4 Steps to Becoming a Dream Company

When I talk to clients about making their workplaces great places to work, they often tell me that they just don’t have the money to provide the cool perks that many startups and certain “cool” tech companies have. Sure, slides are expensive, providing catered meals every day to every division of every office worldwide takes a big pocket, and very few things sound quite as cool right now as designing space travel. But, even though there are certain hot items and topics that can make a company a place where people dream of working, the reality is that any company can become a dream company.

1) Have a mission that everyone understands and buys into

Whether you have a street corner bodega, a gym, an accounting firm, or a toilet bowl cake manufacturing plant, you keep this world running, and you do something to make it better. In a certain sense, if your consumers take you for granted, it means you make their worlds go ‘round with such precision that they don’t even notice. Think about it: the corner bodega is your one-stop convenience shop when you need something quickly, the gym provides endorphin highs and helps people maintain their bodies, accounting firms keep everyone honest, and if you’ve ever had to hold it because the nearest bathroom stinks like hell, you are grateful for toilet bowl cakes.

The day-to-day aspects of creating those world-moving details are pretty dull. Taking inventories, sitting on hold, cleaning up goodness-knows-what, painstakingly going through spreadsheets, looking stuff up, debugging code, dealing with morons, and otherwise frustratedly banging your head against the wall.

But do employees know why they do it? And I don’t mean just because they make money. Do they understand the role they play in making the world move? To put that more in business terms, does everyone in the company know both how the firm creates value and how (s)he contributes to that process? Money is good, and perks are good. Both of them buy ways of sustaining oneself and providing respite from the tedium and effort required to keep the system spinning. But the mission (i.e., the value proposition) is what helps people get over the highest hurdles, go the extra mile, and give their contribution to making the world a better place.

2) Let people do what you hired them to do

Jason Fried gave a whole TEDx Talk on why work doesn’t happen at work. But, the situation is actually worse than that.

One of the things I often have to do when I’m brought into companies is work with managers to give employees the job control they are often missing. Indeed, one of the chief complaints I hear from employees is that their managers keep getting in the way of employees’ doing their jobs. Employees lack the autonomy to decide how they get their jobs done (writ large), and are often saddled with horrific degree of micromanagement (how to fix that).

So, if you’re an overstressed manager, think about the fact that part of the whole point of people working under you is taking things off your plate. The trick is to hire a solid and competent team that can do things you either cannot do, or lack the time to do, and then step back and let them do their jobs. And, when problems arise (that’s a “when,” not an “if”), handle it professionally with investigation and discussion. And never fire your employees unless they did something illegal!

3) Take care of your employees

It’s astonishing how many companies fail to keep their knowledge workers in good condition and firing on all engines. I’m not suggesting you have a concierge service like SAS (though it can definitely make sense for some companies), but I am suggesting a few things that keep your employees working effectively. Here are the basics:

  • Food/drink — if your employees don’t have basic snacks and drinkable beverages, they are going to step out and get it. This breaks their trains of thought for a longer period of time, and may not be an ideal opportunity to socialize with a diverse set of employees.
  • Focus space — it’s no secret that noise and distractions make it harder to get things done, and most knowledge workers have at least some tasks that really require focus. Every employee needs to be able to access a “do not bug” mode in which they can hunker down and hammer out knowledge pieces.
  • Time off — people need to recharge, and doling out vacation time, break time, and sick leave in tight rations is going to lead to burnout (and the plague if you make sick people come in). No need to do unlimited vacation, though. (Here’s how to build a vacation program)
  • Breaks — sometimes people really do need a break, and it’s totally fine if they want to go on social media or take a walk or whatnot. Trust your employees to get things done, and don’t worry about the breaks they take if things are getting done, well, and legally by the time they’re due.
  • Reasonable policies — if there’s a lot of pointless bureaucracy, silly rules, and the like, your talent pipeline will leak like a colander.

4) Be good

This isn’t a motto like Google’s “Don’t be evil.” It’s about listening to the people who work for you. It’s about treating people civilly in the workplace, respecting them as competent people, acknowledging and rewarding them for the things they do well. In other words, treat people the way you want to be treated. I grant that this is far harder than almost anything else in the world, but every employee in the company must make a good faith effort to get this done. Smiles, gratitude, handshakes, sincere praise, and high-fives are all free, as is the all-important act of listening to people (two ears, one mouth, and all that).

For all the talk and media features of the companies that are really cool and that everyone dreams of working for, you will find that all of them contain the four elements above, as well. Without them, it doesn’t matter what kinds of perks you provide, because the evil culture will chase away anyone who is initially impressed by the superficial benefits. Getting the talent is one thing, but keeping good people at your company requires a fundamentally good workplace culture that allows for creating value and keeping the world spinning.

Start your engines!