What makes a happy employee?

I don’t have the answer but I’ve given a lot of thought to that question lately. In my current job I have the opportunity to speak with a lot of young employees, many of which this is their first job out of school. The job market is still quite good in Seattle and these people have a lot of opportunities presented to them. Some leave our company and go to work for Microsoft. Some go back to school. A few decide that technology isn’t the right field for them. And I’m sure some leave for money while others tire of the required travel.

From my experience, younger employees tend to focus on the employer as much as they do the job. The lure of going to work for Microsoft is too much to pass up. The excitement of being recruited makes them feel as though their skills are valued. They feel special.

And I think this is fine as long as the person understands that it’s really the job that will bring long term happiness, not just the company. Having a well known company on your resume can’t hurt but it’s the skills you gain in the job that you keep and take along when you leave the job.

I think back to one of the first jobs I had after college. I went to work at a local ISP in downtown Seattle. Most everything was Unix based. Even our desktop workstations were NeXT machines. That made it hard at times to get basic computer tasks done, but the skills I gained were invaluable. The company was small and didn’t have a lot to offer as far as benefits. But the employees were excited to be there and the skills I gain in that job helped me land several future jobs. In fact, the skills I gain working at Wolfe Internet are those that launched my career in technology. Without that opportunity, I’d probably be teaching German somewhere in Utah.

Yet whenever I’m asked where I’ve worked, they inevitably focus on my tenure at Microsoft where I learned very little compared to my time at the ISP. What I learned at Microsoft too was very valuable. I learned that I would never put my work before my family. I learned that having a good manager can shoot your career off in the right direction while a bad manager can do just the opposite. I saw a lot of people with a lot of money who still seemed very unhappy. Looking back the best thing I gained while working at Microsoft was the network of people I’ve kept in contact with over the years.

So I’m not certain what makes an employee happy. Maybe the question is too general. I’m a bit more certain what makes me happy: challenging work, flexible schedule, great manager, fun coworkers, and fair pay.

I try to keep those things in mind when meeting with my group. Anything I can do to keep them challenged and keep them happy hopefully helps me keep them employed with us.