, massage therapy, and a gym, as well as free meals, all of which grease the wheels for employees to cultivate friendships and collaborate. At the other end of the spectrum, Amazon’s been highly criticized for a dog-eat-dog culture that willfully ignores the social niceties. Most workplaces fall in between these extremes. Whether it’s a formal team community service day or a spontaneous after-work round of beers, these efforts can create the powerful social glue of “us-ness,” as one of us (Martha) calls it.
Employee retention. Tending goes a long way in mitigating the “workers as machines” phenomenon common in industries requiring billable hours or sales quotas. Further, it makes employees “sticky” to an organization.
But keeping the best employees takes more than the one-size-fits all approach of many HR departments; instead, they rely on the finer interventions of individual managers and colleagues. Steve Lopez, Vice President at Manpower, urges companies to invest in retention strategies just as they do in their brand, tailoring strategies to employees’ unique needs.
Without such one-on-one coaching, according to HBS Professor David Thomas, “you’re likely to be blindsided by events they should have foreseen and in many cases fixed — such as the sudden departure of a star employee for greener pastures or, more commonly, a sense of discouragement that festers when someone believes, with reason, that the organization is not in his or her corner.”
Employee engagement. Employee engagement is one of the top three concerns of most HR professionals, according to the Society for Human Research Management (SHRM)’s 2015 Globoforce Employee Recognition Survey. They’re not just being nice. According to a 2006 SHRM report, increasing employee engagement not only saved one of Caterpillar’s European plants $8.8 million in decreased attrition, absenteeism, and overtime, it also drove a $2 million profit increase and 34% jump in highly satisfied customers. Adam Grant is correct to argue for the health and profitability of a friendship friendly environment. A 2013 HBR article by Christine Riordan likewise reported the many ways that workplace friendship increases job satisfaction and engagement. Employees who feel taken care of, who feel a sense of “family” are more engaged workers. They are willing to do more, take more personal initiative, and hence imbue the organization with momentum.
3. Assign value to the work.
The third and final step requires management to signal the value of the tending work that keeps their culture strong and employees present and engaged.
Cash value is one possibility: include tending activities in key assessments like annual reviews, raises, promotions, and partnership shares. Digitas had a pot of cash and gifts that a manager could apply for and use to reward team members (direct and indirect) who were doing extraordinary work.
Social capital also counts. Company, department, and team meetings are perfect opportunities to acknowledge employees who take on tending activities consistently. In large organizations where manager approaches and style can vary dramatically, institutionalizing tending as a core value of the culture can help to mitigate that variability and create accountability.
Both of our spouses follow the advice about being polite, always complimenting us on the dinners we cook for our respective families. Similarly, managers should compliment – and compensate – employees who do the office tending that nourishes every organization. As Martha argues in her book Love’s Promises, tending is not a gift that chief cooks and bottle washers on the home front lavish on their families with no thought of return, ever. Similarly, workers don’t spend all that time and effort on their organization out of pure altruism. The men and women who undertake the many acts of office tending every day – from agenda planning to managing an employee’s exit – do it because they care about one another and about the organization. Even a business that cares only about the bottom line short-changes itself as well as its employees if it persists in the belief that only customer caretaking counts.
Note: The authors would like to acknowledge some of the professionals who shared their experiences and insights for this article.
- Lisa Dallenbach – Chief Talent Officer, Mindshare North America
- Kristine Welker – Founding Publisher and Chief Revenue Office, Dr. Oz Magazine
- Jessica Bassett – Executive Director of Product Engagement, Athenahealth
About the Authors
Martha Ertman is the Carole & Hanan Sibel Research Professor of Law at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law. Her new book, Love’s Promises: How Formal & Informal Contracts Shape All Kinds of Families (Beacon Press 2015), which blends memoir with stories about family agreements, has been featured in the Time andWashingtonian magazines.
Shula Malkin Darviche now leads a digital consulting practice, after 10 years with Digitas driving digital innovation for American Express and other Fortune 100 companies
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