Well-being at startups: teamwork, autonomy and vision essential

By June 01, 2015
well-being at work

Highly positive prognostications are nowadays being made for startups on all sides. So what can be said about the place of the employee in this kind of company and what are such firms doing to promote well-being in the workplace?

The startup universe is today the darling of the media, the collective imagination is filled with positive images of these fledgling firms and all kinds of good things are being projected for this type of company, including business success on the one hand and great working conditions for employees on the other.  Silicon Valley success stories have become rooted in our minds.

The new Airbnb headquarters building, where a full-scale replica of the most attractive apartments available for rent has been set up, probably needs no introduction. A chill-out space with games console, ping pong table and well-stocked fridge – this is the sort of mental picture we tend to have of a tech start-up. We also tend to think of the attractive side-benefits that some of these young firms can offer staff, along the lines of the two week free vacation provided by Couchsurfing so as to on-board them as members of the active community.

Locaux d'Airbnb à Portland

                                      Airbnb’s new premises in Portland, Oregon

Nevertheless, Eric Ries, guru of the lean startup  approach, reminds us that while today entrepreneurship certainly has its ‘cool’ side, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of idealising all such firms.   At the present time we are seeing a lot of initiatives honouring companies that show some invention when it comes to promoting the well-being of their workforce, such as the 100 best companies to work for ranking compiled by Great Place to Work in conjunction with Fortune Magazine and the ‘Conviviality and Well-Being in the Workplace’ awards run by the French Entreprise & Convivialité (Convivial Company) non-profit organisation. It is therefore perhaps interesting to observe the attitudes to well-being of startups at all stages of growth in all kinds of sectors and to assess what it is in practice that really affects the well-being of employees at such companies.

The team: a key component of staff motivation

The notion that teamwork and cohesiveness between individual members of the team are crucial factors is hardly new and this whole concept might even seem a bit overworked.  However this is precisely what startups themselves claim is the foundation for success in any kind of project. It goes without saying that, in the initial phase, understanding between the members of the founding team is absolutely essential.  Underlines Startup Weekend co-founder Franck Nouyrigat: “As Noam Wasserman points out in his book 'The Founder’s Dilemmas', it’s vital to have a good understanding between the company founders.”

After that, however, the next step is to unite the workforce around the company mission. A startup needs to place the emphasis on the team in structural terms. A fledgling company, which is necessarily rather fragile, needs to create a hard core of support around its mission.  In some cases this will take the form of a sort of ‘fraternity’. As Franck Nouyrigat puts it: “They’re going to be spending a lot of time together. So this has something of the tribal about it.”

So how can such harmony be created and maintained? Group breakfasts or lunches on an almost daily basis, staff outings to get to know each other, plus all kinds of fun activities designed to benefit the company, as happens for instance at office-sharing provider Bureaux À Partager (BAP), which rewards the employee Good Idea of the Week with motivational gifts and gadgets.

In fact a certain degree of informality can help to improve working relationships. “You learn to put things in perspective, to see the person behind the job and to realise that you can have friendly relationships at work,” explains Marie Piquemil, Head of Operations at BAP.

There is strong evidence that the social side is a key aspect of well-being at work. A number of academics, including Professor Hilary Bradbury, stress the importance of the quality of an employee’s social relationships at work. Free-flowing communication, fostered by regular meetings, email exchanges, brainstorming sessions or simply the exchange of opinions, do without doubt help to strengthen ties and forge new bonds between colleagues, stress the experts.

By promoting cohesiveness within teams, the company is also helping to engender trust between colleagues, which is a recognised factor for well-being in the workplace.

Moreover, close relations between colleagues are thought to play a key role in stress management. “Given that the atmosphere at startup premises is often more relaxed, a startup is perhaps more likely to be able to provide answers to the problem of stress,” points out Franck Nouyrigat.

Staff autonomy

This is what attracts people to a startup,” claims Marie Piquemil. An employer that encourages you to take the initiatives, wide freedom of action and the opportunity to take more responsibility if you wish – these elements amount to the Holy Grail for people looking for a start-up job. And this works both ways. “We’re looking for people who are able to take the initiative and quickly assume responsibility,” underlines Camille Gaume, CRM Director at online DIY equipment retail specialist monechelle.fr.

From an organisational point of view, startups are basically bound by their very structure to foster autonomy among their employees.  The workload tends to increase at a faster pace than the workforce and the key decision-makers are soon forced to delegate down the line.

autonomie de l'employé

Taking the risk of promoting autonomy among employees can have positive consequences for all concerned

Quite apart from the need to embrace the notion of greater autonomy among staff, this approach can help to generate a ‘virtuous circle’.  Legend has it that the Gmail messaging service was invented by a Google employee during the well-known 20% ‘free time’ period in which Google staff are allowed to pursue their own projects.  A similar idea highlighted by work organisation expert Dan Pink at a TED conference is the ‘FedEx Day’ invented by Australian software publisher Atlassian. This in-company forerunner of a hackathon was introduced in the mid-2000s. Employees are encouraged to work on an idea to improve teamwork or grow the business, and are expected to show what they have created to their colleagues 24 hours later (hence the idea of FedEx delivery).

Of course, any form of initiative-taking must be well-managed. Nonetheless, by allowing some freedom of action the manager is sending out a positive signal to his/her team, which is likely to be beneficial for all concerned, the company as well as the individual employee.

Conveying vision to foster commitment

In fact the whole notion of transformational leadership depends on the ability of company leaders to get their goals and their basic vision for the organisation across to the entire workforce and then recognise the individual efforts of each person. While some startups acknowledge that they could do more to apply this management approach at their company, the vast majority of people see this as essential in order to ensure general well-being at the firm.

Educating the workforce as regards the main lines the company wishes to follow can be a time-consuming task for management and decision-makers but this should certainly be seen as a valuable long-term investment. Taking the time to explain, inform staff about current and future projects, and share knowledge widely will help to create future performance as it will ensure that every employee can make sense of the work s/he is doing for the company. Conveying the company vision means putting things in context, enabling staff to grasp the ins and outs of a given decision or direction taken. And whether we are talking about a startup or a department at a major corporation, this approach will help to engender engagement and commitment among staff. “Staff feel at home here and that helps to generate positive energy throughout the company,” underlines Enerbee founder, Chairman and CEO Pierre Coulombeau.

l'importance de l'équipe

                               Conveying vision to ensure the commitment of all staff

Here once again, free flowing communication among team members is a vital component. And in the digital era there is no shortage of tools available to streamline work and foster team spirit. So it’s up to company leaders to make the most of them, given that staff well-being and commitment are probably the key ingredients for higher productivity and better business performance.

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