This Company Thinks Everyone Should Love Going to Work Every Day. Here’s Their Plan to Make It Happen.

Gail-Axelrod by

Editor’s Note: This is part I of a two part interview with Motivosity’s Scott Johnson. Tune in next week for part II.

As the founder and former CEO of Workfront, Scott Johnson worked incredibly hard to build a positive corporate culture. So hard in fact that Workfront is seen as one of the best places to work in Utah. Johnson and his leadership team were constantly trying to understand what made Workfront employees happy and kept them motivated. But, while Workfront was willing to invest resources into ensuring their employees were thriving, the same can’t be said of many companies today. In fact, even from Workfront’s own customers, Johnson heard complaints over and over again.

“In order to build a great product people would get value from, we set out to understand the mindset of our clients,” says Johnson. “And in doing so, we discovered that most people just aren’t thrilled about being at work. They’re not happy about the work they’re doing and they aren’t happy with their bosses.”

It became apparent to Johnson that there were certain triggers companies could pull to make their employees more satisfied. And many of those triggers weren’t terribly costly or time consuming. It really came down to whether or not a company’s leadership team was willing to embrace a few minor changes. And, if they were, they’d end up with a workforce thrilled about coming to work every single day.

That realization was the beginning of Johnson’s next venture, Motivosity. “This problem really started bugging me. It started waking me up at night. So, at the end of 2012 I hired a CEO at Workfront to manage the day to day and set out to start my next company.”

Building the Culture OS

“We dug in and started talking to companies to see what would be the most viable solution to building a better workplace. What we came up with is Motivosity,” says Johnson. “You can think of Motivosity as an operating system for corporate culture. It really systematizes those few levers companies need to pull in order to build a strong culture.”

Those levers fall into three main categories.

1. Appreciation & Recognition

Above all, people need to be recognized for what they do. They need to be appreciated, not just by their boss or by some formalized quarterly HR-driven award, but on a daily basis, by their peers. Motivosity is tackling this problem head on by building out a peer-to-peer recognition program. “Employees can give each other spot bonuses and the system makes managers more aware of the good things people are doing every day,” says Johnson. This peer-based recognition and constant feedback loops drives a better understanding of who the real rock stars are within a company and encourages everyone around them to be more productive. “We’re rewarding good behavior, and that’s a huge motivator.”

2. Friendship

The second component to a strong work environment is friendship. “If a company wants to have and maintain a strong culture, people need to feel like they’re part of a family. They need to feel like they belong,” Johnson says. “In fact, one of the top drivers of job satisfaction is the answer to the question, ‘Do you have a best friend at work?’”

“We’ve set out to determine how to drive friendship at work.” Figuring out how to forge bonds across silos and departments and help connect people with other like people is something Johnson and his team are working on every day. “We’ve found that not only are friendships at work good for employee well being, but they also result in problems and issues being solved faster and better due to better communication between various departments.”

3. Meaning

The third lever crucial to employee satisfaction centers around meaning. Is there meaning to what employees are doing? Is their work having a positive impact on the world on a large scale, and, on a smaller scale, do employees have the ability to make a difference in the company,” says Johnson.

“Our research shows that people crave this kind of meaning and impact, and Millennials in particular crave more of all three of these levers than any other generation before them.”

Determining When to Reinforce Culture

While Johnson has determined that the same three levers contribute to employee happiness, the need for systemization is not universal. Instead, Motivosity has found the most success with companies between 200 and 2,000 employees. “When companies get to the point where there are a couple layers of management, and they no longer have everyone sitting together in the same room, companies start realizing they need to do something to reinforce the culture they’ve worked so hard to build.”

“Starting at around 200 employees, companies are at an inflection point in their life cycle where they’re growing quickly. It’s crucial at this point to get culture operationalized so during that period of fast growth, from 200 to 2,000 employees, these organizations can maintain a consistent culture that really helps reinforce the values and behaviors that kept people engaged and happy sub-200 employees.”

On the other side of the equation, Johnson has found that when companies have more than 2,000 employees, they start to view their workers like resources. “HR becomes an administrative thing, a compliance thing. They might give culture lip service, but they don’t truly get it…yet.”

Culture is Not an Endless Series of Perks

Of course there are outliers, but large companies – like Google or Facebook, which are seen on the outside as having excellent culture – don’t actually fit within the framework for employee happiness Johnson and his team have set forth.

“People look at Google or Facebook or Amazon (up until recentlyand more recently) and say, ‘Hey, they totally get culture,’ but I would argue that culture is not an endless series of perks. It’s not ping-pong tables and free soda and free lunch and concierge this and free that. While those things are good, they’re not culture. Culture has more to do with the human interactions within the workplace,” Johnson says. “If Amazon and Google totally understood culture, their people wouldn’t be having emotional breakdowns in the bathroom.”

Building a great culture and ultimately making your company a place where people are motivated, satisfied and happy every single day is hard work. But for Johnson, it’s well worth it.

“When you finally leave a company you’ve given so much time and energy to, all that’s left behind are the connections you built with the people around you,” says Johnson. “I’ve been a guy before that’s just been focused on the numbers and doing what we need to do to hit the numbers and hiring only on skills and abilities, and I’ve seen culture suffer because of that. Working in this way creates pockets of differing cultures and ultimately these disparities become expensive and problematic to deal with later on. It’s just so much easier, not to mention more satisfying, to factor in the human element early, rather than focusing on just driving the business and winning.”

Illustration by Rachel Worthman.

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