Human Capital & Careers

The Happy Meal Syndrome

Letting employees define their own rewards may be the only way to keep them, argues the co-author of a new book.
Alix StuartJune 22, 2010

Could McDonald’s Happy Meals be contributing to your employees’ discontent?

Aside from any health issues that might be associated with consuming burgers and fries, could the array of options for what goes into a Happy Meal — fries or apple slices? soda or fruit juice? cheese or no cheese? — be feeding a greater sense of dissatisfaction at work?

The answer is yes, says David Smith, a managing director at Accenture. “Everything people do today in their consumer lives, from a very early age, is customized,” he points out, be it ordering a Happy Meal, choosing a cell phone ring tone, or designing a pair of sneakers on Nike’s Website. That has led to a growing sense that people should also be able to shape their work lives to meet their preferences, he contends.

But while employees increasingly want personalized jobs, most companies continue to offer their workers standardized pay, benefits, perks, and training — to their own detriment, says Smith. That, in a nutshell, is the central argument of his new book, co-authored with Accenture fellow Susan Cantrell, titled Workforce of One: Revolutionizing Talent Management Through Customization (Harvard Business Press, 2010).

“The notion that ‘the same’ equals ‘fair’ is completely backward,” says Smith, who will speak about the book and his research into more than 100 companies — including Microsoft, PepsiCo, Best Buy, and Google — at the upcoming CFO Core Concerns Conference, to be held June 27-29 in Baltimore. He says that instead of striving for sameness, companies should look for ways to offer their workers choices about everything from their work hours to their pay structure to how they attend training sessions. Employees who feel their company is trying to support them personally are much more likely to be engaged in their work and do a better job, says Smith.

To be sure, there are legal limitations around how much a company can differentiate from employee to employee, and there’s a certain amount of standardization that is necessary to maintain a corporate culture. “We’re not advocating complete free-form” work environments, says Smith, but rather “a balance” that might entail keeping 50% of elements common to all employees and allowing 50% to be personalized at some level. Part of the CFO’s job, he adds, is to come up with an acceptable array of choices that will be attractive to employees but also manageable and affordable to the organization.

As part of his research, Smith surveyed employees to find out what made them happy and what didn’t. The organizations where workers felt personally supported, he found, shared four features: they segmented the workforce creatively (by, say, motivation rather than geography); they extended a cafeteria model of health benefits to offer modular choices in other areas; they defined broad and simple rules about work that could be applied in different ways; and, in some cases, they let employees define the parameters of what they need.

One of the more dramatic examples from Smith’s research involves Best Buy’s current efforts to do away with regular office hours at its corporate headquarters and instead run a “results only” work environment, in which employees are judged solely by the outcome of their work. According to Smith, the electronics retailer has so far found productivity improvements of up to 35% in groups that have adopted the practice, while its procurement department attributed a 50% increase in savings to better employee focus and energy.

Smith offers another provocative example in Skyline Construction, a San Francisco-based,
employee-owned builder that has begun allowing its workers to choose between a higher fixed salary with a lower range of performance bonus and a lower fixed salary with more upside potential. The company is “finding it to be very impactful,” says Smith. Younger, childless workers are often going for bigger bonus potential, while older workers with families choosing more fixed compensation. “They’re putting choice into the system to drive engagement for both types of employees,” he says.

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