Creating an enlightened environment: Having a happier, healthier workforce reaps rewards

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Creating an enlightened environment: Having a happier, healthier workforce reaps rewards

By design or by default, every business has a corporate culture. But I suspect most business folks would be hard-pressed to describe theirs in any detail. By my lights, "culture" (some prefer "climate") is an umbrella term defined by:

* the conditions and standards under which employees work;

* employees' shared understanding of team dynamics and how they fit in;

* the "tribe's" acceptable behaviors, dress, appearance and rituals;

* the team's collective personality and identity.

The best people -- productive, creative, passionate -- won't settle for less than an energized, ethical shop abuzz with a spirited team attitude. John Lasseter, executive vice president of Pixar Animation Studios, would agree. Under his direction, the studio's animated blockbusters ("Monsters, Inc."; "A Bug's Life"; the "Toy Story" films; "Finding Nemo") generated worldwide grosses of more than $2.5 billion through 2004. As Newsweek noted:

"With such success, you might think all the competing studios would have plundered Pixar like an unguarded vault -- which, technically, it is, since unlike at every other studio nobody besides Lasseter works under contract. So far everyone is staying put. 'A piece of paper won't keep them here,' Lasseter says. 'You want their heart here. So you make them creatively satisfied.'"


Extend a healthy hand

A healthy culture requires healthy employees. My executive committee objected when I proposed building a fitness center, massage area and meditation room in our new suburban Minneapolis headquarters. "Why waste valuable square footage on luxuries?" some argued. "They're not luxuries, they're necessities," I said. "When we take care of our people we take care of ourselves."

They weren't the only skeptics. Dave Wilhelmi, our vice president of marketing, was dumbfounded. "Our home office was going to include a meditation room, an exercise room, a basketball court, and afternoon classes on dieting and yoga?" questioned Dave. "My first thought was, 'You've gotta be kidding me, we're in the tire business, aren't we?'"

Yep. And it didn't take long to win Dave over. "When I think back," he said, "I remember the swelling pride I felt in showing off all those features to a group of out-of-town guests and watching their eyes pop as I toured them around." Dave explained why we offered those amenities, along with an in-house university with mock showroom and service bays, and a 100-seat break room furnished with a state-of-the-art kitchen. Visitors were especially impressed with the grand staircase that cascaded down to the two-story glass windows overlooking a wooded area with pond. "I wasn't the only one who was happy to be working there," said Dave. "The pride among our employees was apparent to many visitors."

Pride and productivity aren't easy to sustain when you feel ill, physically or emotionally. Common sense tells you productivity suffers if employees don't exercise; if they eat too much junk food; if they're stressed out and sleep-deprived; if they don't feel good about themselves. Now, I'm not suggesting that you pry into personal lives. Even casually telling people what they should be doing crosses the line. With that caveat in mind, I came up with a three-step process that, over the years, inspired hundreds of employees to make healthier lifestyle choices.

1) Model healthy behavior and habits yourself. An overweight, cantankerous boss who chain-smokes and guzzles sugar-water all day long broadcasts a very different message than a fit, energetic and emotionally grounded leader with a ready smile and encouraging word. But don't wait till you're a paragon of healthy habits before you send out the positive self-care vibe. In fact, employees may relate better to someone who's struggling with, and taking responsibility for, his own unhealthy behaviors.


2) Encourage others (gently) to take better care of themselves. When an employee was noticeably sleep-deprived or lethargic, I'd say, "Gosh, Ken, are you doing OK? You don't seem to be your usual energetic self." Judging from his response, I'd urge him to get caught up on sleep or to take time to exercise regularly, even if it meant working a little less. Of course, if he wasn't receptive, I'd wish him well and move on. Too many seat-of-the-pantsers send an unspoken message: "What's this nonsense about going to the gym and eating 'better' food? What do you think this is, a resort? We pay you good money to work your butt off." The enlightened executive understands that when employees devote a few hours a week to self-care, the hours they do spend at work will be more productive.

Seat-of-the-pants cultures are also notorious for discouraging people to take sick days. Hello? Coming to work sick often extends the illness and may put other employees at risk. If someone is sniffling, shivering and sneezing, thank her for her dedication but tell her to go home, get some rest and get healthy.

3) Create opportunities for employees to make healthier choices. Our corporate wellness program, led by an in-house wellness coach, wasn't limited to nutrition and exercise. It covered everything from stress reduction, weight management and smoking cessation to back care, emotional health and substance abuse. Information and programming were accessible through onsite workshops, brown-bag classes, newsletters, e-mail alerts, our intranet, an in-house library, and an EAP (employee assistance program). Once a week, everyone from computer jockeys in the home office to in-store technicians could sign up for a 15-minute Shiatsu massage for a company-subsidized five bucks.

Sure, not everyone took advantage of the opportunities. But the benefits were dramatic for many who did. People dragging by lunchtime returned from a workout invigorated. Employees struggling with emotional challenges had a better shot at beating them thanks to internal support and professional help. A lot of people simply didn't know how to make the first step toward a healthier lifestyle. It was a joy to watch them take the ball and run with it.


Fun, friendly and flexible

Your employees are on board the mission train, they're stoked about the vision, they feel honored and valued, and their wellness needs are being met. With a little more effort, you can crank up the culture and make the place so enjoyable that people wouldn't dream of working anywhere else. As Herb Kelleher, the pioneering former CEO of Southwest Airlines, put it: "If people come to a place that they regard as fun, entertaining, and stimulating, their minds are turned on. They're looking forsolutions and they'll find them."

Start with yourself. Fair or not, your relationships with people under your watch set the tone for the entire staff. My dad and his World War II Army buddies told me, "There were some leaders we'd gladly follow out of a foxhole into battle. But there were others we wanted to shoot in the back." It's no different in the corporate foxholes. The commander in chief can make every day feel like a slice of heaven or a glimpse of hell.

Crack open the window of your life and connect more deeply with people. Let your guard down. Be accessible. Listen. Every so often, start a meeting by asking everyone to share something interesting going on in their personal life. Or, start with a humorous, self-deprecating story. Ever spill food on yourself at an important business dinner? Make a boneheaded play in a softball game? Lock yourself out of the house in your bathrobe?

Your gentle humor and humility encourage others to follow suit. Build on that. Occasionally, organize a potluck lunch or have take-out food delivered. If weather permits, make it a picnic lunch. Breaking bread is a wonderful way to bring people together and strengthen bonds. Before you know it, you're cooking with team chemistry. Filling people's stomachs is also a good way to show you appreciate great work. Every year, our executive team donned aprons and served lunch to the employees. During huge snowstorms, we tried to keep our crews fueled with pizza while they worked 16-hour days to serve panicked drivers.


Don't stop there. Sponsor a softball, golf or bowling team. Maybe a volleyball or archery league. Gardening or chess club, anyone? Welcome the spouses of employees and former employees -- whoever wants in on the fun. Some of these things might spill into company time, but that's OK. It's not wasted time. People who sit anonymously in rows of cubicles can get to know their neighbors better in one afternoon at a bowling alley than by exchanging three years' worth of hallway hellos.

That camaraderie is priceless, especially when leaders also participate. I was a force to be reckoned with on the company basketball team, played in our annual company golf outing, and took on countless ping-pong challengers determined to beat the boss. By keeping "rank and file" diversions like this at arm's length, management promotes an us-versus-them mentality. If nothing else, show up on the sidelines once in a while. I had a blast cheering on our softball team with my bleacher buddies.

Enlightened executives also recognize that most employees have busy, complicated lives. Do what you can to reduce their stress. If circumstances allow (and often they don't), provide flexible start and finish times. Let people run errands during the workday now and then. As long as the work gets done, and gets done well and on time, loosen the rules and give people the freedom to be responsible adults.

Creating a can't-wait-to-get-to-work-on-Monday culture not only helps retain people, it can even lure them back once they've left. Before a departing employee slipped out the exit door I made sure he saw the WELCOME BACK sign taped to the other side. We thought of former employees as "lifetime alumni," and invited them back for special events as though it were high school homecoming week. We also regularly checked in with them to see how they were getting along (we knew once people had a taste of our culture it was hard to settle for less). If a former employee was happy at his new company, I was happy. But if he felt like a fish out of water, I'd jump at the chance to reel him back into our pond.

Once, a larger company offered our director of loss prevention, Eric Randa, a major boost in salary and responsibility. After reviewing the facts, I shook his hand. "I hate to lose you, Eric," I said, "but you're obviously making the right decision." Almost five years later, we had grown from 40 stores to 150. I got a wild hair, called Eric, and asked if he'd like to come back, as a vice president, with stock options. "I was fairly content where I was," Eric recalled, "but the new job hadn't been nearly as enjoyable. At Tires Plus, I had put in long hours, but I learned a lot and it had been a lot of fun. It didn't take long to accept Tom's offer. It was a breath of fresh air to come back."


Maintaining cordial relations with ex-employees was an important part of our culture. It wasn't just because we hoped they'd return; it was also one of our values. If I heard an employee bad-mouth a former teammate, I slammed on the brakes. "You're glad he's gone?" I'd say. "That's not OK. Yes, he made some mistakes. But don't we all? Overall, he's a good person, he contributed, and I hope he's happy at his new company." Speaking well of former colleagues shows your people your concern is authentic, and that you won't treat them like yesterday's news should they leave. That authenticity is the glue that binds a healthy culture together. You can't fake it any more than you can put a price on it.

OK, reality check: No matter how much effort you put into making your office a fun, stimulating place, a small pocket of employees are still going to grouse. It's always left me scratching my head -- the happier most people are, the unhappier other people seem to get. But that's okay. It isn't possible to please all the people all the time.

Changing your culture is hard, but rewarding, work. There are no quick fixes. But take heart. Once you begin engaging hearts and minds with the idea that work can be exciting and enjoyable, the process takes on a life of its own. As Stanford University professor Everett M. Rogers noted: "When approximately 5% of a population adopts a new idea, it becomes 'embedded.' When it's accepted by 20% of the people, it is unstoppable."

B>Three to one: Wellness initiatives reap healthy rewards

Results of wellness initiatives are hard to measure, says management expert and author Tom Gegax.

"Conservative data I've seen estimates a three-to-one return on investment," he says. "It makes sense. The benefits are obvious -- health-care costs and absenteeism go down; creativity, efficiency, and performance go up. And they're programs people enjoy and appreciate, which translates into better employee relations.

"Bottom line: It's a no-brainer."


Best-selling author Tom Gegax, cofounder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company's chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom's warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team's relentless focus on customer service, the company's turnover rate ranked among the industry's lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer's Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance. His most recent book, "By the Seat of Your Pants: The No-Nonsense Business Management Guide," is already a national bestseller. It can be ordered on the home page.

Gegax can be reached via e-mail at or by calling (877) TOM-GEGAX (866-4342).
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