When a business is a great place to work, you’ll find employees who take pride in their work, act in partnership with management, and are motivated to contribute stellar service to the customers. In this way the workplace is transformed into a highly functioning, positive community of people carrying out the mission and values of the business. Businesses that place a strong emphasis on employee satisfaction are also in a better position to succeed in the long run. Likewise, when a workplace is suffering from low morale, it will be a challenge for the business to meet its other goals.
So often the discussion of workplace culture revolves around a chicken-and-egg dilemma—do happy workers build more sales and profit, enabling the business to offer the kind of benefits and services that please employees and customers—or is it the profitability of the business that enables it to attract the best employees who keep customers happy? It’s actually both. There’s really no right answer, except to understand that great workplaces are made by how you manage workplace roles and relationships within the context of your operations. Every employee has a relationship to management, the business, and fellow employees, and how workers relate to each are key to sound workplace culture development.
Carolee Colter is CDS Consulting Co-op’s human resources training and consulting expert. Decades of experience working with cooperatives on pay and benefits, employee surveys, and training and support for managers, has shown her that a lot of the co-ops that have high scores for workplace satisfaction are those that have devoted time and attention to frequent communication at all levels and through different channels. Colter believes that workplace satisfaction is based on a number of factors, and most boil down to effective communication within strong operations. “Pay and benefits are important, but that’s not necessarily what makes people happy,” Colter said. One of the number-one indicators of employee satisfaction is that employees feel connected to upper management, she said, and not just the general manager, but other members of the management team. “People like to see them in the store and be on a first name basis,” she said.
Staff Relationship to Management
Colter recognizes that managers struggle with accessibility as they juggle myriad tasks, including travel outside of the co-op, but she cannot understate the importance of a simple hello to staff. “Some call it MBWA, or management by walking around. Many successful CEO’s take the time to wander around and talk to people. It’s important to get out and be seen by employees every day.” Colter believes the time spent giving face time and being approachable pays off. “This is my subjective opinion, but I’ve observed managers who do this don’t have as many crises or rumors to address.” It doesn’t have to be a huge time investment, she said, and suggested things like eating lunch in the staff break room, taking the time to talk to stockers before grabbing a bottle of water, keeping an open door. All these things matter a great deal to employees.
One important formal tool for getting a good understanding of what employees think about their relationship to the co-op and what they expect from management, is an employee survey. Carolee Colter and Mary Courteau administer employee surveys developed by Colter. “Employees at co-ops tend to be very vested, to the co-op, their peers, the manager, and see the co-op as an opportunity to be part of a democratic workplace,” said Courteau.
To respect their commitment and meet those expectations, Courteau thinks it is important that food co-ops give serious consideration to what constitutes a quality job. Built in to the survey are questions regarding the co-op’s articulated vision, working conditions, including how employees are treated, how conflict is handled, whether they view human resources policies as fair, up to date and accessible, as well as giving feedback on their department’s supervision. Results from these surveys give managers a wealth of information about workplace culture and how it can be improved. The benefits of doing regular employee surveys include tools for improving morale, but also, co-op growth and profitability appears to be enhanced in those that show strong workplace satisfaction.
Impact on Financial Performance
Walden Swanson conducted a preliminary study through CoCoFiSt data of the six co-ops with the highest-scoring workplace satisfaction surveys, and the six co-ops with the lowest-scoring workplace satisfaction surveys. There appears to be some correlation with financial growth and success and a strong workplace, although more analysis with a larger data set needs to be conducted in order to be conclusive. Swanson said, “It appears that co-ops with higher staff satisfaction have higher sales growth. Lower staff satisfaction correlates with negative or lower sales growth in most cases we looked at.” It also appears that co-ops with higher staff survey scores also have higher EBITAP (Earnings Before Interest, Taxes, Amortization and Patronage), a measurure of operational success.
“It’s important to show employees their connection to the co-op’s financial situation,” said Mel Braverman operational and financial improvement specialist who leads workshops and training on finance and performance. He thinks this is a message that is best delivered through delineating how teamwork contributes to a positive bottom line.
Board Role in Workplace Culture
Boards do not have a direct role in how people work day-to-day at their jobs but they set parameters in policy and require assurance that staff is treated fairly. Yet their role in the organization can set the tone for the workplace culture. “It can be a sensitive topic,” said board leadership development consultant Mark Goehring. “Boards are affected by staff in the workplace. We care about others, and that’s a great thing, but without procedures and structures in place to manage that role, it can get messy.”
The CBLD (Cooperative Board Leadership Development) team has developed resources for boards to create systems of accountability so that boards can clarify expectations for staff treatment, ensure accomplishment and support management. These include a field guide, online workshops and samples of monitoring reports—all available for free download at www.cdsconsulting.coop/cbldlibrary. Additionally, Goehring worked with Colter on a task force this past year to create a model for grievances that helps both board and management be sure a good system is in place should a grievance occur.
As much as board members expect staff to be respected and recognized by management for their work, Goehring thinks boards could do more to thank the general manager. “If you don’t thank them, how do you think that translates in the organization? I like GM’s to feel appreciated and valued after a board meeting, just as staff are likewise supposed to be treated. Even if it’s a challenging meeting, it’s still important to appreciate the efforts being applied.”
All consultants agree that shifting workplace culture can be a real chore especially when there has been a breakdown in communications, but these things can be overcome by using the appropriate tools to understanding what the co-op needs to achieve to become a model workplace. “No employee is satisfied when the co-op is not doing well,” Colter said. “Our concern for community and the social bottom line is very much a part of what it means to be a good workplace.”