How do you create a positive organization? What’s the formula? In previous articles I have focused on the leader’s role in creating a positive work environment. In this article I will focus on a few other factors – Physical Location, High Quality Relationships, and Meaningful Work – using specific examples from a company I recently visited in northern Italy.
This past spring my daughter Maegan took a semester off from college and moved to Italy after accepting a position at H-Farm.* During phone conversations she gushed not only about the fabulous Italian food, wine and friends she has made, but the company she works for. “Mom, H-Farm is such a unique and positive place to work. It embodies what you teach your clients about positive work places.” I got curious. What exactly is this company doing? We decided that when I came to visit in May, she would arrange a tour of H-Farm and interviews with some of its employees.
*A special thank you goes out to fellow University of Pennsylvania alumni David J. Pollay who introduced Maegan to the organization that brought her to H-Farm – AIESEC.
H-Farm is an Italian hi-tech think-tank. It funds new initiatives by supplying skills, services and capital for start-ups. It has incubated six businesses since its formation in 2005. According to their website (www.h-farm.it) the “H” in H-Farm stands for human, “meaning that man is at the center of every project and technology is only a tool serving us.” H-Farm is built around the concept of an agricultural model where the daily work of more people working together yields a greater contribution.
It was a warm, glorious day when my daughter and I hopped the bus from a suburb of Venice (Treviso) to the rural countryside of Tenuta Ca’ Tron where H-Farm is located on 1,100 hectares. “A reverse commute,” I thought. The bus deposited us in what seemed like the middle of nowhere. As we walked down the one-lane road Maegan pointed to the yellow “rustica” surrounded by fields.
“That’s where I work,” she said proudly, “in that old converted farmhouse.” “A high tech firm in a low tech building,” I thought, “now that’s different.”
Before entering the building I passed under a large portico. There two men sat sipping caffé obviously engaged in a business meeting. “How nice,” I thought, “to have a meeting outside versus in a typical conference room.” A foosball table was set up behind them. “This is where we have our lunch-time tournaments,” Maegan informed me, “after we have our catered lunch.”
As I entered the building I was expecting it to be stifling as Maegan told me the building rarely uses the air-conditioning. Instead, I was struck by how cool it was – the first floor was cement and the lights were turned off.
The Physical Location
My first interview was with the Human Resource Manager, Francesca Voltarel. I began by asking her what made H-Farm so special. Although she said Italy has a lot of technology incubator companies, what makes H-Farm unique is “we have created an environment that is very human and informal. Our CEO, Riccardo Donadon, chose this place in the middle of the countryside because he wanted to link high tech thinking with the slow life of the country. In the city it is rush, rush, rush. Everything is grey and you lose contact with the human aspect. [Here] we don’t have the stress and we believe there is a link to innovation. To be creative you need time to relax and work around beauty and nature.” (See Emma Judge’s May article on how “providing distractions at work in terms of the physical environment” can actually facilitate better decision making, too.)
“You work as you want. There is an ease to it,” says Thomas Barazza, H-Farm’s New Venture Director. “I believe a nice, relaxed place can improve productivity. People work better in a nice environment. Somebody should conduct a study and see if that is in fact true,” says Barazza. (Hey, Positive Psychology students – sounds like a great MAPP Capstone).
As I made my way inside H-Farm, I noticed a small alcove with cushy couches, a stereo system, and racks of magazines and coffee table-like books. When I peeked my head into one of the rooms, I noticed four people seated around a large table typing away on their lap tops. Later on I learned from one of the teammates that the open spaces facilitate more interaction and collaboration.
High Quality Relationships
The people H-Farm has recruited have come from other Italian cities, as well as from Spain, Portugal and the United States. Moving to a new place requires making new friends. The connections made at H-Farm have formed many new friendships. Working with people from other countries and cities also provides a rich learning experience that may be difficult to find in other companies.
“Although we’re from different geographical areas,” says Andrea Negrini, a Project Manager who moved from Rome in January to accept this position, “we share similar interests like music. We probably would have met on-line through a music group or something.”
Several people I interviewed joined H-Farm on the recommendation of a friend or former colleague who now works for the company. This is in keeping with Gallup’s research that having a best friend at work is a predictor of employee engagement. “This place has a magical power. It attracts people of the same type who have a high probability to be close friends,” says Alvise Spanò, a Developer.
From Positive Psychology and specifically the work of Dr. Jane Dutton at the University of Michigan who authored Energize Your Workplace, we know that high quality connections are central to engagement and creating positive energy.
When I asked Nacho Delgado, another Developer who left his native Barcelona to accept this job, what makes H-Farm special, a broad grin came across his face. “The people. They’re young (the median age is 25) and everyone has so much energy. When we finish work we often socialize together. If I have a problem with my work or something personal, I can talk to someone.”
From Positive Psychology theory and research, we know that “meaningfulness arises through an integration of identity with roles (e.g. – work and tasks) and/or membership.”[ii] And for many, meaningful work is more important than a paycheck. A nice work environment, with nice people isn’t enough. The work itself must be interesting, challenging and meaningful.
“The work is exciting,” says Barazza, the New Venture Director. “There’s this feeling that we’re doing and building something. I’m doing what I want to do, in a place I want, with the people I want.”
“Nothing is perfecto,” says Spanò the Developer, “but it’s the work and the people I create with that keep me here.”
Delgado, the other Developer had this to say: “They took a chance on me. They gave me so much responsibility and I’m working on something I like and I studied. I have friends who studied computer science who now work for a bank, and it’s not as exciting as the new technology [I’m working on here].” As a technology incubator, H-Farms “grows” companies, yet according to Delgado, “They grow us, too.”
Negrini, the Project Manager, summed up the positive attributes that make H-Farm so special: “The kind of work or technology applications I get to do, in a beautiful surrounding, with nice people.”
The Bottom Line
As an American, I was curious if all Italian companies operated in this fashion. From the people I interviewed, the answer was clearly no. “In Italy, this kind of company is a novelty,” says Negrini. Not many [businesses] pay attention to Human Resources and wouldn’t take the same approach [as we have].”
H-Farm is growing. In two years it has expanded to 110 employees. The people I interviewed see a challenge ahead as the company moves into a larger, newly constructed rustica down the street to house the growing employee base. “We want to retain that feeling that we’re like a family,” says Voltarel, the HR Manager.
So, how can H-Farm retain what has made it special? I believe the answers lie within H-Farm’s young, bright employees. I’m confident if their opinions are sought they’ll have a whole host of ideas. Creating and sustaining a positive work environment is no small task, but the rewards in terms of higher employee engagement, lower employee turnover, and higher customer satisfaction, are well worth the effort.
Postscript by Maegan Greenberg:
The integration of H-Farm’s philosophy with the natural surroundings really exudes what it means to work in a positive work environment. As my mom mentioned, I could not help but compare where I am working in Italy to the PR and marketing jobs I have held back in the States. It’s the details that really make the difference.
In my old office in Washington, DC, lunch was a 20 minute affair in front of my computer and if I was lucky, in the stifling break room. Here, lunch is catered and we all dine together, at the large outdoor picnic table. It also lasts over an hour. The fact that I work in an open room, with windows and at a large table with 3 other colleagues and not a cubicle, is another huge difference. It is not uncommon for the lights to be off all day and the windows open! There are days when I also carpool with other colleagues who have become my friends. These are the people who have taken me, the new American girl, under their wings as more than a co-worker, but a real friend, dining at local restaurants, going out on a Saturday night or just sending me a text message to see how I am doing. These are relationships I already know will continue much longer than my six month stay in Italy. I have never formally studied Positive Psychology but, it is not difficult to see how H-Farm truly is a special place and plays to the strengths of the PP premise. After being so spoiled here, I can’t imagine NOT working in a positive environment… the trouble is going to be finding a positive work environment when I return to America…any suggestions? Why haven’t more American companies caught on to how much of a difference a positive work environment makes?
Cameron, K., Dutton, J. & Quinn, R. (Eds.) Positive organizational scholarship: Foundations of a new discipline, pp. 296-308. San Francisco: Berrett-Kohler.
Dutton, J. (2003). Energize Your Workplace: How to Create and Sustain High-Quality Connections at Work. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.