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A Healthy, Happy, and Successful Workforce Doesn't Have to be a Pipe Dream

  • 9 min read

A Healthy, Happy, and Successful Workforce Doesn't Have to be a Pipe Dream

We’ve all seen the employee happiness articles: “Pay doesn’t matter, perks do.” “These are the ten perks your company needs to attract millennials.” “Here are the 63 perks your team wants more than a raise.”

And don’t get us wrong - perks are great! But when did finding employees and keeping them happy become a special privilege, instead of being par for the course?

If you strip down all the clickbait articles that promise five tips to change your entire office and foster productivity growth, it becomes apparently clear that “perks” are one of employment’s major trends du jour. Yet past that, things become immediately murky. Studies on the importance of perks contradict each other; benefits programs seem to change faster than a millennial’s ostensible whims; keeping up with the Jones, Inc.’s somehow suddenly meant you had to construct a nap room, coffee bar, and pilates studio, all before you hired your second employee.

What none of these many, many pieces of information seem to do, however, is take a step back and look at the bigger picture. And to do that, you have to start with the employee, not the perk.


Photo by WOC in Tech / Flickr

That was something Elton Mayo, a professor of industrial research at Harvard, learned when he studied productivity at Western Electric’s Chicago-based factory in the 1920s. Mayo’s experiment, which would go on to become one of the most important studies in the history of industrial research, originally centered around how to increase productivity at the factory. Workers were split into two groups; the first group was given dramatically illuminated lighting at their workspace, while the second group’s lighting remained unchanged. As Mayo quickly learned, the productivity of the highly-lit group increased dramatically.

Pretty obvious, right?

Maybe, but Mayo’s research didn’t stop there. As he and his researchers began to test out other perks - improved working hours, longer rest breaks, etc. - once again, productivity for the better satisfied group increased dramatically. But it was what happened when Mayo and his team began to scale back the perks one by one. Even as employees lost each of their efficiency-inducing perks, productivity continued to rise. By the time Mayo had brought both groups back to the original, dimly-lit control, productivity was at the highest level the factory had ever achieved, and absenteeism had dropped significantly.

Photo from Harvard University

Mayo’s hypothesis, that increased perks created high productivity, had been proven wrong. In the face of diminishing returns, employees were consistently producing at a higher level than ever before. What, then, caused the sea change in employee behavior? As Mayo and his colleagues concluded, it was never about the perks. Instead, it was knowing that someone cared about employees’ workspaces, and gave them a forum to discuss changes prior to them being implemented. As Mayo would go on to note, “The desire to stand well with one's fellows, the so-called human instinct of association, easily outweighs the merely individual interest and the logic of reasoning upon which so many spurious principles of management are based.”

What does that mean in plain English? Valuing your employees as people - really valuing them, by listening to their concerns and addressing them collaboratively - matters more than perks. Though Mayo’s work largely focused on teams that worked in groups, the idea of a “human instinct of association” is true for teams of any size: if you connect with your team, you identify with your team - something that can easily outweigh the “what’s in it for me” mentality that can plague an office. And the fact that focusing on those two core ideals - valuing employees, and improving human association - increased productivity at Western to its highest levels makes it evidently clear: starting with the worker, not with the pek, is the best way to build a stable, successful company.


Photo by Enfad/Flickr

Holistic Health: Not Just a Fringe Benefit

As trendy as “perks” are, in an age of mindfulness, holistic health has become an even buzzier idea than ever. But before you write this off as a fleeting trend, consider this: the Integrated Benefits Institute, which represents some of the largest companies in the world including Google and Microsoft, estimates that poor health costs the American workforce $576 billion per year, with almost half that amount lost in productivity alone. In terms of mental health, the American Institute of Stress estimates that 1 million workers per day in the United States are absent from work due to stress.

Combatting that sort of workplace absenteeism has brought more problems than it has solutions, though. Basic health benefits are a necessity, but supplemental workplace wellness programs intended to increase holistic health in the workplace often turn into embarrassing and ineffective quota systems that single out a small group of employees. And anything past the basic set of health benefits and workplace wellness programs are often viewed as perks - you know, the kind of perks lavished on stereotypical millennials; not necessarily perks grounded in reality.

If you’re going to view your employees as people, and not as tools to maximizing profits, the best way to start is by shifting your perception of perks - they’re not all on-demand smoothies and unlimited in-house shiatsu massage.

Consider taking Reddit’s lead. The discussion board site’s main office does have nap rooms, yes, but it also offers benefits that arguably could be industry standard: four months of parental leave, opportunities in-house and out for continuing education, and even stipends to cover pet care.

The company has provided employees with StandDesks, height adjustable desks that convert from sitting to standing positions at the touch of a button, and offers other in-house fitness opportunities. While all of these perks could be seen as benefits of a super-rich tech company hoping to attract young talent that wants a collegial atmosphere, Reddit sees something bigger: paternal leave, happy pets, more learning, healthier bodies are all something Reddit employees would want in or out of an office. So if these things are basic needs for employees, why treat them as special, hard-to-attain perks, instead of making them part of the company culture?

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As we’ve discussed over on our own blog, keeping employees happy holistically - by approaching their needs as unique - doesn’t have to be a laborious undertaking. In addition to providing your employees with weekly health tips, consider options like:



      • Make healthy snacks and meals a fixture throughout the office: Not only to combat the perils of desk life, but to encourage wellness that can have benefits outside the office, too.


        • Keep active: workplace competitions that don’t rely on quotas, like Fitbit steps challenges, and in-office options, like midday yoga or even a push-up break, are a good way to break up the work day and remind employees that their health is a priority.


          • Make people comfortable - and not just to keep them in office longer: If you can afford nap pods, great! Maybe a standing desk is a better place to start. Whatever it is, comfortable employees are productive employees.


          • Lead by example: All the holistic health initiatives in the world aren’t going to work if management doesn’t lead by example. Those unlimited vacation days at Reddit? Only useful because managers at Reddit actively encourage their employees to use their vacation days as needed to unwind.

        Photo by WOC in Tech/Flickr

        Never Stop Learning

        Everyone wants to be paid more. But if your earning potential is capped by a previous job that only taught you so much, the road to being paid more can be significantly more arduous.

        That’s why Brooklyn-based Etsy has developed such a robust program of continued education. Though they run the risk of educating their employees so much, they look like those cartoon hams with lines of deliciousness wafting off them to other companies’ HR departments, Etsy has found that by making education a core part of their work mission, employees have been retained at the company for far longer.

        Those employees, in turn, have gone on to make continued education a part of their everyday life; not merely by availing themselves of opportunities provided by Etsy’s educational programs, but by utilizing the same concepts on their own teams. Managers encourage employees to take time for classes, and even job-related work is done on a teaching basis, for maximum absorption.

        Even if an Etsy-esque fully developed curriculum is too much to bite off, we at StandDesk have found that education can easily be incorporated into the workplace - and in a variety of ways.



            • Utilize your resources to cross-train employees. Not only will it help teams simplify their own processes as they teach fellow employees from different departments and make for more well-rounded employees; cross-training helps increase engagement - what Mayo referred to as “the human instinct of association” - between employees and the company. When you know what your company is all about, it’s hard not to stand by it.


              • Outsource where you can. There’s no shame in admitting that Skillshare can teach your peers Photoshop far better than you ever could! If resources are limited, or employees are looking for a broader depth of curriculum, programs like Skillshare or even the no-cost Khan Academy tutorials are a great way to introduce in-office education without devising a curriculum and lesson plan.


              • Mentor, mentor, mentor. Mayo was truly onto something when it came to human association, because no matter what the media tries to sell you about millennials not valuing older generations, mentorship is one of the most important educational benefits an employee at any level can receive. Rethink how your mentorship works - maybe a reverse-mentorship is a good way to impart cutting edge social media knowledge, while flipping that mentorship back to a more traditional place can provide tech-loving millennials with workplace skills that only come from being further along into one’s career.


            office team meeting at cool workplace


            Free Your Calendar and the Rest Will Follow

            Repeat after us: busy calendars are not a badge of honor.

            As seductive as a calendar filled with multi-colored blocks spanning almost the entirety of your week may look on the screen, there is such a thing as too much human association - particularly when it comes to meetings. While meetings can be a great tool to increase transparency in an office and create a collaborative work environment, make sure that you’re not hosting so many meetings, it comes at the detriment of your company.

            Apple’s Steve Jobs was one of the first executives to widely publicize how little he cared for meetings. After coming back to Apple, Jobs streamlined the company’s many meetings; he tactfully trimmed the fat of people who needn’t have been in meetings, by making meeting notes readily available. And by setting clear agendas, Jobs was able to encourage his executives to pick just a few specific topics of focus, instead of meandering into tangential lines of thought that spurred new projects, thus keeping Apple on track for just a few central goals per year.

            With top executives today spending almost two days per week in meetings on average, it’s clear the problem has gotten out of hand - and goes all the way to the top. Declining meeting invites is one way to skip them - after all, you don’t have to say yes to everything - but if that’s not an option, there are still a host of other ways to get people out of the conference room and back to work that matters:


            • Keep meetings small. Just like you should be declining extraneous meeting invites, you shouldn’t be inviting extraneous guests - while increasingly transparent (a good thing!), it exponentially increases the potential for tangential conversation, lack of focus, and talking over others (not so good things).


            • Budget your time. If your company wouldn’t consider spending money without first putting a budget in place, look at your time the same way. A 40 hour work week should not have 16 hours of meetings - and it stands to reason that if the companies with executives spending two days per week in meetings had evaluated their time by hours, rather than juggling blocks, they’d have felt the same way, too.


            • Migrate the medium. Stand-up meetings are a great way to keep people focused (and get blood moving at the same time). Much like StandDesks help increase productivity because users are less apt to slouch out at a chair and stop focusing, standing meetings can do the same. In addition to health benefits, they shake up the drudgery of constantly being in a conference room, require attendees to make points more succinctly, and often last for a far shorter time while accomplishing the same amount of work.

            Mayo’s 1920s studies were supplanted by another famous workplace theory at the time - Taylorism, or the birth of management consulting intended specifically to maximize productivity. While Mayo’s study was seminal, Taylorism was what truly turned our workplace into a place of churn, far after the Industrial Revolution ended. By focusing purely on productivity, and from a one-size-fits-all mold, Taylorism is what led us to standardized office spaces with little personality, whether it was the cubicle farms of the 80s and 90s, or the over-crowded, ostensibly creative open floor plan offices where productivity hit an all time low in the early aughts.

            Yet researchers now are finding that not only was Mayo right all along; they’re able to quantify it, too. A 2015 study found that workers whose companies created programs to invest specifically in employee satisfaction, like Google, saw significant increases in employee satisfaction; at Google, to the tune of 37% greater employee satisfaction than prior to the initiative. The study also found something very interesting: that happy employees are, on average, 12% more productive than unhappy employees. Not only that, but the more productive employees became, their happiness quotient only increased further.

            In short: happy employees make companies productive, which makes for even happier employees. Knowing that, keeping employees happy quickly starts to look less like a “perk” - many of which are subject to change on the whim of a new trend - and more like the steps anyone would take if they wanted the best for themselves.

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