Below the Surface
Consider more than the aesthetics of an organization to find out what the work environment is really like
by Denise Wrestler
Imagine you have an interview at a new, unfamiliar organization for the first time. You park your car and head toward the front door, taking note of the freshly manicured landscaping and the beautiful glass facade and architecture. You walk in and are greeted by a well-dressed receptionist who signs you in and provides you with a visitor’s pass, and you take a seat on one of the shiny leather chairs in the waiting room. There’s a soothing waterfall to your left and you contemplate making yourself an espresso from the self-serve coffee bar to your right.
What is your first impression of this organization? Are you impressed? Disappointed? Perhaps you feel a little unworthy.
Imagine again you are going on an interview, but this time when you park your car and head toward the front door you notice cobwebs coating the outside windows and the building looks like it might have once been a strip mall or movie theater. You walk in and are greeted by a young man wearing jeans and a t-shirt who high-fives you and yells to Rick, the interviewer, from behind the reception desk that his 10 o’clock has arrived.
What is your first impression of this organization? Are you unimpressed, or maybe intrigued?
A building’s exterior and reception area can say a lot about an organization, but there are many other factors that contribute to the overall work environment. Some organizations go for the wow factor and spend thousands, sometimes millions of dollars on fancy architecture and flashy furniture with the hope of making a knockout first impression.
But does an impressive exterior necessarily set the tone for the organization itself? Do shiny bronze statues in the entryway make for happy employees? Does a cubicle farm of neatly dressed professionals tell the full story of what it’s like to work for that organization? The successful work environment might be all of these things or none of these things. The way an organization looks doesn’t necessarily correlate to how an organization acts—something to keep in mind when searching for the ideal job.
Don’t judge a book by its cover
Often, the quality of an organization’s exterior has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of the organization itself. Many organizations whose employees remote in, for example, might save on overhead by leasing a not-so-glamorous storefront.
One organization I have done business with has employees scattered across the United States, but its home office is in a run-down area of downtown Las Vegas. When you look up the address for this organization on Google Earth, a desolate office structure housed between a graffiti-covered diner and an out-of-business hotel appears. Beneath the exterior of this physical office, though, are a president and CEO whose thorough understanding of state tax laws and budgeting ultimately led them to this specific location. The organization thrives financially despite the building’s off-putting physical appearance.
Obviously, an office building that has outdated furnishings and questionable cleanliness doesn’t necessarily reflect the quality of the organization itself. Alternatively, some organizations that frequently host clients and customers invest large sums of money in the building’s physical appearance to ensure they leave a lasting first impression. Many bigger organizations pour money into their building architecture with the hope that it will lead to not only industry admiration, but also possible media coverage and buzz in the community.
Apple, for example, prides itself on its spaceship-looking corporate office, designed mostly out of expensive curved glass and high-end amenities. But do the employees who pass the room of giant rubber balls or movie theaters to get to their desks, truly enjoy their jobs? Some do, certainly, but there are probably others who don’t feel the physical work environment justifies what they may feel is their low pay or consistent disrespect.
Nerf guns and free soda
There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of surveys showing that not only do fun work environments promote employee retention, but employees are also more productive and more engaged, and just happier overall.
By far, one of the absolute best organizations I have had the pleasure of working for had random Nerf gun wars and routine after-lunch soccer games. Employee satisfaction was directly and indirectly related to what kind of free sodas and snacks were provided in the breakroom. Even those who didn’t participate in the extracurricular activities or free snacks benefited from the positive work atmosphere that resulted from those who did. This particular organization struck a delicate balance between having fun and working. The employees were spoiled with freedoms, and in turn handsomely rewarded the organization with high productivity and ingenuity.
Not all organizations must provide games and freebies to foster a fun work environment. The same organization with Nerf guns and free soda also had an innovation room—a room covered floor to ceiling with white boards and a basket of never-ending dry-erase markers.
Another organization provided each employee with a monthly office supply allowance employees could use to purchase fun cubicle décor or specialty pens for their work stations. Sometimes just having a direct manager who has your back makes all the difference. Whether it’s workplace perks or a fun atmosphere, a successful work environment always includes the employees, not just the physical space in which they work.
No one actually likes dressing up for work
Does anyone truly enjoy wearing a suit and tie every day? Or a wrinkle-free blouse that must be dry cleaned? Most people probably don’t.
Not only do the organizational perks and support make up a large portion of employee satisfaction, so do restrictions and guidelines. A work environment that enforces a strict dress code or even strict working hours can make for an undesirable employment situation, even if there is free soda in the breakroom.
As competition for qualified talent increases, so has the focus on the work environment requirements. More and more people are willing to accept a smaller salary for the flexibility of working from home, or even working in an environment that doesn’t emphasize a "dress for success" mentality. It has become apparent over the past several years that the most favorable workplace perk is a flexible work environment.
Sadly, there are still organizations that pride themselves on a strict, rigorous schedule for their employees. You’re considered late if you aren’t at your desk by 9 a.m. You’re considered a slacker if you leave at 4:58 p.m. You’re labeled "not a team player" if you don’t work through your lunch. It’s possible organizations like this have these restrictions for a reason. Perhaps the once-flexible work environment was taken advantage of one too many times, so the organization had to revoke some of the privileges.
How does this type of work atmosphere play into the other attributes that make up an ideal work environment? Would you be willing to follow strict organizational guidelines in exchange for free soda and on-site dry cleaning?
Your ideal work environment requires analysis
Finding the ideal ratio of work and play is more complex than just looking at an organization’s building or employees.
A colleague of mine once interviewed at an organization that was comprised of spacious buildings in an impressive campus complex. His first impression was positive—the water fountains and spaciousness of the campus was calming. His first impression was immediately trumped by his second impression after an unpleasant run-in with the rude front desk security guard. But his spirits were lifted again when he saw the foosball table in the breakroom, and shot down once again after seeing the cubicle farm full of unhappy faces. It was apparent that the calming water fountains were not working.
Not all organizations can provide their employees with the ideal work environment, but there are organizations that try. Some organizations allow casual dress if employees dress up when important clients visit. Some organizations allow more flexible schedules for certain departments with the understanding that the privilege can be revoked with declining productivity. Some organizations take advantage of the free positive marketing they receive on social media from their happy employees rather than spend money on expensive furnishings.
It’s apparent that the employee voice often speaks volumes more about an organization than the furniture.
When you’re looking for a job, keep in mind that there are many factors that go in to determining the perfect work environment. It is important to assess them all and determine your ideal fit. If you already have a job, it wouldn’t hurt to suggest ideas to your current organization—you might be surprised that your organization welcomes the change.
Denise Wrestler is an independent quality assurance/regulatory assurance consultant for CYA Medical Device Consulting in Dallas. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical and biomedical engineering from the University of California, Irvine. An ASQ member, Wrestler is an ASQ-certified quality auditor and engineer.