Don’t be afraid to try new things within your company. No matter if it’s fun policies for a quarter, new office snacks, or letting people bring in their dogs for a month, find ideas that will brighten up the office morale. Do a trial period to help figure out what works and what doesn’t work for your business.
As a part of my series about about how leaders can create a “fantastic work culture”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Flynn Zaiger. Flynn is the CEO of Online Optimism, a digital marketing agency in New Orleans. Since its founding in 2012, the agency has grown from 1 Optimist to 15 and delivered innovative, digital-first campaigns to clients in New Orleans, across the Gulf Coast, and throughout the U.S.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
When I was just a precocious teenager, my family’s retail business, like many in the early 2000s, hit tough times. My offer to help them build a digital presence wasn’t taken too seriously at the start. But just a decade later, when nearly 99% of their business was from online sales, it became a lifesaver. After doing it for my family and graduating with a degree in marketing and communications, it seemed like a pretty natural step to try to do it for other businesses.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Our agency is based in New Orleans, where the population is about half a million people. That may sound like a lot, but even in a town this size, it’s important to demonstrate kindness, because word gets around.
We recently brought in a new intern, and in her first month, a partner of our agency (and one of our clients) already mentioned that they knew her. Of course, we trust interns, but you don’t typically think of them as the key to good word of mouth. But everyone who works for you represents your business, so you should treat them as you’d want to be treated — because they’re surely talking to others about what they do day-to-day, and you never know when that word is going to come back to you.
Are you working on any exciting projects now? How do you think that will help people?
At Online Optimism, we do a lot of work with community health centers. It’s pretty amazing that while we’re still tracking the same metrics (engagements, impressions, and conversions) in these campaigns as we do for our more typical hospital and e-commerce clients, the actual real-life impact is so much more important. For most of our campaigns, a conversion is a hotel room sale or another dollar in the CEO’s pocket. But for a health center, it can be a necessary doctor’s appointment scheduled or even a life saved, so it’s even more exciting to bring them great results.
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 believe that most companies have a difficult time listening to their employees. I’m not saying they don’t listen to their employees — I think it’s hard to grow a business without doing that. But they tend to not take it seriously enough or consider the dangers of not listening to an employee. These people are on the ground floor of your business every day. And even if it’s sometimes hard to listen to them or fulfill their requests, they tend to have pretty dang good ideas. So take 5 minutes to see it from their perspective, and the benefits will be boundless.
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?
An unhappy workforce will eventually hurt company productivity. This can be difficult to measure, because being forceful and aggressive to employees may improve productivity in the short term. After all, being yelled at can push you to get something done. But long term, it’s a devastating, fruitless way to get employees motivated.
Company profitability is similar. In the long term, employee turnover can kill, so anything that makes your employees unhappy is highly dangerous. Maintaining and improving employee morale is essential to improving how your business appears and operates.
Employee health and wellbeing are often the most immediately affected by an unhappy workforce. This is important, because it means that it’s the easiest thing to monitor to understand if your staff is happy, allowing you to check for long-term dangers to your company profitability and company productivity.
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?
1.Listen to your employees. Don’t just create an old-fashioned suggestion box. Instead, focus on having face-to-face conversations, and make sure you accept their input and requests with empathy and understanding. They’re there to keep your company going, so take their advice and criticism and put it into action.
2. Work with your staff to set goals. Your staff, particularly millennials, want clear achievements they can strive for. Establish goals they can work toward and push them to learn new skills.
3. Don’t be afraid to try new things within your company. No matter if it’s fun policies for a quarter, new office snacks, or letting people bring in their dogs for a month, find ideas that will brighten up the office morale. Do a trial period to help figure out what works and what doesn’t work for your business.
4. Invest in keeping your staff happy. Finding ways to keep your staff feeling like your company is beneficial to them is far cheaper than high employee turnover. Losing employees, and the productivity lost while rehiring, is expensive. Investments in your staff are, in my mind, the cheapest thing you can pay for that brings in return on investment, even if it isn’t tangible.
5. Check out what the competition is doing. We’re shameless in stealing ideas from other agencies. Your staff is probably looking at other companies, so why not invite those ideas in or seek them out yourself to make your work culture the best it can be?
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?
Whether you like it or not, the U.S. workforce is become younger. As more and more millennials become the predominant majority of the workforce, their style of empathy, collaboration, and achievement seeking will take over how employees are looking to be managed. Rewarding these workstyles will allow companies to stay relevant and maintain their importance in a modern workforce.
How would you describe your leadership or management style? Can you give us a few examples?
I have worked to become as trusting as possible toward members of my team, once they have earned the company’s trust. Our company is unique in terms of its youthfulness — less than 10% of our workforce is over 30. This can result in situations where someone may be managed by an employee several years younger than them. Therefore, by leading with respect for each other, we can maintain decorum and respect in our business.
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 am extremely grateful to my parents, who showed me how to manage a business that puts others first. They understand that a business can only grow with positive word-of-mouth, which means putting everyone from customers to partners before themselves. Their willingness to always keep others first is what kept them in business more than three decades, and it’s what I hope will keep me in business just as long.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We’ve worked to develop internship and career development programs that help people build a long-term path toward full-time employment in our industry. In addition, we give back to the community through company-wide volunteering several times per year, the impact of which grows larger as our company grows larger. Giving back is part of our company culture, so we’re always on the lookout for more ways to help, from hosting an impromptu food drive to offering free advice and consultations to small businesses and nonprofits.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
We always talk about how “It’s Better to Be Busy” in our office. Even if you’re stressed or feeling challenged, you only grow from staying busy, so we look at it as a good thing.
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. 🙂
I would like to inspire other employers to be more empathetic to their employees. I think it can be incredibly easy for a CEO or other leader to forget what it’s like to be learning the ropes. If we listen to our staff and give them the opportunity to speak up, we might find the next great idea to come from those who are already working for us.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you continued success!