The best places to work

Posted October 13, 2011, by Josie Chun

Do massages, plush leather couches and chef-prepared meals buy workplace bliss? Gone are the days of the grey, small square office cubicles … say hello to the workplace of the 21st century. Often looking strikingly similar to a child’s playground, these offices may have a fireman’s pole instead of stairs, an indoor pool, yoga lessons, and much more!

Investing money into workplace aesthetics such as floor plans, colour schemes and mood lighting, coupled with more flexible work practices and other benefits, seems to be the new way businesses encourage employees to stay motivated and prosper. And, it seems to be working. According to the 50 Best Places to Work in Australia list, published in June by BRW magazine, it’s also about culture – at the heart of the companies that made the top 50 is trust, respect and camaraderie between management and employees.

It’s not just big businesses or creative industries that are providing this kind of environment. The Top 50 list includes everything from media organisations to law firms, but interestingly, IT and professional services companies make up almost half of Australia’s 50 best places to work. The shift towards innovative workplaces cuts across all industries and the IT sector is leading the way.

Great places to work – the survey

The 50 Best Places to Work in Australia survey is based on research conducted by The Great Place to Work Institute, an organisation that has been doing studies globally for over 20 years. The survey was done in two parts – the first part took into account the overall policies and procedures of the organisation and the second was a ‘trust index’ completed by employees. The ‘trust index’ measured companies against five benchmarks – credibility, fairness, camaraderie, pride and respect. In the Australian survey for 2010, more than 16,000 employees from 160 companies were surveyed.

This year, famously hip workplace Google was toppled from the top spot, ousted by data storage company NetApp, which came second last year. Coming in second this year was global alcohol maker Diageo, followed by Melbourne-based tech company OBS, then Google Australia and training organisation Sentis. 

What innovative or creative workplace practices does your company use or have you heard about? Leave a comment below and let us know.

What employees want

So what differentiates these companies and places them at the head of the pack when it comes to being the best? Gimmicky extras in the form of free massages, open-plan offices, modern colourful lounges and Krispy Kreme donuts are bound to take the edge off nine-to-five drudgery. It’s all about wooing employees with new technology, fun perks and a modern office space to make them feel loved and secure.

Some of the benefits enjoyed by employees of the top 50 companies include Friday massages, rostered days off, early summer finish times, chill-out rooms – and in Diageo’s case, a bar! Other prized perks include health-related extras like flu vaccinations and gym memberships.

Such practices serve to not only attract and retain employees, but also increase productivity. In order to be creative and innovative, employees need the same kind of environment to flourish. The office is no longer about desks and fluorescent lights – it’s about a comfortable, flexible, happy environment that allows workers to grow and invent. This is reflected in the company Diageo Australia – ranked second on the Best Places list – whose relaxed, colourful working environment has an open and lively ambience which encourages staff commitment and a strong work ethic (despite the bar!).

Offering these sorts of benefits and rewards is well worth the cost to employers. ‘You could argue it’s a bit expensive to offer benefits, but it’s less expensive than suffering absenteeism and suffering a big turn-over of staff,’ BRW editor-in-chief Sean Aylmer told The Daily Telegraph. Extras are particularly appreciated in the wake of the GFC, and the pay-off is considerable. ‘I think when you come through a really rough patch, if companies have done the right thing by their employees, employees tend to appreciate that more. Coming out the other side they are a bit happier,’ says Aylmer.

The rise of the innovative workplace

It’s not just the physical advantages that make these companies great places to spend the hours of nine to five – they are just the surface of a more deeply rooted philosophy. Key values in the new innovative workplace are trust and flexibility. No matter how much dosh is being doled out, loyalty and commitment are derived from non-financial rewards. ‘Money can’t buy you love, and being a great place to work does not mean paying over-the-odd salaries’, says Gina McColl from BRW. As long as people are being paid the right amount of money, things such as career opportunities, work–life balance and the extent to which senior leaders provide inspiration and motivation make more difference to morale and productivity than a hefty pay packet.

According to the survey, flexible working hours as well as health and training opportunities are the company benefits most valued by employees, and are the norm amongst the top 50. More than 70 per cent of companies on the list have flexible start and finish times and allow employees to work from home. Half also offer extra maternity benefits.

‘It seems that increasingly … more so this year than last year, people want to have flexible working hours and the ability to work at different places, not at the desk, so if companies can manage that it seems to keep staff happy,’ says Aylmer.

Equally important is establishing a culture of trust, equality and transparency. ‘The number one thing is that the culture of trust is all-important, and that mostly comes through with management being very transparent, impartial and equal in how they include people,’ stresses Aylmer.

The best of the best

So what enabled NetApp to wrest the top spot from Google and how could other companies take a page out of its book? The key lies in its perks, flexibility and culture of fun and innovation.

The Sydney-based company offers its 149 staff health and life insurance, gym memberships, education benefits, bonuses and flexible work practices. And that’s in addition to the Nintendo Wii and Microsoft Xbox game consoles, Friday massages and barista training.

Other perks include 80 hours of training per annum and over $5000 for tertiary education, allowing staff an extra five days of paid leave each year for community service, a generous stock option plan and an employee referral program. And in keeping with the culture of equality, the local managing director occupies one of the smallest desks in the open-plan office.

Google, too, while no longer ranked number one, has always been at the forefront of workplace innovation and has developed a corporate culture renowned for its fun and rewards. As one Google employee puts it, ‘The more you can create an amazing culture for the employees, the better they will perform’. One example of the level of freedom, trust and autonomy given to workers at Google comes in the form of what they like to call ‘20 per cent time’. Employees are allowed to propose an idea for a product or service to their manager and, if approved, they can spend 20 per cent of their working time researching and developing it. Quite a simple strategy really, but well worth it for them – Google Maps, Google Earth, Google News and Gmail were all created in 20 per cent time.

It is examples like these – successes such as NetApp and Google – that keep the ball moving towards more innovative and flexible workplace practices in all industries. Not only does the top 50 list show job seekers and graduates what is possible in their career search, it also gives other companies an insight into how to increase employee productivity and keep up with their competitors in this shift toward a more fun and flexible working environment.

Josie Chun

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