Michael Bailey Deputy editor

Michael has been a business journalist for 12 years. He has extensive experience editing magazines covering funds management, commercial property and the travel industry. In 2011 he won a Citi Excellence in Financial Journalism award for a BRW cover story on economic indicators.

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Simply the best

Published 20 June 2012 21:58, Updated 30 January 2013 21:59

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Simply the best

Rocking: Antin Harasymiv relaxes at Google headquarters Peter Rae

After scouring more workplaces than ever before this year, the Great Place to Work Institute has declared Melbourne-based IT consultancy OBS to be Australia’s best place to work in 2012.

You can read all about why in our profile “OBS takes it on trust” but suffice to say it boils down to a simple formula.

“People like knowing they are part of a team, and knowing what that team and the organisation it belongs to is achieving,” the owner of the Australian arm of the Great Place to Work Institute’s global franchise, Zrinka Lovrencic, says.

The secret of constructing a team worthy of a Best Places to Work guernsey seems to be pretty simple, too. Atlassian founder Mike Cannon-Brookes calls it the “beer test ... Would I find it interesting to have a beer with this job applicant?” OBS has a three-interview model but managing director Andy Neumann admits the textbooks are cast aside once candidates are on the final strait.

“We have a firm ‘the gut is always right’ rule and for the most part we’ve been on the money,” he says.

Getting more guts in on the decision seems to be a trend – several of the best places this year report allowing non-management staff to help interview their wanna-be teammates, while social media has become integral to the referral and recruitment process.

A quick scan through this year’s top 50 also reveals more large, multinational companies than in the previous three lists.

It shows that having a huge headcount should be no barrier to creating a great workplace culture, Lovrencic says.

“A hallmark of the companies on the list is transparency, making sure staff get regular and genuinely two-way communication with their immediate manager,” she says.

One of the big four professional services firms would not make the Best Places To Work list if it had a ‘”command and control” structure, the Oceania people leader for Ernst & Young, which debuts at No. 33 this year, McGregor Dixon, says.

“We’ve got 5000 people in Australia alone, so the attracting and retaining of our staff happens at the level of their relationship with the partner they actually work for,” he says.

“If we’re successful in instilling in our partners what we call our ‘spirit of partnership’, then they all start to lead in a consistent way, making sure their people feel recognised, are excited about a career path here and are not afraid to ask about flexible work arrangements like job sharing.

“There’s a million other things you can do but if you get that right, things like perks start to take a lesser focus.”

Perks, of course, are still a big weapon in the armoury of the best places to work, although Lovenric says the overall levels of bonus superannuation, subsidised insurance and referral bonuses are down this year.

Instead she has noticed that philanthropic programs have become de rigeur for virtually the entire top 50.

“Especially as Generation Y has come into the workforce, corporate social responsibility has become really important,” she says.

“These younger people are socially aware and they want to work for somebody that allows them to give back.”

The importance of having a charitable volunteering program, which helps staff to feel they are contributing more to the community than profits and dividends, is explored in more detail in the accompanying article “Give and you shall receive”.

Where new perks are being introduced, there is a trend towards those that directly address staff health and well-being, Lovrencic says.

Google Australia, for instance, has just become the pilot site for a program called “Optimise Your Life”, which the search giant plans to roll out worldwide.

“It’s about looking after Googlers’ physical, financial and emotional well-being,” staffing manager Caitriona Staunton says.

The physical part is addressed through perks such as an annual sports carnival, on-site skin checks and flu shots and the recent purchase of several kayaks, so staff can lose that office tan with a paddle in Sydney Harbour at lunchtime.

Financial peace of mind is achieved with in-house talks from financial planners and accountants, while for emotional health there’s free meditation classes and stress counsellors.

It’s no surprise that information technology companies have again dominated the top of the list, Lovenric says.

“There’s more competition for staff than in other industries; they really have to be at the top of their game to attract and retain,” she observes. “Some other industries are quite complacent and they’re losing out in a shallow labour market.”

Stagnant workplaces think that aspiring to be a Best Place to Work is expensive, Lovrencic says, but it does not have to be.

She points out that of the 291 companies in this year’s study, only three have a universal profit-sharing scheme (although admittedly, winner OBS has just introduced one).

“Overall, money doesn’t influence whether you love your job,” she says.