Guest Editorial: How a Healthy Work Environment Drives a Healthy P&L

You don’t have to choose between what’s good for the business and what’s good for employees in the quest to drive productivity and profits. What you need is to invest in employee engagement.

Career burnout and business burn out as an overworked burnt from exhaustion as a match icon of an employee exhausted with job stress as a work concept for overloaded workers as a 3D illustration.
Getty Images.

People who are passionate about running businesses often talk about money or people—but not both.

Imagine, a chief operating officer at an oil company who doesn’t listen to any ideas that won’t result in more barrels or more money, right now. Many of us in the oil and gas industry know what it feels like to work in that organization.

Or the human resources leader that puts together an offsite meeting with personality tests, teambuilding exercises, and some “feel-good” work that has nothing to do with the actual work of the company.

Both examples have their place and their value, but they never work well together. It’s one or the other.

This is because of a widespread belief that what is right for a business and what is right for the people that work within one are inherently in conflict with each other.

At best, people view them as opposing forces to balance. At worst, they’re seen as incompatible ideas and there’s no town big enough for the both of them.

I call nonsense.

What’s Good for People? Elimination of Frustration

Whether it’s the fabled “TPS Reports,” jammed printers, or (multiple) inept bosses, we all have things at work that make our days worse. Some of them are minor annoyances like an extra copy/paste step, but many of them cause damage to our focus, ability to make decisions, and overall efficacy at our jobs.

What is one of the worst? Poor communication. Usually, small teams are not too bad at communication. But cross-department collaboration (or the lack thereof) is almost always an area where companies of all sizes can find room for improvement.

Give Them a Reason To Care

Obviously pay and benefits are a good reason to care about your work. But there is a big difference in your attitude if you are simply “here so I don’t get fired” vs. truly caring about your work, your company, and the people you work with.

This is what people mean when they talk about “employee engagement.”

What makes someone care about their work beyond a paycheck? It varies, but here are a few high-probability ideas:

  • Ensuring they understand the impact of their work on the big picture.
  • Supporting their personal growth goals, i.e., leadership growth, skill development, new challenges.
  • Fostering a fair work environment. Involve employees in decisions for the company.

What’s Good for Business? A Smooth Process

A process that is effective, efficient, and integrated and one that is “not too bad” are worlds apart.

Everyone knows that process problems cause wasted time and resources. But many people underestimate the real cost—the missed upside. That time spent dealing with bad process is time that should have been spent driving better decisions or improving the business. If you make good people do both by working more than they want to, they will leave.

And here’s a hint to the punchline: improving a process looks a lot like eliminating frustrations.

Maximizing Available Resources

There are two obvious ways to get more out of your people: Make them work more or make them more effective when they work. It seems as if most upstream companies have drained the reservoir on No. 1, but certainly not on No. 2.

Especially in this industry, while we’ve done a good job of technical training, more companies are now realizing the upside to training their people on things that make them more effective at working in an organization. Skills such as prioritization, decision-making, communication, leadership, management, and process improvement can be taught and developed. (And no, that one class from college doesn’t cut it.)

The third, and maybe less obvious way, is what I mentioned earlier: make them care more.

However, some companies do this in a way that exploits the workers who are most desperate. In some cases, this involves dangling promotions in front of them. Others use the threat of firing employees to get desired results.

But for me, this is another powerful opportunity to find alignment between what is good for people and what is good for the business. Some illustrative statistics on how that can be done are found in a recent report on “The State of the Global Workplace” by US pollster Gallup:

  • Companies with highly engaged employees had 23% higher profitability than those with low employee engagement.
  • Companies with highly engaged employees had 21% higher productivity than those with low employee engagement.
  • Higher levels of employee engagement are associated with lower levels of turnover, absenteeism, and safety incidents.

Even if you do not care about how happy people are at the workplace, I bet you do care about 20% higher profits and productivity, especially if they come with reduced turnover and safety incidents.

There may be some things that are only good for the business (e.g., cheaper coffee) or that are only good for people (e.g., foosball tables). But assuming everyone is behaving ethically, it is clear that most of the things that are good ideas for the business are also good for the people, as long as we are not extremely short-sighted.

So, why do so many people pit them against each other?

Those that see what is right for the business and what is right for their people as opposing forces to balance are not completely off base. Yet there is a problem with most people’s understanding of balance.

You hear it in every conversation about balance. Work/life, investor/employee, discipline/pleasure, confidence/humility. Balance is framed as a tug of war.

That may be useful to get to a certain level, to achieve “pretty good” results. But what about actually achieving balance? What does that look like?

It is not a compromise. It is not a mediocre middle ground. True balance is harmony, where you have the best parts of both sides of the spectrum. I hate to be cliché and call this a win‑win, but that is exactly the idea.

The formerly opposing forces now play off each other. The strengths of one elicit strength from the other and keep each other’s risks in check.

How Do I Do That?

Step 1: Realize You Should Try

There is a path to finding balance and it starts with realizing how critical of a business goal this should be for you. Hopefully, this article helps you take this first step.

Step 2: Get on the Path

The next objective is to establish forward momentum—which is all about you. Your vision for taking your business and your people to a better place and your drive to keep pushing until you get there. Here is a tactical action you can take today.

Write down your vision for how you want the business to operate in the future. Not just numbers, but how does it look? How does it feel? What expression do people have on their faces when they leave work? What are interactions like? This is about creating a vision of the perfect world to give you and your business a guiding light, a direction.

Step 3: Create Guardrails

When you created the vision in the last step, it was about defining success. The perfect world. The goal to aim for.

Now, we need to explicitly define the guardrails, the minimum acceptable criteria. What are the limits of what will be tolerated? Being explicit is critical because what you tolerate is what you’ll get.

For the business, defining the guardrails is probably already done via budgets or targets. However, it is worth double-checking that you actually define what “good enough” looks like. This will probably take the form of minimum revenue, max costs, etc.

Then do the same from the workers’ perspective. This could look very different depending on your company culture.

If you have nothing in the ranks but hungry 20-somethings that are looking for the big payday, then a big part of their minimums will be around salary and bonus. If you have mostly 30-something working parents who drive in early because they live in the suburbs, then odds are that the workforce will prioritize limits on hours worked and flexibility for time off.

Most organizations have a mix of these groups which makes it all the more important to think about worker priorities and how adaptive you can be to different people at different times in their lives.

Do not forget that those ambitious, high-energy, salary-driven 25-year-olds might change their tune once a spouse or a baby enters the picture. In the same vein, older workers might become more flexible themselves as their children leave home.

Regardless of the company’s makeup, the key idea here is to simply define the minimum acceptable criteria for your culture, just as you did with the business results. I’ll ask you to persist through some of the difficulty and ambiguity because these guardrails are essential for the final step.

Step 4: Go, Then Keep Going

Now that you’ve made the decision to try, adopted a vision for the future, and established guardrails, all that is left is to execute.

You have the direction and defined what it means to fall too far out of balance. From here, we simply get going. If we’re initially below the minimum acceptable criteria for either our business or our people, that is project No. 1. Get inside the guardrails.

Assuming you are between the guardrails, identify changes to make that improve things for both the business and the people. Here, you can go back to what is good for each of them and see where there is overlap.

This is how continuous improvement actually works. After creating an initial list of potential opportunities to improve,

  1. Prioritize and pick as many as bandwidth allows.
  2. Execute, noting learnings and obstacles along the way.
  3. Update the list.
  4. Repeat, forever.

There will be mistakes. There will be projects that fail, and others that work too well and have unintended consequences. That’s just how this works. But if you persist, if you keep going, you will achieve the goals of running a balanced business.

This ethos represents a world in which managers are free of the nagging guilt about how their employees are struggling to get through their days. It is one in which we all sleep peacefully at night, confident in the fact that we’re taking care of our people and the business at the same time.

Matt Harriman is an author, speaker, oil and gas consultant, and founder and principal consultant of Pod2 which helps companies with culture change, process improvement, and leadership development. He previously spent 12 years in strategy and planning roles, including the management of field development plans and the global implementation of planning software for an E&P company. In 2019, he founded Pod2 to help oil and gas companies improve their business operations. In 2023, Harriman published his first book, “Integrated Upstream Planning: The Essentials,” which offers a first-hand look at planning practices in the upstream industry and introduces new strategies that combine lessons learned from a career spent working with more than 100 E&P companies around the world.