For readers of Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Freakonomics, comes a captivating and surprising journey through the science of workplace excellence.
Why do successful companies reward failure? What can casinos teach us about building a happy workplace? How do you design an office that enhances both attention to detail and creativity?
In The Best Place to Work, award-winning psychologist Ron Friedman, Ph.D. uses the latest research from the fields of motivation, creativity, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and management to reveal what really makes us successful at work. Combining powerful stories with cutting edge findings, Friedman shows leaders at every level how they can use scientifically-proven techniques to promote smarter thinking, greater innovation, and stronger performance.
Among the many surprising insights, Friedman explains how learning to think like a hostage negotiator can help you diffuse a workplace argument, why placing a fish bowl near your desk can elevate your thinking, and how incorporating strategic distractions into your schedule can help you reach smarter decisions. Along the way, the book introduces the inventor who created the cubicle, the president who brought down the world’s most dangerous criminal, and the teenager who single-handedly transformed professional tennis—vivid stories that offer unexpected revelations on achieving workplace excellence.
Brimming with counterintuitive insights and actionable recommendations, The Best Place to Work offers employees and executives alike game-changing advice for working smarter and turning any organization—regardless of its size, budgets, or ambitions—into an extraordinary workplace.
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Ron Friedman, Ph.D. is an award-winning psychologist and founder of Ignite80, a management consultancy that teaches leaders and their teams evidence-based practices for building extraordinary workplaces.
A human motivation expert, Ron has authored multiple book chapters and academic journal articles on the science of achievement, creativity, and happiness. Prior to launching Ignite80, Ron served on the faculty of the University of Rochester, Nazareth College, and Hobart and William Smith Colleges.
Popular accounts of Ron’s research have appeared on NPR and in major newspapers, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Boston Globe, Vancouver Post, the Globe and Mail, The Guardian, as well as magazines such as Men’s Health, Shape, and Allure.
He contributes to the blogs of Fast Company, Forbes, and Psychology Today.
A Tale of Two Menus
Near the heart of Silicon Valley, just a few miles south of the San Francisco Bay, sits an enchanting Indian restaurant called Baadal. It is run by Irfan Dama, an animated chef of forty-one, who designs three-course meals that alternate daily. Baadal is his first restaurant. Yet by all accounts, it is a colossal success. Within just days of opening, reservations were nearly impossible to secure.
Unlike more traditional Indian restaurants, Chef Dama’s menus aim to demystify meals that often intimidate novice diners, by listing every ingredient included in a dish. The restaurant’s decor also provides a range of dining experiences, from quiet booths surrounded by sheer curtains to open-space tables to a rousing Bollywood-themed room intended for group celebrations.
There’s one other thing that’s different about Irfan Dama’s restaurant: It doesn’t charge customers a penny. In fact, anyone who’s had the good fortune of sampling Baadal’s world-class cuisine has done so for free.
Baadal is owned by Google. It is one of the thirty gourmet restaurants that cater to employees at the company’s Mountain View headquarters, known as the Googleplex.
At Google, eating is serious business. Every meal brings with it the opportunity to try over two hundred artisan-crafted dishes. Among the more recent offerings: roast quail, steak tartare, lobster bisque, black cod with parsley pesto and bread crumbs, and porcini-encrusted grass-fed beef. For lighter eaters, there is a salad bar, a noodle bar, a cheese and charcuterie bar, crudité platters, and seasonal sous vide vegetables. Between meals, Googlers are invited to visit one of the many microkitchens sprinkled throughout the campus, each open 24/7 and stocking organic fruit, yogurts, candy, nuts, and drinks. The goal at Google is for employees to be within three minutes of a food source at all times.
The vast and complementary food selection is one reason Google was ranked by Fortune magazine as the world’s best place to work. But as far as Googleplex amenities go, it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
Employees at the company are treated to massages, haircuts, eyebrow-shaping services, foreign language courses, and doctor visits, all on site and free of charge. They have access to three wellness centers, a bowling alley, basketball courts, a roller-hockey rink, ping-pong tables, arcade games, foosball tables, a rock-climbing wall, a putting green, and volleyball courts complete with actual sand. There’s an indoor tree house, manicured gardens, apiaries for recreational beekeeping, a replica of Richard Branson’s private spaceship, and the life-size skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex. Not to be forgotten: the heated toilet seats.
Google is far from the only organization investing heavily in the comfort of its employees. SAS, a business-analytics software company that earned more than $3 billion in 2012, provides its employees with access to tennis courts, saunas, a billiards hall, heated swimming pools, and work-life counseling, which includes confidential professional advice on financial planning, elder care, and family issues. At Facebook, employees can ride company-provided bicycles to the campus barber, drop off their dry cleaning, grab a latte, raid the free candy shop, and, conveniently, visit the on-site dentist.
And it’s not just companies in high tech. Wegmans, a northeastern U.S. grocery chain, has consistently appeared near the top of Fortune magazine’s list of 100 Best Companies to Work For over the past fifteen years. During that same time period, annual sales have nearly tripled. While many retail operations have tried growing earnings by reducing labor costs, Wegmans has steered in the opposite direction, offering its supermarket employees (many of whom are still in high school and simply glad to have a job) wellness programs, pretax spending accounts, 401(k) plans, life insurance, and education scholarships.
What’s the rationale behind all this lavish spending? For many companies on Fortune’s list, the basic calculus is simple: Happy employees mean bigger profits.
The more invested and enthusiastic people are about their work, the more successful their organization is on a variety of metrics. Studies indicate that happy employees are more productive, more creative, and provide better client service. They’re less likely to quit or call in sick. What’s more, they act as brand ambassadors outside the office, spreading positive impressions of their company and attracting star performers to their team.
The bottom line for many of the world’s most profitable organizations is this: Investing in workplace happiness doesn’t cost their company money—it ensures they stay on top.
It’s a perspective backed by some compelling data. Research conducted by the Great Place to Work Institute—the organization that compiles an annual list of leading workplaces in conjunction with Fortune magazine—reveals an eye-opening statistic: The stocks of companies on the Best Companies to Work For list outperform the market as a whole by a stunning factor of 2 to 1.
Investors are catching on. Around the time the Googleplex opened its doors in 2004, San Francisco–based Parnassus Investments launched a mutual fund comprised exclusively of companies with outstanding workplaces, like the ones on Fortune’s list. Since the fund’s inception, it’s recorded a 9.63 percent annualized return. In comparison, the overall S&P index during that same time period was a considerably more modest 5.58 percent.
The evidence is clear: Creating an extraordinary workplace can pay significant dividends.
So how do you do it?
Google, SAS, Facebook, and Wegmans certainly set a high bar. But what if you don’t have the budget of a multinational corporation? What if you’re struggling to find room for a bigger copier, let alone the space for an on-site wellness center? What if the closest thing your office has to a gourmet restaurant is the vending machine at the end of the hall?
• • •
This book happened by accident.
It came about after I left academics, where I’d spent years studying human motivation in the lab and teaching psychology at colleges and universities. Shortly after earning a doctorate in social psychology and settling into a teaching position, I found myself restless.
I’d planned on spending my life as a college professor. But the moment I stepped into the role, I began itching for a new challenge. I wanted to do something practical. Something applied. And so I entered the business world, where I was hired to measure public opinion as a pollster.
Not long after I arrived, I noticed something unexpected. As a social psychologist specializing in human motivation, I’d read countless studies on the factors that promote productivity, creativity, and engagement. Yet to my surprise, very few of these findings were being put to use. Much of what I observed—from the way organizations hire to the way leaders motivate to the layout and design of most office spaces—appeared blind to a wealth of research on how we can build a better workplace.
Over the past decade, advances in brain imaging, data-gathering methods, and behavioral science experiments have produced powerful insights into the conditions that help us work more effectively. We now know how to build a room that boosts creativity, how to turn workplace colleagues into close friends, and how to make any job more meaningful. We know that decorating your office can make you more productive, that going for a walk can lead to better decisions, and that embracing failure can actually help you succeed.
Yet most of these findings have remained trapped in library stacks, collecting dust on university shelves.
In some ways, the knowledge gap between the worlds of business and psychology makes complete sense. Until recently, organizations have had limited need for the advice of psychologists. The traditional workplace, which evolved from the days of the factory floor, had been operating adequately.
But then something momentous happened: The economy shifted. And suddenly the workplace model we’d relied on for generations was no longer as effective.
Back in the days of the industrial economy, building a successful workplace meant finding efficiencies through eliminating errors, standardizing performance, and squeezing more out of workers. How employees felt while doing their job was of secondary interest, because it had limited impact on their performance. The main thing was that the work got done.
Today things are different. Our work is infinitely more complex. We rarely need employees to simply do routine, repetitive tasks—we also need them to collaborate, plan, and innovate. Building a thriving organization in the current economy demands a great deal more than efficiency. It requires an environment that harnesses intelligence, creativity, and interpersonal skill.
Businesses today need psychologists. In a world where productivity hinges on the quality of an employee’s thinking, psychological factors are no longer secondary. They’re at the very core of what determines success.
Which brings me back to how I unintentionally came upon the idea for this book: After academia I assumed my writing days were over. But as I experienced the business world firsthand, both in the role of employee and manager, and as I interacted with hundreds of clients, getting an unvarnished view of how their organizations operate, one theme kept resurfacing again and again: There is a massive divide between the latest science and the modern workplace.
This book is an attempt to bridge that gap.
In the chapters that follow, I am going to tell you about revolutionary findings in the fields of motivation, creativity, behavioral economics, neuroscience, and management, and show you how you can use them to create a better workplace. Each chapter will address a different aspect of the workplace, offering illuminating and often counterintuitive best practices for making you and your company more effective.
You’ll learn how to motivate employees without relying on bonuses, how to choose between job applicants, and how to elevate pride in your organization. You’ll discover how to reach better spending decisions, how to defuse workplace disagreements, and how to make yourself more persuasive.
Along the way, we’ll meet some extraordinary individuals and hear their fascinating stories, each providing a unique lens for understanding workplace excellence. I’m going to take you behind the scenes of a hostage negotiation and demonstrate how verbal techniques used by the FBI can make you a better leader. I’ll introduce you to the man who created the cubicle and explain why his vision for the modern workplace makes perfect sense. I’ll show you what every organization can learn from the structure of video games, the design of a Las Vegas casino, and the hiring practices of a symphony orchestra.
We’ll cover lots of ground in a short time frame. The work you’re about to read fuses thousands of scientific studies in a way that I hope you’ll find engaging and relatively jargon-free. I have attempted to write the sort of book I’d want to read on a business trip. For me that means three things: fast-paced, entertaining, and actionable.
I designed this book with two audiences in mind. The first and perhaps most obvious are managers, owners, and CEOs—those with the ability to apply many of the research recommendations and immediately transform their team’s workplace experience.
But this book is not merely a playbook for those at the top of the corporate ladder. It is also written for emerging leaders who want data-driven insights for improving their own productivity and lifting their team’s performance. Regardless of where you sit on your company’s org chart, if you are interested in reaching smarter workplace decisions, having better colleague relationships, and making yourself indispensable to your company, this book can help.
There are many business books that provide broad principles and few practical recommendations. This is not one of them. Throughout every chapter, you will find specific, evidence-based changes you can apply at your workplace, regardless of your industry. In addition, at the conclusion of each chapter, you will find action items that build upon the findings, offering three more applications geared toward managers and emerging leaders, respectively.
An unavoidable downside of writing about workplaces in general and offering lots of specific recommendations is that not all of them will be applicable to everyone. Every organization is different. What works for Google may not be ideal for Wegmans, and vice versa. In that vein, some of the suggestions in this book may be perfect for your company, while others may appear less relevant. My intention here is not to offer a one-size-fits-all approach for building a great workplace (because that would be impossible) but to provide you with a menu of proven ingredients, so that you can choose what feels right within the context of your organization.
By the time you reach the conclusion of this book, I hope to have convinced you of a simple fact: that psychological insight can transform any organization into a great workplace.
The secret to happy workplaces isn’t spending more money. It’s about creating the conditions that allow employees to do their best work.
And how exactly do you do that? Turn the page. The answers, I believe, are here.
Designing an Extraordinary Workplace Experience
Success Is Overrated
Why Great Workplaces Reward Failure
Silas Johnson never expected to become famous.
At twenty-nine, he was simply grateful to be playing baseball. Just a few years earlier, he’d been slaving away on the family farm, working alongside his dad from the moment the sun hit his lids until the muscles in his back ached. On a good week he and his dad might find a few minutes to escape for a quick game of catch near the old windmill. His days were as predictable as they were long.
That all changed the morning Si spotted an ad in the Ottawa Republican-Times. The Rock Island Islanders were holding open tryouts.
Why not? he thought. It was worth a shot.
When he got there, he found himself competing with eighty-one other men—enough to fill the entire roster several times over. Si knew he was a long shot. Yet, miraculously, he was the only player offered a permanent spot.
Now, as a starting pitcher for the Cincinnati Reds, he would tell anyone who would listen: He was just relieved to have found an easier way of earning twenty dollars a month.
The year was 1935. The date: May 26. Si Johnson was preparing to take the mound at Crosley Field. And though he had no way of knowing it, he was about to have the single most memorable game of his professional career.
It started out much like any other day at the ballpark. Johnson put on his uniform, tied his cleats, and adjusted his cap, just as he did whenever it was his turn to pitch. As he stepped onto the field, there were over 24,000 in attendance, an unusually large crowd by Cincinnati standards. Johnson could hear them roaring, loud even before he’d thrown his first pitch.
He knew they weren’t there to see him, or his team. They had come to watch a player on the opposing side. A left fielder. The one standing in ...
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