The first step to having a happy state of being is developing a thick skin. According to Srikumar Rao, a well-known US-based business consultant and author of Happiness at Work: Be Resilient, Motivated, and Successful – No Matter What, happiness is an outcome of being resilient to whatever is going on in your life. ‘We all strive for happiness — but we spend most of our lives learning to be unhappy,’ he said in his well-watch TED talk called ‘Plug into your hard-wired happiness’. Over the years Rao’s interactions with young executives and A-list employers have culminated into the belief – it isn’t the negative thing that happens to you that causes your unhappiness, it’s how you see it. Clearly, a pessimistic perspective is that ball and chain around our ankle that makes us a prisoner of our own fears, stopping us from achieving our goals.

Unhappiness not only weighs heavy on a person but on a company’s productivity too.

Friday speaks to some of UAE’s industry leaders and a life coach to find out why staff happiness needs to be factored in while creating a fulfilling work environment.

As a buyer, Rakesh Raj meets clothes and fashion accessories manufacturers and visits trade fairs, all to identify suppliers who can deliver what’s best for his employer, Splash. A chain store that has reasonably-priced fashion as its USP, and belongs to a market segment that is intensely competitive. To stay at top of its game, the brand feels the constant need for innovative marketing ideas that help to drive the business. Rakesh, who has been with Splash for almost a decade, proposed the company launch a ‘We love pants’ campaign. As a buyer, it was outside Rakesh’s job profile to identify the need gap, create a proposal and build a revenue stream that results in profits for his company, without the promise of any gain for himself. But he did. The company went with the proposal and the rest, as they say, is history. The campaign resulted in distinct increase in sales and earnings for Splash.

What the campaign also proved was the fact that apart from being successful, Splash is a great place to work as well. It stands at number 3 on the 2017 list of Great Places to Work, an annual listing run by the US-based Great Places to Work Institute that evaluates participating companies’ work environment through an extensive staff survey.

‘We listen to our employees,’ says Rakesh’s boss Raza Beig, who is CEO of Splash and sister company Iconic. A seemingly simplistic insight, considering listening is supposed to be a given, a fundamental principle of any HR policy worth its salt. But as Zeta Yarwood, a career coach as well as NLP life coach, points out, listening to the employees is that key that unlocks the door to sustainable happiness at workplace. ‘Employees want to feel heard and valued. And if a company can make them feel this way, employees will stay.’

Action speaks louder than words

High employee turnover, studies show, can hurt not just a company’s reputation but its productivity as well. So is that fear of downward slope in the profit graph driving companies to lend their ears to their employees? No, says Raza. ‘We consider the right investment in people to be a substantial booster to the top line. Even in tough market situations, our investments in people are not affected,’ he says. The fact that Raza has been working with Splash for more than two decades and started off on the shop floor, is testimony to the fact that an employee-centric HR policy is a win-win for all stakeholders.

Geoff Walsh, Senior VP and Country Manager for DHL Express UAE, an international courier company that has been topping UAE’s Great Places to Work list for the past four years, agrees. At DHL, listening to employees is an integral part of a robust every day process, he says. ‘A process that includes ensuring we respect our employees, nurture their career development, create a truly fun work environment, be transparent, listen and act on their feedback,’ he elaborates.

At the risk of sounding clichéd, like those motivational posters that decorate corporate offices, Geoff redeems himself with the last one, ‘act on the feedback’.

Elaborating on the point, Zeta says, ‘Companies need to take the time to listen to their employee needs and set a realistic level of expectation. Over-promising and under-delivering will cause massive distrust.’

At Eros, the electronics retailer that went up four spots to be number 13 this year on the Great Places to Work list, trust is key. ‘Trust and cooperation in fact are the company’s core values. We reinforce these values by talking about them in every important employee forum and drive them through our policies and processes. Every employee is appraised on the key values and reward systems are also aligned with these values,’ says Niranjan Gidwani, CEO of the company.

A tall task considering all these companies employ more than 1,000 people. People of varied nationalities, expectations and mindsets. Diversity could easily throw a spanner in the works.

All in one

Zeta points out, ‘Cultural difference is a complex issue that is unique to the region especially to the UAE, considering the number of nationalities that have made this place their home.’ And it is this spectrum that many a times affects the workplace dynamism in large organisations. ‘There is a high probability that people of different cultures might come with different core values and different attitudes. They are motivated by different things and approach their work in different ways. Trying to create an employee engagement programme that hits the spot for all cultures can be tough,’ adds Zeta.

But happy organisations overcome the challenge by weaving their workforce in one cohesive fabric of positivity. ‘We focus on building a culture of belonging,’ says Niranjan of Eros. However intangible that sounds, Niranjan elaborates on the bricks the company uses to build that culture: ‘Collective celebrations, open forums, promoting wellness and community support. This, along with education and skill building, has helped us keep our employees engaged and our processes simple, fair and transparent. Rewards follow sincerity of intention and efforts.’

At Splash too the focus is on establishing overall happiness through high employee engagement. As Raza explains, ‘Every employee [irrespective of where they come from] wants to grow in life and become better. How well we align an employee’s career aspirations with that of the organisation and take all employees along is a unique challenge to us,’ he says. A challenge that the company overcomes by establishing a process that includes staff surveys, 360 feedbacks and above all devising a strong action plan to address the concerns its employees raise. ‘Over the years we have built a robust process that both the company as well as its staff trust. We know it’s not about finding fault but to improve the work culture,’ adds Raza.

Positivity, productivity or profits

In a cutthroat market environment where bottom line rules, it surely must be tough for companies to constantly plough their money into policies that are in their staff’s interest? Positivity or profits? In Geoff’s world this is not a trick question. ‘Happy employees = happy customers,’ he says, implying the two values share a yin and yang relationship. Our success in terms of creating a healthy workplace has been one of the major contributors to our overall success in the UAE as well as the region, he emphasises.

Similarly, Eros too understands the need to build optimum employee satisfaction for its sustained growth. As Niranjan says, ‘We operate in an industry that is very low margin. This, coupled with a specific industry norm that dictates ceiling on salary levels, means we need to focus on strengthening areas that we can influence,’ says Niranjan. The company, he says, is constantly working towards increasing job security, minimising the need to downsize the organisation and ensuring annual salary increases in even the most financially tough years.

Clearly, happiness is not just a state of mind at these workplaces but a business plan. A relentless one that cannot merely be based on conducive policies and investment in employee-centric infrastructure. Surely it needs inherently happy people as well to make it a success? Serial sceptics, after all, could easily sabotage this fragile ecosystem of optimism. ‘Of course,’ says Niranjan. ‘We hire for attitude and train for skills. We believe skills can be taught but to change attitudes requires far more effort,’ he adds.

Surprised? Here’s a bigger one. This outlook is not unique. Raza too admits that Splash prefers to hire people with a positive outlook. ‘But we equally focus on creating an environment where happiness thrives,’ he adds.

Geoff, however, gets the last word. ‘If you have the right people in place, you can be lean and productive while maintaining a healthy work environment.’