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Becoming an Employer of Choice

Philip Maughan, March 2003

Scott Adams makes a good living from poking fun at corporate life through the Dilbert cartoon series. Poor Dilbert inhabits a ‘cubicle’ whose small size and minimal fixtures, including the size and quality of his waste paper bins, befit his low status. The 1960’s Union Carbide Building in New York was the ultimate example of this type of corporate office. The design emphasised the organisation’s pecking order through the size, location and even the number of windows in each office. This approach continued for 30 years, with the focus on “warehousing” people.

As organisations start to recognise the importance of less tangible assets such as employee knowledge, the office is being reconfigured as a team space and a forum for the exchange of ideas. Multidisciplinary teams and professional interaction are crucial to modern business, so warehousing people in isolated cells will no longer be applicable. More employees are also becoming “nomadic”, requiring more than one work space, and their needs must be accommodated. In 1999 Jack Tanis and Francis Duffy surveyed 5,000 workers in leading UK and US companies and found that 58 per cent used both high interaction (team working) and high autonomy (solitary) models of working in the same day. They concluded that knowledge professionals needed both “den” and “club” environments – that is, quiet private spaces as well as areas for social interaction (1)

Skandia, the Swedish insurance company, ranked 5th. in Fortune 500’s 2001 list of ‘Best Employers’ pays great attention to the work environment. The HQ reception area includes a kitchen area where visitors can help themselves to drinks and snacks. According to Knowledge Manager Anna Dansk, this helps to create a more relaxed, less formal atmosphere. Meeting rooms are designed to replicate the average living room, with a range of Ikea and older, hand-me-down furniture, plus a picture window with a nice view (something that’s perhaps easier to arrange in Stockholm than elsewhere).

So is creating a pleasant, relaxed working environment the key to becoming an employer of choice? According to the results of surveys such as the Gallup Q12 on Engaged vs Disengaged employees or the Sheffield Effectiveness study into productivity and profit, probably not. But creating the right working environment does seem to be one of a raft of measures that contribute towards a strategy for becoming an employer of choice. Others key factors, apart from an attractive remuneration package, seem to include: a sense of ownership, opportunities for personal development, variety and the ubiquitous ‘work–life balance’

The London Borough of Merton Council has halved its employees’ sickness rate and boosted productivity by a third following a pilot scheme that introduced flexible working arrangements for its employees. The “Work-Life Balance” pilot was implemented eight months ago in three departments. Merton Council was experiencing high levels of sickness, low motivation and a general feeling that Merton wasn’t an employer of choice. New working patterns included a compressed working week, working from home, career breaks, job share and special leave, such as compassionate leave. The introduction of home working led to a 75 per cent reduction in time off for medical appointments. The project required a major change in management style as staff are now measured on output rather than on office attendance (2)

Merton Council’s strategy is supported by the results of a recent survey (3), which asked both employees and H.R. managers whether they thought sickness and absenteeism would fall dramatically if employees could work more flexibly. The results were as follows:

The Gallup Q12 survey (4 / 5) indicated that significant financial benefits can be gained by successfully ‘engaging’ the workforce, due to lower absenteeism and staff turnover, while the Sheffield Study (6) demonstrates the positive impact on productivity and profit due to increased job satisfaction, responsibility and flexibility.



Not Sure


HR Managers









Fun at Work?

Does having fun at work have any bearing on becoming an employer of choice? The mechanics of today’s work environment raises the potential for stress, absenteeism and staff turnover. Southwest Airlines recognises this and pays a lot of attention to making work a total pleasure. The Financial Times quoted customer service supervisor Irene Schoenberg:‘I love coming to work every day, It’s the lively atmosphere, the flexibility and the fun we have… What we give the company, I think they definitely give us back’

Wiith that kind of attitude it’s not surprising that Southwest Airlines consistently appears in Forbes magazine’s Top Employers list. But encouraging a sense of fun at work is probably more than simply dress down days and zany events, however enjoyable they might be. High quality relationships with colleagues, based on mutual respect are a must if we want to encourage creativity, flexibility and commitment. These factors all contribute to making work more enjoyable, and fun then becomes an outcome rather than an input.

Luminaries such as Sumanthra Goshal, Charles Handy and Stephen Covey all note the critical importance of high trust in encouraging responsive, flexible organisations. So the amount of fun we’re having at work is probably a good indicator of the level of trust, ownership and job-satisfaction and ultimately, whether yours is an employer of choice. The words of Peter Baker (8) provide a fitting summary: ‘Many of us, as we contemplate returning to work on dark January mornings, are yearning for work that provides something more than mere fun – such as a genuine sense of purpose and fulfilment’

1. 'Room with a View', Carol Glover, People Management, 8.8.02
2. People Management, 10.1.02‘
3. 'Mutual Mistrust’ Human Resources, October 2002
4. ‘Same indifference’ Marcus Buckingham, People Management, 17.2.00
5. 'What a waste’ Marcus Buckingham, People Management, 11.10.01
6. Impact of people Management Practices on Business Performance’ Malcolm Patterson, Michael West, Rebecca Lawthom, Stephen Nickell, CIPD 1998
7. NUTS! Southwest Airlines Crazy Recipe for Business and Personal Success
8. 'Have fun. And that’s an order'. Observer, 3.1.99

Articles in this section:

Intellect, Will and Passion: The Art of Facilitating Outdoor Development Training

Putting Fun Into Work

Developing a Learning Organisation

Hearts & Minds Wins Latest Work Force Battle

Principle Centred Leadership

Becoming an Employer of Choice

The Half Hearted Virus: A trainer's tale of despair

Leadership: Death of the Hero?

Engagement: Increasing productivity by gaining the commitment of the workforce