Best of HR Roundtable: What Makes Workplaces Great?

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Nov 18, 2015
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

Editor’s Note: TLNT has been publishing Steve Browne’s recaps of the HR Roundtable in Cincinnati for more than five years. For two weeks, we’re bringing back some you might have missed.

The people gathering for the December HR Roundtable in Cincinnati were coming in with a particular frame of mind about the topic, but it took a different turn (as it usually does). The topic was, “What makes workplaces great?”

Most people have tucked this away into HR and culture catchphrases or, even more likely, the results of an engagement survey where you get an award for being a “Best Place to Work.” We weren’t going that way.

To get people to open up, the following questions were offered to chew on:

  1. What things make workplaces great?
  2. What keeps this from happening?
  3. How can we change/improve this?

The attendees seemed ravenous as they jumped into small group discussions. It was tough bringing them back to share, but when they did, they had amazing responses! Check them out.

What things make workplaces great?

  • Attitude!! — Isn’t it nice to see this offered in a positive light to start things off? Typically HR people use the word “attitude” in a much different way. However, a great, positive attitude can shape a culture in ways that few other things can.
  • People!! — It’s great that we listed people early in the discussion, but HR people can be a bit too altruistic and say that EVERYBODY is awesome – when we see it not being practiced consistently. Admit it; there are trolls in every organization. The idea that great people make a workplace great is so cool! The trick is trying to get that to stick consistently in your culture.
  • A safe and caring atmosphere — This is more along the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and it is necessary. The word “secure” may be a better fit. Having a set of “knowns” is your culture is always reassuring.
  • Flexibility — This is going to be a bigger and bigger factor in the workplace. The traditional 40 to 60 hour week tied to a desk just to be visible is disappearing. Flexibility is more than hours. It translates into workspaces, commuting, technology and a plethora of other items.
  • An appreciative and positive culture — This is a great answer! The term “appreciative” just has a more holistic feel to it than recognition only. This is ideal and it does exist, but the positive side is a huge mountain to cover. (see comments in next section).
  • A culture with a common and communicated vision — People don’t like ambiguity. They will rally around a common goal or direction. Without it, people tend to make things up until they can get some form of stasis. Companies do need to learn how to thin these out a bit vs. having a giant on-going sentence of catch phrases. However, if done well, it has an amazing impact on everyone!
  • People that listen, are humble, and genuine — Where does this exist? Don’t be a cynic. It’s what people would like to see. The question needs to be – why can’t we be an employer who has these attributes?
  • Collaboration is encouraged and there is empowerment — These are great attributes to follow and build from. The key to both is practice and allowing people to be humans vs. people that have to adhere to a process and not deviate.
  • Humor — Amazing that this came up at the end of the section! People want to have fun and enjoy what they do. Companies struggle with this because they fear that people will take things “too far.” Just remember – if you manage to the edges, then that’s how people will behave.

What keeps this from happening?

  • Lack of commitment — Amen brother! Companies — and HR departments — are great chasers of the “flavor of the month” trend to make a workplace great. Everyone wants to be Google or Zappos when that just isn’t realistic. We need to quit trying to be the place of “best practices” because honestly, those are already behind. Short-term movements and constant change only cause confusion.
  • A CYA approach — The whole topic of risk taking is worth a Roundtable on its own. However, when the workplace is always concerned about what “might” happen, then nothing gets done and nothing changes. Ick.
  • Deflecting — “It’s not my job” syndrome. When no one owns culture or the direction of the workplace and employees, then it will continue to bounce around and around with everyone pointing fingers at the next person. The workplace needs an owner!
  • Wrong people in the wrong roles — This is a real issue in the workplace today. Few people speak up about it because they don’t want to risk losing their job. Even if it’s uncomfortable and they aren’t performing well they still have a job. HR should step in and be the voice of reason in this area and strive to have great fits in every role in the organization.
  • Fear — This is an all encapsulating word. Included in this were: Fear of Change, Fear of Legal Action, Fear of Failure, Fear of Retaliation. The list was threatening to never end, so Steve stopped the group here. Fear is a reality and needs to be considered and not avoided.
  • Inconsistencies in policies/procedures and actions — Can I get a second Amen? We focus so much on compliance and a letter of the law approach that just isn’t attainable honestly. Reading this you will scream that this isn’t true, but it is. People are gray and we don’t treat everyone the same. Being consistent would be amazing and a step in the right direction!
  • HR –– Steve had to add this one. It’s true. Many workplaces aren’t great because of HR. Not that he agrees with this or that it should be how things are, but HR needs to look in the mirror first before developing the next great program for others. If HR’s great … then the workplace will follow!

How can we change/improve this?

  • Don’t settle! — Seriously. Having high expectations of HR and then reaching them is not something that happens in Utopia. It can happen in all types of companies regardless of industry. It just means that HR has to step up and own things instead of placating to the middle!
  • Focus on what is going well vs. what isn’t working! — Remember the “look later in the notes” reference? Here it is! People tend to start from a negative filter on everything. We feel the need to fix things because that means we add value. It’s so backwards. People want to do great work and want others to see them as already adding value. Quit looking for splinters to just point out the minute mistakes. Build on the whole! Make it even broader and see what happens.
  • Pluck the bad apples! — May be the best answer ever given at an HR Roundtable. Quit tolerating the bad apples that are ruining your attempts at a great workplace. Be upfront with them. Be consistent with them and then let them know what you expect. The key is follow through on those expectations. If they don’t want to follow those, then pluck them!
  • Allow failure (and expect it) — This is a thing that people talk about all the time, but truly don’t practice. It’s proven that people learn from mistakes, but all of our systems punish mistakes. (We call them performance reviews!) Give people latitude to try things, take risks, mess up and then move forward. It works!
  • Equip people to succeed — Having a great workplace takes time, effort, money and time, effort and money. It doesn’t stop once it begins. It only evolves. You need to bring people along and give them the tools, support and encouragement to make a great workplace come to life!

This Roundtable rocked and wrapped up a great 2012! Make sure to join us in January to tackle the topic –“HR would be better if  …”

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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