Employee wellbeing: A standard not a bonus

How will businesses address employee wellbeing in the future? Paulina Sygulska, co-founder of GrantTree, argues that it will become a standard part of company culture, not a bonus as it is currently...

Let's start from the beginning. GrantTree – now 23 people strong, with more than 350 clients and over £1million turnover – started quite literally in a spare bedroom that belonged to me and my then boyfriend, now husband, Daniel. The 'tricky' co-founders/couple combo didn't bother us since we recognised our individual business talents and how they complemented each other. Even though occasional tensions would happen, we never had a desire to compete for power, or to step on each other's toes.

Looking back, I can't help feeling that initially GrantTree grew mirroring fundamental values of our relationship, such as radical honesty, respect, hunger to continually improve, and incredibly low tolerance for bullshit.

As the team grew to three, five, 10 and finally 23, what used to be an extension of the founders' values became its very own beast we couldn't help but marvel at from a distance. We implemented things my pragmatically focused business mind never would have thought possible.

Image from GrantTree

Ever since we started we have fostered complete financial transparency, but team determined salaries – we have a voluntary pay committee known as 'moneypennies' – was a step out of even my personal comfort zone. We are now designing a second iteration of the salary and bonus scheme to improve it further – all completely in the open. 

We are also proud of having implemented the advice process where anyone in the company can make any decision provided they have taken time to acknowledge feedback from all parties that will be affected.

Finally we fully adopted the holacratic model, which in our company translates not just to a lack of hierarchy (so-called 'flatness') but active involvement of the entire team in thinking up our future and turning it into reality. We have very recently redesigned holacratic circles (in other words: teams focused on the same aspect of the business) to meet our growth objectives, and are in the process of framing roles and accountabilities within them. I'm very motivated by the buy-in of the entire team and sense of ownership not just for what's supposed to be someone's set of responsibilities, but for the bigger picture of how the entire company functions.

Image from GrantTree

These days GrantTree is the kind of place where you can do unusual things that everyone takes for granted, and I'm proud of that. A good recent example would be a remote worker declaring they're going offline for a few hours to manage anxiety, or a newly appointed team member (still going through trial or, as we like to call it, the 'trust building period') taking the initiative to simplify the hiring process.

What do the staff think of how we run things? Read what one valued member of our team had to say: 

"I think it says a lot about the amazing place that GrantTree is that I have found my self-confidence growing after a slow and steady recovery from a long period of depression. When I first joined GrantTree I didn't know what to think. Who were these loud mouthed people saying whatever was on their mind, and laughing and joking and yet all still finding time to work hard – and enjoy it? But then, I don't know, one day something just clicked. I knew I was among friends and in a great place to be. It was wonderful.

"Now I am taking advantage of the company's remote working policy to split my time between London and Amsterdam – something I would never have dared to do before. This pushes me right outside my comfort zone, and forces me to grow as a person. There are not many workplaces where that is valued."

I know that if I have days when I'm feeling anxious or depressed, I can be honest about this.

"Even when I was working in London, I just found my stress levels dropping away because of our flexible working policy. You come in at the time that suits you, and you leave when you feel you're done for the day. You can also work from home without having to ask anyone's permissions and without needing a reason – just because you think you'll work better at home that day is enough.

"I know that if I have days when I'm feeling anxious or depressed, I can be honest about this, and take things slow or take some time off – and people are supportive and genuinely care about my wellbeing."

This team member started with us as a part-time project contractor and ended up becoming one of the most active driving forces for positive change in the company. It's impossible to quantify how much we've benefitted from his energy and talents and, likewise, how much we would have lost if we didn't have the kind of culture where these talents could unfold.

It took a while for us to understand what 'employee wellbeing' actually meant to us and what role it was to play in the development of the company as a whole. As much as I'm a great fan of books and advice from thought leaders on the subject of employee wellbeing, I seem to have a problem with the term itself. I fully believe that in companies of the future – many of whom we are directly and indirectly learning from – a workplace where people are treated as wise, talented and responsible adults is not a question of a bonus but a question of a standard. This is the only kind of workplace that is worthy of the attention of people capable of creating and implementing ideas that matter.

This is the kind of workplace that will slowly but surely transform the world of work as we know it today and, I believe, make other workplaces redundant.

- This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. 


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