I’ve seen your breakroom. All those snacks aren’t there because brightly colored wrappers make a room pop. They’re there because people get hungry, because you care, and because you want workers to have the tools to keep growing, improving and doing more.
Why snacks? Because of Maslow.
If you remember anything about Psych101, you remember Maslow and his hierarchy of needs. Not because it was an incredibly complex concept that you had to study hard, but because it was simple and made so much sense. In order to grow, said Maslow, we must have certain needs met before we start reaching for the next one in line.
To me, that concept has everything to do with work. Here’s how.
It starts with the foundation — all of those basic needs that we consider must-haves for surviving the job. For a person, it’s food, sleep, shelter, etc. In the workplace, this foundation is more aligned to the basic tools workers need to do their jobs. That may include a workspace (office, cube, or otherwise), an acceptable wage, some form of training or knowledge, electricity, computer, other basic tools for the job, and perhaps a phone. If you’ve got these covered, it’s time to move on.
Next up: safety. At work, this equates to those little things that not only show your compliance, they say you care about your employees. It’s reflective vests for a road crew, breaks for outdoor workers, fire extinguishers, and well-lit exits. It’s a work environment where employees don’t feel threatened or harassed. Health insurance and other measures to keep employees healthy also fit in here, such as the company’s flu-shot clinic or wellness program. Keep in mind: if you’re not making efforts to keep employees safe and well, your employees are going to keep looking until they procure them elsewhere. If it’s a safety vest, you can easily make a quick trip to Walmart for reflective tape and they’re back to work. If it’s health insurance, it could mean employees considering a whole new job. If it’s a work environment that turns the other cheek for harassment, you have work to do.
If your workers are stuck spending all of their time on the safety level, they’re never getting to what’s next: socialization. “What??” you say in your best 1920’s overlord voice. “I don’t pay my employees to socialize.” Ahh, but you do: you want them to collaborate, you want them to feel connected, and you want them to be part of a team. Your job is to encourage collaboration and find ways to make this social connection even stronger. It’s powerful stuff, and your business won’t be successful without it.
Let’s say your workers are well-fed, healthy, and working on a group project that’s destined to change the world. There’s still something missing: their sense of worth. Although a bump in pay or bonus might fit in here to feel appreciated, they also need you to tell them “thank you” and recognize them for everything they’re doing. It matters more than you think. Check out this previous post I wrote about startups that forgot to consider this level. It’s scary.
Finally, when these incredibly valuable contributors have it all — food, shelter, safety, friends, praise and rewards — they keep looking for more, something Maslow calls self-actualization. For instance, my employer encourages internal staff members to get involved with a charitable organization during the holiday season each year. Simply being associated with a company that encourages me to give back gives me a greater purpose, or, as Maslow would call it, a sense of self-actualization.
Charity isn’t the only way to self-actualize in the workplace. Employees might be equally satisfied taking on training duties to help other employees reach this level, or serving on a committee that improves the workplace for everyone. Taking on more responsibility (and possibly starting over on a few levels of the pyramid) might be right for some workers. Others might want to take classes or obtain certification in a specialty. Honestly there are thousands of different ways to reach this stage at work, and each is as unique as the worker. To find out what works for your employees, drop back to the socialization stage for a bit and sit down and ask them.
What I’m getting at is pretty simple: employers can’t merely expect employees to grow and contribute if those employees are stressed out because they’re missing a basic need. We’ve known for ages that if we don’t pay employees enough, they’ll look for an employer who does. But that same philosophy applies throughout the pyramid. Employers that don’t keep the workplace free of harassment, ensure safety, provide access to healthcare, give employees a chance to socialize, or encourage collaboration are likely candidates for higher turnover and lower productivity. Either way, it adds up to a whole bunch of Butterfingers and Cheezits that never live up to their workplace potential.