In the two decades I’ve been writing about jobs, I’ve seen some great workplaces. Those are companies where the excitement is palpable, creativity is encouraged and employees look forward to tomorrow. I’ve also seen some really bad workplaces where office doors stay closed, everyone looks miserable and the receptionist is barking at the visitors. Recently at a dinner honouring the top workplaces in a survey sponsored by Washington-based biweekly newspaper, The Chronicle of Philanthropy, I spoke about ways in which managers can create great places to work.

Respect your employees enough to tell them where they stand. Are they doing a good job? Are they meeting expectations? Employees—from custodians to the C suite—want to know. If they’re not meeting deadlines or sales quotas, respect means telling them early enough so they can try to turn the situation around.

Winning tip: Employees work harder when creativity is encouraged.

Too many bosses hope that the employees who aren’t on the favoured list will eventually get the message from small slights and leave. But often, those clues aren’t clear and it’s important to be upfront even though those conversations can be difficult.

Be kind. It’s so simple but a kind word here and there is really appreciated, yet is so often overlooked in our busy world. Kindness also means showing interest in others. Ask the people you work with how their kids are doing. It’s not nosy, it’s thoughtful. If they do something great, recognize it. A note is nice. So is recognition in a meeting. Don’t hoard compliments. And hopefully the thank-yous will spread up and down the corporate ladder. There’s also a self-serving reason to be kind: Employees tend to treat your customers the same way they’re treated at work.

Once I went to a manufacturing plant where dozens of employees had walked out during a shift. My first clue about what was amiss was the receptionist sitting behind thick glass. I had to shout to tell her whom I was there to visit and she just jerked her thumb toward the visitors’ log and barked “sign in". In that one instant, I could understand why the employees had walked out. Another time I visited a big downtown law firm with a section run by a lawyer who had a reputation as a great boss. I could immediately see why. The receptionist not only greeted me by name but stood up and shook my hand. It was so warm and friendly and even though it was a decade ago, I still remember.

Give employees a challenge.Nothing creates boredom faster than a company culture that discourages innovation.

Companies that offer a challenging environment tend to attract better employees. That means asking employees what they think and empowering them to get their jobs done. I saw that in action one day when I was shopping and I came across a group of employees who were learning how to display merchandise. The manager had a photo of the way the women’s clothes were supposed to look but she told the employees that if they had a better idea, to use that instead.

I could tell the employees seemed pumped up by the charge. They were asking questions, studying the photos and handling the shelving and other design elements they had to work with. They weren’t just standing around looking bored.

Train your front-line supervisors. You might look at the organizational chart and figure all those folks at the top are really important. But chances are it’s the front-line supervisors who are the most critical players in your organization. They’re the lynchpin employees, the key folks who make sure production goals are met and safety procedures are followed.

When employees think about whom they work for, they don’t think about the CEO or the board of directors. They think about their supervisor. A good front-line supervisor can motivate employees to do a great job; a bad one can cause employees to just show up to work every day and go through the motions. Teach your supervisors how to gain the respect of the employees they’re leading, how to establish expectations and, if they’ve been promoted from the shop floor as many front-line managers are, how to navigate their new relationship with their former peers.

Remember employees have a life outside the office. That means not scheduling meetings at 6pm as working parents are trying to run out the door to pick up kids from day care. And it means being understanding when employees offer to work late or come in early so they can make it to their kids’ school plays or sporting events. Good bosses don’t make faces when they get such requests. Good bosses know that most employees will more than make up for the privilege of a flexible schedule.

So it doesn’t take a lot of perks or fancy consultants to make your company a great place to work.


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