I was born a proud Gen X/Y cusper in the late 70s, in beautiful Missoula, Montana. A small town made famous by Norman McClean’s novel, “A River Runs Through It”. It was a wonderful place to grow up. I had a happy, simple, middle-class upbringing with a blue-collar dad and a stay-at-home mom.
My dad worked in the telecommunications industry and was a long-standing member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He started as an Operator (i.e. manually connecting calls) and rode a 30 year wave from Regional Bell to US West and, ultimately, to Qwest. I don’t remember a day when he didn’t come home from a day at work and recite his favorite saying, which went something like this, “15 year, 2 months and 3 days and I’ll be retired.”
His loyalty towards the company and faith in a good retirement were unwavering because, well, that’s how it was. The promise of a better future in exchange for the freedom to do all he really wanted today. It makes me a bit sad even writing this, but if you asked my dad, he would say it was a good job that provided for his family. In the end, we all know what happen with Qwest. The promise of a comfortable retirement vanished with executive greed timed perfectly with the Great Recession. Dedicated employees like my dad spent their retirement looking for another job.
Why am I telling you this story? It’s simple. I believe experiences like mine have shaped a new perspective on work. Fewer and fewer of us will postpone our happiness and freedom for a job or a company. We’ll own less and spend less to avoid a job trap that jeopardizes our happiness. We’ll even start our own businesses if working for yours doesn’t contribute to our happiness. This is how my company started and why delivering employee happiness is the linchpin of our culture.
There is no shortage of information – or common sense – on the business value of happy employees relative to unhappy, or even merely satisfied, employees. Instead, I want to talk about how explicitly calling out happiness as a deliverable influences our business decisions every day.
Stakeholders influence decisions and you have to be very mindful about their selection and motivations. Stakeholders motivated only by revenue growth and profit tend to be at odds with what is best for customers and employees. That is why we chose to start and grow with no outside capital. It is the success of our customers, the vitality of the place we work, and the happiness of our employees that drive our growth and profitability. Period.
When it comes to overall happiness, place matters. It matters a lot. We’ve chosen to start and build our company in a place that isn’t typical for a technology company. Being in Bozeman, Montana promotes happiness by providing easy access to recreation, a connection to nature and a greater chance to simplify our lives. We are in the process of extending the importance of place and the work environment with the design of a new office. We are redeveloping a 100-year-old cannery into an open tech office. What makes our repurposed, high ceilinged, open workplace different from the 1000s of other tech companies that have the same thing? Ours looks out on a spectacular mountain range that inspires us all and that can be accessed at anytime with a 10 minute jog at lunch or on a whim anytime our employees need inspiration.
Like most companies we have traditional “unwell” group health plans but it’s equally important for companies to think about the programs that truly promote and enhance healthy bodies and minds. Our wellness plan includes reimbursement for race entry fees, ski passes, wellness coaching sessions, spa experiences, Fitbit purchases, guide service reimbursement for climbing, surfing, skiing, fishing and quarterly “offsites” where we spend time on the river or the slopes as a team. We’ve learned that spending time outside and away from the office drives happiness, creativity and productivity.
The traditional way to talk about company culture is through top-down stories and descriptions of core values. We wanted to create a sense of belonging, purpose and authenticity by involving everyone in the story of our company. After all, it’s the collection of our individual stories and our passions that make up our culture and values.
Here’s my part of the story:
Designing an organization and building a culture over time that promotes employee happiness takes effort but, in my opinion, it simplifies the decision making process. As an entrepreneur growing a company, it’s as simple as measuring all decisions against, “how would this decision affect my personal happiness?” Obviously, a strong dose of empathy also goes a long way as well.