It takes more than just money to create a happy workforce, in Hong Kong, the US or anywhere else

Kelly Yang says there is much companies can do to make work challenging and engaging, beginning with inspiring leadership, as a good salary isn't the only reason employees stay

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 11:24am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 September, 2015, 11:24am

When it comes to their jobs, most Hong Kong people are unhappy. According to a recent report by a jobs website, more than six in 10 Hong Kong people are miserable at work. And contrary to what you may think, it's not just because of the money.

Instead, the unhappiness has more to do with the relationships with their colleagues and bosses. And while some experts were quick to dismiss the findings, saying "you can never satisfy employees", I disagree.

It's possible to have happy employees - not only that, it's essential.

After all, today's companies rise and fall not just on the quality of their products but also on what people think of them. That starts first with their employees. All it takes is for one indignant status update to go viral, and it's good luck with finding new recruits.

Today's companies rise and fall not just on the quality of their products but also on what people think of them

It takes more than money, according to research by Professor Barry Schwartz, of Swarthmore College in the United States. He found that, increasingly, workers also want to feel challenged and engaged.

Schwartz found that firms that offer interesting and meaningful work, over which employees had some autonomy and discretion, not only produced happier workers but were ultimately more profitable.

Yet, too often, this isn't the case. And it's not just in Hong Kong, but in the US too, where a Gallup poll published this year found that close to 70 per cent of workers were not actively engaged in their jobs.

As a whole, we've become so obsessed with efficiency and streamlining and so accustomed to rewarding people monetarily rather than intellectually that work has become, well, dull.

That's got to change if we're to survive and thrive in the digital era. Hong Kong employers cannot keep counting on the economy being bad as their main reason why workers won't leave. That should not be the reason. The nature of the work, the energy of fellow colleagues, and the inspiring vision and leadership of the boss - those should be why workers stay.

Simple things like being more transparent with employees on the state of the company, allowing workers to focus on their jobs by eliminating unnecessary meetings and emails, asking for employee input, allowing flexible work schedules, especially for working parents - all these go a long way to making employees happy without breaking the bank.

It's with all these goals in mind that I've led my company for the past 10 years. I'll be the first to admit that I haven't always got everything right. I began my business straight out of law school, at the age of 20. What did I know? But one thing I did do right, in hindsight, is to not run it like a conventional business.

Instead, I ran it like a think tank. I traded hierarchy for openness and collaboration. I encouraged workers to disagree with me, letting ideas battle it out rather than job titles.

And most of all, I mentored people. Lots and lots of extraordinary colleagues, whose strengths I identified, refined and leveraged.

Make no mistake, it's not easy mentoring staff. It's much simpler to just write a cheque.

But the former has rewarded me in ways that the latter alone could never have done, not just in terms of staff retention rates but in terms of happiness and satisfaction. And, at the end of the day, isn't that what we all want from work?

Kelly Yang teaches writing at The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of UC Berkeley and Harvard Law School.