Perhaps few things can make your workplace feel more inadequate than those annual “best places to work” lists. They list posh benefits, campuses with dry cleaning services, and training programs that give employees leadership experience. How is a smaller company with a smaller budget supposed to compete?
The good news is that there are ways to take cues from what those companies are doing, scale them, then adapt and adopt them for your company, says Ed Frauenheim, director of global research and content at Great Place to Work Institute, a research and consulting firm that publishes a number of “best places to work” lists.
“The first thing to keep in mind from our perspective is that the most important things aren’t big bank breakers. They’re more about the relationships you’re establishing in the organization than perks or benefits,” he says.
So, if you can’t afford to host an annual two-day company soccer tournament or provide free housing for interns, take these steps to improve your workplace culture and make employees happier to work for your company.
Find The Needs
Before you start adding policies and perks, you first need to understand what your employees really want, Frauenheim says. Listen to them, whether that means using employee surveys, in-person interviews, or other vehicles. Find out their needs, and prioritize the investments of time and money you can make accordingly.
For Manny Medina, former Amazon and Microsoft executive and current CEO of U.S.-based Outreach, a platform that allows salespeople to better engage clients and prospects, that meant investing their paternal leave policies. Outreach has been named a “best workplace” by Inc. and Seattle Business Magazine.
Medina and his team realized that in order for new parents to return from parental leave rested and ready to hit the ground running, they needed some help. So the company provides a doula to help care for the baby in the early weeks and help parents get some rest. The cost is about $8,000 each time a doula is hired. Medina says that may seem like a lot of money, but it’s a limited, periodic expense that helps them retain their best talent.
If you’re hiring millennials, you may be dealing with people who have significant student loan debt, says Subha Barry, senior vice president and managing director of Working Mother Media, which just published its “best places to work” list. While large companies are doing a good job helping employees consolidate student loan debt, she sees opportunities for smaller companies to team up with a credit union or small bank and develop programs for their employees. “It doesn’t have to cost any money. It has to do with the clout the business owner has to be able to put together a program,” she says. Even if you can’t bring in providers to serve employee needs, look for referral sources for some of the most common, such as financial counseling and planning and child care.
Help Them Grow
Well-developed training programs, tuition reimbursement, and formal mentoring programs are some hallmarks of top workplaces. However, Scott Dobroski, director of corporate communications at Glassdoor, which publishes several annual “best places to work” lists, says there are many ways to help employees grow, and that’s something most are seeking from their employers.
“Give them the skills. Teach them. Coach them. Send them to a conference. Pay for an e-learning course online, something like that, where you’re broadening their horizons and their skill sets and with the caveat, or the understanding of, “You’re going to learn this and this is going to be awesome, but I also want you to apply these learnings to this business where we work every day,” he says.
Dave Keil, CEO of software quality assurance testing firm QASymphony, credits The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age by LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha, with introducing him to the concept of a “tour of duty.” These non-binding agreements define what the employee and the manager each want the employee to accomplish over the next two to three years in terms of goals, career growth, and accomplishments.
There was not an implied lifetime commitment, but there was an implied two- to three-year commitment. At LinkedIn, the initiative increased retention and productivity, which led to happier employees. “[The initiative] led the managers to put energy into areas that were much appreciated by the employees,” he says. QASymphony introduced tours of duty six months ago, and he’s optimistic about these efforts that have kicked off with new associates who have been at the firm for six months.
At $9.3 billion, World Wide Technology, which tests and builds IT systems for Fortune 500 companies and government clients, isn’t one of the “little guys.” But Ann Marr, vice president of global human resources, says some of the policies and approaches to the workplace have landed the company on “best places to work” lists, such as Glassdoor and Great Place to Work. The most important one is to create a culture of coaching and success that fosters trust.
What does that mean in day-to-day interaction? In addition to helping employees by giving them opportunities to lead projects that may be a stretch or take advantage of opportunities to learn new skills, the company expects employees to coach each other. If you’re struggling, they’re encouraged to offer help. If you could have done something better, they’re encouraged to tactfully give you feedback to help you improve. If they see you overwhelmed with work, they’re going to roll up their sleeves and pitch in—whether you work in the C-suite or the warehouse.
“We’re not gonna let one team member fall because I have bandwidth that I can help somebody else out. Those are little things that I think go a long way in building the culture of the organization,” she says. She says fostering trust is one of the most important things any company can do to improve its workplace culture.
Recognize And Empower
You’ve likely heard of companies that take top performers on fancy trips. That may not be in the budget, but you should still be recognizing employees when they perform well, and when possible, giving them the autonomy to have some say over how they do their jobs, Frauenheim says. “In some of our recent case studies, we’ve found a really close association between the ability to innovate and feeling you’re at a great workplace,” he says.
Recognition could be as simple as using a team meeting or group email to thank someone who’s done a great job. To be able to recognize employees regularly, help them develop, and understand the areas where autonomy could help the company and the employee, sister companies Broder & Sachse Real Estate and Sachse Construction tweaked its performance management system to be based on quarterly instead of annual assessments, says Myra Ebarb, director of people and perks for both companies, which have roughly 300 employees between them. “The smallest company can make a big change by asking [employees] what they want and giving them a voice,” she says.
To determine the best place to start, it’s critical to turn to your employees, Frauenheim says. They’ll tell you what they need most to feel like they are employed by a great company.