You Want to Be a Great Workplace. So Now What?

You Want to Be a Great Workplace. So Now What?

You Want to Be a Great Workplace. So Now What?

It is true that becoming a “great workplace” doesn’t happen overnight. But instead of getting overwhelmed by a seemingly endless list of programs and offerings (and money…being “great” must cost so much money!) that so called “great workplaces” should all have, let’s take a look at what it means really to be “great”—with a few practical bite-sized pieces that you might be able to tackle at your organization right now sprinkled in for good measure.

In the NorthCoast 99 program, ERC’s measure of “great workplaces”, we look at how companies perform in six key areas of the workplace that help employers attract & retain top-talent, which in turn, will ultimately determine which companies will rise to the top.

While these categories might sound just as abstract or overwhelming as achieving “great workplace” status, as it turns out, being “great” in any one of these areas often comes down to common sense in how you treat your people and run your business.

Challenging & Meaningful Work

This area is probably the most complex, but also, according to ERC’s research, the most important characteristic that top performers are looking for in an organization. The first half of this, “challenging”, is fairly straightforward.

Your best people really don’t want to be bored at work all day, so if the end goal is to keep your top-performers, mixing things up once in a while for employees can go far in keeping them engaged and giving you their best.

Offer work assignments that will stretch their abilities or expose them to other aspects of the company. Options such as job shadowing or cross-training help employees better understand the bigger picture in terms of what your organization is trying to accomplish day-to-day, which then also speaks to the question of how to provide “meaningful” work.

“Meaningful” work doesn’t mean that your company has to be out there solving world hunger (although, wonderful if you are), but your employees should know how their position fits into the overall mission and vision of the company. Work can also take on additional meaning for employees if they are given opportunities to have their voices heard and make an impact on how processes or programs function in their daily job duties.

On average, 2017 NorthCoast 99 winners 6.6 non-management employee programs/initiatives in 2016. That’s a lot of innovation for any organization! But remember, be patient.

Creating an environment that encourages employees to speak up when they have a new idea they’d like to try out could take some time and depending on your current culture, you may need to create some more formal mechanisms to help collect and/or generate new concepts if they don’t start to flow organically.


Yes, it’s true. Attracting, retaining, and motivating talented employees will cost you money. Maybe more money than you currently spend on compensation, and maybe not. This area really comes down to having a well-thought-out compensation philosophy and a well-planned-out compensation structure.

Simply having some very basic best practices around compensation in place should serve your organization well:

  • Take the time, if you don’t already, to put a compensation-philosophy in place that can guide your decisions about what you are paying for each position and why.
  • Know what the market pays for each job title at your organization, so that you can both make competitive offers to new talent as well as avoid losing top-talent to the competition if you fall behind in the “going-rate”.
  • Reward top-performers with bigger raises. Although dollar figures aren’t always the end-all-be-all, it’s a darn good way to show an employee that you appreciate their hard work.
  • Consider putting together a “Total Compensation Statement” for each employee. It’s a bit of a bear in terms of paper-work, but if you’ve never gone through this process before, you (and your employees) might be surprised just how robust your offerings really are when it all adds up.

Organizational Support & Work-Life Balance

It should come as no surprise that happy, healthy employees perform better than stressed out, emotionally, or physically ill employees do.

But, the standard “offer your employees a solid benefits package and don’t ask them to work Christmas every year” (that second part is industry dependent of course) doesn’t cut it anymore for top-performers.

Employers that want to stand out from the pack have a huge opportunity to do so in this area, not only because there are so many creative ways to support your employees’ overall well-being, but also because this is what top-performers are demanding of their employers of choice. From the now ubiquitous “wellness program” to getting paid to work when volunteering during work hours to a list of on-site amenities that could make your head spin, there really is no limit to where this category can take you as an organization.

Keep in mind, these work-life balance perks don’t have to be big and flashy, but they do have to meet a need of your workforce, in order to be useful.

If your workforce is mostly young single twenty-somethings, on-site childcare probably isn’t going to wow them (give it five years and then it might). You may even want to try soliciting employee feedback for ideas to make sure the idea will really get used if implemented.

Career Advancement & Development

In many ways this category dovetails perfectly with “challenging & meaningful work”, i.e. top-performers aren’t satisfied with the status quo and want an employer that will help take both the company and themselves as individuals to the next level. Performance reviews, training & development, talent management, are all buzz-words that fit into this category.

If implemented effectively, there is no denying that they will require a good deal of resources, both financially and otherwise from your organization.

Tuition reimbursement, costs money. Training supervisors to conduct more constructive performance reviews, costs money. Setting up that performance management system, if it didn’t cost money, it certainly took some serious (wo)man hours in HR. But the payoff here is big—in short, your people get smarter. They get better at their jobs.They get better performance review scores.

The supervisor implementing the performance review process, recognizes their good performance and is also able to take constructive feedback because they have a positive relationship with the employee.

The employee moves up in (not out of) your organization. The supervisor addresses an isolated concern before it becomes a widespread issue. The company reaps a whole slew of benefits from just this one employee-supervisor interaction. Multiply that out by “x” number of employees and you’re looking at a pretty decent ROI.

Leadership & Culture

Trust and communication are foundational elements to any interpersonal relationship, so why should the employer/employee relationship be any different? At the risk of sounding like an online dating profile, top-performing employees like an employer who keeps the lines of communication open and is honest with them, even when the truth might hurt.

Sometimes this could mean something as formal as a “state-of-the-organization” type forum to talk through a rough patch, or just a quick text message to all employees to let them know the roads are really bad and not to worry if you are running a little late this morning. Think about your individual company’s culture and decide what types of communications fit best.

Does everyone congregate in a breakroom or an area to change in and out of safety gear? Maybe a bulletin board covering anything from policy changes to birthday notices makes the most sense. If your employees mostly travel for work and are rarely in the same office as one-another, maybe that bulletin board needs to be electronic.

Or take it a step further to create some sort of social media type chat or group to help keep employees feeling connected despite not being in the same physical space as one another.

No matter how big or small, these interactions create a sense of belonging, a personal connection that helps build strong teams and holds everyone accountable for the overall success of the organization.

Talent Attraction & Retention

Having a system in place to avoid the vicious cycle of having to find and train new people every few years hits at the crux of what we defined at the start of this article as the end-goal for being a “great workplace”, i.e., a workplace that great people want to work for and don’t want to leave. Technology drives a good bit of the recruitment side of the equation these days, but it is also critical to never underestimate the importance of including a human piece of this puzzle.

This is illustrated perfectly by this year’s NorthCoast 99 winners whose most common recruitment method in 2016 was…not online job postings on the organization’s website (that was #2) but, networking.

A good applicant tracking system that is well implemented will get you some great candidates, but having a well-trained interviewer(s) who truly understands your company culture and what the job entails sit down face-to-face (or screen-to-screen) with the final set of potential new-hires, isn’t a bad way to check-the-work of the computer algorithms and it certainly isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.

The Reader’s Digest Version

Creating a work environment that attracts and retains the best and the brightest is clearly no small feat. There is no exact formula, no bulleted list that could truly encompass or predict whether or not a workplace will achieve “greatness”.

But there is one common thread that does seem to weave its way through each of the categories as described above, a template of sorts that summarizes what it takes to be great in any of these areas.

First, have a good set of best-practices in place. Then, take these best-practices and find ways to set yourself apart, get creative, take things to the next level.

Add in a good dose of common sense, plus a human touch, and chances are you have a great workplace in the making.

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