3 cost-efficient ways to foster a more loving workplace

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When the CEO of a nonprofit healthcare facility in the Northeast suspected his employees perceived their working environment as clinical and antiseptic, she decided to invite management academics to use her company as a case study for improvement. Specifically, she wanted to inject a more loving, caring culture, but she wasn’t sure how – and she wasn’t sure what the results would be.

So George Mason University professor Olivia O’Neill and University of Pennsylvania professor Sigal Barsade stepped in to survey 185 employees, 108 clients, and 42 family members of clients. By asking questions and observing the working environment, the researchers were able to rate the culture of compassionate love between coworkers in each unit of the facility.

They found that clients in the units where coworkers were more loving toward each other were not only happier, but also required fewer emergency room visits.

“We wanted to focus particularly among staff with the idea that if staff took care of each other more, they would also take care of residents better,” O’Neill says, “and residents’ health, in turn, would reflect that.”

While it’s not solid proof, the research does serve as evidence that a loving culture at work can improve financial outcomes.

One company that has reaped the benefits of a caring company culture is Barry-Wehmiller, a $1.5billion engineering consultancy and equipment company. During the economic crisis of 2008, the company faced a 40% drop in orders, and CEO Bob Chapman was forced to seriously consider layoffs. But instead, he took a different approach.

“I thought to myself: We’re a family at Barry-Wehmiller,” wrote Chapman on his blog, “so we need to act like one. What would a responsible family do in this crisis?”

So he decided to share the burden across the organization with a furlough program where every employee took four weeks of unpaid leave, and 401(k) matching contributions were suspended. He also redoubled internal communication, protecting the trust he had built with employees by reassuring them about the future of the company. The reaction, Chapman says, was extraordinary.

“Some team members offered to take double furloughs, stepping up to “take the time” for their co-workers who could not afford the loss of pay,” he wrote. “Our decision to use furloughs to save jobs made our associates proud and profoundly touched by the realization that they worked for a company that truly cared about them.”

After the furloughs, Barry-Wehmiller had three record years, and was able to pay back the suspended 401(k) contributions and retain a valuable workforce.

Barry-Wehmiller is among a host of companies that O’Neill says are embracing the idea of a workplace incorporating love – and finding that it doesn’t necessarily mean spending millions on employee perks.

“What we find again and again and again in my field,” O’Neill says, “is that it’s these inexpensive things that really matter.”

O’Neill offers additional tips on creating a loving culture:
  • Interview smart. When interviewing candidates, ask them questions that will reveal whether they would enrich or deplete a culture of love. Positivity is a major personality factor that will influence the way they contribute to company culture.
  • Start from the top. Emphasize the principles of companionate love with the leaders in the organization. Their actions will provide “a cultural blueprint” likely to be modeled by employees.
  • Embrace multicultural understanding. Some business leaders, O’Neill says, are scared of emphasizing love and friendship between coworkers because of multicultural differences in their workforce. But this should not be a problem for companies that truly care about staff, since companionate love is about understanding individuals’ needs.
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