8 Ways to Improve Your Workplace in the New Year

Business.com
8 Ways to Improve Your Workplace in the New Year

Many of us begin the new year with the best of intentions and a host of resolutions because we value the opportunity it presents to start anew. If you run a business, the new year is the perfect time to re-engage your workforce and improve your workplace.

To help you find compelling ways to reinvigorate your business, Business.com has compiled a list of strategies and best practices offered by a diverse group of entrepreneurs and business experts. These tips may be just what you need to tackle the roadblocks of the past and reimagine your business's future.

Regularly seek feedback

Most business leaders talk about the value of getting to know what their employees really think. Very few actually make the effort to gather this insight. One of the best – and simplest – ways to do this is just to ask your team what they need from you. "Good leaders want to know how they can serve their teams better. They don't guess or speculate," said Dr. Randy Ross, CEO of Remarkable! and author of the Relationomics: Business Powered by Relationships (Feb. 5, 2019).

A survey can also be used to gather employee feedback and learn what areas of the business need improvement as well as what works. Companies can use software products that send and manage surveys so they can collect instantaneous information about employee satisfaction, according to Nazim Ahmed, CEO and founder of WorkshopX.

"With real-time input, we can get to core problems and make sure issues don't get too big to fix. Having this type of connection to employees ... allows you to make sure you are nurturing a healthy work environment and, ultimately, getting the best out of your team," said Ahmed. 

Another way to connect with employees and solicit their feedback, especially in companies where work is becoming more fluid and employees may report to different managers throughout the year, is to set up mentoring relationships between top employees and senior executives, suggests Carlos Castelán, managing partner and founder of The Navio Group.

Employees strengthen their skills through regular meetings and one-on-one coaching, but they also have a direct link to company leaders with whom they can share ideas, worries and insight into company culture. "This helps keep employees engaged and allows executives to understand any concerns that may arise so they can be proactively addressed," said Castel├ín.

Be more flexible

Make this the year you take a step back and give your employees a little more freedom, both in when they work and how they work. 

Having more autonomy in the workplace can be a game changer, according to Alex Strathdee, solutions consultant at Appian, co-author of Experience Over Degrees (2018) and co-host of the Practically Passionate podcast. "One of the most impactful traits of any company that is able to maintain a low turnover is the ability for workers to be in control of their own decisions," said Strathdee.

Strathdee acknowledges that is not always easy to loosen the reigns, but it can be done with a little planning: "The path toward this will include taking a step back as an employer and asking 'What tasks can I measure by the end result but leave the process for getting them done up to the employee?'" 

Additionally, in an increasingly connected world, a good portion of work can be done from any location so it's possible to give employees some latitude in shaping their work schedule. "While office face time is still critical, providing flexibility can be incredibly helpful and dramatically increase your employee happiness and productivity," said Shari Buck, co-founder and chief product officer of Doximity

Instituting flexible work policies that allow for staggered start and end times, compressed work weeks, telecommuting, and a host of other arrangements show employees that you understand and appreciate their efforts to balance all aspects of their lives, according to Buck, whose own employees all work from home one day a week.

Buck explained, "A meeting-free day in your calendar is a great time to tackle long writing projects, crank through a backlog of emails or get to that dentist appointment you've been putting off."

Invest in education

Make it your business to know your employees' career goals and provide them with the education and training opportunities they need to reach them. Better educated employees are more loyal, confident, engaged and empowered to work more independently. Therefore, explore the sort of professional development opportunities your business is equipped to provide. This can range from online training, conferences, workshops and employee lunch and learns to funding the completion of certification or degree programs at higher education institutions. 

Investing in your employees is about much more than increasing their skill base. It's also about demonstrating to them that you care about their growth as individuals. The hope is that your investment, in turn, will help reignite employees' commitment to your business and reenergize company culture.

"Ultimately, people are the greatest reflection of your brand. When organizations fail to invest heavily in their people, they run a substantial risk," said Ross. "Invest in your people so heavily that they become equipped to go anywhere and be successful. And love them so deeply that they would never want to leave. Then you will have a workforce that will strengthen your brand in the market and engender customer loyalty."

Get serious about gender equality

A lot of companies think of themselves as inclusive workplaces but haven't really taken concrete steps to confront unconscious gender bias in their organizations. And, with only 25 percent of senior business roles being held by women worldwide, this is clearly still an issue in most companies. Now is the time for your business to work toward achieving gender parity by re-evaluating its policies, practices and institutional norms.

There are many small and large steps you can take to move your business in the right direction in this area, from making sure all your employees have the same access to opportunity, coaching and mentors to auditing payroll to ensure all employees are being paid fairly and equitably for their work. Additionally, you can encourage gender-blind decision-making in your organization, assign men their fair share of office housework, and help relieve the unfair burden women feel outside of work by offering employer-sponsored child care, generous parental leave, and flexible work schedules.

Another key component of creating a more equitable workplace is to address sexual harassment immediately and provide resources to your staff so if they witness inappropriate behavior they have the tools needed to respond to the situation appropriately. "Train your employees in bystander intervention so they feel empowered to step in when they recognize a potentially harmful situation," said Lauren Slemenda, lead consultant with Outside the Circle Consulting.

Create a pleasing office environment

It doesn't matter what line of work you are in, it's easier to be your best in an environment that is comfortable, functional and aesthetically pleasing. Therefore, take the time in the new year to find ways to improve your office space and help employees feel better about a place many of them may consider a second home.

"With increased urbanization, interconnection and technological stimulation, it has never been more important to prioritize the personal well-being (both physical and mental) of your employees," said Jessie Moore of Uncommon. "Given that we spend the majority of our waking hours at work, it would be irresponsible to neglect this aspect of working life."

Moore recommends creating quiet, meditative spaces within the larger office away from noise and screens, using plants to improve air quality and bring in the outdoors, and opening the office up to natural light. "Even introduce some soothing scents such as jasmine or cinnamon that … improve memory retention and concentration," added Moore.  

Additional upgrades include decluttering the office, painting it a soothing color, improving the lighting, adding a snack cabinet or espresso machine, or letting employees personalize their workspaces. But regardless of the changes, including employees' input in the process is key.

"When it comes to making changes in the workplace, my main priority is to protect employee productivity and strengthen team morale," said Lauren Izaks, COO and executive vice president of All Points Public Relations, whose own office recently underwent a renovation. Izaks recommends including employees in the renovation discussions to ensure that changes to the space reflect their needs.

"For me, it's about listening to my employees' concerns ... and genuinely caring about their happiness. Plus, as most leaders know, it's important to facilitate any officewide change with a sense of transparency," said Izaks.

Say goodbye to negativity

Every business owner or manager has had to deal with a Negative Nelly or two in the workplace. You know who these people are from a mile away and so do your other employees. Employees with a poisonous attitude suck the air out of a room, destroy morale among your other workers and negatively impact your vendor and customer relationships. To save your sanity – and your workplace – you need to know when to terminate negative employees.

"Just one toxic person can really wreak havoc on the other people working around them," said Danielle Kunkle, co-owner of Boomer Benefits. "Don't be afraid to let that person go and find a team member with a positive attitude who works well with others."

At times, you may be apprehensive about confronting difficult employees, but avoidance only lets the problem fester. It's time to sever your ties with the employee if you've provided the training and guidance needed to correct the behavior, documented any infractions, and clearly outlined the consequences they would face for failing to make appropriate changes.

And once it's all said and done, you'll be glad to have cleared out the toxicity from your workplace. "It may cost you some time in training, but you'll never regret the difference in the atmosphere that single change can make inside your office," said Kunkle. 

Give back

Corporate philanthropy is good for business, but it's also good for the soul, so make an effort to feed your employees' spirits in the new year by creating opportunities for them to engage in meaningful charitable work. "Use the success of your business to bring good into the world and your team will benefit too," said Buck.

"Providing service opportunities or tailoring operations around an important cause is an incentive for all to work hard and be happy while doing so," added Katherine Daniel, director of people operations for N2 Publishing.

If this is already part of your company culture, you may want to consider strengthening your efforts or finding innovative, new ways to draw in your employees and serve the communities you've decided to support. But if your organization is new to civic engagement, know there are tons of ways to integrate it into the fabric of your workplace.

Companies looking to do good can donate to charitable efforts, organize companywide volunteer days, offer paid time off for service work, match employee donations to charity and encourage employees to serve on boards of nonprofits or contribute their professional skills in other ways to organizations they value.

Providing employees with pathways to service not only does a lot of good for the community, but it improves morale, boosts company pride, provides leadership opportunities for your team members and creates goodwill toward your organization.  

Bring on the fun

You want people to look forward to coming to work and enjoy spending their day with each other because when people are happy, they tend to do a better job. One way to accomplish this is by making employees' work lives a little more fun and a little less stressful. "In this way, camaraderie and teamwork get boosted," said Cedrick Capati, online PR specialist with Spiralytics

What constitutes fun will look different from one workplace to the next. Take the time to get to know your employees and get a sense of what they actually appreciate and enjoy. Some of the more typical options include allowing employees to bring their dogs to work (at least occasionally), using gaming to help everyone unwind, celebrating birthdays and other milestones, enjoying an adult beverage or two on a Friday afternoon or blasting everyone's favorite music on any given day for a quick singalong.

Another way to encourage creativity and motivate employees is to create friendly office competitions. "Competition is a great motivator as well as a team-building opportunity," said Matt Edstrom, CMO of GoodLife Home Loans. "Incentivize employees for these competitions by having prizes that your employees will genuinely want to work for."

The Pros and Cons of Borrowing from Your 401(k) Plan

It's not unusual to think about borrowing from your 401k plan when you run into a financial challenge. By some estimates, nearly 30 million Americans have tapped their retirement savings early, according to financial security expert Pamela Yellen, founder of Bank On Yourself. 

"The 401(k) has replaced our homes as our piggy banks. And a very pricey piggy bank at that," Pamela says. "Just because you can take a premature withdrawal or a loan from your 401(k) doesn't mean it's a good deal. There are many strings attached to it, including how much you can borrow, what you can borrow it for, and how and when you must pay it back. And if you leave your job for any reason, you'll typically have to pay the loan back in full, with interest, within 30 to 60 days, or you'll owe taxes and penalties." 

Looking for the right employee retirement plan for your small business? Fill out the form below and our vendor partners will reach out to you with more information. 

 
Cons of borrowing from your 401(k)

One of the biggest disadvantages that participants face when taking a loan from a retirement plan is that the dollars used to pay the interest on the loan from the account are taxed twice. According to Lloyd Sacks, managing director of Sacks & Associates, and a certified financial planner professional, the first tax occurs when the participants earns the funds and pays income tax on that earned income. 

"Then after-tax dollars are paid to the plan for the loan," he says. "Here is where the second taxation happens: The contributions that are used to pay for the loan interest do not create basis within the qualified plan and will be taxable again when the funds are distributed, generally at retirement. This is a consequence of taking a plan loan that is often overlooked, not only by participants of 401(k)s, but also by financial planners advising their clients." 

Sacks believes that a home equity line of credit (otherwise known as a HELOC) is a better alternative than borrowing against your 401(k). "If you have available equity in your home, you may be able to take a loan from your home's equity to qualify for your loan. The loan interest for a HELOC may be tax deductible; therefore, from a personal finance perspective, this is much more advantageous to an individual," he says. 

Pros for borrowing from your 401(k)

According to David Bakke, personal finance expert at Money Crashers, one of the main pros of borrowing from your 401(k) plan is that it gives you access to the resources you probably need to solve your short-term financial needs. 

"There are a few bright sides," he says. "Such loans do not generate income tax or other penalties, provided you pay the loan off on time. The application process is rather simple. Plus, you can borrow money from your plan for anything that you want – there are no restrictions in this area. And 401(k) loans usually come with interest rates that are less than credit cards, which is a factor when determining your options." 

Amanda Palumbo, a researcher for Chambers of Commerce, said that other pros include having no official loan application, no credit check and that the money can be obtained rather quickly. "And don't forget that interest rates for this type of a loan are typically lower than any interest you might find with a credit card or a personal bank loan," she says. [Interested in employee retirement plans? Check out our best picks.] 

Bottom line

Robert R. Johnson, professor of finance at Heider College of Business, Creighton University, and the author of numerous financial planning books, including Investment Banking for Dummies, believes that people who want to borrow from their 401(k)s should recognize that there likely are other options, like delaying the purchase of a new home or car, for instance.  

"One of the biggest behavioral biases that humans succumb to is the bias toward immediate gratification over delayed gratification. That is, our present selves tend to win over our future selves," he says. 

If [you are] borrowing from your 401(k), it is extremely important to understand the rules and ramifications of your decision. Although this may seem like the quickest and easiest way to access cash when you need it, the long-term consequences are often misunderstood and can be severe.

3 Tips to Start Live Video Marketing

Live video is a great way to showcase your brand and its mission to your audience while communicating with them in an authentic way. It takes away the frills that come with pre-recorded video: editing, rehearsing and publishing after careful review. Perhaps that’s why 80 percent of users prefer watching live video over reading a company’s blog posts, according to Livestream.

It’s no secret that live video is gaining enormous popularity. On average, viewers spend at least eight times as much time on live video than on-demand. Facebook shared in a blog post that people are three times more likely to watch a video if it’s live. The demand for livestreaming isn’t going anywhere.

Why use live video?

It’s an instant, easy way to communicate with viewers.

It shows authenticity.

You can market your products and services.

You get to know your customers in an intimate, personal setting. Ask them questions about themselves. Get feedback on what could be improved.

It increases revenue. According to a survey by Animoto, 76.5 percent of marketers said video had a direct and positive ROI on their business.

Clearly, live video has its benefits. If you’re new to live video marketing, here are three tips to get started so that your business can expand.

1. Outline your livestream

There’s no room for embarrassing mistakes, long pauses of awkward silence or mumbling when broadcasting live video. If there’s a mishap or malfunction, your audience will see it. If the problems persist, they’ll exit fast and move on to the next thing. That’s why it’s so important to plan ahead of time.

Ask yourself how much benefit your business will receive through livestreaming. Will it boost engagement with viewers? Does it encourage them to buy your products and services? Is it being shown to the right audience? How does it showcase your brand and its mission?

It’s important to outline the general information of your live video before you get started for as few mishaps as possible.

Who will be on the livestream?

What will be the subject matter?

Why is this live stream being created?

When will it be broadcasted?

2. Be authentic

A huge reason people are more attracted to live video is that it shows authenticity in a way other channels and mediums can’t. You can’t feel emotion the same way through a text post. You can’t read facial expressions through a podcast. Only livestreaming lets viewers see and hear things exactly as they are in real time without any frills or ruffles.

According to Stackla’s 2017 Consumer Content Report, 86 percent of consumers consider authenticity important when deciding what brands to support. With the same report concluding that less than half of brands create content that’s meaningful to consumers, it’s essential your live video brings something genuine to the table.

There are several ways your brand can be more authentic toward its viewers through live video:

Behind-the-scenes footage

Demonstrations of your products

Introduce members of your team

Broadcast live events

Q&A session

Giveaway

All of these are ways for viewers to not just watch what’s happening at the company, but to interact with it directly and feel like part of the experience.

3. Use the right tools

In Livestream’s report about live video, 67 percent of viewers consider video quality the most important factor when watching a live broadcast. Things like long buffer times, failure to load properly and auditory and visual malfunctions are sure to frustrate viewers and encourage them to bounce off your livestream. You can prevent these things from happening by having the right tools handy.

For starters, you want to record in a location with an ample amount of lighting. Test your camera in different areas inside and outside to see what gives you the best viewing experience. You’ll likely be using your phone to record, so don’t feel the need to go out and buy an expensive camera just to livestream. You need your wifi operating at full speed to ensure no lagging or long loading times. If not, take advantage of hot spots and data to fuel your livestream instead.

When it’s finally time to go live, make sure you’re in a quiet area with no background noise or other distractions. Make the experience as smooth as possible by ensuring you look and sound clear enough that viewers understand what’s going on.

What comes next

A live video marketing strategy doesn’t have to be scary. If anything, it should excite you because of the potential benefits it could bring your business. It’s a great way to get in touch with consumers, get to know them better, let them know you and reel them in. Show them you’re authentic and care about what they want. Give them a livestreaming experience proving that your business wants to solve their problems and help them on their buyer’s journey. Soon enough, your customer base will grow, your business right along with it.

Enough Is Enough: When (and How) to Say No at Work

When you're working for an employer you respect, or pursuing a career you love, it can be difficult to turn down assignments or additional opportunities in the workplace. You want to make a good impression, but you can't do it all, no matter how much you might think otherwise.

"If you've taken on too much, your gut or your conscience sometimes will let you know," said Jay Cochran, a principal at Deloitte & Touche LLP. "You'll realize your deliverables aren't at the level they might be if you had taken the time to reflect and delegate where appropriate."

While it's great to go above and beyond in business, there's a fine line between working hard and working yourself to the bone. Sometimes, you just need to say no.

Risks of taking on too much work

There are many risks of assuming too many responsibilities in the workplace, from excessive stress to burnout. Often, employees think they’re just being “good workers” or setting themselves up for success, but the cost can be detrimental to their mental health.

Additionally, your performance will falter in other areas as you scramble to keep up, and you might even miss out on work that's better suited for your talents.

"By agreeing to too many responsibilities and projects, you then have to say no to other tasks that may be of a higher priority, other opportunities that are more strategic and ultimately more important," said Cochran. "If you're taking on too many items that are not strategic, you won't have the time and energy to do other things that are better for your career and for your mental health."

Knowing when you should say no is the easy part; actually doing it is another story. Here are a few tips to support you through it.

1. Be honest.

Cochran advises telling your employer when you think you aren't a good fit for an opportunity. Good leaders always value honesty, and turning down an offer is always better than accepting it, then failing to deliver.

"Sometimes, you have to make these tough decisions to say no, and you need to be clear and crisp in saying, 'I don't think this is the best use of our company's time and talents right now,'" said Cochran.

Rather than offering a cold rejection, however, Cochran said you can recommend another colleague who you think might be a better choice.

2. Be strategic.

When asked to take on more work, think about the bigger picture: Will this benefit or hurt you and your company in the long run? If it will be a positive for both sides, pursue it; if not, turn it down to prevent issues in the future.

"I try to say no strategically so that I can make sure I'm doing the best job I can," said Cochran. "If saying no today means that I can be more effective later, and make better use of a client's time and of my time, then that's the better choice."

3. Be realistic.

Just because you have a minute to breathe doesn't mean you should fill it with more projects. You need to find a balance so you're providing only your best work while still keeping your interest piqued.

"There's always more work to be done, but taking on more work does not in turn make you more valuable to your organization," said Cochran. "Growing yourself, your team, and your company and having insightful recommendations are your most important contributions to success, and when you're not focused on that kind of success, you're not focused where you should be."

You know your limits – be realistic about them.

4. Be your own advocate.

At the end of the day, look out for yourself and your wellbeing. If you feel you're working too hard, even if it's not as much as your co-worker is working, speak with your employer about a more flexible arrangement.

"We're going to be working for 40 years, and you'll burn out if you don't make time for downtime," said Cochran. "So sometimes you have to sprint, but in the long run, you need downtime to hone your skills and be able to reflect on how you can perform better. Taking time away for reflection actually makes you more valuable."

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