Ask Rex Huppke: I Just Work Here
November 15, 2011
I want to live in a world where every workplace is on a list of "best workplaces." I also want a jet pack, but I'm guessing neither of those things will happen anytime soon.
So the non-jet-pack-related question is: How can you make a workplace better?
To answer this, I tracked down leaders from four of the entities on the Chicago Tribune Top Workplaces list and talked with them about what it takes to make employees happy.
Not surprisingly, there were common threads in all their answers: communicate with your employees, respect your employees, make sure everyone understands the rules and the mission.
No question, the simplest way to make office life good is to be a decent human being. Yet it's a concept that's not always embraced.
My conversations with business leaders who, at least based on the Top Workplaces survey, are doing things right all echoed that theme of decency.
Here's a little of what each had to say:
Senior vice president and leader of Comcast's greater Chicago region
One Veterans Day, Talbot sent a message to all 7,000 of the people who work for her, acknowledging the contribution veterans have made to America. She's a regular communicator, often sending out video messages to make it more personal for those who work remotely from Comcast trucks and are rarely in the office.
The note resonated with one customer service representative who replied to Talbot saying her son was back from Afghanistan after being injured. The two mothers email back and forth, and Talbot still gets regular updates on the woman's son.
"Those things that you do as a leader, that makes the difference," Talbot said. "You can put a bow on anything, but if the core is not one of value and respect, then it doesn't matter what you give employees. That, to me, is a tenet of a great workplace."
She said visible leadership and clear goals are two of the keys to making sure Comcast workers stay focused and motivated.
"We really work on communication," Talbot said. "How do you know if you're winning if you're not keeping score? We do monthly score cards, weekly score cards and really let employees know the progress areas and the areas they need to focus more on. We work on areas where we're falling short, and we celebrate the areas where we're overachieving."
But what of the gripes Comcast's customer service employees invariably receive, calls from fired-up customers having cable problems?
"We do know that our customers are really passionate about our service," she said. "They love it, it's a big part of their lives, and when issues arise, they can get upset."
I asked her how she keeps her team's morale up when they deal with emotional exchanges. The answer is, basically, to give the employees as much support as possible in dealing with customer problems.
"I'm not going to say we're perfect and we don't have rough spots," Talbot said. "When customers are experiencing challenges with us, it's my job to make sure I take away those roadblocks and empower our workforce so they can take care of the customers."
This approach, she said, is all the more effective when the employees are happy with their jobs in the first place: "You build that framework where people feel valued and trusted to make decisions on behalf of the customers they serve. Even when you get a challenge from a customer, you're in a better frame of mind and you feel that you can take care of the customer's concerns."
Co-president of Abt Electronics
The Abt family, owners of Abt Electronics, has a simple rule: Treat employees like family.
With more than 1,000 employees, that's an awfully big family, but Co-President Jon Abt said a policy of trust and respect has served the company well. In 75 years, it never has had a layoff.
"I think the most important thing is to make sure all employees understand the message we're trying to get across, the corporate mission," Abt said. "Make sure they understand the philosophy of the company so everyone is on the same page. One bad apple can change not only a customer's opinion of our company, but they can also turn other employees into bad apples."
He said all the Abts have an open-door policy and welcome feedback from employees, and they also count on employees to make their own decisions day to day.
"If a customer service representative gets a phone call from an unhappy customer about maybe a price they saw at a competitor or an installation they recently had done, they don't have to run and ask a manger what they can do to fix it," Abt said. "They can make their own decisions and can do what they need to do."
He has found that the more you trust people, the more engaged they are and the harder, and happier, they work.
And the family atmosphere Abt talks about is backed up with actions. If somebody has a baby, a gift goes out. If somebody is in the hospital, one of the Abts will usually go and visit that person.
Abt broke it down to simple human terms: "Be kind to others. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. We started out with three people — my two grandparents and one employee. We've grown over time to become a much larger company, but our values are still very mom and pop-ish. At the end of the day, you treat people the way you expect to be treated and make sure that whatever position they may hold, they understand the position and you give them guidance and nurture them."
The Rev. Michael Garanzini
President of Loyola University Chicago
As the head of a university, Garanzini sees his job as overseeing a corporation and a community.
"We have people that are out there delivering the main product, faculty and people supporting the product, but that model only goes so far," he said. "The other model is like being mayor of a small town, where you have constituencies that come at this with different interests and different motivations."
Garanzini's primary goal, regardless of which model he's dealing with, is this:
"The thing we try hardest at is communication, especially around the vision of the institution, and then transparency about the way the university is run. Keeping folks' morale up is all about clarity and vision, clarity of communication and transparency."
Given the state of the economy, Garanzini believes Loyola employees appreciate knowing that their employer has taken steps to prepare for financial dips.
"We have a very conservative budget model," he said. "I've had a little cushion over these past two years, I've not had to lay people off. The margin's getting thinner, but we still have margins. I think the one thing that you can do is help your employees understand that you're responsible and that you respect them and are being conservative about how you save and how you spend."
Though Loyola is a large and wildly diverse entity, Garanzini believes his philosophies can apply to a business of any size. He offered two specific recommendations:
•"Educate your staff. Don't be afraid to share what you think are the potential tripwires down the road."
•"Try not to miss an opportunity to publicly congratulate or recognize someone for what they've done. Those are better rewards than monetary rewards. Public recognition is so much more valuable to most than a small check or bonus. If there's anything that we neglect, it's that we neglect to recognize the small efforts that people make."
Chief human resources officer at Accenture
Smart has been with Accenture more than 30 years. She has found that one of the keys to maintaining a happy and driven workforce is giving employees opportunities.
"Our people and the type of people we hire don't want to stagnate," Smart said. "They may not want a career trajectory that's just up and up the ladder. But they want to develop and grow, they want to develop their skills, they want to learn new things."
To that end, the company offers an array of courses in social media, leadership development and mentoring.
Smart believes that presenting employees, in any workplace setting, with ways to challenge themselves and push in different directions will inherently breed satisfaction and loyalty.
"Regardless of your size, companies need to set expectations and be able to tell their employees what the opportunities are and aren't," she said. "I think you need to have a strong, transparent organizational culture and core values, regardless of whether you're 243,000 people or two people."
One of Accenture's core values, Smart said, is respect for the individual.
She carries around a list of ways she can be a better leader. One item on the list used to say: "Treat people the way you want to be treated." She changed it to say: "Treat people the way they want to be treated."
That's an important distinction from a person in charge: focusing on the way "they" — the workers — want to be treated, not on how you — the boss — want to be treated.
That approach is working in all four of these companies. It's simple, yet profound — and effective.
Be open, be decent, be fair. That's what makes a happy workplace.
Rex Huppke writes the "I Just Work Here" column for the Monday Tribune business section and Trib U. firstname.lastname@example.org