What Makes Workers Happy? Lessons From the Best Company to Work For

Happiness at work has little to do with money.

Posted Jun 01, 2011

Business analytics software company SAS was recently named the best place to work for the second year running according to Fortune's list of the 100 best companies to work for. Why are SAS employees so happy with their jobs?

The first clue is the industry. Software companies recognize that their bottom line is tied to having happy productive workers because those conditions foster money-spinning innovations. Instead of calling the workplace an office park, they refer to it as a "campus," reflecting not just the serious intellectual activity and creativity taking place there in addition to the pleasant, tranquil, and self-contained features of the premises.

Goodnight's North Carolinian Utopia
SAS CEO Dr. James Goodnight, a statistician and former professor, cultivates employee satisfaction with almost messianic zeal (1). Goodnight is fond of saying that his chief assets drive out the gate each day and that his job is to make sure that they come back. With a staff turnover rate of just two percent in 2009, he is clearly very successful in this endeavor. One downside of such success is that there is limited potential for upward mobility as no one is getting replaced.

Minimizing the hassles of timetable conflicts is a major concern addressed by bringing many services together at the SAS work site. The sprawling 300-acre North Carolina campus has two subsidized day-care centers and a summer camp for children. Near the center of the campus is a free health clinic used by 90% of SAS employees and their families. The health center costs $4.5 million but is estimated to save the company $5 million because employees don't have to kill time in waiting rooms. The campus also has hairdressers, dry cleaning, a UPS depot, and, during the season, a tax preparer. The three subsidized cafeterias provide takeout meals to bring home to the family. There are a score of kitchens around the campus that provide endless free snacks and candies.

On-campus stress-reduction programs include massage, yoga, hiking, aerobics, harmonic sound healing and scent mixology. There are weight management and quit smoking programs. "Dive in" movies are watched from a float on the pool. SAS provides seminars on divorce, adoption, and raising teenagers. Family nights off-campus include rodeo nights, circus nights and Monster Jam Trucks.

SAS requires only a 35-hour work week. No one punches a clock and there is no personnel grinch to keep tabs on workers. Employees share in the profits and the company remains private and thus sheltered from Wall Street sharks and the financial panics they generate.

Keeping employees happy has certainly paid off for SAS with a 40-fold increase in revenues since 1984 based on holding a niche in the software industry that is immune from competition. Treating employees well is a profitable strategy because they reciprocate by working hard. In fact, employees are so strongly motivated that they sometimes describe the campus as a golden cage that they never want to leave.

If you are working hard to support a company that treats you so well, you know that your efforts are going to be richly rewarded, both in cash and in kind. Like the highly skilled hunter in a band, you do not have to worry that your superior talents are being exploited by slackers. In that sort of environment, it is the slackers who are going to feel bad, guilty and ashamed that they are not working as hard and not being as productive, as their colleagues.

SAS employees are very well paid, of course, but it is not their salary that makes them happy. They care about what they are doing. More importantly, they feel that their contributions are noticed and appreciated. That is a powerful motivator. It is the reason that your dog doesn't want to stop returning the ball you throw for him to catch.

1. Kaplan, D. A. (2010). SAS: A new no. 1 best employer. Accessed at http://www.cnn.com on 1/21 2010.