One of the more rewarding experiences in the life of a business consultant is watching your clients write their business plans. Observing a business owner and their staff engaged in deep and meaningful conversation about mission, vision and strategy is a sight to see. During a recent planning retreat, my attention was drawn specifically to one young executive and her staff. This second-generation restorer was on the verge of creating something special, and I was intrigued.

As I approached their table, I could hear banter about employee engagement, accountability and performance, all of which are typical topics of conversation in service-driven businesses. The management team quickly turned to me with questions about how to improve the morale of their staff and maximize productivity. As the conversation unfolded, it rapidly spiraled into the weeds of policies, procedures and disciplinary actions. To avoid getting buried in details of what would have been a less meaningful discussion, I asked to look at their mission statement.

The lengthy paragraph was filled with generic aspirations of superior customer service, innovation, environmental responsibility, market leadership and other topics found in most undergraduate text books. Without comment, I turned to the company president and asked her one simple question: “Why are you doing this?” A little perplexed and slightly offended, she replied: “Doing what?” 

This restorer had taken a highly respected company with a 30+ year history of servicing traditional markets and flipped it on its head by turning her back on traditional referral sources and service lines. She was pioneering a new approach, and it was working. In doing so she was proving a point to the industry and to herself: things can be done differently. This is a person who is driven, motivated, full of passion, and having a lot of fun playing the game called “work.” My suspicion was the answer to the company’s personnel issues could be found in the lack of awareness of the motive behind the owner’s changes - to be a company breaking the traditions of the restoration industry and becoming a leader in the development of new sales techniques.

For employees to be invested in the company’s plan, they must not only be aware of the reasons behind the plan but also enjoy supporting it. Working to achieve the company mission should be fun as well as beneficial. If the employees are enjoying what they are doing, they are more likely to support the plan, project or goal on which they are working. Then, it won’t feel like work - rather, it’s play.

We are taught very early in our lives to learn through play. This simple philosophy is tremendously successful because it stimulates us and retains our interest. The Montessori Method of early childhood education reinforces this by referring to play time as work. It embodies a flexible environment with freedoms of choice, inspiring creativity within a prescribed range of options. The results are undeniably successful. Work is learned to be enjoyable through play.

Play is also one of the four key components Stephen Lundin, Harry Paul and John Christensen’s best seller Fish!: A Remarkable Way to Boost Morale and Improve Results, an inspiring story about the world-famous Pike Place Fish Market in Seattle, WA where the employees turned an otherwise boring job into a bustling and entertaining show. The results were highly engaged employees, superior levels of customer satisfaction and a highly profitable, world-renown tourist attraction.

The working population spends the vast majority of its waking time at work. It only makes sense that employers with the highest levels of employee engagement, satisfaction and retention would be those that provide work environments that are fulfilling. A part of that fulfillment is having fun in your job and there is no better way to accomplish this than to play at work.

The great thing about the restoration industry is that companies can provide a meaningful and genuinely beneficial service and profit from their efforts! The most productive employees in the cleaning and restoration industries act almost innately as servants to the customer. They are motivated by the self-satisfaction of helping those who have experienced loss. Cultivating this inspiration by making it fun is like winning a batting title and the World Series all in the same year. 

Fun-loving and motivated company cultures don’t just happen. They are crafted over years with strategic hiring and instrumental leadership. Starting at the top with the company’s mission, vision and core values, they are creatively articulated and relentlessly reinforced throughout all levels of the organization. It is an entrepreneurial game of chess, and those that are best at it are the ones that are motivated by its challenges and rewards.

The next generation of restorers will flourish if they have the ability to attract and retain talented, autonomous workers. These employees demand more than just a solid wage and lofty bonus possibilities. They demand inspiration and fulfillment. This will shift the competitive landscape from a battle for work to a battle for employees.

 As for our young executive and her staff, I am proud to say they ditched the academic version of the company’s mission statement in favor of accomplishing something extraordinary - a challenge for the employees to strive for something no one in the restoration business has done before. Serving as a beacon for change of which others will compete to be a part, this company’s new found purpose is not just inspiring, it’s addictive. But here is the best part. They aren’t doing it because they have to. They are doing it because they want to, because it’s fun. It is game, and they now have permission to play.