Workplace Culture

Create a Great Place to Work in Four Easy (and Four Hard) Steps

By Kris Dunn

Mar. 18, 2011

Admit it: You want your workplace to be more like SAS, Google, Zappos and any of the other companies that are on the multiple lists of Best Places to Work. It sounds cool; it sounds fun. Why can’t you do that?

Those of you who answered “because we aren’t cool” or “because our culture stinks” should probably stop reading now. You’re a victim, and this column can’t help you.

Still there? Great! Let’s imagine that money and its nagging cousin, shareholder return, present no barrier to your stated goal. How would you go about building a culture as an HR pro that is so positive it would net one of the esteemed slots in a national “best places to work” contest?

Answer: You buy, and then you build. The initial steps to morphing your company into a great place to work are easy, but the final steps are hard—like riding a bicycle on a freeway hard. Read on if you dare.

The first thing you need to do to build your company into a great place to work is offer benefits that average companies can’t and won’t provide. There are multiple paths to accomplish this, but the general approach is as follows:

1. Provide great health care benefits that require no employee contribution for employee or family coverage. Shock and awe time, people: You have medical, dental and vision coverage. Maybe you even have a disability and life insurance suite. You offer it all at no charge to your employees and their families. You are the benefactor, the sugar daddy. Write it off as an investment toward the great place to work award.

2. Offer some killer benefits that look great but are hard to use. The health care benefits are going to cost you dearly. But every benefit doesn’t have to cost tons of money. Sometimes it just has to look great on paper. Once you’ve taken care of health care, make sure the next layer of benefits looks great but requires sacrifice on the employees’ behalf. Full tuition aid and a 100 percent 401(k) match are great places to start. Both look great but require great discipline and certain life circumstances for a team member to use them. You’re not going to have to provide these benefits for everyone. But you still get credit for offering.

3. Broaden your approach to time-off policies. Do you have to offer unlimited time off for everyone? While that would help, the answer is no—just make sure your time-off policies deliver at least an extra week (if not two) to team members at every level when compared to industry averages. Hedge your bets with a “use it or lose it” policy to keep the accounting tight and a performance edge that ensures the work still gets done.

4. Invest in your workspace. You bought the gray cubicles in the mid-’90s. But it’s time to invest in some workspace furniture that looks progressive. Get an upscale consultant to help you figure out how to look cool, and lease instead of buy so you can spread out the investment over time and trade out as necessary.

Do these four things, and you’re well on your way to a great place to work award. But hold on: Spending money alone isn’t enough to get the award.

Once you buy their attention, you’ve got to engage
As case studies related to companies like Google and Zappos are publicized and circulated with greater frequency, the sophistication of candidates and employees related to great places to work has also dramatically increased. Candidates and employees alike are much more capable of distinguishing between what’s real and what’s not related to a company culture.

The result? You can’t fake a great place to work through benefits alone, and most great places to work contests require a survey confirming that your employees love you for more than your benefits. You’re either all in or you’re not. Here are four things beyond benefits that can push you over the top but are incredibly hard to implement:

1. Transparency. You’ve got a great set of corporate values, and they look great on your website. Your mission statement espouses your goal of changing the world. Guess what? It doesn’t matter what you’ve put on paper. Candidates and employees alike are increasingly immune and cynical to what you write related to how you view your employees. Instead of reading what you write, they look at what you share. They expect progressive companies to offer up an open window by providing easy access to the thoughts, work and personalities embedded within the organization. If you’re unwilling to do that through social media and other tools, you can’t achieve best-in-class status related to a great place to work.

2. Two-way performance conversations. There’s a difference between telling someone what to do and being open to having a conversation on the best way to approach performance goals. Great places towork organizations invest time implementing coaching models to power true conversations related to the work at hand and how an employee can improve. The best candidates in the marketplace increasingly look for this, and implementing coaching methodologies is a powerful retention tool as well.

3. Promotion of talent. There are two words that describe organizations that are great places to work: “secure” and “confident”. If you’re fully engaged in providing the best talent culture in your industry, you’ll realize your approach is unique and you have limited turnover risk related to your employees. This confidence allows you to proudly promote the works and talent of your employees, not only internally, but externally through your website, industry publications and conferences, the local business community, etc. Candidates pick up on the willingness to broadly promote your talent base, which ironically means you end up with more of the best talent.

4. Portable capital investment in talent. Candidates and employees truly value a company that is willing to invest in talent—through training and development, tuition aid, industry events, etc. Guess what elevates your company to an even higher plane? It’s the willingness not only to invest in talent, but also to make that investment completely portable with no strings attached. You spend on their development without payback agreements or disclaimers and promote it as such. Nothing attracts talent quicker, and in a strange twist of fate, it sends a message of trust that actually aids retention and increases boomerang hires.

Creating a great place to work is the easy part—although it’s costly. But it’s also painfully hard, even impossible for some companies. Employees and candidates alike are skeptical of companies that spend money to chase the easy parts of the great places to work award without attempting the hard stuff.

As a result, you’ll get drilled in the surveys if all you do is spend. Good luck if you choose to chase the designation. It’s easier than it looks—and harder as well.

Workforce Management Online, March 2011Register Now!

Kris Dunn, the chief human resources officer at Kinetix, is a Workforce contributing editor.

Schedule, engage, and pay your staff in one system with


Join over 52,000 of your HR peers

Don't miss out on the latest tactics and insights at the forefront of HR.