If your company wins a “best place to work” award, there is no doubt that you should be proud. Depending on the award process, you either had a large percentage of your employees expressing very positive sentiments about your organization via a survey, or you had a third party evaluate a number of visible components of your operation and culture and gave you their seal of approval. Winning this award is certainly better than not winning it. You are probably doing something right.
But in the end, I wouldn’t put much stock in it. There are two big problems with these awards. First, they can easily become too much of a focus internally, where people feel pressure to answer the survey correctly to ensure you win again (even if that was not your intention). Or you might end up rushing to implement certain processes because you know you’ll be graded on them by the third party in the award process, and you don’t want your score to go down. Suddenly the focus has become appearing to be the best, rather than being the best.
Which brings us to the second problem: Do you really know what it takes to be the best? The standard within these contests is either employee satisfaction or comparison to a third-party benchmark, but both of these methods could be completely missing the mark on what makes your particular organization deeply successful. For example, many would argue that a flexible workplace is a component of a best place to work. Being able to work from home occasionally (or even permanently) is in demand, and more and more organizations are working to improve their flexibility in this regard. In my and my company’s ongoing research on workplace culture, however, we identified two case study organizations that would easily win best place to work awards, yet they take almost opposite approaches to the workplace flexibility issue.
Neither the American Society for Surgery of the Hand (ASSH) nor Menlo Innovations have applied to win a best place to work award, but I think both would have a very good shot. ASSH is a small nonprofit organization in Chicago, and in our interviews with staff during our research, their sentiments about working there weren’t just generally positive — they were exceptional. They frequently used phrases like “I can’t imagine working anywhere else” or “I’ll never go back to working at a traditional organization.”
Menlo Innovations is a software company in Ann Arbor, Michigan and their CEO, Rich Sheridan, has written two popular business books about their amazing culture. In fact, a portion of their company revenue comes from teaching other organizations about the Menlo approach.
So both organizations are very much in demand, yet they take opposite approaches to flexibility. At ASSH, flexibility is paramount. Not only does every employee have the opportunity to work from home part of the time, their office space is designed to allow everyone to work the way that makes sense to them, including desks that convert into standing desks at the touch of a button, Wi-Fi access on the roof and an “innovation room” with a strikingly different workspace design (including a tree house) to stimulate creative thinking. They can also wear whatever they want. The CEO takes pride in the fact that their dress code is only two words: “No nudity.”
Menlo Innovations, on the other hand, does not allow employees to work at home (or on the weekends, for that matter), with only rare exceptions. They use a process called pair programming, where two people write code using only one computer. That kind of collaborative effort requires people to be in the same place at the same time. And since pairs rotate, they don’t even have their own individual desk or workspace on a regular basis. When we did our research there, we focused our interviews during the lunch hour, because the employees did not have the flexibility to stop their work at other times.
So how can these two very different workplaces both be in high demand, with lower-than-average turnover? Because they designed their cultures around the fundamental drivers of their success, rather than an arbitrary third-party standard or even what “most” people would like. Rich Sheridan’s initial experiments with pair programming produced such good results, he ended up creating a culture around that core success driver. That means that collaboration is far more important to Menlo’s success than flexibility. In fact, all employee candidates are evaluated rigorously on their ability to collaborate before they are even assessed on their coding skills. ASSH, on the other hand, has been able to unleash incredible productivity from a very small staff by intentionally designing the organization around the needs of employees, rather than management, and by continuously emphasizing individual authenticity. Collaboration is still valued, of course, but it’s not as central a success driver as authenticity, which is why flexibility is valued so highly in their culture.
Flexibility (or the lack thereof) is not the issue. The issue is creating a workplace that enables everyone in the organization to be deeply successful, and there is no single formula for that. But when you do figure out what the formula is for your organization, you will have created something much better than a “best place to work” — you will have created an irresistible culture. Those cultures are unique — not in every way, necessarily, but in the ways that matter the most for them in their environment. And those cultures will attract exactly the right people — the ones who value that approach and are aligned with the success drivers. Winning a best place to work award means you have exceeded a generic standard, but creating an irresistible culture means you have built a powerful success engine. Which would you rather have?