Companies in the web industry, just like in any service industry, are incredibly dependent on their employees. After all, unless you’re selling a product or SaaS (and arguably even then still), the work you produce is only as good as the people who produce it. Although certain things are dependent on process, management and workflow, a bespoke web site or system can only be truly great if the designers and developers et al. working on it are great. Get a mediocre designer and your designs will be mediocre and your company will suffer as a result. Indeed, good employees are probably the single most important element of any web agency.
Keeping them happy and motivated though isn’t easy. As my hero Joel Spolsky once said (I forget where), even the most dedicated of employees will never feel as passionate about a company as the owners. Fact. You just can’t rely on normal employees loving a company as much as the founders, putting in the same long hours or having the same dedication regardless of the conditions. Sure, they may come close but ultimately, one day, they will move on. So how do you keep staff happy? And, more importantly, how do you keep them motivated so they will not only be productive but instead actively contribute to the growth of a business and help it excel?
Turns out there’s a very valid and potent reason to companies like Google offering 20% free time to their employees
A lot of people would answer big salaries or cash bonuses to the questions above but I’ve always figured, simply by extrapolating my own my personal desires as a developer and all round web geek, that money was never a big motivator for people. It wasn’t until I watched this excellent video by RSAnimate on a talk given by Dan Pink last year though that it all seemed to click into place. Turns out there’s a very valid and potent reason to companies like Google offering 20% free time to their employees – turns out that there is actual evidence, backed by respectable institutions and studies, that proves that cash does nothing to motivate people when performing cognitive or creative tasks (in fact it can even have a negative effect). What motivates people, as Dan Pink puts it, are three simple things: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
The point he makes is that once you remove money from the equation by giving employees enough to live on without worrying about it, what really gets them up out of bed in the morning is the ability to self-directed, to achieve self-satisfaction by mastering something and to be part of something bigger than themselves that has a purpose. I couldn’t agree more and, when I think about it, I realise that these were some of the prime reasons I wanted to start a business.
Environment and atmosphere play a huge role in the happiness and motivation of people in a company too. Again, to paraphrase Joel Spolsky (I’m not his stalker, honest), the best thing you can do is create an office that is so nice a place to be that employees won’t want to leave. Once they’ve started meeting their friends at the office after hours there then you know they really love the place they work in. Of course, creating a good vibe in a work place can be tricky, especially in a small company, but I think by exuding the right atmosphere, starting with the folks at the top, it’s perfectly doable.
the best thing you can do is create an office that is so nice a place to be that employees won’t want to leave
In fact, I don’t think any of this stuff is rocket science. I know what you’re thinking though – it’s easy for companies like Google, Rackspace, and Amazon. These are massive, wealthy businesses that can easily afford to give their staff plenty of benefits and, after all, what’s 20% free time to a company like Google? It’s simply not possible to give all of the staff in a small business lots of free time and plenty of autonomy mixed together with an overall guiding purpose.
But I think it is. So long as money isn’t the primary motivator of starting the business in the first place (and God help anyone who gets into the web industry for the cash alone) then I reckon (read hope) it’s perfectly achievable. By keeping salaries modest and overheads reasonable, a company can have more flexibility to create the right working environment and appeal to the ideals that truly motivate its staff: don’t pay huge wages or big bonuses, give everyone free time every week to learn and work on their own projects instead; don’t take on stupid workloads and force people to work late, give them the time and space to work comfortably; don’t enforce petty rules about time keeping and working hours, let employees feel trusted and autonomous; and strive to create a place to work where everyone is driven together by a single purpose to push the boundaries of the web forward.
At least that’s the plan. But let’s not forget though, the first step is making enough money to live.