Fiona Smith Columnist

Fiona writes on workplace issues, including management, psychology, workplace design, human resources and recruitment. She is a former Work Space editor at The Australian Financial Review and has also covered property, technology, architecture and general news.

View more articles from Fiona Smith

Best Places To Work 2013: What makes a great place to work?

Published 26 June 2013 21:26, Updated 26 November 2013 18:35

+font -font print
Best Places To Work 2013: What makes a great place to work?

Zrinka Lovrencic is a director and a member of the management consulting team at Great Place to Work in Australia. Photo: Nic Walker

High-frequency trading company, Optiver, has jumped in front to become Australia’s best place to work in 2013 – proving that big companies with multimillion-dollar human resources budgets do not always have the advantage.

The Sydney arm of the Netherlands-based company employs 156 people to price and trade financial products. But here’s the thing: the company knows what is important to its employees and treats them like adults.

This year’s Best Places to Work awards celebrate 50 top employers that go out of their way to keep their people happy and engaged in their work.

Great Place to Work Australia examined 179 companies, surveying employees and auditing their managers about their efforts to create a great workplace culture.

In the fast-paced environment at Optiver, that means making sure new recruits are teamed up with a buddy to help them learn the ropes. They are given ethics training, and there are efforts to cut “red tape” and bureaucracy which would frustrate the highly-motivated people who work there.

Optiver’s win is not about “perks”. While there are subsidised dinners and extra holidays – and some of the other benefits that are now the baseline for top employers these days – people work at Optiver because they love the kind of work they do and the atmosphere.

You can get pool tables, free coffee and bike racks anywhere these days.

Says one Optiver employee: “The work is challenging, interesting and rewarding. There is an extremely fast feedback cycle where the fruits of work and effort are reaped almost immediately. Combined with interesting and challenging puzzles, the work is almost addictive.”

Quiksilver – pain control

The managing director of Great Place to Work Australia, Zrinka Lovrencic, says smaller companies have an advantage in this year’s survey.

The long-running economic downturn has taken its toll on big organisations, where job cuts have had a depressing effect on employee engagement.

However retrenchments do not have to damage a company’s standing as a great place to work – if it is done right. She points to the listed surf and snow-wear company Quiksilver as an example of an organisation that took tough decisions, but managed to keep its people on board. “It depends on how it is handled,” Lovrencic says.

At Quiksilver, which is based in Torquay, Victoria, keeping the communication flowing means that high levels of engagement are maintained, despite the fact that up to 20 per cent of staff have been retrenched over the past two to three years.

A painful retailing environment, as well as a reorganisation of the 526-person company under new chief executive Andy Mooney, meant that there were some job losses in back office areas – as well as new opportunities in e-commerce and direct retail, the company HR director, Mick Fuller says.

“Our belief is that strong staff engagement and being close to our staff has certainly helped us meet these challenges,” he says.

Exiting employees were offered employee assistance and outplacement services, as you would expect, but the company’s culture of openness about its performance against its targets meant that people understood the necessity for tough decisions.

“Communication is one of the key things we have concentrated on over the past two years,” Fuller says.

Hire with finesse

Getting the right people in the first place can set a company on the path to best employer status. Lovrencic says the trend this year is for companies to be increasingly careful in recruiting.

When the cost of a bad hire is estimated to be at least 3.5 times the cost of that person’s salary, the economic necessity of avoiding hiring mistakes is obvious.

“They are very strict about finding people with the right skills because they know they can hit the ground faster,” she says. “There’s an urgent need to get those things right.”

Simon Moss, managing director of recruitment firm TRC Group, says it is not necessary to throw money at people to get them to join. “It is the intangible things, the tweaks, that don’t necessarily cost a lot of money.”

Sydney-based TRC, which has 38 staff, took 12th place on this year’s Best Places to Work list and uses some “gamification” to make some of the routine tasks more interesting. Much of the work in recruitment is repetitive and so games are used to help keep people motivated.

Another thing that costs little, but is much appreciated is a wine fridge. There is a wine expert on hand to make sure the selection is up to scratch. “One of our staff is a wine expert,” Moss explains. “We don’t employ someone just for that – that would be decadent . . . one day, maybe.”

A level of trust is apparent in the fact there are no rules about when the fridge can be cracked open. “As soon as you start writing rules around something like that, people start stretching the rules and it all goes wrong,” he says. The company has also arranged (with three major banks) staff discounts for home mortgages.

The pay-off for the attention to those little details is that staff stay longer. The recruitment industry operates a bit like a revolving door, with average employee tenure of only one-and-a-half years, compared with about three years for TRC. “We rarely lose anyone to the competition,” Moss says.

One size does not fit all

When top companies are putting together their benefits packages, the key word is “customisation”.

Lovrencic says the role of human resources divisions is now less about hiring and firing, and more about getting the best from people.

“It is what motivates them, and where they get their sense of achievement from,” she says. “You really need to understand who is working for you, what makes you different and why they should work for you.”

This is where small companies can shine. “They are less bureaucratic and hierarchical and less traditional,” she says.

At TRC, the benefits package is tailored to each individual, who can choose from a menu that includes paying HECS loans, house insurance, an iPad or new suit.

However, that would not suit the “geeks” at Melbourne-based application development company Readify. People there are more interested in getting their hands on the best and latest gadgets and technology.

Readify chief executive, Graeme Strange, says employees get funded to acquire the laptop and mobile phone of their choosing. After two years, those devices become their personal property (to take home or pass on to the children) and they are funded to buy new ones again.

“Geeks like equipment, they like technology,” Strange says. The Melbourne-based company also pays for a phone plan and broadband ($70 per month) at home, which means its 156 employees are well connected when they work from home.

“We don’t care about personal phone calls or what you are using it for,” Strange says.

Readify also acknowledges that its bright and highly skilled people will be keen to experience working overseas (for instance, at Microsoft’s Redmond campus in Washington) or will want to try developing their own projects.

So it allows sabbaticals of 12 months or more, trusting that staff will return to them, richer for the experience (if nothing else). “Very often, they do come back,” Strange says.

Grown-ups at work

Treating people with respect is a tough ask if you are also treating them like children. At chartered accountants SiDCOR, in Newcastle, NSW, people are trusted to make their own decisions about when they take their holidays, says managing director Paul Siderovski.

With 35 staff, there is no approval process for taking leave. “You just put it in your calendar and we only track it for payroll purposes,” he says.

When it comes to what motivates employees, it is hard to go past giving them a stake in the business. At Readify, a bonus scheme allows them to share in the company’s profits.

Canberra-based professional services firm, Cordelta, goes the whole hog by turning its employers into owners through an employee ownership scheme.

The company, with 119 staff, was started nine years ago by managing director Ken Gutterson and director Matthew Ryan and is now 60 per cent owned by staff and 40 per cent by Cordelta’s founders.

The process of growing an employee-owned company can be arduous and expensive. Cordelta started with a unit trust, but once more than 20 per cent of the company was transferred to employees, it invested $100,000 to move it into a full corporate structure.

Now that it is approaching 100 shareholders, it must become a “disclosing entity” under ASIC guidelines, which means continuous disclosure to shareholders and half-yearly audits. When people leave Cordelta, the company has the option to buy back their shares.

Despite the cost and administrative burden that employee ownership brings, Gutterson says the process has been worth the hassle.

“Psychologically, it makes a big difference. People who own shares feel like it is their business. There is that sense of ownership, responsibility and control,” he says. “The whole company has a family feel and people don’t like to leave it for that reason.”

In fact, staff turnover is less than 5 percent, which is a low rate.

Among other benefits, Cordelta also has a profit-share system, dividing 10 per cent of net profits every six months. An unusual aspect to this is that the profits are shared equally: everyone gets the same amount, typically $2000 to $3000, every six months.

“I get the same amount as the receptionist gets, in dollar terms. It is very socialist really,” Gutterson laughs.

Topics:

Comments