How to Make Work a Place People Want to Go

Not every job is a great pleasure. Some workplaces do offer deeper engagement, better communication standards, or more positive cultures. Other workplaces are just somewhere to get through the daily grind. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Work could actually be…fun. Some employers find that creating a joyful, fun workplace is essential to success. These employers say their employees produce better work, get it done faster, and want to stay at the company their whole careers.

YPO member Mike Novakoski and his employees look forward to work every Monday. Novakoski is the CEO of Elzinga & Volkers, a construction company in Holland, Michigan, USA. While they’re a regional player in an industry many associate with lots of hard work and little recognition, they’re winning national awards for the quality of their workplace environment. 101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For has repeatedly named E&V both tops in the region and a National Elite Award winner. The company’s culture isn’t just based on having a foosball table in the break room and beers on a Friday afternoon. Instead, Novakoski has created an employee-centric culture. It’s made the work more compelling for employees at every level, and nurtured an environment where employees feel motivated and rewarded.

Here is Novakoski’s advice on creating a company where your kids and even your neighbors actually want to work:

1. In a World of Kansas, Be Munchkinland

Novakoski loves “The Wizard of Oz.” He compares the working world to the lonely, black-and-white dustbowl from the beginning of the movie, saying, “Dorothy is singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ and longing for a different, more exciting life.” Novakoski wanted a way for his company to be different. “What if,” he asks, “when an employee opens the front door at E&V, it opens to the wonderful Technicolor world of Oz?” Novakoski wants his employees to have an adventure, explaining, “She doesn’t know it yet, but Dorothy’s in for a fantastic journey meeting an array of characters, solving challenges, and building relationships.” For Novakoski, businesses can provide that experience for employees if leaders take the time to develop the environment. But it’s not just the employees that benefit: great employees are attracted to, and more likely to remain at, companies where leaders have this mindset.

2. Make Your Culture Employee-Centric

“For years, companies have focused on having a client-centered culture,” Novakoski explains. E&V was no different, believing that putting the client first was the way to success. But 10 years ago, E&V surveyed its employees, with surprising results. Novakoski says, “It offered us an opportunity to learn exactly how our people felt about the company. We were able to use this collection of data and comments to create committees that would tackle, head-on, the challenges of becoming a great company in the minds of all our employees.” But Novakoski wasn’t finished. “When we changed from a client-centric to an employee-centric company, we created a much more positive dynamic that has led to outstanding performance for our clients and greater business success.” Employees are more positive and productive when they have a clear understanding of the company’s mission and their role in achieving it. There is gratification in being a respected member of a high-achieving team.

3. It’s Not All About Your Left Brain

Many businesspeople are skilled in quantitative fields that require logic and accuracy. These skills, traditionally associated with the left side of the brain, are critical to running a successful company. But they’re not the only skills leaders need, asserts Novakoski. “‘Right-brained’ leadership is essential. In my experience, people respond much more positively to the intuitive, right-brained leader. These people bring compassion, creativity, emotion, vulnerability, and selflessness into the work day.” This is a gift, Novakoski believes, that “creates opportunity for meaningful relationships built on trust. Enthusiasm and personal and professional rewards will follow.” After all, even the most hardened quant needs a personal touch.

4. Don’t Manage Your People – Lead Them

Nobody likes to be managed. It can be annoying, insulting, or worse. Employees respond better to a real leader, one who uses a combination of right- and left-brain competencies. Novakoski explains, “People need to understand, in simple terms, what the mission of the company is. But they also need to understand how they are a crucial part in that mission.”For E&V, this means having a clear business-wide goal and individual responsibilities that reflect it. “At our company, our tag line is, ‘Unmistakably EV.’ Employees know that our goal is to be unmistakably different from everybody else. And they are asked to look at every single task they do, and do it in a way that’s unlike how anyone in a similar position at another company would do it.” This empowerment has produced great results, Novakoski claims, adding, “It’s a boatload of fun when one of our 200 employees comes up with a really cool idea and sees how our clients, partners, and community react to it!” E&V then further boosts morale by making sure the whole company hears about their colleagues’ contributions. Take pride in your employees’ creativity, and use it to inspire.

5. Develop Employee Maps

E&V has developed two maps for employees. First is a talent mapping program, which Novakoski says “very specifically describes what it takes to join the company, and then how an employee flows from being a technician to a team leader to a corporate leader.” This system eliminates ambiguity from the promotion process. He says, “There is little question in people’s minds as to why they do or do not get promoted. The program offers a great opportunity to have a conversation about how an employee is developing within the company.”

Second is a unique “uMap” for every E&V employee. This map reflects the person’s top five responsibilities for the year, as negotiated with colleagues above and below them, and their business aspirations for the future. But it’s a personal tool, too, that considers personal brand, things the person cares about, and personal and family aspirations. Novakoski describes this as “an incredibly powerful tool that aligns the needs and interests of the company and the employee.” The business and the employee hold each other accountable for achieving their goals.

6. Design an Onboarding Program

Novakoski and his team are busy people, especially as word about their culture has candidates and customers coming out of the woodwork. To get new hires up to speed right away, E&V developed “a unique onboarding program that engages new employees and has them interacting with nearly all of their coworkers within the first three weeks,” Novakoski explains. Existing employees play a role, too, he says, as each is “assigned to be a subject matter expert and individually trains the new hire.” This system encourages immediate, quality bonding and teambuilding.

7. Build a Waiting Room

For Novakoski, one of the most satisfying results of E&V’s culture is the number and quality of employment applications received. He explains, “In Western Michigan, the unemployment rate is around 2%. Finding skilled tradespeople is particularly difficult, and our competitors complain about their inability to find talent.” Amazingly, E&V has the opposite problem, and has created “waiting room” of employees ready to join. Novakoski proudly shares, “We consistently have people from our competition applying for jobs in our company, because they hear what a great place it is to work. We will interview these people, come to an agreement on terms for employment, and then send them back to their current employer, asking them to wait patiently for us to bring them on board when business calls for it.” This impressive reputation among clients and employees took E&V time, planning, and effort to create, but it has helped set up their business for a long and healthy future.

Each week Kevin explores exclusive stories inside YPO, the world’s premiere peer-to-peer organization for chief executives, eligible at age 45 or younger.

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Kevin Daum is an award winning and bestselling author of 5 books. He is a marketer, speaker, and columnist for Inc.com and Smart Business Magazine. As an Inc. 500 entrepreneur, his sales and marketing techniques resulted in more than $1 billion in sales. Drawing on his background in theatre and business, Kevin is a compelling speaker who has engaged and inspired audiences around the globe. Kevin is a graduate of the MIT Entrepreneurial Masters program and has received the Global Learning Award 3 times from the Entrepreneur’s Organization, where he held several board positions. Kevin has designed, produced, and led award-winning executive training programs and events for C-level executives and entrepreneurs on four continents. Previously, Kevin was named one of the 40 people to watch under 40 in San Francisco by the Business Times and in 2006 was named Distinguished Alum of the Year by his alma mater, Humboldt State University.