Aug 12, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Company culture is like parenting.

Parents want their kids to be happy. But if that fleeting happiness is the only goal, more important things are bypassed.

You can give your kids $50 every time they go out with their friends. You can ignore it when they sneak out of the house at 2 am, or give in when they throw a wild tantrum on the grocery store floor because they want M&Ms.

The result: His or her friends will think you’re the coolest parent and your kid will seem happy, but, you may end up with a spoiled brat who can’t function in the adult world and isn’t ever truly satisfied.

Free stuff doesn’t always make employees happy

Company culture focused simply on making employees happy is kind of like this kind of parenting.

Give employees free stuff all day, every day. Look the other way when they’re dishonest about time off. Quietly seethe when you realize they’re surfing Facebook and chatting all day instead of doing their work.

They’ll seem happy, and their friends will think you have the coolest company ever. But if that’s all your culture is about, you’ll have a company full of unfocused employees who aren’t engaged in meaningful work.

When your end target is happiness, the means are often disregarded. But if you consider what means produce long-lasting, meaningful happiness, your target changes. There are much better targets to focus your sights on when it comes to company culture — and when those targets are nailed, they all produce a common byproduct: employee satisfaction.

1. Engagement

Your employees need to be engaged. Your culture can encourage engagement by creating an environment where valuable contribution is expected from everyone.

In BambooHR’s culture, we encourage this particularly in one of our values: “Be open.” Specifically, we believe that good ideas can come from anyone. Employees who feel their ideas are valued are much more likely to invest their mental capacity trying to help the company succeed.

In fact, employees who feel valued are 60 percent more likely to report being motivated to do their best work. And research has found that the No. 1 driver for employee satisfaction in North America and Europe was the opportunity to do what they do best.

2. Development

More than three-fourths of employees want career-growth opportunities. However, less than 1 percent said free food was enough to keep them at a job.

It makes sense considering careers last a lot longer than food. So, if you want truly satisfied employees, your culture should focus on giving employees what they really desire: Development.

One of our cultural values that captures this is “grow from good to great.” Our hope is that our employees are constantly becoming better than they were when they started with us. The ability to succeed and progress is what really create satisfaction — North American and European employees list it as the second-most important thing contributing to their satisfaction.

3. Balance

Life is all about balance, and culture should encourage balance for employees. Culture should seek to strike a balance between employees’ work and life — hence the term work-life balance.

Unfortunately, half of your employees don’t feel satisfied with their work-life balance. Now, many people are arguing what we actually need is work/life integration. That’s up to you to decide what fits your company best.

We call our balance “enjoying quality of life,” and we do it by encouraging a 40 hour work week in the office. We know that other companies reward employees for sticking around the office 50 plus hours a week (a lot even expect it), but we don’t think that leads to increased satisfaction (or success for that matter).  We think our employees will be more satisfied in all areas of their life if they have enough time to focus on things other than work (like family, friends, hobbies, vacations, etc.).

Focusing on balance helps companies avoid having work-robots (who will burn out due to lack of satisfaction), and it is more effective than having a non-stop party culture focused only on entertaining for happiness (because that can distract from meaningful work).

4. Autonomy

Less than a year ago we added another cultural value to the company: “Lead from where you are.”

We want our employees to feel empowered in their positions because we think that our employees can accomplish great things if they have the autonomy to execute their ideas. And research has found that “44 percent of employees with ‘a lot’ of control in their current position and 53 percent of employees with ‘complete’ control are totally satisfied with their jobs.”

So, give your employees what they need to succeed and then get out of their way. If you hire great people, having autonomy in your culture will give them an opportunity to thrive.

Of course you want your employees to be happy — but in order to accomplish that in the long-run, sometimes you’ll have to focus on the bigger picture. If you want your employees to be satisfied long-term, you’ve got to set your cultural target on things like engagement, development, balance and autonomy.

Building long-term satisfaction

Yes, it’s the more tiring route to ensuring people like where they work. Yes, they’re less sexy targets than company arcades, stocked break rooms and unlimited vacation time. But when your culture targets are more meaningful, the byproducts will be more long-lasting.

So don’t set your sites on fleeting happiness. Set your sights on creating an environment that will foster long-term employee satisfaction.

It works a lot like parenting: Buying the M&Ms will keep your kid from screaming, but doing something more meaningful like reading a book with him or her will bring more development.

It’s up to you to decide if long-term or short-term happiness is more important.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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