Creating an Extraordinary Workplace: A Q&A with Ron Friedman

Over the past decade, researchers have had powerful insights into how we can work more effectively. But much of that research isn’t being applied in the workplace, says Ron Friedman, Ph.D., who spent years studying human motivation and teaching psychology at the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges. Friedman, @RonFriedman on Twitter, is the founder of ignite80, a consulting firm that helps leaders build thriving organizations.

In his book The Best Place to Work (Penguin Group, 2014), the author turns academic science into practical tips that leaders at every level can use. We talked to him recently to find out more.  

What are some key elements to creating “the best place to work”?

In The Best Place to Work, I focus on three major themes, all of which contribute to creating an extraordinary workplace.

First, psychological needs are at the heart of employee engagement. If you want motivated employees, create conditions that fulfill an individual’s basic psychological needs. That means helping them feel competent, connected and autonomous in the way they do their work.

Second, organizations are better off acknowledging the limits of the mind and body. We’re not machines. We have limited mental bandwidth and require restorative experiences (like midday walks, exercise or even naps) to produce our best work.

Third, integrating work and family life. For too long, companies have encouraged employees to seek “work/life balance.” That may have been possible 20 years ago, but today technology has rendered that notion obsolete. Instead of pretending that work and personal time are separate, one of the lessons of this book is that organizations are better off when they actively seek to blend the two worlds.

What are some affordable things a company can do?

Here are three recommendations for creating a psychologically satisfying work experience:

Help employees expand their skills. When we view our workplace as a vehicle for growth, we feel a stronger connection to our organization. Offering a reading budget, encouraging employees to scan industry blogs during the day and inviting employees to take an online course that helps them build their competence are all ways of creating the experience of growth at work.

Foster more meaningful relationships between colleagues. Feeling a connection to our co-workers is vital to our engagement and productivity at work. Instead of leaving friendships to chance, organizations should consider offering seed money for after-work activities that allow employees to connect over existing interests (like bowling, cooking or exercise). 

Find ways of making work more autonomous. We experience autonomy when we have a sense of choice on the job. To promote autonomy, it’s vital for leaders to provide a rationale when tasks are presented and to offer flexibility on how and when the work is performed. You can also grow autonomy by providing employees with options on where they work.

One chapter is about “how to turn a group of strangers into a community.” Why should managers encourage friendships among co-workers?

Friendship is the single-most overlooked factor when it comes to building an extraordinary workplace. It can be a powerful motivating force. For one thing, when you and your colleagues are close, failing to perform your duties generates more than a dissatisfied customer or an unhappy manager—it means letting down your friends. 

Closer connections also foster more honest dialogue. Studies show that friends are more willing to ask for help and more comfortable speaking up when a colleague is on the wrong track.

In my book, I offer a number of recommendations for fostering close workplace friendships, including introducing new employees not just by their professional experience but also by describing what they like to do for fun. That gives people a way to connect over hobbies and shared interests, which sets the stage for long-term friendships to blossom.

How can managers make work more meaningful for employees?

One of the best things you can do to make work meaningful is to show your employees how their work improves the lives of others. We live in a world in which we’re all highly specialized, and, for many of us, it’s hard to identify how our efforts make a difference. It can feel like we work in an e-mail factory, and it’s hard to find meaning when you’re staring at a computer all day long.

It’s a leader’s job to bridge the gap between the abstract and the concrete. It’s a lot harder than it sounds, but it can be done when you make it a continuous focus.

Dori Meinert is senior writer/editor for HR Magazine.

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