Startup CEO explains how keeping a 'happiness journal' improved employee accuracy by 60%

Ruby receptionistGlassdoorA not-so-casual Friday at the Ruby Receptionist office.

In 2012, Ruby Receptionists was in hyper-growth mode.

The virtual receptionist company based in Portland, Oregon, was rapidly adding staff, having grown from four people when it started in 2005 to over 100 employees.

At that time, about 40% of the receptionists had been working there for less than 90 days, and founder and CEO Jill Nelson noticed a major uptick in employee errors. They were seeing 50 mistakes per 10,000 phone calls fielded by receptionists, and that was a serious problem. “If we can’t get things right,” Nelson tells Business Insider, “why would anyone want to work with us?”

“It was a stressed out point for us,” she recalls. “It was clear that, while our receptionists were less accurate than they had been, it wasn’t their fault. So the leadership team was sitting around talking about how to fix it.”

Should they do more training, they wondered, or ding them for mistakes?

It was around that time that Nelson happened to read an article by Shawn Achor, a positive psychology researcher and the author of “The Happiness Advantage.” In addition to sales and productivity benefits, Achor said raising the happiness levels of employees could improve accuracy rates by 19%.

He listed five daily habits that make people happier:

  • Write down three new things you’re grateful for each day.
  • Write down the best thing that happened in the past 24 hours.
  • Conduct one act of kindness, like praising or thanking someone.
  • Exercise for 10 minutes.
  • Meditate for two minutes.

Nelson decided to tackle the accuracy problem in an unexpected way: She challenged the staff to create a happiness habit by keeping a journal for 21 days. Each day, they would record three things they were grateful for, one positive experience, and one act of gratitude.

Jill Nelson Happiness Journal Entry 2Courtesy of Jill NelsonJill Nelson shares a page from her journal.

Since the receptionists were paid by the hour, those who participated would be compensated for the additional time, and if they turned in their journals at the end, they would be entered into a drawing to win a trip for two to Hawaii.

Almost immediately, accuracy increased. Over the next three weeks, mistakes dropped to 26 per 10,000 calls fielded by receptionists. In about six weeks, they numbered in the teens, for a total improvement of about 60%.

By launching the journaling project, the company had simultaneously increased morale and made employees aware that there was a problem.

Ruby Receptionist employeesRuby ReceptionistHappy employees at Ruby Receptionists.

“People were blown away that a company would do this to solve a problem, rather than blaming them,” Nelson says.

The company brought the campaign back for a second time last year and had customised happiness journals printed for the staff and their families.

Nelson estimates the annual cost of the initiative to be about $US5,000, making it well worth it.

“It reinforces what’s important and that we care about employees,” she says. “Bigger picture: If it helps people stay positive, service is better. What we’re selling is a friendly voice, so making employees happy helps the business.”

Ruby Receptionists now has 200 people on staff and doubled revenue over the past two years to $US15 million in 2014. For Nelson, that is certainly something to smile about.

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