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Organizational Change
What Makes a Great Place to Work?

Marcus Erb, VP of Data Science & Innovation at Great Place to Work, and his team carry out research that helps businesses create workplaces in which all employees feel valued and trusted. Here, Erb explains how being a great place to work benefits both employees and their organizations.

Great Place to Work has a simple mission — for everyone to have the chance to enjoy going to work, and to feel that they are trusted and valued in the workplace.

Marcus Erb, VP of Data Science & Innovation at Great Place to Work, and his team carry out research that helps businesses create exactly this kind of environment. Key factors in making a great place to work are a sense of purpose and clarity, along with an environment that makes all employees feel cared for as individuals.

We caught up with Marcus to find out more about how being a great place to work benefits both employees and their organizations.

One of the key factors you have identified for fostering staff satisfaction and improving productivity is a sense of purpose. How can this be cultivated?

Marcus Erb: First of all, what do we mean by a sense of purpose? It might be providing great healthcare or making a great product. At Great Place to Work, we don’t judge what gives that sense of purpose. What matters is how the worker experiences it. Employees experience purpose in different ways — it might be when they are working as part of a great team, or when they see the impact of their brand that gives them that sense of satisfaction. It is all about how they connect to the work they are doing.

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But even when people are not doing a job they love, they can still get a sense of purpose from the fact they are earning a living and making the money to pay their rent. Humans are naturally driven to find a sense of purpose in what they do, and they find it in many different ways. 

Of course, the question people often ask is whether or not a sense of purpose predicts a better financial performance. Our research shows that it does, but only when it is combined with a sense of clarity about the organization and where the organization is going. It’s that combination of purpose and clarity that counts. And that’s when it leads to improvements on the stock exchange — that’s when businesses see it.

Employers are increasingly recognizing the importance of staff satisfaction and wellbeing in the workplace. How does a data-driven approach measure these things, which can seem subjective and difficult to quantify?

ME: We look at all parts of the employee experience in our surveys. We look at employees in great places to work and compare their experiences with typical workplaces. We base the questions in our surveys on their experiences. This gives us a broad lens to look at the situation.

One of the most important things is for people to feel they are cared for as a whole person, as an individual. That’s the difference between great places to work and other places. We found that it ties closely to wellbeing.

Looking back to 15-20 years ago, the emphasis was all on physical wellbeing. It was all about encouraging employees to adopt healthy lifestyles; for example, giving up smoking or walking however-many steps a day.

Now, in the US as well as other countries, there is more talk about mental wellbeing, as well as greater awareness of stress and depression. Financial security also plays an important role in mental health. Research suggests that most people would find an unexpected bill of $400 hard to cope with. But if people are worried about debt or meeting the cost of healthcare, that also impacts on their mental health and wellbeing.

One way to measure it is to consider to what extent an employee feels that their employer cares about them as an individual. For people to be psychologically healthy in the workplace, they need to feel that they can speak up about topics like stress and depression without any fear of stigma.

Innovation in the workplace is often the preserve of certain people in certain — usually more senior — positions. What can organizations do to foster innovation at all levels?

ME: The fundamental idea is that if you want to create innovation for all, you have to create a great place to work. A place where you feel you belong, where your unique personality can come in and you don’t need to hide your true self. When you can bring your best self to the workplace, then the organization gets to benefit from your full potential. Once you have that, it makes it easier to get the best out of everyone.

If opportunities for innovation are limited; then you, as a business, are always looking for one big shot — hoping that someone will come up with that one great idea, rather than seeing it in everything. The more ideas and perspectives you have, the more chance there is of finding great ideas. So, it is important for organizations to trust the innovation of all their employees. That way, everybody can create — and you will find things you would have missed out on if you had restricted innovation.

To measure this, we used surveys to test how many meaningful opportunities employees have to innovate. We found that the more opportunities to innovate, the better the retention. And the more you inspire and trust people, the better the revenue. This connects back to the original idea of a sense of purpose we talked about earlier. Our surveys have open-ended responses, and some people say their workplace is incredible. Those are almost always the ones who have the most opportunities to innovate. In fact, those who say “incredible” are 82 percent more likely to be the ones who get the chance to innovate.

It can be hard for executives who are used to thinking of innovation as their role. Executives are five to eight times more likely than other workers to experience purpose in their work. But for the business to thrive, everyone has to feel a sense of purpose — no matter where they are in the organization.

In a rapidly changing world, the ability to adapt and innovate is more important than ever. How has your research helped organizations prepare for the challenges that lie ahead?

ME: The work we have done shows that this is not something abstract. Our research demonstrates that you can learn what makes a great place to work and you can act on it. Some businesses might not want to ask questions about how they need to change because they might be scared of the answer. But other companies realize that the research can help them deal with the future. This is not just something that is nice to do. It is something they must do.

We looked at data going back to the Great Recession and compared businesses to understand why some survived and even thrived, while others didn’t. We wanted to know if the businesses that thrived could be predicted based on knowledge of their employee experience.

What we found was that those businesses that created good workplaces for employees and engaged the full talents of all their workers were the ones that survived or even did better during the recession.

When you engage everybody and make the most of their full talents, you bring out the best in them — and the company benefits in ways that can be measured. And you will see better results in improved productivity and profits.