At Chico Natural Foods, when staff spontaneously dress in the same color, they take a picture. Here they are shown having fun on a “green” day.
Places where people like to work have a positive vibe: employees are getting their work done in an atmosphere where the co-workers are congenial. Everyone’s focused on the company’s mission, management is highly functioning, and staff are efficient and friendly. It might look effortless from the outside, (just hire happy people, right?) but great workplaces are the result of strong leadership, good systems and great communication.
It doesn’t take much for an employee to become disgruntled, or a manager to become overwhelmed and uncommunicative, impairing what could be a better work experience for everyone. No matter what the workplace culture is today, it can always be changed by applying good human resources systems and practices. Valuing human relationships and the product of their labor is one of the tenets of cooperation and fairness. According to human resources consultant Carolee Colter, paying attention to the co-op principles and how they guide making the world a better place, likewise applies to the workplace.
Back in 1992, Colter and Karen Zimbelman, currently director of development services at the National Cooperative Grocers Association, envisioned a systematic way to support co-ops being great workplaces by conducting rigorous, objective surveys of staff. The two began surveying co-op workplaces in the 1990s. When Zimbelman decided to work on other co-op developments, Colter took over the whole project. Colter believed that using staff perceptions as a starting point for making recommendations to managers about how the co-op can improve the workplace culture, would result in higher workplace morale, customers who are better served, and co-ops that are more successful. This innovative program has contributed to a transformation of co-op workplaces for co-ops that regularly use the service and work to implement the recommendations.
As of today, the CDS Consulting Co-op has data from 200 co-op employee surveys. This data provides a really useful benchmark for co-ops trying to improve their workplaces. The real value in the surveys goes beyond the rigorous, objective methods to capture the data, but in the recommendations for improving the workplace. “There’s nothing more satisfying than coming back to resurvey the staff and seeing the scores go up in the areas that we recommended management specifically work on,” Colter said.
One thing the surveys revealed is that employees want to feel connected to the co-op’s mission. Colter said this requires education about organic and sustainable food as well as cooperation. “It’s important not to assume everyone knows the co-op’s mission,” she said. Colter thinks that when employees feel a sense of working toward a common goal, “the co-op principles come alive.” They understand that their work is contributing to making the world a better place, no matter what their job is at the co-op. In employee surveys that she’s conducted, she said that there is a strong correlation between a co-op’s ability to fulfill the mission and demonstrate that decisions are connected to the co-op principles and overall job satisfaction.
What allows people to feel a sense of connection is when their opinion is solicited, in the moment in real-time, as well as through more formal channels like meetings and employee surveys. It’s frustrating to go to a job and feel like you’re not heard, and this is an area where co-op workplaces differentiate themselves from others. Colter said that survey data shows that food co-op managers do well in this regard. “Being listened to is really important,” Colter said, and managers that encourage feedback as a valued part of the workplace will increase their chances of creating successful outcomes with employees.
Being able to contribute to the co-op’s direction or big picture is satisfying to employees, Colter said. Many co-ops are using the Open Book management tool to gain input from staff, but it also provides an opportunity for them to see how their suggestions can affect the whole store. Building those two-way communication channels with such tools is important, and it also helps develop new skills and knowledge in the organization.
Being able to learn on the job is important to many food co-op workers, in part because it is a highly educated workforce. Opportunities for education and advancement that tie in with the co-op’s mission reinforce the value of a cooperative vocation.
It might be surprising to know that the places with highest workplace satisfaction are also those with strong accountability systems. When a manager turns a blind eye to someone struggling with performance issues, it sends a message throughout the whole organization that the system is biased. When an employee works hard to meet the expectations of the job and a co-worker does not and there are no consequences, it promotes cultural apathy and stagnation. “Employees want accountability, they want to see that low performance is corrected or that poor performers leave. People appreciate it when everyone is pulling their own weight,” Colter said. “Our survey results verify that when accountability is high, satisfaction is high too.”
Melanie Reid, human resources consultant agreed. “More than any other single thing people want to be treated fairly.” Reid noted that traditionally co-ops have not been as strong at accountability. Co-ops seeking to move into a culture of accountability need to create equitable workplace systems and structure to address it. “Sometimes when making the shift, managers will hear feedback from employees that the changes are ‘corporate.’ But if you remain positive and get through that transition, you’ll find people are happier and the business does better.”
Often when an organization goes through a culture shift, one of the most important factors for transformation is better communication. That’s why good communication is such a critical aspect of a great workplace. You simply cannot over communicate. “The co-op model is predicated on transparency at every level of the organization,” Reid said. “Management has to be intentional about that.” Human beings have a tendency to fill in the blanks when they are uninformed, and that can lead to fear or misunderstandings about change. “If communication falls apart, other things fall apart,” Reid added. Reid said that nine times out of ten, virtually any problem can be solved through better communication.
As part of the communication process, managers have to want to work toward a great workplace in order to have one. This includes learning from others, sharing and cooperating. For everyone, it’s important to be willing to want to work in an environment where communication is encouraged. “Employees have the expectation that this is the kind of workplace co-ops offer,” Reid said. Having a great workplace is also part and parcel of the co-op’s mission to make the world a better place. In addition to selling groceries, food co-ops are working for environmental sustainability, fair trade for producers, and to support the local economy. Offering good jobs in a great workplace is one component of those efforts. “We should strive to be the best workplace in town,” Reid said.