The secret of a great place to work

by 11 May 2010

Many people think the idea of a “great place to work” is just another fluffed up concept. But these organisations really do exist and it is only by believing that it’s possible, writes David Creelman

There are all kinds of programs you can implement to try to create a great place to work. You can have nice benefits like a gourmet cafeteria, flex-time and child care facilities. You can build good communication through employee surveys, town hall meetings and open book management. You can be flexible in job design so that employees get to use their strengths. But none of these provide the secret of creating a great place to work.

Do you believe?

Imagine a young person joins your organisation. It is their first job but before you know it they are complaining about how slow decision making is, how the meetings seem a waste of time, how there is a lot of politics. This is when you pull them aside and explain that all organisations are like this and they had better get used to it.

There is a lot of truth to this. Organisations are never the smoothly running machines we might imagine they should be. Leigh Branham, author of Re-engage, told me the story of the San Francisco newspaper reporter who was first asked to write about great places to work. His question was “Are there any?”

Most organisations are not great places to work. They may not be bad, but the idea that when people wake up in the morning they are so keen about their job that they just can’t wait to get to work is a bizarre concept for most people. When you hear stories about great places to work it’s natural to think “That’s just a fluffed up news story, it can’t really be like that.”

But Branham says that while great places to work are rare, they really do exist. Branham quotes employees saying things like; “Managers value your input and realise you’re only human…”, “Communications is top-notch. It is never difficult to reach a manager or even the owner…”, and “I could make much more money elsewhere but there isn’t anyplace else I’d rather work”.

The first secret to creating a great place to work is that you have to believe it’s possible.

You need to want it

Branham says the one thing that great places to work have in common is that the CEO believes it is possible to have a great place to work and wants to create one. And here’s my feeling; creating a great place to work isn’t all that complicated. It’s not a matter of needing to be super creative in designing programs or having a big budget for taking care of employees. Rather it is that every decision is taken in light of whether it contributes to or harms the mission of creating a great place to work. All the programs that make the news, whether it be bringing your dog to work or unlimited sick leave, simply flow naturally from managers caring about making a great place to work.

There is an important point that needs to be emphasised. That point is that every decision is made in light of this goal, rather than there just simply being support for HR’s great place to work program. If you want a great place to work then you won’t sell a shoddy product because you know that will embarrass the people who work there. You won’t scrutinise expense claims as if employees are criminals because that will alienate people. Those choices are marketing and accounting decisions – not part of any HR program. That’s the key to a great place to work. Everyone keeps employee well-being in mind – it’s just a part of how they think about the world.

What HR can do

In an ideal world you would immediately be chosen as the next CEO and from there you could put creating a great place to work high on the agenda. Since that’s a long shot, HR leaders have to use their influencing skills. But remember that you are not influencing the CEO to fund an HR led great place to work program; you are trying to convince the CEO that a great place to work is indeed possible and not some foolish pipe dream.

Once they truly believe it is possible, once they can envision it, can taste it, then it may not be too big a step for them to embrace it as a really good idea. You can show them the evidence that great places to work are more productive and have a stronger bottom line. However, you don’t need extensive statistical arguments, anyone with an imagination can see that if the people love their workplace they’ll get a lot more work done.

So that’s the secret. Make the CEO believe in his or her heart that it really is possible. Help them really see it and then positive change will come.