Building the ideal work environment requires getting a lot of things right. You’ve got to consider company culture, the physical office space, your management structures, the company’s tools and software, and employee compensation and progression paths—to name a few.
But you could knock all these things out of the park and still come up short. Often it’s the intangibles, like employee relationships and finding value in one’s work, that can make or break an employee’s experience.
We asked experts and seasoned employers for their take on the non-negotiables of creating an ideal work environment. If you do nothing else, focus on these three factors, and you’ll have a strong foundation for creating a workplace where all employees can flourish.
1. Prioritize transparency and keeping everyone in the loop
Workplace transparency, or making information and decisions available across the organization, is fundamental to keeping employees engaged and happy, according to Gareth Jones, a visiting professor at IE Business School in Madrid and co-author of Why Should Anyone Be Led by You?. As the former head of human resources at the BBC, he’s well aware of the importance of information sharing, especially throughout large organizations.
Jones advocates a policy of radical honesty, or defaulting to direct, honest feedback, even in difficult situations. The goal, he says, is to approach information sharing with this in mind: “How can we tell as much of the truth as we possibly can?” This is especially critical in today’s workplace, where information spreads quickly. As Jones sees it, “If I don’t tell the truth, someone else will.”
That said, he cautions business leaders to think carefully about their communications strategy and timing; how much information a leader parcels out and when can be just as important as the act of sharing. “It’s very similar to our personal relationships when we say, ‘I’ll tell you about this sometime, just not right now,’ ” he says. In practice, a management team might choose to inform employees about an upcoming acquisition but keep the new company’s name private until the deal is signed. This approach keeps employees in the know but guards against proprietary information leaking before the acquisition is finalized.
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Managing the current ‘crisis of trust’ in the workplace
Natalia Martinez-Kalinina, an organizational psychologist and the general manager of Cambridge Innovation Center Miami, a coworking space for startups, says we’re currently suffering from a “general crisis of trust” in the workplace, and transparency is part of the solution.
While managing a group of sales, operations and customer service employees, Martinez-Kalinina strives to foster an ideal work environment by keeping her team informed of the protocols and processes she uses to make a decision. A 2018 study supports her approach, revealing that “80% of workers want to know more about how decisions are made in their organization.”
Slack’s own State of Work report, a global survey of 17,000 knowledge workers, revealed that workers are hungry for more transparency. In fact, those surveyed selected “more transparency across the company” most frequently when asked what would help them feel more aligned with their employers. Workers even chose transparency over such options as more access to leadership and better workplace tools.
2. Encourage collaboration—and build the processes to support it
Collaboration is also key to creating the ideal work environment. Humans are social creatures, after all, and most of us thrive when we’re part of a high-performing team. Data from the State of Work survey supports this. Workers who rate their companies highly for collaboration are six times as likely as those who score their employers poorly for collaboration to report high workplace morale too. Additionally, workers at collaborative companies are seven times as likely to rate their overall workplace culture as “good” or “excellent.” In other words, highly collaborative workplaces also tend to have positive work environments and high employee morale.
“We end up paying a price for collaboration, when we really should be getting dividends from it.”
Of course, good collaboration rarely happens by chance. When processes aren’t in place to support it, collaboration tends to fall through the cracks, according to Martinez-Kalinina. Too often, she says, “we throw some people in a room … and think it’s going to be fine. We end up paying a price for collaboration, when we really should be getting dividends from it.”
Those dividends can impact a business’s bottom line. In today’s fast-paced workplace, “collaboration is critical,” Martinez-Kalinina says. “Collaboration increases the speed of development.” And the faster a company can release new products and services or improve existing ones, the better.
Data from the State of Work survey shows that employees at collaborative companies are twice as likely as those at companies that rank poorly for collaboration to expect workforce and revenue growth. Suffice it to say that collaboration not only boosts morale, it’s also a boon for business outcomes.
3. The ideal work environment makes everyday tasks meaningful
Beyond investing in your internal communications strategy and fostering collaboration in the workplace, you’ll also want to consider how workers view their roles and value. “Nobody wants to feel superfluous,” says Roy Bahat, the head of Bloomberg Beta, an early-stage venture capital firm. “The nobility of a line of work comes from its necessity.” People want to feel needed and necessary at work.
“Every business involves emotion. The task of the leader is to find out what little bit is really exciting and convey it to the others.”
Though some jobs may seem more important than others on the surface, it’s really a matter of perspective, Jones says. He points to open heart surgery as a prime example. While the heart surgeon has superstar status, the nurses, anesthesiologist, internist and hospital staff play equally important roles. If anyone does not perform a job well, it could jeopardize the patient’s health. A successful operation depends on everyone doing his or her respective part near-perfectly.
To help workers connect with their value and meaning, Jones recommends tapping into our emotions. “Every business involves emotion,” he says. “The task of the leader is to find out what little bit is really exciting and convey it to the others.” He describes a BMW factory worker who finds value in giving people “the ride of their lives” when a new car rolls off the line. “You can feel the emotion in that, can’t you?” Jones says. When employees understand the end result and the big picture, they can more fully appreciate their contribution.
Create space for people to contribute
At Cambridge Innovation Center Miami, Martinez-Kalinina’s team is literally responsible for creating the ideal work environment. Her team ensures that the coworking space has everything its members need to do their best work, from chic meeting spaces to energizing snacks. Martinez-Kalinina offsets some of the more tedious tasks by “giving people the space to contribute.” Specifically, she allocates time for each employee to pursue personal passion projects. “The intention isn’t to compensate—ugh, you have these parts of your job that may not be exciting, and here you have a moment that is exciting—it’s not quite like that,” she says. “But rather for you to feel like you’re showing up as a whole human.”
Case in point: One team member cares deeply about the creative economy and was encouraged to develop what’s now called The Creator’s Lounge, an event where local creatives come together to showcase their work and engage with the community. Another team member pursued her passion for leadership development by hosting mentoring sessions. These projects give employees an opportunity to connect their work with whatever holds meaning for them.
Where to go from here
Whether you’re building a company from scratch or were brought on to manage a team at a multinational organization, fostering the ideal work environment should be a top priority. While there is no single, surefire way to create the perfect workplace, paying attention to these three factors will give you a strong start. Where you go from there—be it standing desks, free amenities or extra vacation—is really up to you.
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