Morale is as vital to troops as ammunition when it comes to securing a military victory. It is also essential to companies in driving successful, profitable businesses. A recent Gallup Employee Engagement analysis found that companies in the US with highly engaged employees showed nearly four times the financial growth rate of companies with lower engagement. The top-performing companies in its study boasted almost ten engaged employees for every one unhappy staffer. In companies with average performance, the ratio went down to 1.83 to one.
Faced with a major change in management or company direction, downsizing, pay freezes or removal of perks and benefits, employee morale can – and does – slump. Even the most esteemed companies are not immune from its effects. As Apple’s shares declined 24 per cent this June following stiff iPhone competition and slow follow-up on a breakthrough product, recruiters are noting more applications from Apple staff to work at Google, Linked In and Facebook according to a report by Global Equities Research.
While the “customer is always right” is a rule that holds true in just about any company, Vineet Nayar, CEO of I.T outsourcing firm HCL Technologies, stresses that you can never underestimate staff morale. In his 2010 book Employees First, Customers Second, Nayar’s lays out the three basic principles of his philosophy: that bosses must trust employees; that the company’s enabling functions – from HR to payroll – must be accountable to employees; and managers must also be accountable to employees. This value-based leadership approach, which inverts the conventional management method, resulted in HCL being ranked by Hewitt Associates as the Best Employer in India and among the top five most influential companies in the world by Business Week.
One of the biggest issues with morale is that it can be difficult to measure. Even after paying out for costly research reports from management consulting firms such as HayGroup or Gallup, many companies lack genuine insight into what drives employee morale. Online engagement surveys, such as the data-driven, analytics platform, Murmur, offered by Australian startup Culture Amp offers an alternative route to the answer. The software enables managers to zoom in on areas that may be causing dissatisfaction, such as lack of opportunities for promotion. Murmur also gives suggestions on how to improve scores so firms can quickly pinpoint and action areas for improvement before low morale becomes an issue.
Morale in a small business
Staff at small start-ups usually have the benefit of regular face-to-face encounters with the boss and other senior management for morale-boosting meetings and the opportunity to work closely with other departments, which prevents disengagement from setting in. Hong Kong and Shanghai-based sales and marketing specialist Infinite Luxury, whose clients include Swire Hotels and Armani Hotels and Resorts, is one such example. CEO Joanne Tang says: “To improve employee morale and boost productivity within our company, we focus on communication and empowerment. Most employees crave communication, involvement and autonomy, and we boost morale by giving employees more responsibility and regularly checking in with them.” Besides regular team lunches and after-work drinks, some team members have joined familiarisation and incentive trips with clients travelling overseas to visit hotels, with recent trips to both Dubai and Thailand.
As for companies that fail to boost morale among employees, Tang says, “A company can be great, but without passionate and motivated people, it will be more difficult to grow and stand out. We seek to foster an open, cooperative environment in which employees and the company alike can flourish; our employees feel that and are eager to go that extra mile. We try our best to recognise that via career development plans and extra benefits, like incentive programmes and annual bonuses. We also provide an open door policy in which employees are encouraged to share ideas.” Ultimately, she believes, it’s about focusing on employees unique talents. “If staff are doing work they are passionate about, the output will more likely be positive.”
Microsoft and morale
Consistently singled out as one of the best employers globally – in 2011 it was voted “Best Place to Work in the World” by The Great Place to Work Institute – tech giant Microsoft even has a specific morale budget. Managers can spend this money as they see fit, whether that’s a day go-karting or paying out for project-related T-shirts and mugs to make staff feel part of a team. A more essential morale-booster is ensuring employees strike a good work-life balance. “The company places high trust in employees and adopts a flexible work mode that enables employees to work at times and locations in a flexible manner to suit the needs of work and family. Microsoft does not require employees to have a formal check-in/out system to keep track of their attendance. It is mainly built on trust and support,” says Kelly Cheung, human resources director of Microsoft Hong Kong. Getting the work-life balance is key to keeping morale high, and this is reflected in its annual employee survey, in which all metrics scored at 90 or above out of 100 in the 2013 survey. Chung adds that employees are also given three days’ volunteering leave per year for voluntary work, and it is one of the first companies in the city to offer employees the chance to support their local community in this way. Within the office, the company provides free fruit, healthy drinks and daily snacks plus game rooms with the latest Microsoft consoles such as Kinect for Xbox 360 and separate well-being room with massage chairs.
Morale and charity work
How do employees remain motivated in environments where monetary rewards are not usually an option such as charities? Julee Allen, manager at Christian Action, Chungking Mansions Service Centre says: “Morale is incredibly important at our centre, particularly as we’re working with a population – refugees and asylum seekers – that can be emotionally demanding to work with. When there’s low morale, it affects the entire team and our community at large: we simply aren’t as effective. As we’re a drop-in centre, the need for staff to be physically present is important, so we have minimal flexibility in adjusting schedules but we try when we can. Given that we are heavily reliant on volunteers to provide their expertise and time to most of our education, training, psychosocial, and arts programming, a lot of activities happen after normal working hours. For those situations, we use flextime for staff and comp time for additional weekend hours.” Allen adds that communication is also key for team cohesion and morale. “We have weekly all-staff meetings to discuss operational issues, plus weekly caseworker meetings for our front-line staff. We’ve also focused on improving the physical environment of the office; in the past six months we’ve virtually painted the entire centre and added donated furniture to the public space. This has made a great difference not only to our staff but our community as well: it looks and feelsmuch professional and welcoming to visitors.”
A bi-annual performance review, one mandatory, one optional, enables staff to share successes and challenges. “We’ve worked hard to build a culture where people can openly express their opinions on the operations and morale of the centre,” says Allen, adding: “For NGOs, it’s quite easy to focus attention on the myriad of things that need to get done instead of focusing on the people who make it happen. It’s critical for managers to focus on both human resources and programme – they’re intertwined.”
Hotels and morale
With long hours and demanding guests to deal with, those working in the hotel business have plenty to test their morale. Luxury hotel group Hyatt was recently voted No. 1 hotel brand in employer branding leader Universum’s top 100 ideal employers survey and No. 1 hotel brand in Hong Kong. The company believe the secret to morale lies in emotional connection. “We feel [these awards] are recognition for the efforts we have made to encourage an ‘Associate Journey’ with our company, which focuses on acknowledging touch points in the Journey from when an individual applies for a position with Hyatt to their departure. This demonstrates that an employee’s experience with Hyatt is as important as the experience our guests have when staying at a Hyatt hotel,” says Peter Wade, director of recruitment, Asia Pacific.
To highlight the success of this approach, Wade points out that 98 Hyatt associates in Hong Kong have been with the company for more than ten years, while 52 Hong Kong staff have spent more than 20 years with the company. He says: “By developing our internal local talent, we create long-term loyalty and a diverse talent force. For example, two of the three GMs in our hotels in Hong Kong and four of Hyatt’s GMs in Greater China were born in Hong Kong.”
Now in its second year, corporate responsibility platform Hyatt Thrive Programme – which has recently linked up with underprivileged communities to boost literacy with its ‘Bring Me a Book’ campaign and workshops to foster creative thinking – is another morale-booster.
Wade says: “Hyatt Thrive is a wonderful opportunity for associates to get involved in local activities and causes that they feel passionate about. At the same time, this provides them with experiences and learning opportunities that help build their future leadership capabilities.”
The brand also recognises the effort of staff via its “Celebrating our People” week, a worldwide programme comprising a week-long activity programme for associates. “Sports activities, cultural events and special daily treats are featured and we pair our hotels around the world to promote our worldwide Hyatt family,” says Wade. Last year at Bali Hyatt, for example, the week commenced with a balloon release and fun family walk while activities included everything from visiting schools to make donations of furniture and uniforms and painting competitions.