A happy office is about more than just adding a ping-pong table

John Stix of Fibernetics found it took more than just a brighter paint job to turn the mood around at his company

 
Header for The Happy Office Project
Business people having meeting in cafe
(Sydney Roberts/Digital Vision/Getty)

John Stix founded what may be one of the happiest companies in Canada. And thanks to the Plasticity Labs app that our own office is now experimenting with, he has the data to prove it: average happiness scores at his company, Fibernetics, hover in the high 80s to low 90s—impressively chipper stats that soar above our group’s paltry 60-80 range.

Stix’s description of his corporate headquarters in Cambridge, Ont., makes Google’s fun-seeking campus sound dull. (“Let’s see, when do we have craft classes?” he says, mulling the in-house schedule. “Is it Thursday? Oh no, that’s boxing club.”)

But his company wasn’t always this happy. One of the first to try Plasticity’s digital platform, Fibernetics rolled out the app last June as part of an ambitious campaign to turn around what was then a struggling business. Stix co-founded the venture, a phone and Internet provider, in 2002 with his partner, Jody Schnarr, but by last year, the two had lost their passion. Sales were flagging, and customers were complaining that the company had become difficult to deal with. So Stix holed up in his office for a couple of weeks and started doing research, trying to figure out where the company had gone wrong. “I just started Googling ‘unhappy environments,’” he says. “Steve Jobs talked a lot about how it’s not just the product but the environment that leads to flourishing. So I became very passionate about trying to reinvent ours.”

He spent the next few months working on a corporate makeover that including hiring a consultant, Jackie Lauer of The Heart of Culture, to help identify core values for the company such as trust, teamwork and accountability. He sat down for long, sometimes painful, conversations with members of his leadership team to identify problems that hindered effective communication and collaboration. “I wanted to find out where we were blocked,” he says. He tried something he calls “meshing”—meetings that brought together people who he thought should be connected in the workplace, but weren’t, like the two supervisors who separately oversaw the company’s call centres in Cambridge and the Dominican Republic. “These were people who did the same work, effectively, but they’d never collaborated,” Stix says. “I wanted to know if that was a symptom of something greater: Are people trying to hold their positions tightly and not share?”

He decided to start enforcing employee down-time and vacations, developed plans for an on-site meditation room and made a host of cosmetic tweaks like painting the company’s walls with bright colours and showcasing its new corporate mantra: “I’m in.” And he rolled out Plasticity’s happiness-tracking app at a company-wide event designed to celebrate the company’s blissed-out new collective vision.

Stix is careful to say, though, that the cultural change isn’t about a ping pong table or a banner on the wall. “I think there’s an unfortunate movement toward the warm, fuzzy happy face stuff, and I think people are missing the opportunity to explore the deeper meaning behind it all. They put posters up, and they make arbitrary decisions about what’s going to make people happy. Who am I to think that I could make someone happy?”

“That’s such a personal thing. But if you want to share with us what would make you happy, I’d love to know that. It’s all about reaching out and talking.” (The craft club and the boxing sessions aren’t his initiatives—they’re projects launched by employees, along with the gardening group and the photography club.)

The Plasticity app helps him do that reaching out; it also tracks what’s working in his workplace and how employees are responding. Not surprisingly, he’s happy with the numbers he’s seeing (so happy that he’s now become an investor in Plasticity). And he’s happier still with others he says he’s seeing: The company has hit new sales records each month since the corporate relaunch, and customer complaints are at an all-time low, Stix says. HR concerns have dropped by 70%. This quarter alone, Fibernetics’ looks set to grow by 50%, Stix says. “My mission now is to show leaders if you’re sitting on the fence about caring about people—and showing that you care—just do it. And if you don’t care, you should still do it because it dramatically affects the bottom line.”

As for our own group of happiness-seeking employees, we haven’t built an entire campaign designed to reimagine our workplace, so it’s probably overly ambitious to think that our experiment with the Plasticity app can bring about massive change. We’ll do a final post in a few weeks when we find out whether we moved the needle on our bliss-o-meter after a month of dabbling. Meanwhile, I’m not holding my breath.

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The Happy Office Project is a special series initiated by Canadian Business. Plasticity Labs is neither providing or receiving payment for our participation, and has no involvement in its editorial content.

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