The headlines are usually the same — a previously hyped company exposed as a toxic workplace. And typically that means it is most poisonous to its own employees. The stories of weak integrity and marginalizing leaders shine a light on darkness that many workplaces know all too well.
Companies become toxic for a number of reasons. Most typically is when leaders prioritize financial results over anything else. This leads to bad behavior and unhappy workers.
But while the cause may garner bold headlines, there is something even more revealing that is worth your attention — how companies handle the fallout after the expose. And I can tell you that the ones that fire a few leaders and throw “stay bonuses” to keep good people end up circling back again to the same destructive work culture.
Yes, it is important to be compensated well for hard work — but money alone cannot fix a toxic work culture. So, what can fix a toxic workplace?
Studies show that non-financial perks (such as recognition, remote work, and flexible schedules) make a considerable impact on employee engagement and job satisfaction. The best companies go beyond financial rewards and address what people really want — appreciation and the chance to be their best in every area of life. This is true if a company is already behaving well or recovering from poor behavior.
Our team at Aha! has always taken a human-centric approach to building the company. So, we go out of our way to share gratitude for each team member. We also built Aha! on the premise and promise of remote work, and we continue to be 100 percent distributed even as the company rapidly grows. As of this writing, we have more than 75 teammates working across four continents, six countries, and eight time zones.
Now, if you are in a truly terrible and cruel work environment, I am not suggesting that you will be able to solve it by occasionally “thanking” the team with some trinket or bonus, or even by implementing a remote work policy. Workplace happiness is obviously more nuanced than that.
Here are five key ingredients that I believe are necessary for people to be happy at work:
You want to feel like your work matters. So ask yourself: Do you know what you are working on each day and why? How does your work fit into the company’s big picture? When the answers to these questions are clear, even your most mundane tasks will be fused with a sense of purpose.
Happiness does not come from maintaining the status quo. Leaders should provide a clear path for growth — offering you opportunities to increase skills, take on new projects, and move into new roles. If this is not happening for you, you might need to pursue your own growth, whether it is volunteering for a new project, seeking out a mentor, or having an honest conversation with your boss about your career trajectory (or lack thereof).
This is a two-way exchange. You need to respect the company you work for and you need them to respect you right back. This is about more than just basic kindness (though that is important too). It is about taking actions every day to add to your reservoir of respect. Make an effort daily to listen closely, respond quickly, and show gratitude. Your company and teammates should do the same for you.
Another sign of a respectful culture is trusting you to get the work done. It should not matter if you are at the office late into the night or working from your own kitchen table. When a company offers this kind of autonomy — whether it is remote work or a flexible environment — it helps you bring your best to every part of life. You can work hard for your company while still being available for your friends and family.
Leaders help build happiness by providing all of the above, but it is ultimately up to you to find and pursue your own passion. Sure, not every day will have you jumping with joy — but most days should be fueled by a love for what you do. If this passion is lacking, try to focus on finding small joys in your day-to-day tasks, such as helping a teammate in need or honing new skills.
Earlier, I wrote that companies become toxic for a number of reasons. But there is one consistent truth that can help prevent the myriad of causes — money should never come before people.
And money also cannot fix the dysfunction either. The only way to really fix it is to take a holistic approach to creating more happiness at work — appreciating the contributions of each team member and helping them to achieve their best every day.
What do you need to be happy at work?