Don’t want your employees to go the way of JetBlue’s Steven Slater? Here are 10 things that could keep them happy.

By Issie LapowskyAug 27, 2010
It’s no coincidence that Steven Slater, the now-famous JetBlue employee, has been elevated to the status of a working person’s hero. He did what so many frustrated employees would love to do, if only they had the courage, the beers, and the inflatable slide to help them escape a less-than-pleasant office environment.
It should come as no surprise, though, that the most successful businesses are the ones that work the hardest to please their employees, and it’s up to managers to make sure they’re giving their staffs what they want to the best of their abilities.
After reading the book Why Work Sucks and How to Fix it by Cali Ressler, Jeff Gunther, CEO of the Charlottesville, VA-based software company Meddius, decided he would change the way his staff works by instituting a results-only working environment, often referred to as a ROWE. Meddius employees can work any time from any place in any way, as long as they get their work done. Gunther has found that by giving employees the trust and autonomy they need, they’ve actually been more productive and loyal to the company.
We’ve broken down the 10 things employees want that will help you keep them on board.
1. Employees want purpose. Don’t assume that a hefty paycheck and regular bonuses are the most important things to your employees. They, like you, want to know that what they’re doing on a daily basis has some purpose behind it. “What people want most is the chance to make a difference,” says Alexander Hiam, the Massachusetts-based author of Business Innovation For Dummies. “When you have a chance to have your ideas heard and one of them actually gets implemented, it’s such a boost.”
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2. Employees want goals. To instill a sense of purpose in your employees, be sure to lay out a clearly-defined set of goals for them on a regular basis. At Meddius, Gunther’s team of managers re-aligns each department’s goals every three months. “The goals have to be very measurable, obtainable goals,” Gunther says. For the sales team, for example, that might mean setting a goal as to the number of deals the team is expected to close in a certain period of time for a certain dollar amount. Once goals are in place, it is up to each team to decide how to achieve them.
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3. Employees want responsibilities. Sometimes the hardest part of being a manager is delegating, but employees crave your trust, and with that trust, should come responsibility. “People are so busy and harried themselves that all they do is work, they don’t really manage,” Hiam says. “Ask people if there are more things they can do, and then you can catch your breath and be a manager.”
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4. Employees want autonomy. Take it from Gunther, giving your employees freedom over how they work can actually make them more productive. Unless you’re managing an assembly line, give your employees the freedom to work in a way that works for them. Daniel Pink, the Washington D.C.-based author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says, “Let people figure out the best paths to the goal, rather than breathe down their necks all the time.”
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5. Employees want flexibility. In addition to deciding how they work, the experts say employees also appreciate having a say over when they work. Gunther has, of course, set up a radically flexible schedule for his employees that might not work for every office. But, he says, it has enabled him to find and retain top talent for Meddius. “We’ve had people who have taken significant pay cuts to work for us, because at their old job they were told to show up and be at the office between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m.,” he says. “Generation Y is looking for a synergy between their personal lives and their professional lives.” Set up a flexible vacation policy or a telecommuting policy that enables employees to work from home. It involves a great deal of trust, but, as Pink says, “If you don’t trust your employees, you’ve got much bigger problems.”
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6. Employees want attention. Just because you’re giving employees the control they crave doesn’t mean they don’t want guidance and feedback. Hiam suggests checking in with them every few weeks, even if it’s just for a minute or two. “Look them in the eye and ask how things are going. Find out what’s really going on in their world,” he suggests. “Responsibility is about giving them a chance to make a difference, but attention is the human dimension of managing.” And don’t be fooled into thinking that the traditional annual performance review is your big chance to tell your employees what’s working and what’s not. In Pink’s words, “There’s no way to get better at something you only hear about once a year.” That’s why, at Meddius, Gunther uses the year-end to make decisions about promoting employees, and uses the quarterly meetings where goals are set, to address big operational issues within each department.
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7. Employees want opportunities for innovation. Not long ago, Google announced its 20 percent creative time policy, which encourages employees to work on any innovative ideas they have that are company-related during 20 percent of their hours at work. Both Hiam and Pink applaud this concept. “People need to be given a chance to bring about something new and exciting,” Hiam says. “Just asking people for ideas doesn’t create innovation. It’s a culmination of creativity and leadership.” Though you might not be able to give your employees this much time on the clock to work on side projects, you can always foster innovation through employee brainstorming sessions that allow the staff to work with new people and generate fresh ideas.
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8. Employees want open-mindedness. When your employees come to you with their ideas, you need to treat them with equal parts sensitivity and honesty. Be sensitive because, according to Hiam, the more an employee gets shot down by an authority figure, the less likely he or she will be to make suggestions in the future. It’s also important to be honest because, as that authority figure, you may know what’s best for your business and what’s not. You don’t have to accept every idea that comes your way, but, Hiam says, “Don’t just shut someone down. Say, ‘Here’s what I know: years ago we tried something similar. Here’s what happened. Give some more thought to your idea, and come back if you think you can make it work.'”
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9. Employees want transparency. When Meddius publishes each department’s quarterly goals, Gunther does it as well, not because he needs reminding, but because he believes his employees should be cognizant of where the organization’s going. “Employees, especially the younger work force, want transparency,” he says. While it’s not necessary to publish that information, Hiam emphasizes that the communication channel between a manager and his or her employees should always be open. “That’s why you need to build it by talking about ordinary everyday things,” he says. “You need to have rehearsed talking about ordinary things before you can talk about anything major.”
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10. Employees want compensation. Your employees do need to provide for themselves and their families, so, of course, salaries, bonuses and benefits are important, but perhaps not in the way you might think. Pink’s research on what motivates employees has led him to one conclusion: “The best use of money as a motivator is to pay people enough to take the issue of money off the table.” He says it’s better to pay people a little more than the norm and allow them to focus on their work than to pay them based on performance. “Don’t pay people a measly base salary and very high commissions and bonuses in hopes that the fear of not having enough food on their tables will inspire them to do extraordinary things.” The way Gunther has employed this strategy is by providing his employees with full health care benefits at no cost, so they can rest assured that their families are fully protected. “It’s a huge expense, but to employees, it’s really valuable.”
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