Every company wants to be on the Best Places to Work list. Who wouldn’t? The payoff is incredible. Best companies outperform the general market 2 to 1. Their stock provides 3 times the return of companies not on the list. They have 50-70% less turnover, get their pick of the best candidates, have better safety records and get all sorts of free PR.*
The trick is how does one become a BPTW? Is there a recipe or a roadmap or some kind of instruction manual? Ah, if it were only that easy. Step 1, send the leadership team through BPTW boot camp, Step 2 – build a cafeteria, install sleep pods, hire an in-house masseuse.
We hear a lot about all these really cool perks because, well because it makes for a cool story. If you don’t work at one of these companies, you get to lust after the ones that do, imaging what it would be like to have your yoga class right down the hall, your dry cleaning taken care of or gourmet food available any time of the day or night.
It’s not about the perks
As enticing as all this sounds, it’s not about the perks. It’s not about the perks, but it is about what the perks do. The perks do several things that are important. One, they make people feel special, cared for, appreciated, cool. If I work in a cool place, I must be cool. Two, they help people chill, take a break, de-stress, engage other parts of the brain, look after their physical and emotional wellbeing. Sadly, this is something most of us desperately need but don’t seem to take care of unless it’s free, easy and a part of our daily routine.
We’re all familiar with the companies that typically end up on these lists – Google, Zappos, REI, Southwest Airlines, The Container Store. What is it these companies do, that we don’t do?
BPTW companies have these things in common
1. Open and honest conversations
BPTW leaders know what their employees are thinking. They have a finger on the pulse of what’s going on. People feel comfortable giving and receiving feedback and talking about how to improve the culture is a regular part of the daily dialogue. They use a variety of engagement and feedback tools: surveys, facilitated small group discussions, feedback apps to name a few.
They also are careful not only to ask and listen, really listen, but BPTW take action. If you ask people what they think or ask for ideas on how to improve things, do something with the results. The primary reason engagement surveys don’t work has nothing to do the survey itself, it’s with what we do or don’t do afterward.
2. Accessible and approachable leaders
BPTW leaders are accessible and approachable and they communicate openly and honestly about what’s going on (both problems the business faces and the successes). They communicate often and via multiple channels. They’re visible – often seen among the troops, engaging in conversation, even chipping in to get work done.
Town Hall forums, small group discussions, CEO blogs and regular emails are ways leaders stay in touch with people and let them know what’s going on. It’s not about the vehicle, as much as it’s about the open and honest way these leaders communicate that engenders trust.
3. People match work, team and culture
BPTW take the time to understand the job and the type of person who would likely perform well and be happy, not only in a particular job, but in the company. They match people to work that best utilizes their natural strengths and talents and give them the tools, autonomy, power and time to succeed.
BPTW tend to think of people first and the job second. In other words, if there’s a problem with the match, they re-think and re-engineer the job so that it better fits the people who are interested.
There are a variety of tools and programs for use in assessing people, but not a lot for assessing teams, work and culture, then matching those to people. We recognized that need and developed our own tool. See About People’s Job and Culture Fit Assessment for more information.
BPTW hire smart people, ensure they have the tools and resources they need, then leave them alone to get the job done. As Steve Jobs said, “it doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do. We hire smart people so they will tell us what to do.”
Autonomy only works if people are clear on what is expected of them. Autonomy doesn’t mean employees have no support or direction. It means they know what is expected of them and have the freedom to orient their work and make decisions about how, when and where work is done.
5. Meaningful Work
We’re hearing a lot about meaning and purpose these days. People want to work for a company that focuses on more than profits. They want to feel good about the work they do and feel good about the company they work for. Truth is employees have always wanted that. It’s only now that the lower level needs on Maslow’s hierarchy have been met that we’re now talking about things further up the food chain. So what can you do to make work more meaningful?
Meaningful work begins with feeling like you’re a part of something bigger and more important than yourself. It’s also about understanding how what you do connects to and contributes to the mission and goals of the company. Work is meaningful when you feel good about your contribution. You feel good about your contribution when your skills and talents are well matched to the requirements of the job. Sometimes a little bit of job tweaking to better match people to work can dramatically increase meaningfulness. See Job Crafting for more information.
6. Deliberately Developmental
BPTW have cultures that are deliberately developmental, which means they are proactively and purposefully focused on helping each and every person grow and develop, both professionally and personally. Managers are held accountable for employee development the same way they’re held accountable for operations.
Development includes not only technical skills, but also emotional, relational and cognitive skills (critical thinking, sensemaking, etc.). Employees have responsibility for and control over their career development. Rather than one-size-fits-all training, organizations let employees design their own development programs.
7. Sense of Family and Belonging
With BPTW, people are excited to get up each morning and go to work. A big part of that excitement is because work feels like home. It’s a place where you can be yourself and appreciated for who you are. There is a sense of belonging and a sense that your co-workers “have your back.”
The work environment of BPTW is welcoming, flexible, diverse, healthy and fun. When you walk in the door, there’s a great vibe that draws you in. Although flexible and fun, BPTW are also respectful. People genuinely like and respect each other, are proud to be a part of the team and motivated to help others.
All about trust
If I had to pick one thing that stands out most in BPTW, it would be trust. Leaders trust their people and empower them accordingly and people trust their colleagues not to stab them in the back. Many of the items we mentioned above are all about building trust.
Giving people freedom and autonomy shows that you trust them to get the job done. Real, live, transparent conversations about the state of the business shows that you trust people with important information and are open to their ideas about how to contribute.
One of my favorite trust building initiatives is unlimited vacation time. Ask employees what they want when it comes to benefits, and unlimited PTO (Personal Time Off) is almost always in the top three. Companies imagine all sorts of abuse when they think of offering unlimited time off, but most companies experience ZERO change in vacation time and a major increase in engagement and how people feel about the company. It’s a TRUST thing. **
* References for Benefits of BPTW:
- Noelle Nelson, “Make More Money by Making Your Employees Happy,”
** Unlimited PTO