'The Best Place to Work' offers tips for creating a committed staff

Most readers of 'The Best Place to Work' will find some arresting ideas

The polling company Gallup has been measuring levels of employee engagement in the U.S. since the turn of the century. A decade ago, only 30% of employees said they were engaged in their work. You might have thought managers would have wanted to do something about that.

But a survey in 2012 found the level of employee engagement little changed. So much, perhaps, for managers' ability to improve workforce morale and commitment.

The author of a new book, "The Best Place to Work: The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace," set out to show how employers could do better.

There can be no single right way of managing, points out psychologist turned consultant Ron Friedman, because most organizations have their own distinct characteristics. Instead, he offers us a variety of examples and techniques worth considering.

The result is a little overwhelming. But most readers will find some arresting ideas in his book, published by Perigee.

Take friendship at work. This might sound like a mushy notion to invest in when businesses are supposedly competing hard. But the evidence suggests otherwise.

"When colleagues are close, a poor effort means more than a dissatisfied customer or an unhappy manager," writes Friedman. "It means letting down your friends. The social pressure to do a good job can often serve as a stronger motivator than anything a boss can say."

Forming friendships at work takes more than simply discussing the weather or last weekend's football.

"When all you do at the office is talk shop, you might develop a reputation for being competent, but you're not likely to end up with a whole lot of friends," Friedman says.

Some intimacy and openness is required. In Gallup's survey of staff attitudes, one question might make managers' eyebrows rise: "Do you have a best friend at work?" But it is there for a reason.

Adapting the spirit of video games into the work routine could also be powerful, Friedman argues. Jobs can become boring when they get easier.

Just as video games get harder the longer you play them, we need mounting challenges at work. "It's when we're stretching our skills and building our expertise that we are at our most engaged," he argues.

The book covers other more familiar ground, but with a light and entertaining touch. The author joins others in speaking up for the benefits of failure, but he does so intelligently:

"When organizations communicate that failure is not an option, they incur an invisible cost, one that triggers a psychological reaction that restricts employee thinking, rewards lying, encourages cover-ups, and fuels the proliferation of more mistakes," he writes.

Other ways we can break free from unthinking, mechanized work practices include giving space and time for our unconscious to solve problems, and making sure that time is made for physical exercise and yes, afternoon naps.

Some of this you might ignore. But the evidence is convincing. Workplaces that support healthy and creative instincts are more dynamic and productive.

Stefan Stern is a frequent contributor to the Financial Times of London, in which this review first appeared.

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