What Employees Want—and Why It Matters

You know that good employees are the key to a successful business, but that it can be expensive to recruit, train and keep them. And I don’t have to tell you that, for the past couple years, many small businesses have been strapped for cash.

Thankfully, most of us are in the same boat, and it looks like the economy is picking up. Still, chances are it hasn’t totally trickled down to your business, and you’re wondering how hard your team can work (without getting holiday bonuses) before they give up—or move to greener pastures.

One of the great perks of my job is that I’m able to talk to some really admirable, successful people, and I often ask them about challenges like these.

One recent example is the young trailblazer Kristen Hadeed, who recently invited us into the new(ish) office of Student Maid. (Her 3-year-old cleaning company was formed while Hadeed was in college, and is known for hiring students with GPAs of 3.5 or above. It won the Leading Women’s Enterprise Award in 2010.)

Hers is an industry known for a three-month retention rate. But at Student Maid, Hadeed told us that the retention rate is 2.5 to four years!

Later, I attended a chat with Alachua County Sheriff Sadie Darnell. She described her optimism and ambitious goals when she was elected in 2006. To her dismay, the economy tanked in 2007. Still, amid budget cuts and a jail bursting at the seams, there have been no layoffs under her watch.

So how do they do it? I have good news. When it comes to employees, it’s not (completely) about the money.

When we visited Student Maid, we were greeted by a live DJ and a handful of employees making smoothies and enjoying cupcakes between shifts. The space is open to employees 24/7, and Hadeed often finds students studying at the Student Maid office… In their free time.

She walked us back to their “Wow Department,” which fosters creativity and client appreciation, while talking about the company-wide book club and rap sessions. Student Maid employees feel like they are part of a team, and take time to enjoy their time at work in between the dubious task of cleaning other people’s homes.

Law enforcement is another one of the most challenging, thankless industries to be in. Sheriff Darnell’s staff works holidays and weekends, risking their lives by just coming to work. Darnell explained that she works to make sure that everyone she works with is valued, whether that’s by offering public recognition in the form of a Sheriff’s Coin or asking the employees of the jail what truly works best for them.

She described the type of person who is attracted to her line of work: someone who is energized by making a difference, and who gets satisfaction when they can do good for human kind.

So, my point is, while rewarding employees is one of the most important business decisions you can make, it isn’t just about the money. It’s about taking time to let them know they are appreciated, like they are a part of something important, and that they have a personal impact.

I was interested to read that John Spence’s notes from the MIT Entrepreneurial Masters Program (excerpted on page 13) confirmed this observation. He wrote about the importance of company culture, and that “more than making money, people want to make a difference—people want to do something that has meaning.”

Key factors that drive a great company culture, he found, are “atmosphere issues.” They do not cost much money—if any—and ultimately are worth the extra time. Every person, he wrote, looks for safety, belongingness and appreciation—both at work and at home. And that’s something we can all bank on.

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