Recent studies have focused on “employee satisfaction” and its links with productivity to enhance profits in the workplace. When employees are satisfied at work, they are less likely to leave their jobs, theorists claim.
Increasing employee retention is a valid strategy for law firms hoping to reduce costs.
Hiring and training—in technical fields like law—are especially draining on bank accounts and human resources. In addition, new employees involve a lot of up-front costs, including hours of training instead of billables, business cards, welcome lunches, and slow learning curves that pay off only the long-term.
These costs are lost when an employee leaves. For firms, this conclusion doesn’t mean holding off on training new associates. But it does mean offering a job that makes employees happy to stay.
Figuring out the incentives that will make employees happy is, surprisingly, more difficult than researchers first thought. After all, economists have spent centuries working out complex game theory and identifying incentive systems that motivate mankind.
It doesn’t seem like a stretch to apply such theories to management.
Unfortunately for employers, however, an individual’s happiness is subjective and ever changing. In fact, sense the inception of Google, online searches for the term “happiness” have tripled—leaving analysts to believe men and women are still confused about which products they love, which lives to lead, and what professions will make them happiest.
The search for meaning in life increases in times of austerity, like an economic recession.
So, other than scouring the many search terms in Google, how can law firms know what will incentivize their staff?
First, conduct your own study.
Although academic research is useful for practitioners, the best way to understand your work force is to ask them. In fact, consider hiring a PhD student intern (or graduate) for an inter-office experiment.
Circulate surveys, conduct interviews, and analyze data of your own employees. Ask them about their best days at work, their worst days, and why for days they keep coming back.
Of course, higher salaries and monetary incentives will always be important (cash is king). But, depending on your corporate culture, company size, average age, or structure, for example, you may be surprised at how small, intrinsically-valued items serve as motivators.
For example, personalized letters of appreciation often go farther than gift certificates in motivating employees. Sure, if asked, employees might suggest monetary bonuses as incentive ideas. But, in practice, you may find that it’s the letters or kind words fom bosses that actually lead to increased productivity.
With this in mind, second, consider creative incentive systems.
A recent experiment offered participants two rewards for a task measuring productivity: a water bottle gift item or seven dollars cash. When asked to choose, 80 percent of participants chose the cash. However, when different groups weren’t given the choice, the results in productivity were surprising.
“The cash bonus didn’t have any effect on the speed or accuracy with which the students did their jobs,” reports the Harvard Business Review blog.
“However, those receiving the free bottle reciprocated by upping their data entry rate by 25%, a productivity increase that more than offset the cost of the bottle itself.”
So, although your firm should conduct in-house research and surveys about what employees find most satisfying, it’s important that first-person experience also drive your study. Don’t let employee contribution or opinions on “happiness” be the sole input for your productivity policy.
Discover what kinds of creative incentives you can offer associates. Maybe monogrammed water bottles are not the key to your firm’s efficiency. But, monogramed coffee mugs or cufflinks (at a reasonable price) may yield higher productivity returns than cash bonuses.
Finally, forget employee satisfaction and focus on employee engagement.
“Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals,” writes Kevin Kruse, entrepreneur and NY Times bestselling author and his latest book is Employee Engagement 2.0, for Forbes.
There are many factors that increase employee satisfaction and happiness. This could be free meals, higher salary, or larger offices. However, not all of these factors play into increased productivity and profits for your firm.
Increasing employee engagement, however, leads to an increased commitment of employees to your firm, its clients, and its success. The direct effect of employee engagement is higher goal-seeking behavior and the organizational cooperation that yields financial returns for your firm.
So, when an employee asks for free Colombian-brewed coffee at your firm, think about the beneficial effects caffeine will have on employee concentration and attention span.
When employees have access to unlimited high-quality beans in the office, they’re less likely to take long coffee breaks at the neighborhood Starbucks. All-in-all, these create positive returns for your firm.
However, simply gifting your employees Starbucks cards will only increase temporary satisfaction for your employees. It will likely not yield any permanent results. It may even increase the expectation for more gift cards in the future—so that if employees stop receiving them, their productivity and morale will decline. It’s not enough that lawyers love their jobs. They must also love their firm, its partners, and its objectives.
Of course, all of these variables depend on the particular characteristics of your firm and its employees. That’s why the more you know, the better prepared you are to engage your associates productivity.
Former Campbell’s Soup CEO, Doug Conant, once said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace,” Kruse reminds us in Forbes.
And to win the workplace, your firm must conduct its due diligence.