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Walking in the Shoes of Zappos: How Purpose Drives Creativity and Employee Happiness

Zappos is an online shoe and clothing retailer known for its customer service and fun, creativity-driven corporate culture. The company has implemented a number of strategies to encourage joy and creativity in the workplace and foster a positive and engaged employee base. 

These include a unique onboarding process that emphasizes the company's core values, an employee-created "culture book" that documents the company's culture and history, and a focus on employee happiness and well-being.

None of this was without controversy, and some creativity-enhancing initiatives even had to be reversed. But all in all, trial and error do make it one of the most popular large companies to work for. Because it has been proven; that being allowed to unleash creativity in the workplace makes people happy, and motivated and creates innovation.

The drive for creativity in the workplace is anchored in the company's purpose.

Zappos is very conscious of its purpose. She describes it herself as, "inspiring the world by showing that it is possible to simultaneously deliver happiness to customers, employees, the community, vendors, and the planet." This essentially makes her a Meaningful Profit company.

Zappos' purpose is strongly tied to the concept of "delivering happiness." This is also the title of a book by the company's CEO, Tony Hsieh. In the book, Hsieh describes the importance of creating a positive corporate culture that values employee happiness and well-being. According to him, this will always lead to better customer service and the overall success of the company.

Zappos' vision statement reads, "delivering happiness to customers, employees, and vendors." This statement reflects the company's focus on delivering excellent customer service, as well as creating a positive and fulfilling workplace for employees and building strong relationships with vendors.

What strategy has Zappos implemented to incorporate creativity in the workplace?

Zappos has developed a number of creative operational tools and working methods within its strategy to create a positive and engaged workforce by fostering creativity in the workplace.

Here are a few examples:

  1. Unique onboarding process: Zappos' onboarding process is designed to introduce new employees to the company's culture and values from the start. New employees go through an intensive four-week training program that includes not only job-specific training but also exposure to the company's core values and culture. This includes a stay in the call center to better understand Zappos' customer service philosophy and taking classes on the company's history, culture, and core values.

  2. "Culture Book": Zappos employees are encouraged to contribute to a "culture book" that documents the company's culture and history. The book is updated annually and includes contributions from employees at all levels of the company. The culture book is seen as a way to reinforce the company's values and mission, and to create a sense of community among employees.

  3. Focus on employee happiness: Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh has made employee happiness a key priority for the company. This includes a focus on work-life balance, as well as offering perks such as free food, on-site fitness classes, and a pet-friendly workplace. Zappos recognizes the importance of both physical and mental health for employees. The company also offers a program called "Zollars," which allows employees to earn points by living out the company's core values. These points can be redeemed for rewards such as cash bonuses, trips, or tickets to events.

  4. Continuous learning and development: Zappos encourages its employees to continue learning and developing their skills, both through on-the-job training and external opportunities. The company reimburses tuition for employees pursuing higher education and provides regular opportunities for training and professional development.

  5. Transparency and collaboration: The company values transparency, communication, and collaboration. For example, the "culture book" is seen as a way to give employees a voice in shaping the company's culture and values. Accordingly, the company encourages all employees to contribute to it. Zappos also places a strong emphasis on empowering employees, giving them the autonomy and resources they need to excel in their roles.

What setbacks did Zappos experience in implementing creativity and joy in the workplace?

Zappos experienced several operational setbacks during the implementation of their strategy through which they sought to foster fun and creativity in the workplace. One notable example was the company's decision in 2013 to implement a holacracy way of working, which was intended to promote greater employee empowerment and decision-making. Holacracy is a system of organizational governance that abolishes traditional management hierarchies and instead distributes decision-making power to self-organizing teams.

Holacrazy didn’t work out: Although Zappos' adoption of holacracy was initially hailed as a bold and innovative move, it ultimately proved difficult to implement and sustain. Many employees struggled to adapt to the new system, which required them to have greater responsibility and more independent decisions. There were also concerns about unclear roles and responsibilities, leading to confusion and inefficiency.

After several years of struggling to make holacracy work, Zappos finally decided in 2016 to abandon the system and return to a more traditional management structure. While the experiment with holacracy was not a success, it did show the company's willingness to take risks and try new approaches to pursuing its goals.

Balancing culture and profitability: Another setback was finding the balance between corporate culture and profitability: Zappos' pursuit of a creative, positive and fulfilling workplace for its employees has sometimes conflicted with the need to remain profitable. The company has invested heavily in employee benefits and development, which can be costly in the short term. In addition, Zappos has faced pressure from its parent company, Amazon, to increase profits and streamline operations.

Growth made things harder: During its implementation, which was actually never finished, Zappos also found that it was difficult to keep its corporate culture intact as the company grew: As Zappos grew over the years, it became more difficult to maintain the close-knit and collaborative culture that was a hallmark of the company in its early days. Therefore, the company had to consciously maintain its values and culture. Especially while expanding and hiring new employees.

Negative press: Perhaps the biggest setback was the negative press in 2015. Zappos faced this when it was announced that the company had implemented a policy of offering severance pay to employees if they did not fully commit to the company's values and culture. The policy was criticized as coercive and contrary to the company's emphasis on employee happiness and well-being. Zappos eventually ended the policy and apologized for the damage it had caused.

These difficulties and struggles show that implementing well-intentioned strategies in a company is not always easy or straightforward. But by sticking to its purpose, vision, core values, and mission, and adapting and evolving as necessary, Zappos was able to overcome these challenges and maintain its reputation as an innovative and customer-focused company.

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