What are the attributes of the best workplaces on Earth, and what does it take to implement them?

Ravi Gajendran is an expert in organizational behavior. He has spent years studying work teams - how they interact and communicate. He has learned a thing or two about what makes employees happy and helps them thrive. So, we asked him:

What are the attributes of the best workplaces on Earth, and what does it take to implement them?

The common characteristics for the best workplaces are,

  • Focusing on the employee
  • Treating the employee with respect and dignity
  • Trusting that they are there to do a good job
  • Giving clear direction about what they are supposed to be doing
  • Giving them the freedom to do their jobs in a way they find meaningful
  • Providing meaningful work to analyze

For example, why would people want to work at Google? Because they feel like they are changing the world and working for an organization that has cutting-edge technology. Besides, not only will they do well in personal development, but taking action in making changes in the world.

A part of this is creating a sense of purpose around the organization's mission and transferring it to the employees' job level.

Think about the following questions for the employee: why is the work meaningful? Why does it matter for the world at large? Ensure that you are recruiting and selecting those who find the job personally interesting and find purpose in the organization; they aren't only there for the money. You need to make sure that the organization communicates the vision for the purpose and designs jobs that feel significant for individuals. Recruiting individuals who find the job and the organization's purpose meaningful is essential. 

Organizations should also give a sense of autonomy. It's one thing to have a meaningful job; it's another thing to be told: you're trusted to work hard, do the job, and do it in a way you think is best. Give employees discretion of how they work, when they work, and where they work, like allowing people to work remotely if necessary. These are all aspects that are common among different organizations.

Fairness, treating employees fairly, is also essential. Have policies and procedures that communicate with employees that this is a fair workplace. Fairness includes inclusion, equity and diversity. If you are a fair workplace, you will treat everyone with dignity and respect, and you will be inclusive toward women and minorities. Ensure that they feel like they are a part of the organization and their contributions are valued within the organization. Make sure that everyone is a part of the organizational networks. These are all crucial elements that communicate fairness and respect, which is another essential aspect of creating a good organization that people would like to be a part of.

Next is psychological safety. Do employees feel encouraged to take a risk when presented with coming up with new ideas, suggestions, or opinions? Do they feel that this is a safe place where people listen to them and treat their opinions with respect? Or do they feel like they are going to be punished for speaking up? Which is considered to be low psychological safety. 

These are the common features, in addition to things such as good salaries. This goes back to culture and how leadership is established and brought down to employees. Culture is the manifestation of people's behaviors. Culture does not survive in isolation. When you work in an organization, you see culture and how people deal with one another, how they make decisions, and how they interact with one another; this is what creates the culture of the place.

Culture is not independent of people and behavior. It is a product of people and their behavior.

How do the best workplaces identify if you are overworked or if their employees are burnt out? What are the signs, implications, and solutions to this issue?

Being overworked nowadays is a part of normal life. Specifically, during the pandemic, a lot of employees have stated that they feel overworked and overwhelmed. A part of this is because they are worried about their job security - they are anxious about whether they will lose their job or not. Another part is adjusting to the new reality of remote work and trying to find a way to work with the anxieties of the pandemic. A lot of employees are feeling overworked and burned out.

However, in normal times, we often feel overworked, but all work does not always equal burnout. If you overwork people for months and years continuously, you give them jobs that aren't meaningful or are boring. If you have people in old positions that they don't care about — that leads to a sense of burnout.

It's a sense of hopelessness and that things aren't going to get better.

When people are burnt out, they feel like:

  • There is nothing else they can give to the organization
  • They have no energy left
  • They dread coming into work
  • They see no purpose in working

Those are some of the signs that they are getting burnt out: they stop caring and start making mistakes.

Burnout is a complex phenomenon driven by multiple factors, which can be workload or that there is no sense of purpose. For example, when the pandemic started, healthcare workers were working hard and for more hours. At this time, their job had even more meaning due to the current situation going on and saving lives. However, there is a lot of confusion leading them to people not wearing masks, which causes the virus to spread faster. There's a huge surge of people coming into the hospital; doctors and nurses say that people aren't taking precautions, such as not socially distancing or not wearing masks; they're being overworked. They start to feel a sense of frustration and burnout due to these precautions not being taken seriously. They feel it's meaningless work that they're doing if citizens don't care about their health.

You can be overworked and not feel burnout if you feel like you are doing something big and valuable. However, if you feel like you are doing something hopeless and meaningless, that is when you feel burnout.

As a manager, the easiest way to identify if employees are overworked or burnt out is when they stop caring about their jobs. When they started the position, they were enthusiastic, motivated, and a committed employee. But now you notice that they are just doing the bare minimum, or they just don't care about their job. They may be working hard, but their work quality isn't as good, and you don't see the same energy or commitment within the employee. This could imply that they are getting burnt out or have lost interest in the job. These are the signs a manager needs to notice, and the next step that needs to take place is to speak with the employee.

As a manager, the primary task is to know what your employees need to do and notice when an employee is overworked. For example, at the College of Business at FIU, I am a part of the leadership team. Everyone was working very hard, but I don't think anyone was burnt out because they realized that they need to step up and keep the college going in the face of the pandemic. Everyone recognized the work that they are doing to support the students, staff and the facility. As everyone in the team takes notice that things need to get done and have the willingness to do so, it's what doesn't make them burnout.

However, in the case of an employee doing this for three years, then one may say that this has become too much to do at any given time and may feel burnt out. Therefore, there are times at which it is okay to overwork employees because they are willing to step up and do it, but you can't do this for an extended period or have it be your go-to method. When you give employees time to recharge, such as a holiday or vacation break, the employees can take a couple of days to not think about work and come back to work with energy. As a manager, you need to understand that work is like a marathon; you need to pace yourself.

About the Author:

Ravi Gajendran is an associate professor in the Department of Global Leadership and Management at FIU Business. Gajendran's research interests include virtual work arrangements such as telecommuting, virtual teams, distributed teams and computer-mediated communication. He has a broad interest in studying teams, focusing on how teams can leverage communication technologies to capitalize on diversity.

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