Creating a Great Place to Work

Happy workers are productive workers

For many, a great place to work is probably a coveted corner office, elevated within a sleek skyscraper with extensive views across a city. There’ll be in-house catering choices and spa treatments will be just a short, high-speed elevator ride away. Meeting rooms will have technology to rival NASA and of course, there’ll be a fridge full of booze for Fridays, on a stylishly furnished roof-top, from which to admire the sun setting on yet another week of profitable deals. Employee perks are an important tool for attracting new staff but a great place to work is actually so much more than free stuff in a swanky location envied by characters in a BBC legal drama. For me, it’s more about the ethos, the people and the atmosphere. Happy workers are 12 % more productive so it’s worthwhile ensuring staff is actually happy. I’d, of course, relish the opportunity to see whether a hard cash bonus of the financial markets world would make me happy or not, but I also know for sure, that no amount of cinema vouchers, retail discounts, and ping pong tables could persuade me to work for an organisation with a negative or distrustful culture.

Feeling Valued At Work

Showing appreciation for team members should never be underestimated. It has a significant positive impact on morale. After graduating I started a rather monotonous administration job which I stuck with for much longer than I had originally intended because my manager made me feel like my contribution was as important as the Managing Director’s. Although based in the UK, the company (and all the other staff) were American and boy are they swell at showing appreciation. My boss expressed his gratitude every, single, day. Each afternoon as I left, without fail, I was thanked for my day’s input with reference to a specific task or suggestion or remark. Perhaps due to the Americanness of it all, I never found it awkward or overwhelming in a way that I’m sure I would find such gushing, vocal thanks from a Brit to be disingenuous. I knew the sentiment behind his acknowledgment was genuine, I believed the thank yous and it made me (to quote my US colleagues) “super willing” to work “super hard”.

I realise this daily need for recognition may not be necessary for most but as a recent graduate with little working knowledge and confidence, it worked for me. It’s basic psychology really: praise releases dopamine which makes us feel happy. My American boss consciously demonstrated his faith in me, identified my contribution to each day’s work and most importantly, he acknowledged his appreciation and then communicated his thanks directly to me. All my colleagues made me feel that my work was of value to them and that it helped them to be more able to complete their tasks and was, in turn, significant to the success of the business. My manager’s trust in my ability to deliver and consequential expression of thanks for the work I’d done made me want more and like a labrador, I lapped up the attention and quickly became a dedicated, committed worker and a loyal employee. I’d probably still be working there, 19 years later, if I hadn’t had to move away.

Autonomy and Accountability

Humans that are free to make choices are happy so in turn will be committed and productive employees. Our sense of achievement feeds into our self-worth which is boosted if we believe that our contribution, no matter how small, is not just necessary but is also valued. It requires trust and managers with strong leadership skills. Working autonomously is completely different from working in isolation and requires a boss that recognises that. Mistakes will be made, it’s applying the lessons learned and moving on that counts — that’s why it’s so closely connected to accountability. If both employee and employer are comfortable with being accountable (without blame) then the rewards can be immense for all involved.

In a previous role, I moved from a very traditionally run property consultancy to a forward-thinking management consultancy. My new employers insisted on only working during the contracted hours. They overruled the theory I’d become accustomed to of believing that those who stayed the latest are working the hardest. In my new job, I saw colleagues who struggled with the workload supported not shunned. They were given new software or sent to workshops to help them hone their organisational or assertiveness skills. It was both eye opening and life changing. There was kindness alongside an unwavering belief in each employee’s ability. The management consultancy saw it as their responsibility to ensure their staff reached their potential and to equip employees with confidence to own their own progress too. They recognised that time invested in an individual’s progress results in trust, loyalty, and happiness allowing for efficiency, productivity and profits…

Collaborative Processes

Working together as a team is cohesion (obviously also important) whereas collaboration means asking for and, perhaps more importantly, listening to input and insight to resolve an issue. Humans love to feel their opinion counts — it makes them feel valued and happy (see above).

Companies that consider ideas, input and opinions without reference to expertise and years of service are truly collaborative. This approach is not without risk and requires a level of trust between all team members. Leaders especially should set an example and manage the tone by holding back on their opinions initially so as not to create an atmosphere of intimidation or tension. The rewards are obvious though — problem-solving will be more thorough if not quicker with several people contributing, and with many creative ideas you can set yourselves apart from competitors. When people are listened, to their morale is elevated and loyalty builds which in turn has an impact on staff retention and recruitment costs.


I doubt anyone would turn down a monetary bonus but as with gifts, the most treasured, are the thoughtful ones, those with the purpose of allowing you to thrive personally. I work at a small company without the funds for snazzy office outings or free gym memberships but they are big on ensuring we have the opportunity to hang out with each other to build up trust and team spirit.

There’s a scheduled tea break every day and monthly bring and share lunches which give us time to tell our personal stories, listen to each other and bring our personalities literally to the table in food form. Sometimes we thrash out a work issue, sometimes it’s just procrastinating both of which are vital in achieving successful relationships with each other and allow us to be a productive team. We’ve shared career wobbles and brought babies in to show off giving us insight into each other's personal highs and lows. The real value is empathy for each other which strengthens us as a team. This time is invaluable.

That said, traditional employment benefits are obviously, well, beneficial. Some encourage team collaboration and add real value rather than being a hollow feature on a job description in the hope of attracting new recruits:

  • A flexible working policy for all which includes hours and location of work
  • Recognition of work-life balance which discourages working/emailing outside work hours and acknowledges commitments outside of work
  • Allowing time for getting to know colleagues in a relaxed, natural way at work (not forced fun on “team-building” geese-herding days)
  • Paid time off for outdoor activities, volunteering or contributing to a cause or community
  • Access to tax-saving costs for commuting or child care
  • Provide training and progression opportunities relevant beyond employment with you
  • Food. Everyone loves the free fruit thing.

Wages are an important factor too however much us Brits prefer to recoil from discussions about pay. The crux of it is, most people want a fair system the reality is probably something we’d all like to deny. Just pay fair, without prejudice or discrimination because it’s the right thing to do. If we’ve learned anything from the mistake that is the gender pay gap it’s that the gap should never have existed these discussions shouldn’t need to take place. Just pay fair.

Five Takeaways

  1. Say thanks. For specific achievements, ideas, results, acts of kindness… Out loud. Lots.
  2. Allow for autonomy and be comfortable with mistakes — share the lessons, not the blame.
  3. Listen. Create a forum in which employees can freely voice their opinion and be heard.
  4. Invest time in your staff — ask about work issues and about life beyond.
  5. Pay fair (with no gender gap or any other discriminatory factors goes without saying).