Why the 'Best Places to Work' Often Aren't
I can't imagine going to work at a company without first checking how its employees feel about working there. If you want to know what it's like to work in a given company, what better way than to ask its employees, and providing them anonymity, so they feel safe to say what they really feel?
Last week, the website Glassdoor released its seventh-annual list of the 50 best places to work among large companies. You don't have to read far into the reviews to discover how vastly different it can be to work in a high-rated vs. a low-rated company.
For example, 95 percent employees at Nestle Purina and 91 percent at In-N-Out Burger would recommend their companies to a friend, compared with just 29 percent who would do so at RadioShack and Sears.
Google, the highest-rated company on both Glassdoor and a list compiled by Fortune magazine, promotes a culture of constant innovation and an inspiring mission. It also offers a remarkable array of services and perks to employees. Alongside competitive salaries, Google provides terrific food, at no cost, workout facilities and low-cost massages.
But these lists don't really measure something even more important: the quality of their employees' lives. Over the last decade, I've spent countless hours interacting with employees at all levels in many of the companies that appear on the Glassdoor best-companies list, as well as on the Fortune annual 100 Best Companies to Work For list.
What these employees tell me, with increasing consistency, is how exhausted and overwhelmed they are. The relentless work demands take a toll on their health, happiness and family life. That also affects their morale and their ability to think creatively and reflectively.
Why, then, do employees at all of the companies on these lists rate their employers as highly as they do, including on their internal engagement surveys?
They are, I believe, the prisoners of low expectations. They're grading on a curve.
Their vision of the possible is limited by the workplace experiences they've had. They've been rewarded for working long hours while sacrificing other aspects of their lives, including time with their families and time for themselves. They've learned how to rationalize their choices, and not to expect more from their employers.
In turn, even companies genuinely committed to creating positive work environments mostly continue to operate as if their people have infinite capacity, and are able to do ever more, with fewer resources. Precisely the opposite is true.
Energy is our most precious resource. In physics, it's defined starkly as "the capacity to do work." Higher demand in the absence of sufficient rest and renewal means less energy. Less energy means less capacity.
So how can you define a great place to work? It begins with creating a work environment that enables and encourages all employees to regularly refuel and renew themselves, both on and off the job. That will make them capable of bringing the best of themselves to work.
As demand rises ruthlessly and relentlessly, employees at the "best places to work" aren't less willing to go above and beyond what's expected. That is the definition of engagement, but it's not sufficient. K. Anders Ericsson is the researcher best known as the architect of the "10,000 hour rule," which suggests that it takes 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in a given field. But Mr. Ericsson has also found that the best performers in a range of disciplines practice in surprisingly small increments. Typically, it is for no more than 90 minutes at a time without interruption, followed by a break, and rarely for more than 4½ hours total in any given day.
How many employers on the Glassdoor and Fortune lists actively encourage their employees to work no more than 90 minutes at a time? Or to take regular renewal breaks during the day? Or to truly disconnect from work in the evenings and on the weekends?
Precious few companies recognize that it's not the number of hours their people work that determines the value they create, but rather the energy they bring to the hours they work. As Mr. Ericsson has found, it's possible to generate more value in less time by focusing intensely and then renewing than it is by working long and continuous hours.
The simplest measure of a great place to work is how it makes employees feel to work there day in and day out. That requires meeting the four core needs of their employees: physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Is there any question that if people feel healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful at work, they will perform better? In turn, here is the question employers atop the Glassdoor and Fortune lists would be well served to ask themselves: How much time and energy are you investing to ensure that your employees are healthier, happier, more focused and more purposeful?