Way Beyond A Company BBQ: How To Truly Improve Employee Morale

On an in-house survey handed out by Rocket XL, a digital brand marketer, one employee wrote: "I hate this place!" Here's what CEO Anson Sowby did next.

Improving morale is one of the toughest things company leaders do. Doing it well requires a careful analysis of the problem, rather than the typical knee-jerk response of, "Hey my employees are sad, let's do a barbecue and fill up their bellies with booze!" A company BBQ is an attempt at addressing the symptoms and not the root cause of the problem.

A couple of years ago, we went through a tough time at Rocket XL. And when I say "tough," I mean multiple employees quitting on the same day, objects being thrown, and screaming matches at the water cooler. Needless to say, there was an overall feeling of anger and unhappiness shared by those who quit and those who stayed. Let's just say that Ewoks and Storm Troopers got along better than some of our departments.

But it forced me to take a long hard look at our culture (or lack thereof), and I went through a tough process to get our morale back on track. Here's how:

Get Feedback.

My first step was to get honest and anonymous feedback from the remaining 65 employees. Together with my HR group, we crafted a Survey Monkey where we asked multiple-choice and open-ended questions like:

  • Describe your workload this month? (Heavy, Moderate or Light?)
  • To what degree did you enjoy your job this month?
  • How would you rate your working relationships with each of the following: supervisor, team members, colleagues, clients
  • To what degree were you able to positively impact overall morale among your team?
  • What would you recommend to improve the culture?
  • Do you have any questions that you'd like answered in the next company meeting?
  • Who shot first (Han or Greedo)? (Yes, we really asked that just to make sure people were paying attention and to throw some humor into the process. But it's key to mention that we threw humor in sparingly so as not to belittle the serious work.)

Next, Admit That You Have a Serious Problem.

There's a reason why the first step of Alcoholics Anonymous is admitting that you have a problem. It's the hardest, but the most important step. Reading the horrible stuff that my employees wrote about the company—like "I hate this place!" and "How are we still in business?"—was one of the worst nights I've ever had.
I thought we had some kinks to work through, but once our employees were given a forum to express themselves, the results were nothing short of toxic. And this didn't even include the people who'd left.
Once the initial shock passed, we boiled down the problems into three key points that affected every employee:

  1. Employees felt overworked and undervalued.
  2. Employees believed senior management focused more on profit than their well-being.
  3. Employees did not understand the mission of the company.

Build an Action Plan.

If employees were going to take time out of their busy schedules to fill out a survey, they needed to see the value. And if we didn't immediately address their concerns, the situation could have gotten worse—so I immediately reviewed the responses with my senior staff the next day, and we put together an action plan, which consisted of:

  • Thank the employees for their honesty and give them a timeline to address the concerns.
  • Gather the department heads to review the results and include the department heads in the planning process.
  • Give the department heads the tools to roll out plans to address [the problems].

But the process wasn't as easy as we thought it would be. It was more like destroying the Death Star with one shot. Employees were unhappy for a reason, and they weren't going to buy into the plan until they realized that we were really turning over a new leaf.

For example, with problem 1 (employees feeling overworked), our initial ideas addressed the symptoms of unhappiness rather than the root problem. So instead of office parties, we rolled out a new weekly meeting called Friday Forums where employees could ask me any question on the spot and I had to answer them in front of the company. I ripped this idea straight from Google's famous Friday Q&A meetings. We also implemented monthly surveys.

Some of the best ideas we've had to date were hatched in these meetings. And the best part was that they came from the employees directly.

Over subsequent months, we left the process in the hands of the department heads, all the while listening to our employees with monthly surveys in order to track our happiness meter. I'm happy to say that we've only had one employee quit so far this year, so hopefully we're back on track—and hopefully my employees don't mind my Star Wars references. If they do, I'm sure I'll hear about it soon.

Anson Sowby is CEO of Rocket XL and a digital brand marketer with a proven track record of launching successful products and companies for over 14 years. He's led global teams within the Brand and Agency functions of numerous Fortune 500 companies marketing their products in traditional and social media.

[Image: Flickr user Guian Bolisay]

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2 Comments

  • Mik

    "For example, with problem 1 (employees feeling overworked), our initial ideas addressed the symptoms of unhappiness rather than the root problem. So instead of office parties, we rolled out a new weekly meeting called Friday Forums where employees could ask me any question on the spot and I had to answer them in front of the company. I ripped this idea straight from Google's famous Friday Q&A meetings. We also implemented monthly surveys"
    You did not share with us how you addressed problem 1.  Sounds like the root problem is too much work, too few people.  What did you do?

  • Dani

    I think employee engagement is the next great competitive advantage for companies, particularly as millenials enter the workforce in droves and demand something different than what our parents had/did.