Why Should You Care about Employee Happiness? One CEO Tells All


We recently sat down with J. Schwan, founder and CEO of Solstice Consulting, to talk about the “happiness factor” in business success, and how employee engagement and happiness not only lead to better performance and retention, but greater customer and client satisfaction and success.

Solstice is on track to exceed 450 employees by the end of the year, more than doubling their headcount over the last two years, so please read closely the following perspective of how employee experience has driven those results.

Suz: Why do you think members of the C-suite should care about employee happiness?

J: Happiness is a big component of overarching employee engagement. There’s no question that it’s important. Statistically, the US has one of the world’s highest employee engagement scores, but it’s still ridiculously low–somewhere in the 30th percentile. This means companies just aren’t figuring out how to motivate their employees and build culture. [NOTE: Gallup’s 2016 article “The Worldwide Employee Engagement Crisis” states that 32% of U.S. employees are engaged in their jobs.]

When you increase employee engagement, you drive business results. We spend a majority of our lives at work. If we can spend time at work creating happiness, employees will have more of an affinity for a company and want to help them. This raises engagement, and makes the company more successful.

Suz: You have read The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin.  How did her research affect your business.

J: I heard her speak a few years ago, and afterwards we restructured the philosophy of our culture around the ideas that came up for me during her session.

To provide some backstory, she was a lawyer who was relatively unhappy,  She decided to research what happiness was and where it came from. She initially took it on as a passion project and wrote about what she found.

I started reading it, and it led me down a pathway to other academic researchers in the space, like Shawn Achor.  I started to see themes emerging. And it’s not rocket science, but there are a lot of tactics and practices for happiness that we don’t make a priority in our personal lives, let alone in our business lives. I thought it was interesting because we put structure around so many things, but we don’t really structure what makes us happy.

What we’ve tried to do over the last few years is teach our employees what the principals for happiness are, and give them the facility to build those habits here. It’s really paid off.  

Suz: Tell us about your perception of gratitude and what it means to happiness at Solstice.

J: There is a lot of research around the value of exhibiting gratitude. What we say around here is  “practice gratitude instead of taking things for granted.” In a lot of work places people struggle with this. We try to emphasize exhibiting gratitude, not towards the job, but towards others. This has dual benefits:

  1. For whoever has received the thank you or gratitude, it makes them feel good, because they are recognized for something they’ve done.
  2. Science is interesting: it turns out the person giving the gratitude becomes happier as well. At the end of the day, the more you practice signs of gratitude, the happier you become.

We have instilled a lot of things at Solstice to encourage showing gratitude both top down and at the peer-to-peer level.  We provide channels for people to exhibit it to one another, which scales from small to big forms of recognition.

Suz: What about you? How do you practice this in your daily life?

J: I can’t remember who suggested this habit, but one of the suggestions is to write a thank you note every morning. Every morning on the train, I crack open my laptop and send a thank you note to somebody here at the office, one of our clients, or my wife or kids. I make it a point to do it every single day. They aren’t lengthy, and they tend to pay themselves forward. We also try to do things at a company level as well.

Suz: What other initiatives is Solstice doing to increase happiness?

J: We do a weekly “Awesomeness Award,” which is a peer-to-peer recognition system.

Also, we’ve established a mentorship program which allows people to be servant leaders to one another. We empower individuals with their own training budgets to use as a way to better themselves. We make it easy for people to create “circles” or common areas of interest within the firm as a support network and we also exhibit gratitude outside the organization.

Suz: Can you talk about the budget that each employee is given for external education and what you expect from it.  

J: Everyone here is given $5,000 in training budget they can use every year. They sit down with their mentor to decide how to use it, but there are not a lot of guidelines. They can take a college course, attend a conference, or even take an improv class — it’s really whatever skill set or subject about which they want to learn. This is a huge recruitment and retention tool for us. It’s a significant amount of money to an individual. It’s not an insignificant amount to the firm, but we hear from people that it’s really inspiring for them, which is important to us.

Suz: I see many companies make the mistake of cutting training when budgets are tight, but it sounds like you’ve realized that this training budget is a great engagement tool.

J: Yes, and the expectation is whatever they are going out and learning they are coming back and teaching.

We developed Solstice University as an organic course of internal education. Anyone can create or submit an abstract or have a course created. They are responsible for creating the course, which is usually 1-2 hours in length, and everyone has access to the content.  Sometimes they create the content on their own and sometimes they are leveraging what they learned at an external conference.  

Suz: So employees at all levels are learning to be leaders and speakers.  Is there rigor around making sure the content is good?

J: Yes. We call our HR department EX, for Employee Experience. They provide audits around courses, give feedback, review materials, and determine what direction the course may go. However, the courses organically manage themselves because after the Solstice U instructor has been teaching class for awhile, they need to hand over reins. So the person who takes over can modify the course and curriculum. If the topic becomes stale or something else springs up that is more appropriate or relevant, the Employee Experience team helps move along those transitions.

Suz: Speaking of leading and teaching, tell us about the mentor program:

J: I picked this up when I was at Andersen Consulting, where I started my career. I thought their  mentorship program was good, but at that scale and at the time that I was involved, it wasn’t as effective as it could be. A large reason was because the mentor was so much more senior, there was just a huge disconnect to what I was doing and needed versus what my mentor was doing everyday.

Our mentorship program is different: everyone has a mentor, but they are usually just one or two  levels above them. They are tasked with being unrelenting advocates to getting their person to next level. They meet every 3 weeks, and provide day-to-day guidance to get through the next steps or a particular project, to get to the next level, whatever they may need. And twice a year, they engage in 360-degree feedback.

When we have a 26-year-old consultant mentoring a 22-year-old analyst, it helps the consultant learn how to be a leader as well. In fact, whenever we do promotions, it is announced in front of the entire firm, and the mentor makes the announcement. They talk about the person they have been mentoring, what they did to progress to this level, what actions they have taken for the company, and the whole thing is really cool.

Suz: It’s so important that senior leaders reading this know: Executives often think everyone wants a gold watch, or a trip to Hawaii, but what people really want is someone to say they are doing a great job. Tell us more about the Awesomeness Awards.

J: We’ve done this for a number of years, and it’s really helped the firm scale. When we were 50 to 100 employees, you still knew everyone’s name, but not what everyone was doing. That’s when we started the award.

Anyone can nominate someone else; maybe it’s something exceptional they did on a project, or a personal favor, and how it aligns with our principals. All of those nominations are sent to the entire firm every Friday, so everyone in the firm gets to see pockets of greatness throughout the organization. Last week’s winner picks the next week’s winner, so it’s all self-regulated.

Suz: Wow, that leads to even more engagement, because they have a say in it!

J: Yes, and you’ll see entire teams nominate one person hoping they’ll win the award for the week. Both parties feel great. And at end of year, we give out an award called “The Most Awesomeness Award,” which goes to the person who nominated the most people for those awards.  

Suz: Also by having the person who won review all the submissions and select the next winner, you are creating great cross-team understanding. By virtue of the process, people learn more about what other teams do in their day-to-day work.

J: That’s true. The awards will pass down to Buenos Aires, to our New York office, and all around. We see people reaching out across geographical distances to celebrate other’s efforts.

Suz: Let’s move onto inclusion.  Most companies attempt to create resource groups based on race, gender, etc, which can be supportive, but can also create more silos.  I often recommend companies have at least a few ERGs around a shared passion. Coming together for a business or recreational passion breaks down barriers better and faster. I’ve heard you have some more unusual ERG’s, like a “Maker’s Club.”  Tell us about them.  

J: Yes. So anyone in the firm can create one of these groups. If it gets enough attention or involvement, then the business will fund it. Some things have sprung up and become intertwined with our culture, such as a toy drive and a fund for the children’s hospital.

One of my favorite examples is that two years ago, some individuals started a knitting circle. They started involving more people, and it evolved into a “Maker’s Circle.” Now, they are building things with wood, 3-D printing, and every month it’s a new type of maker’s community. It’s really cool to see. You never would have guessed that a knitting group would make us more innovative as a company!  

S: We’ve talked a lot about ways to build happiness: but why should the c-suite invest in this?

J: We are fortunate where we’ve got a really good culture going, but it’s that way because we continually work at it. Investing in culture is like investing in any other part of your business: you need to put thought, creativity, finances, and experience into it.

Also, I believe that one of the elements of happiness is meaningful social interaction. There have been a lot of studies that say “meaningful social interaction” has a greater impact on your happiness than almost anything else. You could live anywhere or do anything, and that will have little impact on your happiness.  However, the number of meaningful social connections in life will make a big impact.

I believe that the culture of an organization is made up of those social connections. The more meaningful the connections, the more solid the foundation – almost like a web. It creates an affinity of people who want to come to work, which enhances culture.

Things like stand-up desks and a ping pong table are nice, but it’s the relationships that bring us together. Once those relationships are solid, a lot of other things take care of themselves.

S: Tell us about the business results from having an engaged and happy workforce.

J: As a consulting firm, we are a people-first business. Our people are our product. But we are also an experience firm. Everything ties back to the experience we are creating. We look at it like a triangle: you have the employee experience, the customer experience/product side, and the client experience.

We take measures in all of these areas quarterly, and if things get out of balance, it always comes back to employee experience. We have found time and time again that the higher employee experience is, the higher our client experience and product experience.

For us, that correlation is clear. That’s the foundation of our business and why we spend so much time on it. The money takes care of itself if you can get it right.

Closing: Employee engagement drives customer engagement and overall business success.

Solstice is a digital experience innovation firm. They help large companies innovate around new digital experiences for customers and employees either for products, digital experiences to customers around self-service, or by creating additional engagement pieces.

Clients include financial services such as Northern Trust Bank, agriculture manufacturers such as John Deere, and consumer companies like Wilson Sporting Goods.

2 responses to “Why Should You Care about Employee Happiness? One CEO Tells All”

  1. If you have global expansion plans should you prioritize those countries whose workers are Restless?

    • Suz O'Donnell says:

      Ironically, the best place to focus your time is on the places where things are working well. Be certain that in the countries that things are going well, that you have established a positive environment that will retain those high performing employees. Then take a look at the middle performing countries and ensure they have a great culture. Finally, though it seems urgent to work with the most unhappy groups, they provide the least incremental increase in company performance so you are best to ensure happiness with your great performers and then help those that aren’t happy once you’ve learned what works in the well performing locations.

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