3 ways to keep employees happy and engaged

Happiness. Oof. That’s a difficult thing to define, let alone be.

Keeping others happy? Double oof. That’s like performing trigonometry of the heart … on roller skates … while translating Steven Hawking’s Brief History of Time … into ancient Sanskrit.

The thing is, happiness may be tricky, but it’s also important.

If you found cryptocurrency an unpleasant and obtuse thing to think about, there’d always be the option … well … not to think about it. You could easily go about your life pretending blockchain isn’t a thing. I do it all the time, and let’s just say that for all my obliviousness about non-fungibility, I still regularly get to eat cake.

But happiness doesn’t quite work like that.

The vast majority of humans vehemently want to be happy. It’s also probably fair to say that the vast majority of that vast majority go a step further and believe that — to some extent at least — the happiness of others is also their concern. It’s much harder to dismiss happiness as some kind of technical blockchainy thing best left to certified happinologists at the Harvard School of Applied Jollity.

It’s simply too innate a state to relegate.

So, there’s the problem we’re left with, reader! We want some happiness. We want other humans who work with us to be happy too. But happiness is elusive and difficult to define. And on top of all that, there are probably more variations of happiness out there than there are stock photos of healthy-looking people eating salad.

To help you tackle this dilemma, then, we at Ruby have prepared two responses to the question of how to keep your team members happy and engaged: Easy(ish) and HARD(no-ish). If it makes you happy, think of these as the entry-level and deluxe packages. 

Table of Contents

Team happiness: The entry-level package

A quick caveat here: None of the stuff you’ll read in this section will make you gasp, place your hand over your mouth, gurgle in incredulity, or rocket-eject your socks across the room.

They’re all important, though, because they are the basic threads from which workplace fulfillment is woven.

1. Listen to your staff.

How are those socks? Still good?

A 2019 Gallup poll (cited here) found that employees who feel heard are over 4.5 times more likely to be highly motivated at work. So why is listening difficult?

While answers to that little chestnut abound, one big part of the problem may boil down to how our brains work. With our enormous prefrontal cortexes, we’re biologically wired to think faster than we hear and hear faster than we speak. You can learn more about that weirdness here. The upshot is that it is easier to fixate on crafting our own ideas than it is to give space for others to share their own.

The good news is that neuroplasticity can rescue us! We can indeed train our brains to listen more actively and energetically.

Here are Ruby’s five ways you can jumpstart that process.

2. Recognize the importance of work-life balance.

As a society, we’re working harder and longer than a decade ago, and thanks to a certain coronavirus that shall remain unnumbered, our home lives and work lives are now swirled inextricably together like the bottom-shelf vodka and watered-down tomato juice of Hell’s own Bloody Mary.

It’s hard to escape.

Meanwhile, something close to 90 percent of employees describes work-life balance as either “very important” or “somewhat important” to their happiness, Statista reports in its most recent data on workplace happiness.
How to bridge that gap?

One important strategy is to minimize wildly unpredictable scheduling. We talk more about that here. Another foundational step is to open this topic up for conversation as part of team meetings, performance reviews, as well as entry and exit interviews. While work-life balance solutions will vary wildly from industry to industry, the starting point for any kind of lasting change is making sure everyone feels OK to talk about it.

And if that organizational candor feels like a big pill to swallow, we hear you! Here are some hopefully handy thought building blocks you can use to transform the bitter winds of change into a breezy growth mindset. Weather metaphors. They just work.

3. Build a sense of community and trust.

Language is a funny thing. Words like “community” and “trust” have almost become these caramel popcorn filler words—sweet yet hollow. They often end up at the bottom of job descriptions as some kind of bland, feel-good corporate responsibility statement. “Help build trust in the workplace and foster a strong sense of community,” the JD says. What does that mean, really? “We’re looking for someone nice” is about the size of it.

But these are potent ideas! Community and trust are survival tools. They don’t just mean something; they mean everything if you’re a social mammal who traipses around hunting literal and figurative mammoths with naught but the power of teamwork.

A great place to start is to collectively define your key organizational values and a code of conduct for respectful communication. With that bedrock of meaning in place, you’re well-positioned to foster stronger connections across your company’s team events and social gatherings. With any luck, these events won’t just be opportunities to meet over caramel popcorn but a way to lay the groundwork for some lasting connections.

There really is no trick or secret to forging those bonds; the ingredients are already baked into our DNA. The only challenge is to make sure we carve out time and safe space for it to happen. To help you get carving, check out Ruby’s quick guide to bringing distributed teams closer together.

Happiness and engagement: Deluxe edition!

So, all of that is a good starting place. But happiness wouldn’t have 17 straight pages of memorable one-liners about it on BrainyQuote if happiness were easy.

COVID, supply chain difficulties, the miasmic ever-presence of stifling stress, the creeping insurgence of robocalls and algorithmically curated existence — it’s easy to see how happiness in the workplace may require more of a mind shift than a list of things to do.

Let’s quickly dive into the deeper mysteries of happiness.

Prioritizing your way to optimal happiness

First up, the prioritization dilemma.

There are a hundred things you could do in your workplace right now to foster a bit more happiness and engagement, but you have only so much time and so many resources. As lovely as it’d be to make happiness happen everywhere all at once across your company, that just isn’t an available ace in life’s stacked play deck.

So, what do you do first?

You might consider turning to the Pareto Rule — also known as the 80/20 principle, the Law of the Vital Few, and The Principle of Factor Sparsity. This idea gets around! It goes a little something like this: 80% of life’s most meaningful consequences come from 20% of causes. Therefore, don’t waste your time messing about with anything after that first 20%. Your best bet is to find those big impact items impacting happiness and devote all your resources to fixing those first.

Of course, life is rarely so simple, but it’s a compelling notion, isn’t it?

What would that look like? The mechanism for gathering data to identify that critical 20% will likely be an open feedback system a bit like the one we describe here.

Shifting the happiness goalposts

If happiness in the workplace is so difficult to define and capture, perhaps we should be pursuing something else. This is the option many a metric-minded manager has considered in their search for better ways to measure team outcomes.

The line of logic goes a bit like this.

We live in an immediate gratification-fixated society. We, therefore, tend to think of happiness rather simplistically as “feeling good.” Indeed, whole metric modalities are built around slapping a number on how “good” we feel at work.

But that’s all a smidge precarious!

How is a regular analog-brained individual supposed to separate their happiness with work from happiness in their home environment? Or from the happiness they felt five minutes ago devouring that criminally delicious lemon curd-filled wafer cookie? Happiness in the workplace isn’t some rainbow-colored zoomy juice we can pour into a beaker and measure on its own. Although, wow, there’s a fun thought:

One approach, then, is to ditch measuring happiness directly and instead think of workplace happiness as morale. After all, morale is keyed into the notion of resilience and team cohesion far more than happiness ever could be. Morale is a group thing. It’s specific. Happiness is an individualized and subjective experience.

If that’s true, a workplace might find its way to greater overall happiness if decision-makers shifted their focus away from measurements of contentment and closer to quantifying a team’s cohesion and organizational strength.

OK, it’s not exactly the zoomiest of thoughts, but this article offers some solid practical advice on how to reframe happiness as morale. It’s a big shoebox of sensible fun.

Bringing it all together

But swingin’ this ship back to the happiness horizon, it’s probably worth directing your browser back to our About page. I know, sensible “About” pages are easy to ignore, but check out our mission statement in big, happy sans-serif:

“We turn first impressions into lasting loyalty.”

When it gets right down to it, at Ruby, we’re passionate about helping your company make an amazing first impression, and nothing out there makes a better first impression than a genuine, actually-mean-it smile.

If you’d like to learn more about how we can support your work with happy and capable communicators, we’d be happy to talk—pun definitely intended.