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Ensuring a happy, productive culture and prevent burnout

Dev Processes
Motivation
Health / Stress / Burn-Out
Company Culture
Onboarding
Cultural Differences
Performance

16 April, 2018

David Murray
David Murray

Cofounder at Confirm

David has used proven research on employee productivity to implement positive changes that resulted in a happier, more productive team that has been incredibly loyal over several years.

Problem

When working at a startup that's constantly going 100 miles per hour, it can be incredibly difficult to ensure that team members stay happy when at times they can lose work-life balance, face intense pressure, and experience demoralizing events outside their control. As an enthusiast of research on happiness and productivity, I explored tactics to use this research to ensure the team was happy and productive.

Actions taken

Acknowledging that some research suggests that happy employees are ~20% more productive than unhappy employees, and many studies have identified that autonomy is a key indicator for employee happiness, I ensured that all managers made it a priority to give autonomy to both themselves and the people on their teams. No matter how junior the role, there is always a way for employees to control how they get their work done, even if they're unable to control what that work is. Beyond this, for those employees that already had a solid work-ethic but not a lot of work-life balance, I focused on educating this team with presentations and 1-on-1 sessions focused on increasing efficiency through extreme organization and finding "80/20 Pareto principle" opportunities. By encouraging team members to implement these tactics and taking periodic breaks, many employees found ways to have 40-50 hour work weeks, even while being prolific in their work. By finding work-life balance, they were able to avoid burnout. Of course, there were always exceptions during a "crunch time" period, but we as a team focused on making sure those crunch times had a clear beginning and end. I also focused on motivating by praise as opposed to by fear, giving attention to good work and giving "shoutouts" in company meetings, while taking negative situations behind closed doors and expressing concern instead of anger. In addition, through exploration with a senior engineer on the team, we identified ways to ensure the team was happy, inspired by the "5 Love Languages" (see the book for details). By identifying which of these "love languages" resonated with individuals as forms of praise and appreciation, we focused on nurturing team members through the means to which they were most responsive and encouraged.

Lessons learned

Most organizations, whether start-ups or large ones, have a "be professional" approach to navigate personal challenges which, unfortunately causes individuals to suppress their emotions and hide problems like burn-out. By fostering an empathetic environment in which people feel that they can be themselves, share what's going on for them openly, and that it's ok to be vulnerable, precarious "burnout" situations will rear their ugly head quickly, before it's too late. By creating a praise-driven environment instead of a fear-driven one in which people are encouraged to be efficient and have work-life balance most of the time, we've been able to avoid burnout for most employees in even the most high-pressure situations.

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