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How To Turn Your Hellhole Office Into A Great Place To Work

At some workplaces, people love coming in every day. At others, the monthly pay is the only thing stopping the staff from burning the place down. If your company sounds like the latter, here’s what you can do — at any level of the organisation — to make it a better place to work.

Picture: Asa Wilson/Wikimedia, Elnur/Shutterstock

Being a great place to work goes deeper than high pay and great benefits: the work environment and attitude of the employees are important too. The best companies appreciate their workers and offer them benefits and perks that make them feel valued. They also train managers to work efficiently, treat their employees like adults, trust them to get their work done, and judge them on their performance. It all sounds logical, but if all companies were so above-board, everyone would love their jobs. Sadly, we know better.

In this guide, we’ll walk you through some things you can do — whether you’re entry-level, standard staff or management — to make your environment more friendly. First, we need to discuss what makes a company great.

What Makes A Great Workplace?

Listings of the best places to work abound across the world. In Australia, one of the best known is BRW’s ranking, which rates tech companies very highly. US organisation Great Place To Work says the criteria for a good workplace place are fairly simple:

Employees believe they work for great organisations when they consistently:

  • TRUST the people they work for;
  • Have PRIDE in what they do; and
  • ENJOY the people they work with.

It’s important to note that a long list of benefits and perks does not in itself make a great company. You can offer employees free lunches, plenty of relaxation space and flexible work hours, and they’ll still hate working for you if they don’t have the more basic needs met. Picture: Promisa Art Studio/Shutterstock

I you’re looking to make your company a better place, benefits and perks only go so far. They have to be used in a way that doesn’t just make people happy for the moment, but reinforces the fact that they’re appreciated, their work is appreciated, and they’re working with people they like and trust. Keep that in mind while we walk through some of the things you can do to improve your workplace.

Steps You Can Take

You don’t have to be an executive or an HR director with money to spend in order to make basic changes that will improve your work environment (although it helps). We have suggestions for grunt-level workers, middle management and senior staff. Picture: Russell Yarwood/Flickr

Grunt-Level Employees

At this level it might seem like there’s nothing you can do — or nothing you’d be allowed to do — to brighten up your workplace. That’s not always the case. We’ve previously discussed a few steps you can take individually when you feel like your job sucks, but there are other things you can do with your colleagues to make things better for everyone:

  • Start small and talk to your manager. Before you go too far, the first thing you should do is make sure that there’s something you can do without upsetting your boss. They may be able to give you some flexibility to work from home, but they can’t make that change for everyone in the company. Let your boss know that morale is low and you’d like to do something to bring it up. See what’s possible.
  • Break down the walls between your colleagues. Small social activities can go a long way. It sounds corny, but when they’re genuine and meaningful (and things that everyone wants to do versus things they feel forced to do by management) they can brighten up a workplace and help foster the kind of trust and collaboration that the best companies enjoy. At my last company, we were all gamers, so every couple of months we all brought in our rigs, set up a small LAN and held LAN parties. It’s amazing how lobbing a grenade over a wall at your CIO makes you appreciate him more.
  • Propose a small group of changes. Try and get everyone on board with a very small set of proposals that you think your manager or department head can help you with, and then see if they’re possible. Start slow with small changes that you think will make the biggest impact for everyone, even if that’s as simple as a place to eat lunch in peace that isn’t your desk.

Middle Management

If you’re the type of employee that has a little more pull with your boss — perhaps you’ve been around for a couple of years and have some friends at work — consider some more substantive changes:

  • Don’t forget to start small. Just because you’re more senior doesn’t mean that you can just jump in feet first. Again, make sure you’re clear on what you can and can’t do, and start with some of the smaller suggestions. They can help you get your feet wet, show you how much resistance you’ll run into, and whether or not anyone will actually appreciate the changes you’re trying to make. Picture: Robert Banh/Flickr
  • Suggest policies that encourage happier, more productive teams. See if your department could start a telework program, or ask if everyone can try working from home one day a week. There’s been a lot of controversy about working remotely lately, but for many people it’s still a great option. It also shows a lot of trust when management can say “Yes, we trust you to get your work done even if we can’t see you doing it.” If the work that your team does doesn’t require you to have your butt in a seat or a physical presence in your working area for eight hours a day, it can go a long way.
  • Lead the charge. The key to making any place better is to be tenacious. You won’t be able to just throw a suggestion at your manager and then walk away assuming it will happen. You have to be willing to take the reins and do the work required. Bonus: you get to be a leader and show your commitment not just to a project but to the company, which will go far with people who may not even be involved

Senior Staff

If you’re a real power broker in your organisation, or you have the ability to influence company policy as a whole (or maybe just your own department), why not use it to make your team happier and more attractive to new talent? After all, you will need to hire at some point, and your position will be much stronger if you can outline the ways that your team is one of the best teams in the company to work for. If they catch on, or the rest of the company takes notice, you could be responsible for something big that really does make the whole company a great place to work. Picture: Tomas Quinones/Flickr

  • Chat with HR about the changes you’d like to make. You’re not in this alone, and your HR department may be able to lend you some help when it comes to making the changes you’d like. Propose your department as a pilot project.
  • Don’t force your team — let it happen naturally. Most employees have a finely tuned BS detector and can spot the difference between a genuine attempt to help and a token effort. If morale is low, you’ll have a hard time getting people to stay late for a poker night when all they want to do is go home. Get a few people and start building a core group that really does enjoy the activity you’ve planned. It will grow organically from there as long as the doors are open and you invite people on a no-stress basis.
  • Shamelessly borrow policies from the best. Some of the perks and policies that make other companies a great place to work are actually surprisingly easy to implement. Network with other directors at other companies. Ask what makes their teams successful
  • Build a better working environment from the inside out. Remember, the best places don’t just have a laundry list of perks, there’s actually a sense of mutual trust and respect among employees, managers and directors. That can be difficult to foster, but in the end you’re the one who knows and leads your team. Treating your employees with fairness and respect, trusting them to do their jobs and evaluating them fairly on their performance, and encouraging them to help and work with one another will all go much further than speedy new computers and free lunches (although all of those things help too!)

It Starts With Small Steps

Let’s be honest: It can seem easier to quit and find a company that has a corporate culture where you fit in than it is to actually make these small changes and try to improve your working conditions from the inside. It’s why so many of us just give up when things start sucking and start looking for a new job.

However, we shouldn’t abandon the prospect of improvement. Starting off small and slow is a great way to make the kinds of changes that will ultimately make your company not just better for you, but more attractive to other people. You need to be willing to stick to your guns, lead the charge and go out on a limb to make the time you spend at work a little better for everyone. After all, you spend at least 40 hours a week. It should be an enriching experience.


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