Burn the Rulebook: How to Create Happy Employees


Agnes Butterworth, Director of Bridgewater Group, likes to take a different approach to managing her team. She feels that giving employees freedom, autonomy and the chance to take ownership of their work allows them to grow and feel fulfilled at work. Do fewer procedures and restrictions lead to happy employees? Maybe it’s time to question the rules in your workplace.

I recently read an article about rules that irritate office workers and it really made me sit back and think. Traditional workplace models are all about rules, processes and procedures – but is there a better way? As a business owner and manager, I know it’s not always easy to entrust your team with the task of doing what’s best for the company. The temptation is to micro-manage or lay down the law to make sure things are done exactly how you want them done. Managers, take note – this is how you drive away your top talent.

Developing a strong team takes time; you need to be selective and find someone who will easily fit into life within your organisation, but someone who will also bring results. However, once you’ve built your team, the hard work isn’t over; you need to retain your staff, too.

Happy employees stick around

If their professional needs are being fulfilled, why would an employee want to move on? So, as an employer, it’s vital to get to know each member of your team on an individual basis. Find out their motivators, what they want from their job and what you can do to make sure that they are content at work (within reason, of course). This way, you get to know what your team, as a whole, need from you.

The next thing is to implement any changes you may need to. For example, we have recently introduced new benefits and incentives that make our workday more enjoyable. I’ve seen the results of these changes, changes I may never have considered in the past, and my team are much happier and more focused. For example, if your employees want flexible working, but you can’t quite accommodate that, meet them in the middle. Things like work from home days or early finish Fridays could mean the world to your workforce, at very little cost to the business. Small changes can have huge effects.

Many companies lure job applicants in with promises of swish offices and out of this world staff perks (we’re talking ball-pools in the office and beer on tap). The novelty of such benefits soon wear off and if staff aren’t happy with how they are being made to work, no amount of free cereal or dress down days will make them stay. To keep employees happy, you need to treat them with respect; giving them autonomy and trusting them to get things done is how I prefer to manage my team.

Don’t do things by the book

Until recently, we (like many other companies) did everything by the book. There was a process for everything and our employee ‘handbook’ was like an encyclopaedia of dos and don’ts. I have created my team carefully, and I’m sure I’m not the only manager who will not hire people they feel they won’t be able to trust. So, with that in mind, I had to ask myself a few questions:

  • Do I trust my team? Yes.
  • Do I want to have to micro-manage them? No.
  • Are they capable and intelligent enough to just get on with things? Definitely, I wouldn’t have hired them otherwise!

That’s when I decided to make a bold decision and change the way we worked as a business. I didn’t want an army of robots or battery hens! After many years working within recruitment, in my opinion, the number one reason for high calibre candidates wanting to leave their current role is the fact they feel restricted and held back by red tape. So, it was time to give my employees as much freedom as possible and let them use their initiative.

It was out with the old, rigid rules and in with flexible, reactive ways of working. The team have free rein to do what they think is best and I’m always here if they need a second opinion or any help. So far, the team have flourished. No matter how hard it was to relinquish control at first, it’s paid off big time. We now have a strong, close-knit team of hardworking, autonomous individuals who are determined to show their worth within the business. They now have the freedom to think creatively, share best practices with one another and do things in a way that works for them. Everyone is different; one way of working might be great for some but simply isn’t right for others!

What happened next

This isn’t to say that the office is a free-for-all. We still have a general code of conduct in place to ensure the safety and wellbeing of our employees. Additionally, one thing that can never be compromised is the high standards I expect. However, the set processes and procedures we used to follow every day are long gone. The team do what works for them; if that means working from home or thinking outside of the box to overcome an obstacle, then so be it.

The biggest benefit by far, for me, has been the fact that every single person within the business has risen to the challenge. Throwing out the rulebook will certainly help you sort the wheat from the chaff within your company. If you’re lucky, all of your employees will want to drive the success of the business as a whole. If you’re unlucky, the weak links in the team will show themselves. Anyone who flouts this new-found freedom as an excuse to do the bare minimum or who doesn’t pull their weight will soon come to your attention.

Support is vital

My employees may be self-sufficient and autonomous but this by no means meant that I have washed my hands of them, far from it. I feel that our working relationships have benefited greatly from the changes we have made together. My employees feel valued and trusted; they, therefore, want to keep proving themselves! I am always here for my team. I know of companies that only conduct quarterly or annual reviews with their workforce – this baffles me! How can you help your team members to grow or see how they are progressing if you aren’t catching up with them regularly?

Autonomy needs a backup support system to work well. My door is always open. I have regular, casual chats with every single employee in the business on a weekly basis. These aren’t to tell them what to do, but to see what they’ve been up to and offer any advice where I can. We then have performance reviews on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis which allow me to give constructive feedback, if necessary. Employees can also raise any concerns they have during these meetings. This way, each individual in the business knows that they are important and it ensures that they have all the support they need to succeed.

The result

The amount of time I wasted following pointless processes is astounding. I now have so much more time to get involved in other important aspects of the business. Additionally, I know that I have happy employees I can trust to keep the business working if I’m ever absent.

Overall, my team is happier, stronger and achieving more than ever. As a manager, I couldn’t ask for much more than that!

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