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Secrets Of America's Happiest Companies

Disengaged workers cost the U.S. economy $350 billion a year in lost productivity. Here's how the happiest companies boost morale and the bottom line.

"Being able to be truly happy at work is one of the keys to being happy in life," says Heidi Golledge, CEO and cofounder of CareerBliss, an online career database. And what company couldn’t use a little more joy among its ranks?

In her book It’s Always Personal, Anne Kreamer points to recent research from Sigal Barsade of the Wharton School of Business that indicates positive moods prompt "more flexible decision-making and wider search behavior and greater analytic precision," which in turn make the whole company more willing to take risks and be more open. On the flip side, analysis conducted by the Gallup Organization found that disgruntled employees disengage and cost the American economy up to $350 billion a year in lost productivity.

What exactly makes those staffers whistle while they work? CareerBliss just released its findings on the 50 happiest companies in America. The data, based on employee-submitted reviews, evaluated the key factors such as work-life balance, one’s relationship with his/her boss and coworkers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and job control over work performed on a daily basis. The answer to what makes a happy company is an amalgam of all these different factors, which might indicate that companies perceived as innovative would consistently snag the top spots. Not so. Apple and Google dropped from their top 10 spots down to #42 and #18, respectively. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer climbed from #11 to take the top slot, followed by NASA and the U.S. Department of Defense.

Steve McClatchy, founder of Alleer Training and Consulting, whose client list includes top-ranked Pfizer, says a happy workplace is one that is committed to perpetual improvement, and not just as a line item on the balance sheet. "It’s one that supports employees in achieving goals, letting them fail, and learn from that," he says. McClatchy believes happy employees don’t stay in one role for too long. "When there is movement in your life, there is satisfaction. Status quo is what creates burnout and ruts." He says at companies such as Pfizer, staff achieves a balance between improvement, growth, and maintenance. Work burnout isn’t about too many hours spent on the job, he contends, it's about feelings that come from improvement, or lack thereof. McClatchy points out that Pfizer regularly checks in with staff through employee surveys. "It’s a commitment to finding out obstacles to being happy. They don’t wait for exit interviews; they are proactive and continually assess their culture." McClatchy believes a happy workplace isn’t necessarily free of conflict, either. At Pfizer, he says, management addresses conflict constructively. "It’s not with discipline but an approach that is solution-oriented."

Another way to reduce grumblings is to cultivate a culture of mindfulness and meaning, according to Jennifer Aaker, General Atlantic Professor of Marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business. "New research shows there is a strong correlation between happiness and meaning—in fact, having a meaningful impact on the world around you is actually a better predictor of happiness than many other things you think will make you happy," Aaker says. "When we can cultivate mindfulness and meaning in all that we do, including our work, we have the opportunity to influence not only our own well-being, but also the well-being of our family, friends, coworkers, and wider community."

Steven Cowart, manager for Visual Display Systems at NASA, agrees.
"The projects I get to work on are incredibly interesting, challenging, and critical to the success of an experiment or mission. The research facilities are unparalleled in their capabilities and the accomplishments they've helped achieve. The tools we get to work with are the best. Our simulators and trainers are like "E" ticket rides at entertainment parks. Especially the centrifuges. We get to do things I would never have imagined had I not been hired here. Things that matter. Things that inspire people. Things that change our perception of our life on Earth and our place in the universe."

Not surprisingly, another part of joy comes from a simple pat on the back. Globoforce, a software provider of social-recognition solutions, said 82% of employees it polled said that receiving recognition makes them more satisfied with their jobs. "A workplace is far likelier to be a happy place when policies are in place to ensure that people regularly get acknowledgement and praise for a job well done, and where people feel that their happiness at work matters to their employers," says Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling Happiness Project.

Dana Stocks, head of HR for Philips North America, says that the company (ranked #25 on the CareerBliss survey) took this concept a step further to make recognition more personal. "Philips has come to understand that recognition for a job well done is often more meaningful when coming in the form of peer-to-peer acknowledgment than expected manager-to-peer rewards. As a result, Philips has put in place programs and ‘culture drivers’ that help individuals create a legacy that is meaningful and energizing, beyond cash bonuses or award vouchers," he explains.

Two programs help to reach this goal. "We are Philips" is a peer-to-peer recognition program that highlights the accomplishments of fellow employees and how they are modeling the key values and behaviors. Three times per year, winners for each behavior are announced and then showcased throughout North America to inspire others to succeed. Stocks says Philips also uses social technologies to engage with employees like the app called Connect Us (available as a desktop app and for mobile devices) to unite its global workforce by sharing knowledge insights, collaborating, and publicly showing appreciation with Thanks badges. "Any employee can show personal recognition of colleagues’ achievements," says Stocks. Virtual high fives are limited to five per week, and the boss gets looped in, too. "Managers of employees who receive a Thanks badge will be informed by email," he adds.

As the director of happiness at Lamp Post Group, Shelley Prevost, PhD, contends that the happiest workplaces are the ones that seriously honor the humanity of their people. "When you ‘get’ that employees are human beings first and worker bees second, you say something about their worth. Companies with happily engaged employees laugh at the rules that are more about upholding policy than caring about the well-being of others. They hire people with a capacity to care for one another, foster connectedness at every level of the company, give an inspiring vision not laced with b.s. platitudes, but about real possibilities. You want to work in these places because they make you feel purposeful, connected, and valued.

That isn’t always tied to a paycheck. Staffing and recruiting agency Adecco ranked #16 on the CareerBliss survey, even though its average salary was in some cases up to $50,000 lower than the average paycheck at companies at the bottom of the list. "Our people have a tremendous pride in Adecco and what they do for a living," says Mark Eberly, senior vice president of human resources, Adecco Group North America. "Especially in this economy, knowing that you are in the business of putting people to work is extremely gratifying, which no doubt makes for happy employees." David Adams, vice president of learning and development, Adecco Group North America, adds that the agency gives employees opportunities for growth and flexibility. "Our commitment to professional growth includes developmental and skills training for both colleagues and associates. Additionally, we offer flexibility, including the many choices available to our temporary associates as to the times and duration they can work."

One thing to keep in mind, says Delivering Happiness at Work’s CEO James Key Lim, one of the first employees at Zappos, is that there is no one magic bullet to guarantee happiness in the workplace. "We talk about work/life integration instead of balance," he explains, especially when a study found that 90% of people send email on the weekends. By aligning people with their passions both on the job and in the rest of their lives, Lim says companies stand a greater chance of cultivating happy employees. "From an organizational perspective this really takes time," Lim says, and clear, co-owned values are a must, along with consistent checks to ensure that everyone stays aligned. "The annual review is dead," he asserts, "Happiness is a daily journey."

What does your company do to keep you happy (or not)? Tell us about it in the comments.

Find more ideas for increasing your happiness and boosting your creativity in the daily Co.Lead and Fast Company newsletters.

[Image: Flickr user Kris Krüg]

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  • Gail Monique Mallo

    What I am happy about in my company, a startup in Abu Dhabi, is that the communication channel is always open. Because we're a family of small startup employees, there is no politics in the workplace and everyone gets along. We have one goal in mind and that is for our startup to take off. 

  • Mmcs

    Well worth the read and thanks for posting it! I came across a book on creating functional multi-generational workplaces called "7 New Rules for the Sandbox". Some interesting research results in it about what people really value and what keeps good people motivated and on the job. Here's the link if people are interested:

  • Steven Turner

    Employees have 4 desires...1) to be a part of something bigger than they are 2) to be well trained so that they can be successful in what they have been hired to do 3) to be appreciated and 4) to be properly compensated for what they do.  When the actions of leaders contribute to these 4 employee desires, the result is usually positive.  So, whether considering a new strategic or tactical move, or  looking for a solution to an immediate problem, if the decisions include factors that contribute to any of these objectives, you have a greater opportunity for success.

  • Mia Turpel

    I am curious to know what is the distinction being made between work/life "integration" and work/life "balance" as referenced in the fifth rule?  Another comment stated that work/life balance was an old term being replaced by work/life integration.  I realize that each person's definition of what balance is to them is going to be different, but they certainly know when they feel out of balance.  Your 'life' and your 'work' are one and the same - I personally see them as already integrated from my perspective.  Your heart doesn't stop when you stop work. But I do know from experience that loving the work you do, and using your natural strengths and talents in a way that is meaningful to you certainly supports a feeling of balance and joy in day to day living.  I define 'work' as your personal unique contribution to the world that only you can give.  It doesn't have to begin at 8am and end at 5pm.  'Work' can happen while you are driving and noodling on an idea you want to sharpen and an epiphany comes to you.  I would be interested to hear the thoughts from others.

  • Libby Bakken

    Great to know that savy companies continue to offer engaging and energyzing work environments!

  • Misskate Benson

    Great article- happiness in the workplace is a win-win for everyone. Recognition and respect from upper management goes a long way. Who doesn't feel like a million bucks after getting a good pat on the back from the boss? I feel more confident and important when my hard work is recognized in the workplace. 

  • TomPitts

    You may want to explore Shawn Achor's latest book, The Happiness Advantage, based on his ten years of research and as Head Teaching Fellow for Positive Psychology at Harvard University.  Our entire organization is completing an online social learning course from CorpU based on this book's research. 

  • Dr. William Seidman

    While this post is addressing an important area, I think the questions in
    the survey miss the key issues, the examples are self-serving and the
    conclusions are weak, hinting at what other research has done a much better
    job of examining. The post is surprising in missing significant research
    done by Dan Pink on Motivation 3.0 and the neuroscience of positive images
    and learning. This other research has shown that the single most powerful
    motivator of engagement is working collectively to achieve a compelling
    social good or "Purpose." When this is combined with collectively defining a
    clear and specific Path to Mastery, engagement and motivation soar. The
    sense of Purpose is indirectly alluded to in the examples, as is the sense
    of competence that comes from mastery, but it is not well articulated.

    Having worked in helping organizations create cultures of greatness for more
    than 15 years, we have developed a methodology that boosts employee
    engagement to the levels of the top performers. We call this methodology the
    4 positives to cultural greatness:

    - Positive Deviance: Leverage your top performers to articulate a compelling
    social purpose and path to mastery
    - Positive Images: Always talk in terms of the greatness you will achieve
    - Positive Practice: Consciously practice doing everything right, and giving
    people the time and support to do the practice
    - Positive Reflection: Encourage everyone to take the time to reflect on
    positive images and positive practice, which builds strong neural structures

    Any organization that practices the 4 positives will have almost universal
    employee engagement.

  • pcm

    Genuine honesty and respect for employees from the executive leadership goes a long way towards improving happiness and productivity. "Genuine" is key here of course.

  • sanchezjb

    It would be interesting to see which of the "key factors" such as work-life balance, one’s relationship with his/her boss and coworkers, work environment, job resources, compensation, growth opportunities, company culture, company reputation, daily tasks, and job control over work performed on a daily basis had the highest correlation values with the "Bliss" score.  Were these correlation values consistent across the top 50 companies?

  • Confident Queen

    Thanks for this article which I find very useful and interesting. In my quest to help make people happier, I have started this year, to run Happiness Lunch hour sessions here in (UK) where employees can come for 45 minutes just to get away from their work and focus on being happier. We would do some laughter yoga, use visualization to imagine a happier work setting and everyone will take back with them a Gift of Happiness Box with positive affirmations to help them throughout their day. and some smiley's too.  We will then try to add other tools that they can use at work.

  • Analiscious

    I think you're forgetting the single greatest secret of a happy company; lots and lots of anal available to the employees.

  • Sarah

    Love this article. "...employees are human beings first and worker bees second." This is so true. Treating people as whole people and recognizing that improvements in one area of their life (e.g. health) will beneift another (e.g. work) is the foundation for our 'Wellbeing at Work' workshops. Here's to furthering the adoption of life balance programs in comapnies!

  • Danngriffin

    I so like the differential of happiness in life/work integration rather than balance. The latter denies that work is not a part of your life and creates an assumption of seperation. It then denies the employee of creating a way of living that makes work meaningful in their life ... but creates great self righteousness in the company.

  • happyHenry

    Well our company is called Happy Ltd, so I'm hoping we live up to it. One key idea here is that we let people choose their managers. One survey here in the UK found that 49% would take a pay cut to have a different manager and 47% left their last job because of their manager. Its such an easy solution - let people choose their manager

  • Guest

    I work for a dining department in a university.  Upper management never seems to be able to talk about positive achievements without tacking on some negative things.  It's always "great job...but here's how to be better and do more"...sometimes it's JUST "be better & do more".  This gets really old.  How can you stay motivated to do a great job if it's never going to be good enough?
    The irony is...they believe they're progressive, supportive and ahead of the curve for making a great workplace.  Speaking out on this is usually met with defensiveness & turned back on us, the staff.
    Surveys are worded in such ways that things can only be talked about in limited ways.  Reading this article makes me yearn for more enlightened management.

  • Eddie Francis

    I believe other factors of a happy workplace include lack of micromanagement and keeping office politics to a minimum. It stings employees when they see others being thanked for irrelevant accomplishments.

  • jack

    I work in a small company (under 30 people) I single handily designed one of the two projects being worked on. The christmas email came around form the CEO, the project was mentioned but not me personally. Although it doesn't really mean much in the grand view, I surprised myself by how much it hurt not to get a personal mention in an internal email. Acknowledgement of effort counts for a huge amount

  • Chris Kelly

    Question: This study favours large companies, because they have large numbers of employees so the stats will always have many more of them than tiny companies. Maybe the happiest people work in the smallest companies, but 50 companies of under 10 employees wouldn't make a dent in this survey compared to a large drug company or Google right?