How to create a fantastic work culture: “Unhappiness is like the flu; It spreads fast” with Rune Sovndahl

Unhappiness is like the flu. It spreads fast. Plus, you can’t cure it with a group “team building” trip. A strong company culture based on employee happiness is the only real inoculation against it. As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing […]

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Unhappiness is like the flu. It spreads fast. Plus, you can’t cure it with a group “team building” trip. A strong company culture based on employee happiness is the only real inoculation against it.

As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rune Sovndahl, 44, co-founder and CEO of Fantastic Services — an online platform where clients can book professional domestic services providers such as plumbers, gardeners and cleaners. He has built his domestic services business from scratch to a point where they serve 330,000 clients in London, the South East and the North West of England.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I always wanted to run my own business. My parents bought me my first desk when I was about eight years old. I used to spend hours organizing my pens and stapler, practicing running my little company. Little did I know that when the day came I’d be using mobile phones and laptops and never sit at a desk!

But all through my adult working life I’d been looking for the perfect opportunity and trying to find companies to work at where I’d gain the sort of skills which would be useful in the future.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

There was the time that we ended up performing a snail babysitting service…

I came into the office one day to find a bunch of people debating how to feed lettuce to this snail in a box.

I thought it was some kind of weird office pet they’d decided to adopt. But it transpired that someone had fielded a call from one of our regular customers saying that in addition to the cleaning this week, could we look after this snail. The lady’s daughter had autism and had become convinced that this little snail was holding the soul of the pet rabbit they’d just buried — she wouldn’t go on their holiday without it.

So, the mother called us and, low and behold, the Fantastic cleaners who arrive at their house were sure to identify themselves as professional snail sitters. Hence the new office pet, which we returned after their holidays.

I wasn’t even involved in this. But it was actually one of the times which made me really happy with the working culture we’d created.

Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?

I always think first of our franchising model. I really think that helps people — specifically, people who want to become entrepreneurs but don’t want to go into it with zero support with the failure rate of new businesses being what it is.

The most recent exciting project though is that we’ve just acquired a plumbing and heating company. For a long time, we’ve been talking about how this industry was overpriced and disorganized and quality was on and off. We wanted to do what we did for our other services — make them simpler to book and deliver better quality more efficiently.

So now, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re currently in the process of merging and integrating and looking at culture fit. It’s really exciting. To me, at least!

Ok, lets jump to the main part of our interview. According to this study cited in Forbes, more than half of the US workforce is unhappy. Why do you think that number is so high?

I think that our expectations have increased. I just read that a huge number of 18–19-year-olds now expect to make more than 75k per year by the age of 25. That’s absurd. Finding that in a job will be nearly impossible. Having high expectations is always going to lead to unhappiness.

There’s also a culture in the US and the UK which really pushes how desirable and — more importantly — how easy it is to be an entrepreneur. People look at the big names in business and think it was simple for them to make it that far. Then they start their own businesses and it’s a real struggle. Again, it’s high expectations not being met by the reality.

This second one is something that we’ve been trying to lend a hand with at Fantastic Services recently. We’ve launched our Master Franchise Model — which I briefly mentioned before. As well as being our vision and long-term strategy for growth and market expansion, it’s also a way to offer go-getting wannabe business owners the chance to be their own boss while still being in a secure situation.

Something like 90% of new businesses fail. So knowing that you have support like internal franchise conferences and training, business coaching sessions and so on is a real safety net, especially in the early days of running your own business.

We’ve currently got around 400 franchisees globally.

Based on your experience or research, how do you think an unhappy workforce will impact a) company productivity b) company profitability c) and employee health and wellbeing?

Starting with productivity, I think it’s a no-brainer. We’re always looking very closely at our employees’ happiness. Whenever we invest in our people, we see productivity go up. It’s that simple.

On the other hand, an unhappy colleague — or an unhappy boss — can be incredibly damaging. We’ve all had them and we all know their potential for throwing a spanner in the works. Whether it’s an obvious situation where you can see some kind of vindictive behaviour. Or even when it’s nothing specific you can point at, but there’s definitely a blacker mood in a team and you see that reflected in their productivity and your overall profitability.

Unhappiness is like the flu. It spreads fast. Plus, you can’t cure it with a group “team building” trip. A strong company culture based on employee happiness is the only real inoculation against it.

Having grown up in Scandinavia, I’ve seen how happiness can affect a society in a positive way. I’ve tried to do the same with Fantastic Services.

A wise man told me once that profits will never matter as much as being proud of your work. But to be honest, in my experience, happy, motivated, healthy people work harder. I think creating a company culture like this has resulted in far greater productivity and profitability than we would have without it.

Can you share 5 things that managers and executives should be doing to improve their company work culture? Can you give a personal story or example for each?

I think company culture has to be created from the very beginning. I also believe that the key to a successful business lies in keeping your employees, clients and partners happy. That’s why we call our philosophy “360-Degree Happiness”.

The top five things to consider when creating a fantastic work culture are, in my opinion:

1. Build a system that allows you to see the difference between a person who hates their job and someone who enjoys every day at work.

2. To keep people happy, show them respect, learn from their experience and allow them to have control over what they do.

3. Choose the right techniques and incentives to motivate your employees and your partners.

4. Set up communication channels for all parties involved so they can easily contact you for business-related concerns.

5. Great workplace culture must be built around your company values.

The growth of Fantastic Services has been full of examples and stories which have proven to me that having happy, passionate people on board will do wonders for your business. You keep them motivated by rewarding their achievements.

This means that as a leader, you need to be ready to help your employees and business partners whenever needed. A fantastic work environment makes everyone’s life easier. It also allows your business to grow.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but it seems like we have to “change the culture regarding work culture”. What can we do as a society to make a broader change in the US workforce’s work culture?

One of the glaring things about US work culture has always seemed to me to be the lack of holidays. You often don’t even have holidays in the first year. Getting any also doesn’t seem to be guaranteed.

These days, I’ve come to recognize that there are times when you should give your staff an extra holiday now and again. It prevents burn out — which is a major cause of productivity loss — as well as being part of your duty of care to your employees.

Looking back to when I was an employee myself, I think I was lucky in that I mostly had bosses who would do the same. I also came across one who resolutely did not and I clearly remember that their approach made myself and several other employees physically ill because of overwork.

How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?

I wouldn’t say that I have a specific style. But for a long time now, I’ve known that leadership is really about instruction, introduction and training. I also firmly believe that incorporating the idea of inclusion into whatever style you adopt is key to being an outstanding leader in 2019.

By inclusion, I mean getting involved with your workforce and including them in the decision-making process as much as possible. Being able to give your staff some degree of self-determination has an incredible and often underestimated value. People who feel that they are listened to work better.

As far as leadership goes, it can be difficult to separate the idea of being “the boss” and being a leader. A boss is the person that pays the money and gives out orders. A leader instructs and motivates people, inspiring and teaching as well as leading them. Ideally, you want to be both.

Of course, this can be a very hard line to walk. Sometimes as a leader, you also have to be the boss. There will be someone who needs a person who will tell them to repeat work several times until they master it. Sometimes your team needs a leader to empower them.

You never want to be the one arrogantly shouting instructions from the sidelines. But you also don’t want to be sacrificing performance in order to be liked by every single person. Leadership isn’t a popularity contest. Well, at least not necessarily.

Finding the right balance between instruction and empowerment as you strive to achieve the performance which real leadership brings is a constant process of listening and learning.

But never forget that, in the final analysis, you win and lose together as a team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I mentioned before that a huge percentage of new businesses fail. The ones which fail more than any others are partnerships.

This means that my business partner, Anton Skarlatov, is always going to be the name I think of first here.

We met completely by accident. We were both at a party. I can’t remember precisely how it came up, but I was complaining to this stranger about how hard it was to find a reliable cleaner to clean the red wine which I’d spilt on my living room carpet.

This stranger turned out to be Anton — soon to be my business partner — who owned a cleaning company and who was happy to spend a bit of time together surrounded by the buzz of the party bashing the state of the industry.

Anton had been in the business for years. What he said essentially confirmed the impression I’d received from my investigations trying to find someone to clean my carpet:

No-one seemed to put much thought into doing it right. There were a couple of American companies who’d really been pushing their advertising at the time. But their actual service quality just wasn’t higher than anyone else’s.

By the end of the party, we’d already spitballed half a dozen ways it could be done better. No-one at the time really seemed to be looking at the cleaning and services industry as something you could get into as an entrepreneur.

Having two different but complementary skill-sets and one shared outlook with a partner like Anton has helped us make a success of a partnership in an industry where, from the outside, I wouldn’t have rated our chances.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We do quite a bit of free work in community spaces. We’re currently running a whole campaign to clean up London’s pavements and patios for free so that people can get out in the sunshine more when the weather’s good. We also recently did a school garden because a pupil wrote to us and asked us to. Plus, there’s our contribution to the high visibility jacket campaign to help schoolchildren stay safe on their way home. That’s one of Anton’s favourites.

There’s also our charity work in Bulgaria, which we do because a lot of our customer care team are from there or live there. We collect toys and books for orphanages and collect annually for charity.

Overall though, I think the bit of our giving back I’m happiest about — certainly the bit that gives me the most immediate joy — is when members of our team come back from a training course we’ve organized for them and tell us about their experience. It makes me genuinely proud.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My favourite quote at the moment is by Denis Waitley: “Procrastination is the fear of success. People procrastinate because they are afraid of the success that they know will result if they move ahead now. Because success is heavy, carries a responsibility with it, it is much easier to procrastinate and live on the ‘someday I’ll’ philosophy.”

When you’re becoming an entrepreneur, procrastination is not an option. Your goal is to build a successful business. Procrastinating will only postpone your success. This quote reminds me that you always need to take action. Never wait for an opportunity to come along.

You need to have the mindset that something will happen because you will make it happen.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

“If there’s one idea which I think stops people being happy, it’s chasing after some mythical state called “happiness”.

If I could start a movement which stopped people setting their expectations sky-high, constantly looking to “find” happiness and instead let them simply concentrate on the happiness they were feeling right now, I’d be a happy man.

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Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!

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