Happiness and work were once thought of as two opposing ideas. A job was meant to help you care for yourself, your family and put food on the table, and employee satisfaction was considered only when it came to pay and benefits.

Dr. Pat Buhler

Several years ago, that started to change, says Dr. Pat Buhler, professor of management at Goldey-Beacom College.

“Quite frankly, one of the reasons why corporate America sat up and took notice is because they were able to connect the dots between employee engagement and the impact on the bottom line,” Buhler says. “We’re not really sure if employee satisfaction really does cause higher levels of performance, because we know higher performance levels also can cause employee satisfaction. Let’s face it, when we’re trying to wring out every last penny of our businesses, when we can engage our employees and deliver higher levels of performance, we are impacting the bottom line positively.”

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh’s book “Delivering Happiness” helped bring the issue of employee satisfaction to the forefront, Buhler says.

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“It was no longer a subject you kept separate from work and business,” she says.

Buhler and her former MBA student and small-business owner Jason Scott co-authored their own book about this topic, “The Employee Satisfaction Revolution: Understanding and Unleashing the Power of a Satisfied Workforce.” When the book was published, there was a lot of information about Google and Amazon’s strategies, but not what smaller businesses with limited resources could do to retain staff. 

Leonard Glick

Discussions of happiness and satisfaction have now shifted to engagement, and the focus is on how companies can engage their employees and retain them longer, Buhler says. Extrinsic motivators like game rooms and food that larger companies can offer are nice, but smaller companies can be just as competitive by offering essential intrinsic benefits that are more effective at engaging and retaining employees, says Leonard Glick, executive professor of management and organizational development at Northeastern University’s D’Amore-McKim School of Business.

“It’s when you really engage people in their work, so they have problems to solve and customers to satisfy, and they know what that means. Those are really the keys to motivation,” Glick says. “I don’t say that money doesn’t matter at all. The evidence seems to be, if people think they are being treated fairly from a salary point of view, it’s really the intrinsic motivators that take over.”

Glick and Buhler shared ideas for how independent garden centers can better engage and retain employees. Buhler says it all starts with the interview.

Hire for soft skills

“Soft skills” used to be thought of as inferior to a candidate’s previous experience and knowledge, but that is no longer the case, Buhler says. In fact, interviewing for “soft skills” like work ethic and values can help companies hire the right employee who fits with the company culture, she says. “When we understand our culture, what we value, and then we very intentionally conduct a job interview for applicants who share our values, our particular work ethic, our approach to business, then that alleviates a lot of the barriers to high performance right off the bat,” she says. “That’s the thing that businesses have to acknowledge: we’re not as well equipped to teach the soft skills as the hard skills.”

Offer shadowing opportunities pre- and post-hire

Shadowing is often a practice reserved for high school students and interns, but it can be incredibly helpful during the interview process. The interview is just as important for candidates to get a real sense of the job as it is for companies to get to know applicants. “A candidate could be given an opportunity to come and actually shadow before they take the job to see what they would be doing and spend the day with someone,” Buhler says. Shadowing can also be used as an effective training tool. “[For instance,] someone is working as a cashier, but they would like to know a lot more about being a buyer. Having that individual shadow the buyer once a month or once a quarter, that’s a win-win for the organization because they are helping with cross-training as well,” Buhler says. Employees are looking for growth opportunities, and shadowing days can help staff feel valued and companies promote from within.

Conduct “stay” interviews

Exit interviews are a common practice at companies to find out why an employee is leaving and how the company could have done better and encouraged them to stay. But what about actively talking to staff about what keeps them working for a business? That’s the idea behind “stay” interviews. “What we’re recommending now is that [companies conduct] stay interviews ... those interviews can help with recruiting more people and retention,” Buhler says.

Encourage and foster ownership

This is easier said than done, but Glick offers a helpful perspective for looking at it. “Ask yourself the question: ‘why do owners care?’ Owners aren’t going to kick out a customer who shows up 3 minutes after hours. Owners get a lot of feedback. They know if customers are satisfied or not. They stand to benefit directly from good performance and they get hurt directly from bad performance. They know the big picture, they make decisions. They certainly have input in decisions,” Glick says. “If you think about what it is that makes an owner motivated, and to the extent you can, enable employees to have some of that.” That goes hand-in-hand with honesty and transparency, Glick says.

Be honest and transparent

“Most employees are absolutely starved for information, they have no idea what’s really going on,” Glick says. “Give them the big picture. I continue to be astounded at how little most employees know what happens to their work and the results of their work.”

Provide feedback often

Yearly reviews are being replaced with more frequent, informal meetings to give employees regular feedback, Buhler says. “These are more meaningful and much more critical and effective for management. Every direct supervisor should build a relationship with each one of their subordinates and know something about them,” Buhler says. “We lose sight of the fact that people don’t leave companies, they leave bosses. Those managers that invest in getting to know their employees find that they can be more effective in supervising them.”

Recognize people differently

You also have to know employees and develop relationships with them to best understand how to recognize them for their best work, Buhler says. “I am a firm believer in asking people. Too often we think we know what people value, and we really don’t. Then we get into this one-size-fits-all [approach], and it doesn’t appeal to everyone. For one person, having their sign on the parking spot close to the door is a big thing. For another person, they might be embarrassed to have their name on a sign,” she says. “You really have to know your employees, and strike a chord with what makes sense to your organization financially. There are so many things that don’t cost anything that we overlook. The primary example of that is a handwritten ‘thank you’ note. I can’t tell you the number of times people just think it doesn’t matter about thanking others. Companies can even make a donation to an employee’s favorite charity.”

Increase learning, not training

Glick says that it’s human nature to want to learn new information and understand concepts that are at first unknown. “Imagine two concentric circles. The smaller, inside circle represents the skills of the employee, meaning knowledge, competence, whatever he or she can do. The outside circle represents the demands of that person’s work. If you want learning to take place, the outside circle always has to be bigger than the inside circle,” Glick says. “Most people will naturally want to master. If they are given a task that they don’t know how to do, it’s almost human nature to want to figure out how to do it. Most will figure out a way to do it, and now they’ve learned.” But, he adds, it’s important for managers to keep track of employee growth and learning, and to make sure their staff is offered challenging — and ultimately rewarding — work at all times.

Don’t overlook seasonal staff

Although some of your employees may only stick around for spring, Buhler says it’s just as important to think about how to motivate them so they give 100 percent while they are there.

Plus, many people are inspired after working in a garden center and come back to the business after college. “If you are connecting the dots between what they’re doing and where they ultimately want to go, even though it’s a seasonal job, they are still building their resume,” she says. “We have to counsel our employees to see what the benefit of this is and morph this job just enough that they are getting something out of it. If you find that one of the employees is coming in to be a cashier but they are pursuing a marketing degree, you might give them an opportunity to make a couple of fliers for the store to use some of those skills. You can create these win-win situations, but it’s important that the employer takes the reins in explicitly connecting the dots for people.”

Have a higher purpose

Employees, especially Millennials, are attracted to charitable, philanthropic businesses that give back to their communities or that have a “higher purpose,” Buhler says. “There’s a preference for working for organizations that are socially responsible, and that’s a great way for a retailer to build that opportunity to be what they refer to as a ‘Millennial magnet,’” she says. “It pays off for the organization in terms of hiring more of talented Millennials that have the sense of higher purpose. They don’t want to just go in and do that retail job.”

Provide opportunities to connect at work

Casual, informal interactions with fellow employees can help foster a better culture at work, Buhler says. “You don’t have to have a big fancy game room, you can just have something off to the side in your break room where they can connect with one another, whether it be a foosball table or something small. A lot of times companies can pick up things like that through yard sales,” she says. “You have to think about your culture and what make sense for your organization, but [something] where you’re building relationships [among] people and you’re tying [these relationships] in with your culture.”

Give staff autonomy and flexibility

Both Buhler and Glick say that perhaps the most important aspect to employee motivation and retention is giving staff a sense of autonomy and flexibility. “Give [staff members] some flexibility in the way that they do their jobs, so that everything isn’t so incredibly structured,” Buhler says. “We lose sight in how to effectively and creatively do a job if we think in terms of ‘we’ve always done it this way, this is what worked in the past, and we’re just going to train new people to do it exactly that same way.’

“Giving new people a little bit of flexibility and giving them broad parameters and letting them create some of the new ways that the job can be done is important. Autonomy and responsibility go a long way toward providing additional motivation and satisfaction on the job.”