Across age, professional role, industry and company size, what makes people
say “I love working here!” is overwhelmingly similar at its core. We asked Delawareans what factors make a great workplace, and while the particulars vary considerably, the central theme generally distills into this: People love working where they can flourish in a culture where they are happy and engaged.
The ones who find it are lucky. Only half of new employees are engaged at their workplace, according to a 2013 Gallup Business Journal study. After that, it slides to 44 percent over the first decade, and one in seven (14 percent) are actually “actively disengaged.”
Rande Vaul loves Trolley Square’s El Diablo. She has worked in places where the food is star of the show, like Philadelphia’s Le Bec Fin, as well as a five-star Caribbean hotel, and at the University and Whist Club, and it’s more than the burrito shop’s reputation for fantastic food. It’s how thoroughly her boss, Dean Vilone, cares for his staff and believes in open communication, especially in management meetings. Far from ugly gripe sessions, they are “self-reflective
and team-building. They send everyone away feeling connected, happy, and better equipped.”
To John Gardener, a creative young engineer with a bachelor’s degree, being trusted to manage projects typically headed by seasoned Ph.D.s, and being encouraged to experiment makes W.L. Gore & Associates in Newark a great place to work. In that environment, he works hard, enjoys it, and isn’t afraid to take risks that could result in a significant discovery for the company—or not.
Derek Winn, Western YMCA membership services coordinator, says the nonprofit obviously differs from a previous job in an Ohio tech company, but
both are great for similar reasons: “My colleagues are excellent, the culture is team-oriented, and we have lots of fun as we perform duties we fully understand for organizations that do some good in the community.”
Trust, camaraderie, exploration, fun, purpose, growth, happiness, caring, communication: In many ways, a great workplace sounds a lot like a great relationship.
Exactly, says Milbrey Hendrix, a Greenville native and grad student at Simmons College in Boston. She looks at job opportunities as if she’s evaluating a potential relationship: “There has to be chemistry.” Jessica Jenkins, Delaware Art Museum’s marketing manager, puts it this way: “You are at your job more than anywhere else. People want a good fit, to feel like they belong.” For Jenkins, the museum offers a place where she can be creative and intellectually stimulated every day. She feels that she makes a difference at work and in others’ lives.
Caring has always been part of the culture of Wilmington University, says Peter Bailey, vice president of external affairs. (The university’s exponential growth only seems to enhance that notion.) Its leadership offers two university-wide meetings a year, where its president speaks and leaders share with employees ideas about how to maintain its energetic, student-friendly culture.
WU’s Leadership Institute is another perk. It’s a chance for employees of varying levels to go off-site, usually to a beach resort setting, and learn more about their workplace. When they arrive, they’re grouped into teams and given the opportunity to work with people they normally don’t work with, then asked to perform tasks they usually don’t perform. They have three months to work on a project, then to report their findings. “We hope to provide this opportunity to everyone at some point,” says Bailey. “It helps build communication across the university, and employees really get a sense of satisfaction from working on something they wouldn’t normally work on.”
WU also offers employees’ dependents the opportunity for a tuition exchange to attend the university and other partner institutions.
“The commonality among great places to work is genuine care for their people,” says Nat Measley, managing partner at The Fun Dept. The consulting firm with an office along Marsh Road aims to help leaders show that they care about employees by making the workplace more fun. Employees who are having fun at work are happier, says Measley, and they tend to be healthier, more engaged and productive.
There are lots of ways that leadership can create an atmosphere of care and camaraderie. Here’s what some employees say works for them. Kitchen staffer Barrett May says he feels cared for when, no matter how exhausted they are, people stick together. No one goes home after closing until everyone’s work is done. At the law firm Campbell & Levine LLC, Frederika Leuck experiences it as cooperation and her manager’s genuine interest in her work satisfaction. Mark Daniels, Wilmington University safety constable supervisor, senses it when a vice president sees staff is shorthanded and steps behind the registration table to process students.
After community, employees value different things in a great workplace. For many, it’s quality of life and flexibility. For others, it’s an environment that is rejuvenated often before it gets boring. For some, it’s an environment that fosters exploration and creativity, or a company that fully equips employees to do their jobs, whether it’s providing good computers, ongoing training, or offering accessible documents and forms online.
Rob Matera says leaders at SunGuard Availability Services are great at proving the tools and resources that employees need. “Anything that gets in the way of doing a job is frustrating,” says the account executive. “I’ve worked in other tech companies, and SunGuard stands out in equipping and developing sales so we are the sharpest in the industry.”
Truly great environments don’t happen by accident, says Patricia Pettinati, head of Human Resources at SAP America. “Leadership plays a huge role in corporate culture and how people feel about working there.”
When leaders are effective, their effort often hums quietly in the background. But it can be painfully obvious when they’re not, says Jack Baroudi, University of Delaware associate dean for graduate and executive programs and an expert in the neuroscience of work behavior. Employees disengage and turnover rises, he says. “When people leave, they don’t leave companies; they leave managers.”
What do great leaders look like? It often comes down to treating employees well. Matera says a boss “should have your back, and be your advocate up the chain.” Gardener says they should believe in you and appreciate you. Hendrix says they should value your perspective. Murphy says they should be accessible, not up on a distant throne. Patrick D’Amico, chef de cuisine at Harry’s Savoy Grill, agrees. His boss, Xavier Teixido, is “not afraid to clear dishes or get behind the line and cook on a busy Saturday night if someone doesn’t show up.”
SAP has created numerous processes to establish mutual trust, understanding and respect between leadership and employees, Pettinati says. For example, its Manager Assimilation program quickly builds rapport. First, a facilitator meets with each employee to ask a series of open-ended questions, such as, “What do you want to know about your manager?” and “What do you need to be successful?” The facilitator compiles the answers and shares them with the manager (without naming employees). The manager then uses the information to craft his or her own introduction that is shared in a team meeting.
Graham Cooper, chair of the Delaware Area C12 Group, says leadership matters immensely. That’s why he is part of the Christian leadership development group. Whatever your belief system, the lessons are universal, he says. They center on the responsibility to foster two sides of communication, understanding and clarity.
Cooper says that so many leaders “have no idea what is going on in their employees’ heads most of the time.” Clarity, essentially, is communication in the other direction. Managers can have an aversion to frank discussions, but when employees don’t know what to do or how well they are doing it, it leaves them floundering. “Conscientious employees are already their own most demanding critics,” says Cooper. “Without clarity, the sad but inevitable consequence is frustrating to employees and a formula for inferior results.”
May agrees. In a restaurant kitchen where consistent execution is everything, great managers are explicit and hands-on. “Get in there and show me specifics of preparation, portion size—whatever is important about the dish,” says May.
Baroudi says a company’s bottom line benefits by being specific. “If you provide people clarity about roles, goals and the purpose of the organization, then align them with their passions, you get Olympic performance.”
Even mature employees who may have pressing reasons to place premiums on salary, healthcare, retirement benefits and perks often say that sometimes, other things matter more.
Laura Herkalo left a stimulating environment at W.L. Gore for a job with a better paycheck and a lot of travel, but “top dollar was not an even trade for quality of life,” she says. Herkalo soon left for another great company, SAP America, a multinational company that develops and supports software for business applications. (Herkalo works out of its Newtown Square, Pa., office.) There, she got her non-negotiables back, particularly the flexibility of telecommuting from Wilmington.
Judy Boris–Czyzewski, who works at Independence Wealth Services in Hockessin, agrees. “Once I earn enough for necessities and a bit more for things I value, it’s more about day-to-day satisfaction,” she says. For the business development manager, satisfaction comes from working with people who share her positive outlook, values and open communication style.
The preference for quality of life over compensation doesn’t surprise Baroudi. As long as people know they are being compensated fairly, he says, money becomes a non-issue. But note, fair doesn’t mean equal—it means equitable: commensurate with contribution to the organization and similar positions elsewhere.
The notable exception to “money comes second” is commission-based sales. Angie Wahlig is a sales professional at Corporation Service Company, a multinational business, legal and financial services provider. (Her office is in Wilmington.) She says performance pay provides the satisfaction of knowing she earns her keep. But even in the sales field, cash and prizes can represent more than the compensation itself. For Ryan Murphy, an AFLAC independent agent based in Claymont, it illustrates how leadership cares enough to devise incentives that motivate the sales force without pitting them against each other.
Among Delawareans interviewed, healthcare and retirement benefits don’t set great companies apart. However, for seasoned employees, they can become non-negotiables. That’s why Brian Darby, a mid-career manager at the Mattress Warehouse on Concord Pike, prefers large companies. They are also a consideration for Wahlig. As her own boss, the monthly healthcare tab was $1,650. So she appreciates CSC for picking it up.
Perks can be as substantial as tuition reimbursement or dress-down Friday. They can be recognition programs, or the freedom to bring a pet to work. But they don’t define a great workplace either, except as an example of how the organization cares for them. To Bailey, a university-funded holiday party complete with gifts for staff means a lot to employees in this economy. To May, free onsite parking is a big deal.
W.L. Gore has site-specific amenities at the company’s 15 locations, but managers don’t focus on flashy perks like five-star caliber cafeterias, elaborate lounges or fancy athletic clubs, says Mary Tilley, Human Resources global leader. “We focus on providing a safe, pleasant work environment, great benefits and access to things they need.”
That makes sense to Matera. Sometimes, “when a company senses the workforce is unhappy, it tries to mask the root problem,” he says. “Putting out snacks or remodeling the office can’t compensate for poor management or low pay.”
At Gore, a fundamental belief in people drives its success, says Tilley. “You don’t have to hang carrots. People are smart, engaged, dedicated and essentially motivated to do the right thing. You can trust them to do good work if you create the right environment.”