Monday, October 18, 2010

Seven Steps to a Winning Workplace

Back in 2007 (remember the good ol' days?) the area of top concern among A/E firm managers was finding good employees. In fact, this concern had topped the list in various surveys over the past several years. The demographic data indicated a long-term shortage of technical professionals. But months later when firm principals were polled at an industry roundtable, the talent crunch didn't even make the list of top concerns.

Now that business is slowly improving for most firms, staffing will again rise to priority status. Only for the near term the primary issue won't be supply, but retention. Human resource experts are predicting substantial turnover as hiring picks up. I don't expect it to be any different in our industry. For one thing, there is "pent-up energy" where the usual movement between firms has been impeded for several months. Plus many firms under the pressure of the recession transformed into rather undesirable places to work.

So let me suggest that it's time to again make the workplace environment a priority. I offer my "seven steps to a winning workplace," based on my experience working with many different firms and my extensive research on this topic:

Conduct an employee survey. What constitutes a great workplace? The only opinions that matter are those of your employees. That's why I encourage all firms to survey their employees to determine what they think of the firm as a place to work. The responses you receive will help you prioritize the actions needed to make your workplace better. Don't go overboard asking too many questions; about 20-25 should suffice (I offer a sample questionnaire on my website).

To maximize participation, you want to allow employees to respond anonymously. So while it's useful to collect some demographic information for analysis, don't ask for so much that your staff has doubts about the anonymity of the process. It is useful, however, to compare responses by different offices and departments since perceptions of the firm are likely to vary by work unit.

Give importance to your values and mission. Most employees want to work for a firm that's committed to operating by a set of immutable guiding principles and to making a significant contribution to society. Many A/E firms, however, give only lip service to their stated values and mission. They're missing out on a critical differentiator in the competition for talent. Numerous studies confirm that companies that have a strong sense of vision and purpose have a real advantage in attracting and keeping good employees. I addressed the matter of corporate values in this previous post.

Commit to frequent, open communication.
Over the years of working with many different firms, the most common problem I've encountered is poor communication. It infects every facet of our operations. Solving the problem can be difficult, but you can make significant headway if you're committed. From the perspective of creating a winning workplace, start with improving communication between management and staff. I'm amazed how many CEOs, principals, and other senior managers envision themselves as leaders but have little discourse with rank-and-file employees. The connection between management and staff is crucial to giving employees a sense of importance and purpose, among other benefits.

Develop a clear plan for professional development and advancement. Today's mobile workforce gives more importance than ever to professional development. Few employees expect to spend their entire career with one employer anymore. So they want to work where they'll receive training, mentoring, and valuable experience. They also want to know specifically what it takes to advance in the firm.

Many firms in this business provide only random training and vague career paths, so this is an obvious opportunity to differentiate your firm from your competitors. Develop a professional development curriculum that spells out what training is needed (and provided) at every stage of the employee's advancement through the ranks. Provide clear career paths. Foster a mentoring culture (structured mentoring programs usually don't work all that well). Not only will these steps provide a tremendous recruiting advantage, but they'll help you keep your employees "less mobile."

Expect more from those in supervisory roles. Based on their extensive workplace research, the Gallup organization concluded that "people join companies and leave bosses." Indeed, those in a supervisory capacity have a tremendous impact on employee perceptions of the firm as a place to work. In looking at employee satisfaction across hundreds of firms, various studies have found greater differences among work units or offices within a company than between companies. Why? Because the employee's unit manager or immediate supervisor is the most important variable.

This means if you're serious about creating a great workplace, you've got to have great bosses. This involves setting clear expectations for those in supervisory roles and enforcing minimum performance standards. You'll need to track supervisory performance, of course, which inevitably requires getting some kind of feedback from supervisees. You'll also want to provide ongoing training and mentoring. For more on developing great bosses, read this previous post.

Adequately recognize and reward good performance. I recently wrote a series of posts on the power of positive reinforcement; plus I'll refer you to a still earlier post on how to motivate employees to give their best. These practices definitely work in elevating performance, but they also contribute in a big way to creating a great workplace. Naturally everyone wants to feel valued and appreciated. Yet when I've conducted employee surveys, getting recognition and positive reinforcement has consistently finished among the lowest scoring factors.

To turn this around, many managers face the difficult task of rewiring how they respond to their staff. Most are unintentionally neglectful, providing too little reinforcement, either positive or negative. Others are prone to negative reinforcement, even when the intent is to do something positive. A common problem is relying too much on formal (typically delayed) incentives while shortchanging a potentially more powerful motivator--simply expressing praise or thanks. Some workplace studies have concluded that the lack of adequate recognition is the number one reason for voluntary turnover.

Create a flexible, employee-friendly work environment. Long hours and high stress are routinely found in our workplaces across the A/E industry. Many firm managers seem to regard these conditions as merely the metrics of success (i.e., high utilization). But the underlying costs may negate the apparent benefits of pushing employees to the limit. Higher turnover is only one of the unintended outcomes. Productivity (as distinguished from production) suffers, as does morale. There are increased mistakes, accidents, and conflicts.

But on-the-job stress is only part of the resulting discontent. Today's workers place higher value on maintaining balance between work and their personal lives. To attract and retain employees, most companies now offer flexible work schedules, more part-time positions, comp time, and other employee-friendly benefits. Firms that don't are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage.

But don't rely entirely on your policies and benefits. Employees want bosses who acknowledge the value of life outside of work. Make this sensitivity part of your supervisory training and reward those bosses that excel in helping employees achieve the right balance between work and life. Your company will ultimately be the prime beneficiary.

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