Not long ago I discovered that my mini schnauzer puppy had chewed a large chunk out of my favorite leather boots. Like many of you, I am a busy Social Security attorney with a business to run and not an abundance of time for mall shopping.
So, at about 5 am that day I placed an online Zappos order for the new boots. In less than two hours I received my confirmation email regarding the order and by 11 am of that same day I received another email from Zappos to let me know the shoes had just been shipped.
When I arrived home from work the very next day, the Zappos box was there at my door! As soon as I opened it, I saw a card displaying their core value #7: Build a Positive Team and a Family Spirit.
When I visited their website I was able to read all 10 of their core values, with explanation. Significantly, they are committed to making their core values the “framework” from which they make all of their decisions, and specifically look for potential employees who understand the need for those core values and are willing to both embrace and embody them.
Building a Family, not Just a Team
Zappos Core Value #7 states their desire: “to build a family, not just a team.”
A Zappos manager is expected to “serve those he lead[s] by removing obstacles and enabling his direct reports to succeed.”
Zappos recognizes that: “the best decisions and ideas are made from the bottom up.”
To nurture and encourage this concept, the managers and employees are expected to “take initiative when [they] notice issues and collaborate with the team to address them.”
And here is the part that jumped out at me: “Beyond that, we watch out for each other and care for each other. We work together and play together because our bonds go beyond the typical coworker relationship.”
While I am not sure exactly how a large company like Zappos implements this lofty objective on a vast scale, I suspect that they carry it out with a recognition and expectation that all office interactions and relationships are important. It’s incredible that this emphasis runs vertically and horizontally, between customers and staff, as well as those between all employees, from the office runner to the CEO.
I am convinced that what they are doing works, and so it is worth taking a closer look at this particular core value and whether and to what extent I can implement such an objective into my own Social Security practice.
The unhappy employee
If I had any doubt as to the validity of such a concept as fostering a sense of family in the workplace, it was brought home to me as I reflect on some recent management issues within my firm.
On a particularly busy day several months ago one of my star paralegals came in and told me in candor that although our law firm used to feel like a family, it didn’t anymore. As we know from experience, when people feel appreciated, they are happier and more productive.
What my paralegal was really saying was that she missed feeling the close sense of family, of trust, honesty and the sense that we all had each other’s back. I was obviously quite concerned and immediately started trying to assess the situation for some quality control. Losing a star paralegal was certainly not something I wanted to see happen.
As I reflected on the other members of the team in her department, I recognized that I had one other employee who seemed to always be coming to my office smiling, yet complaining all the while about this one or that one who wasn’t doing their work, or who was unhappy, or argumentative or short tempered.
Because this complaining employee happened to produce good work herself, I ignored my gut, even though my gut was shouting, “Something is amiss here, deal with this issue!” Perhaps my smiling complainer was on the wrong seat in my department bus. Perhaps she didn’t need a seat on my bus at all. However, I shelved the matter rather than dealing with it.
Over time, I began to notice more shut doors in the case manager’s offices. Where there was once happy chatter or laughter, there was silence. Work was getting done, but the morale seemed to be a bit down and the “team” feeling seemed to be suffering. Instead, several paralegals began to assume that they were not liked by others in the firm. Fortunately, our smiling complainer decided she needed to stop working all together and left the firm.
Proactive Management Measures
I wish I could take credit for having removed the bad apple from our midst, but she actually left on her own accord. However, the change in the department was almost immediate. Within a few weeks the staff began comparing notes as to what the former employee had told paralegal A about Paralegal B and vice versa. Right under our noses this one bad apple employee had been sabotaging the whole department.
The change that has taken place with her absence is amazing. People who thought they were enemies realized that the troublemaker had been making each of them feel disliked by the other. Where there was distrust and a lack of harmony or team spirit, I now observed people very quickly covering phones for each other, sharing hearing preparation details, and working even harder to make sure signup packets went out quickly, applications were filed on time and no calls were missed. They seemed to have each other’s backs in ways that were quite apparent to me.
Order Restored to the Kingdom
A few weeks later I mentioned the former employee’s absence, and how I couldn’t help but see an improvement in morale and team spirit. The same paralegal who had come to me earlier in frustration now smiled and shared just how much better things had become. I realized at that time that I had let my staff down earlier by ignoring my gut, and by looking at the to-do list and someone’s work product without balancing that with the overall attitudes of the team. My staff depends on me to protect them and to provide the most healthy work environment for them that I can.
Just as I want them to have an optimal work environment, with current technology, comfortable chairs and equipment that works. I need to remember that there is more to the work environment than objects and equipment. My employees and attorneys need a positive work environment, where honesty, trust and a true sense of comradery prevails. Bad attitudes can be toxic and hurt the entire department which will inevitably affect workloads and productivity, and eventually lead to compromised client care and ultimately reduced fees.
Call to Protect the New Family
In reality, whether we like it or not, most of us spend more time at work than we do with our families at home. Thus, we really do have two families: a home family and a work family. Most of us innately understand and have within us a strong need to protect and preserve our home families. Perhaps we have a similar duty to protect, defend and nurture our work families just as we do those that depend on us at home.
Zappos is a hugely successful and very large company, yet they believed this “family” concept to be so important to their success that they have made it one of their ten core values. They recognize that our bonds with our employees and coworkers goes beyond the typical or traditional coworker relationship. I believe that Zappos is innovative in this area.
You see, most of us have been taught to distance ourselves from our employees, and to discourage interpersonal relationships in the workplace. Zappos recognizes a new reality -- that whether we like it or not, we spend so much time at work that out staff and coworkers are our family, whether we recognize it or not. With that being the case, we need work families that are not dysfunctional, but that are built on trust and respect and kindness. We need work families that build together in an environment devoid of drama and backstabbing.
Carpe Diem Resolve
I have vowed as I go into the new year to be more cognizant of this concept of family in my firm. I am now more determined to set about ways to foster these work family relationships. I have also decided that I cannot afford to let one employee, even a hard working or seemingly productive employee, stir up trouble, compromise other relationships in the office, or bring down morale of others. I must be willing to remove obstacles quickly, to preserve the integrity, strength and morale of the whole department.
I encourage each of you to give this concept of team family some thought, and perhaps you will be able to recognize ways to foster and promote this value within your own firms. If you too have weak links in your midst, or employees who are counterproductive to the overall welfare and wellbeing of the firm this is an excellent time to tackle these issues.
We all want our firms to be successful and productive, and to produce quality work that translates into satisfied clients. Having happy employees who look forward to coming to work and who enjoy positive co-worker relationships translates into employees who are then better able to give the exceptional client service we so desire.