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What Drives You to Innovate or Be Productive?

A firestorm erupted after chief Yahoo Marissa Mayer banned working from home in an effort to shock the moribund company culture back to life. The resulting debate over whether working from home was good for corporate innovation and productivity is, to me, not all that interesting. I don’t know of anyone who doesn’t work from home even after putting in a full day at the office -- at the very least, they check and respond to office emails and make work-related calls during off-hours. Most companies have been happily benefitting from telecommuting for a long time so for some businesses to come out against working from home is disingenuous.

The more interesting debate that ensued was the discussion about what workplace qualities foster innovation and productivity. “Serendipitous encounters” and plush corporate perks like free food and massages have received a lot of ink, but at the root of all this is motivation. Companies have to motivate workers to innovate and produce for them.

What motivates employees? This is a long-debated question. A recent Harvard Business Review article, based on three years of research interviewing and surveying executives all over the world, boils an ideal company down to six principles:

In a nutshell, it’s a company where individual differences are nurtured; information is not suppressed or spun; the company adds value to employees, rather than merely extracting it from them; the organization stands for something meaningful; the work itself is intrinsically rewarding; and there are no stupid rules.

These principles are challenging to implement and there’ll always be situations in which they conflict with each other. But I think a simple but important thread for motivating employees unifies them -- work needs to be personally and socially meaningful to those who do it. Whether it’s feeling that your differences and ideas are encouraged, to being proud of what your work and your company stands for, to trust that you are being treated fairly, all this builds the meaningfulness of your job to you. People are motivated to actively seek the intrinsic rewards of their job, and meaning is addictive -- once you get a taste of it, it’s very hard to do without.

People want to do good work—to feel they matter in an organization that makes a difference. They want to work in a place that magnifies their strengths, not their weaknesses. For that, they need some autonomy and structure, and the organization must be coherent, honest, and open.

This is something to mull on -- the primary motivator, which then gives life to productive or creative impulses. do you find your work meaningful? How many people do you know think their work is meaningful? How many companies succeed in making work meaningful for their workers?

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Comment by Douglas Ching on May 20, 2013 at 8:41am

Nice post.  I think it's a difficult set of topics for all companies and workers because everyone is different.  How do you manage everyone's needs for growth, meaningful work and motivation yet still ensure profitability and fairness for everyone?  It probably becomes even more difficult as a company grows.  I've always liked companies that treat their employees as people instead of easily replaceable parts, but can see how not all companies have the flexibility to do so.

Comment by Chris Sass on May 17, 2013 at 3:18pm

Great blog post! This really seems to gel with a couple blog posts written this past year by Brandon Hayes

I think that the "vision, trust and feedback" triangle mentioned in the culture myth article is probably one of the best ways a company can succeed in making work meaningful for it's employees.


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