06/05/2014 03:56 pm ET Updated Aug 05, 2014

4 Ways to Make Sure Your Employees Don't Hate Work

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This past Sunday I read the NY Times Sunday Review feature called "Why You Hate Work." I thought it was both appropriate and ironic to write about this article in the What is Working - Small Business blog space.

The NYT article was an opinion piece by Tony Schwartz, CEO of the consulting firm, The Energy Project, and Christine Porath, an Associate Professor at Georgetown University's McDonough School of Business, and reports on a major study the Energy Project conducted on the connections between employee engagement and more sustainable performances. Schwartz and Porath start the article by describing "your" work experience. You are not excited to get there in the morning. You don't feel appreciated. Distractions make it hard to get your work done. You don't think what you are doing makes a real difference. I'm already depressed and it's the first paragraph. To help make their point, Schwartz and Porath include the Gallup stats from last year reporting that only 30 percent of American employees feel engaged at their work. Even more depressed.

While it's not completely clear in the article, it does look like most of the companies participating in the Energy Project study (in partnership with Harvard Business Review) were large businesses. The two that were specifically mentioned were a manufacturing company with 6,000 employees and a financial services company with 2,500 employees. In other words, the people answering the survey were largely employed by the 1% of U.S. businesses that are over 500 employees. This makes this a really important article for small business owners to read because there are things that are working in small businesses regarding employees, and even more could be made to work with some intentional design.

Schwartz and Porath present four core needs to help build employee satisfaction (with I'm sure all due respect to Maslow's Hierarchy). Physical needs should be met through an opportunity to recharge, simply taking breaks throughout the day provides greater focus, ability to be creative, and have an increased sense of well-being. Value, or feeling valued impacts employees' sense of trust and safety. The third need was to be able to focus on the task at hand and be able to prioritize those tasks. And finally, having a real purpose was strongly connected to job satisfaction and engagement.

The consultants at Energy Project share two key questions - highly relevant for businesses of any size.

  1. "If your employees feel more energized, valued, focused, and purposeful, do they perform better?"
  2. "So how much do you invest in meeting those needs?"

This is where the heads of every small business owner reading this blog should jerk upward. One of the biggest challenges small businesses face is the ability to attract and retain talent; we often can't pay as much as the big companies, we generally are able to offer fewer traditional types of benefits, and we find it difficult to create career ladders/paths/lattices. Yet people are the most important resource of any small business, so what is a small business owner supposed to do?

We ask every small business owner that participates in Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses what kind of benefits they offer their employees and the range over the 3,000 or so businesses that have completed the program are incredibly varied and innovative. Some have to do with that time to renew. Some are about exciting ways of saying thank you. A few relate to unusual work spaces to allow focus and finally, some have to do with creative ways of dividing responsibilities. The main need is for the small business owners to be aware of employee needs (and motivations) and not be limited by only traditional approaches.

So, we can all ask ourselves about our employees:

  1. Are you meeting your employees' physical needs? Consistently? Is it about scheduling for coverage? Is it about a space in which to recharge? Is it about training to make sure any and all supervisors know that encouraging people to recharge is good not only for the people, but for the business?
  2. Do your employees feel valued? Again, consistently? Do you have a system? Do you need a system? Do you have a culture of trust and security? Remember, cultures start with you as the owner.
  3. In an environment of generally too much work (at least I hope so) and too few people, how do you help your team prioritize and focus? Are you the role model for focus or the antihero in that area?
  4. Do you understand the purpose of your business, the difference in makes in your customers' lives? Have you shared it with your team? Even better, have they helped create it?

As small business owners (and trainers, etc.) we have a true opportunity to create the environment where people don't have to hate their work. After all, isn't that part of why we do this?

Patricia is the National Academic Director of Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses and a Professor of Entrepreneurship at Babson College. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.