Create Your Own “Destination Workplace”

March 28, 2013 — Leave a comment

By John Case

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Google again was #1 on Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies To Work For this year. And why wouldn’t it win the top spot? Free food. Subsidized massages. Well-equipped sports facilities, wellness centers, employee gardens, even nap pods. Sure, it’s designed primarily to appeal to bright, single 20-somethings. But even us old married types might like to work in a place where the meeting rooms look like Dublin pubs or alpine ski gondolas.

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It’s all reminiscent of Kodak a century or so ago.

Kodak was the Google of its day—a young, glamorous, high-tech star that people everywhere wanted to work for. The company offered employees “dining halls, smoking rooms, reading rooms, recreation programs, and an assembly hall for concerts and dances,” not to mention tennis courts, a track, and baseball diamonds. Later came an eighteen-hole golf course and a huge recreation center including “three cafeterias, meeting rooms, bowling alleys, squash courts, pool tables, a gynmnasium, retiree lounge, pistol range, and an auditorium that showed movies daily.” (The quotes are from Sanford M. Jacoby’s fine book Modern Manors.)

Kodak had a great run, but it hasn’t done so well recently. (It filed for bankruptcy about a year ago.) Maybe Google will hit the skids sooner than 2113—after all, it’s running on Internet time. But here’s my point. It’s easy to offer all kinds of attractive perks when you are raking in the cash. Most companies can’t begin to afford such benefits, any more than most Americans can live like Bill Gates. Is there any way the rest of us can create destination workplaces, the kind that help attract and retain great people?

There is. I had a chance to visit a lot of destination workplaces a few years ago, when I was working on the book Equity, coauthored with Corey Rosen and Martin Staubus. All of the companies were partly or wholly owned by their employees, usually through an ESOP. Most practiced open-book management in some form. These were everyday, Main Street businesses—a hardware store in San Rafael, California; a forging operation in Spring Grove, Illinois; a mail-order retailer in Burlington, Vermont; and scores of others. As collaborative companies, they had developed reputations that attracted prospective employees from miles away. Their turnover rates were well below those of competitors. None of their employees were jumping to a competitor for a dollar more an hour. People probably wouldn’t have left even for free massages.

johncase_equityIt wasn’t just the ownership stake that kept employees on board, though that was a big part of it. It was also the sense of being in this together, which permeated  the workplace. Cindy Ferguson, a manufacturing associate at YSI, an instrument maker based in Yellow Springs, Ohio, summed up what a lot of the people I spoke with seemed to be feeling. “I think the atmosphere and the value and pride we have in our company makes people want to be here,” she told me. “They’re part of something. It gives you a good feeling of purpose in life.”

That’s my idea of a destination workplace.

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