Best workplaces 2006: Lessons from some of the best

Best practices that can help boost your office morale -- no matter what industry you're in.

Urban Systems Ltd.
Kamloops, BC | consulting in engineering, planning and landscape architecture | 227 employees

In March, the 40 partners who together own consulting firm Urban Systems gathered for their annual general meeting. One agenda item was to affirm formally a long-standing principle: the company is not for sale, at any price.

It's a message that employees hear often–and warmly receive. Management's message is clear: we're not out to use your hard work to line someone else's pockets; we see you as future owners. “There is certainly stability in knowing that this is not a short-term thing,” says Samantha Ward, a consultant who joined Urban Systems in 2001, one year after graduating from Queen's University with a civil engineering degree. “If you're here and enjoy what you do, you could feasibly spend the rest of your career at this company and not feel limited in any sense.”

What makes such enthusiasm possible is a supportive and collaborative atmosphere, where responsibilities and rewards are shared. Knowledge transfer is emphasized through internal training sessions that bring together staff from the company's six offices in British Columbia and Alberta, and “novice consultants” (who have two to five years' experience) pick personal coaches who offer career advice and mentoring. “It's very informal and interactive,” says Ward. “It's not like you sit down once a year and go through your goals and walk away.”

Founded 31 years ago by eight equal partners, Urban Systems prides itself on a flat management structure, rejects authority based on seniority, and has an actively designed and managed corporate culture. But the firm has grown quickly in the past five years–and preserving and revitalizing that culture is a top priority.

Each year, for example, principals take employee suggestions and select an annual theme based on a timely or important aspect of Urban Systems' culture, such as “generosity,” or this year's theme, “commitment to excellence.” The managing partner at each office then asks one employee–usually a relatively newer staff member–to build a volunteer team to devise and plan a series of events that advance that concept throughout the year. Ward was part of a team that organized a “generosity” event in 2004 that got small teams at each of the firm's offices to compete in small groups building children's bikes–surprise gifts for needy children who were invited to come and receive them. “It was certainly a sense of pride for the whole office to be able to contribute to the community in that way,” says Ward.

Cameron Gatey, a 14-year veteran and a partner who in December succeeded co-founder Gordon Petersen as CEO, says Urban Systems is very much like a family. “When people feel that connection,” he says, “they are more inclined to think their contribution actually has meaning. I think they feel that their contribution helps to ensure the longevity of the organization.” A.W.

Trico Homes Inc.
Calgary | construction and real estate | 76 employees

The way Trico Homes CEO Wayne Chiu sees it, a work environment that encourages the Calgary home builder's employees to participate in the charitable and cultural life of the city pays back in spades. “I want to create a culture where we work as a team–where each person covers the other's butts,” says Chiu, a Hong Kong native who started up Trico in 1993. Helping the wider community by organizing or taking part in events, like Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta, Hong Kong Days or Paint the Town Red (when staff descend on a low-income senior's home for a “Trico Extreme Makeover”), he adds, is “great for the company, great for morale, great for the team.” A high participation rate in non-work events (in some cases more than 80%) is important, Chiu emphasizes, when you're a fast-growing company. Trico is now the eighth-largest builder in Calgary, compared to 15th five years ago, and has almost quadrupled its number of employees in the same period.

The community spirit has had a huge impact on how employees work together to handle the challenges of being part of the red-hot Calgary real estate market. Trico may have many of the same organizational features that other companies use–weekly executive, marketing, sales and operational meetings and biannual company-wide gatherings more focused on strategic planning–but bonding outside the office makes its long-term planning and development that much more successful, according to Chiu. He cites the example of how Trico came up with a five-year strategic plan in an all-staff “bottom up” process that outlined expectations for the future. Says Chiu: “The five-year plan is owned by the people who work for Trico, not by senior management, not by me.”

Another important aspect of Trico's work culture is promoting multiculturalism. As the booming Alberta economy and high oil prices attract people from all over Canada–and, indeed, the world–Calgary is becoming more culturally diverse. A good number of Trico's staff members–about 15%–are visible minorities, but involvement with Calgary's Dragon Boat Festival, the Calgary Immigrant Aid Society and English as a second language programs also gives the firm a good “in” when it comes to figuring out the housing needs of people from other cultures, one that can be used in marketing its homes. “Ethnic buyers are probably going to be one of the more significant growth markets we'll see,” says Richard Gotfried, vice-president of marketing.

Another pillar of Trico's culture is diversity of experience and background. “We like to bring people with different skills to the company,” says Norm Mross, vice-president of operations, adding that “aptitude and attitude” are often more important than experience. “I can teach people the skills they will need for a particular job. I can't teach attitude.” Z.O.

Toronto | information-technology consulting firm | 117 employees

Openness. It's a word that comes up a lot at many of Canada's best workplaces. But consulting firm Sapient Canada takes the concept rather literally. “Some people claim their doors are always open,” president Hank Summy jokes, “but I don't even have a door.”

Neither does anyone else at the company. Far from being chained to their cubicles, the 100-plus people who work at Sapient's bright offices on the edge of Toronto's financial district sit with co-workers in wall-less pods, arranged according to the projects they are undertaking at any given time. That an open office environment can make a real difference may sound a little hokey, Summy acknowledges, as he walks past his own wall-less workstation, but managers at Sapient have learned that the simple act of being able to see the people who work with you can indirectly go a long way toward creating happy employees and healthy profits.

Whether it's small gestures like creating a more collegial work environment, or larger perks, like $6,000 in tuition reimbursement and negotiable 12-month sabbaticals after only six months' employment, Sapient takes the concept of investing in its people to new levels.

Of course, in the knowledge-based consulting industry, it makes sense to focus on your workers, so perhaps it's no wonder Sapient invests in human capital. If the company's financial performance is any indication, it's getting a pretty fair return on investment–revenues at U.S. parent Sapient Corp. jumped 26%, to US$319 million, in 2005. Clearly, Sapient's people-first strategy is paying off. And even when there are short-term costs to incur, the company doesn't let a focus on the bottom line trump strategic investment in staff, senior manager of technology Michael Tayag points out.

A few years ago, when Sapient decided it would open an office in India, it filled the facility with expatriates from western offices, at western salaries, eschewing the obvious cost benefits that drew other North American companies to the subcontinent. “There were around 30 or 40 of us, so it was a significant hit,” Tayag says. “But they saw the long-term gain of installing that Sapient strategy, so they took the short-term pain for long-term gain.”

Indeed, far from costing money, the Sapient example proves how having a great workplace can boost morale, decrease turnover, increase productivity and pad your bottom line. As Tayag puts it, “People don't realize that the benefits outweigh the costs. If you're going to claim something is a core value, you have to be willing to make concessions to adhere to it, and I see that every day here.” P.E.

TD Bank Financial Group
Toronto | financial services | 54,995 employees

Size can be a great tool for taking advantage of economies of scale. But when it comes to effectively managing office culture, it can be both a blessing and a curse. That's why it's important for large organizations to put a high priority on monitoring workplace culture. To that end, TD Bank Financial Group checks in twice a year with employees via a survey, says Teri Currie, executive vice-president of human resources.

Like many financial institutions, TD has an attractive compensation package, with competitive base salaries and a popular employee stock-purchase plan that 75% of its staff signs up for. But creating contented workers isn't all about cash. “We've found that it's really about pride,” Currie says. “Making that goodwill sustainable means helping your people achieve their own definition of success. They stay because they're proud to be here.”

One of the best ways that TD has found to instil that sense of pride, Currie says, is by actively supporting volunteerism. And here again, it's not just about the money: not only did the bank give $27.5 million to charities in 2005, but it encourages employees to get involved by allowing paid time off–over and above vacation days–for volunteer activities. Though the bank works with countless organizations, some of the major beneficiaries in 2005 were the Children's Miracle Network, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the United Way and Habitat for Humanity. TD employees can also apply for a grant for charities they support, after accruing at least 40 hours per year volunteering with the organization. “Our program allows them the flexibility in their schedule to be out in the community donating their time, and backing that activity up with corporate funding,” Currie says. At the end of the day, giving back to employees and their community pays for itself in spades. “Employees like to work for winning organizations,” Currie argues, “and winning organizations tend to create engaged employees, which produces results, which enhances shareholder value. Our internal research shows that's clearly the case at TD.”

Though Currie says TD has a long track record in employee relations, the tipping point might have been the bank's acquisition of Canada Trust in 2000. “Both organizations had a strong history of listening to employees and acting on suggestions. But post-integration, it became important to define the culture because the road map had changed.” Employees needed to know what the new corporate focus was. So Currie says that making the corporate values clear and displaying them in a practical way that resonated with all staff members was vitally important–and benefited everyone in the long run, because they knew what they had to do to get ahead. The TD-Canada Trust union wasn't just the largest bank merger in Canadian history; it was a blending of two successful corporate cultures, Currie adds. And it's worth noting that the new bank's CEO, Ed Clark, came not from the original TD, but from Canada Trust, the acquired company. It just goes to show: at TD, even a small fish can one day find himself the biggest fish in an even bigger pond. P.E.

Hilti (Canada) Corp.

Mississauga, ON | construction equipment | 274 employees

For 10 years, Hilti developed a can-do attitude using Gung Ho!–the title of a book by Escondido, Calif.-based international management training and consulting guru Ken Blanchard–as its mantra. The slogan appeared on internal communications. Employees even used it as a salute. But Gung Ho! was also a training program–complete with a sometimes unintentionally hilarious video–designed to introduce employees to the construction-equipment manufacturer, whose products range from hand-held drilling tools to demolition equipment.

Hilti takes its culture very seriously. So seriously, in fact, that new recruits get two days of “culture training” before they begin four weeks of product and sales training. That's after four weeks of pre-training.

Last year, though, Gung Ho! was transformed into a new program called Culture Journey. It's not as catchy, certainly, so don't expect employees to use it as a salutation. But Gareth Lewis, vice-president of human resources for Hilti in North America, says it's kind of like Gung Ho! all grown up. Over the past year, nearly every Hilti employee has gone through a mandatory two-day Culture Journey that not only reintroduces the company's culture, but also examines how it is using employee and customer feedback

surveys. “Team camps” are broken down into workshops that focus on three specific principles: we do worthwhile work; we take self-responsibility to achieve our goals; and, we encourage each other and recognize results. “At the Culture Journey we sit down and take a critical look at ourselves and say, 'This is where we are not so strong, this is where we need to improve,'” says Lewis. “Because if you don't know where you are and where your problems are, how can you set a direction for the future?”

High-brow ideals aside, the Culture Journey makes sure every employee knows what Hilti stands for and expects. That's especially important given the parent company is a US$3-billion worldwide behemoth based in Liechtenstein that deals directly with its customers through account managers and its retail outlets Hilti Centers and Hilti Pro Shops. While neither the company's framework ideals of integrity, courage, teamwork and commitment, nor its underlying business philosophy have changed, Culture Journey is meant to be interpreted locally, says Lewis, giving employees a say in how they deal with their customers. That means an account manager in northern British Columbia doesn't have to call head office over every little detail.

Perhaps the most im- portant aspect of Culture Journey is that it's a process that never ends. Preparations are underway for Team Camp 2 this August. A.H.

Regina | telecommunications | 4,146 employees

The first time Lena Tanner invited her SaskTel colleagues to participate in a traditional sweat-lodge ceremony to learn more about her Aboriginal heritage, she was understandably nervous. “I don't think a lot of people understand Indian culture,” says Tanner, 50, who helps develop new products and services for the Regina-based telecom. She needn't have worried–the ceremony, held in October 2004, was a resounding success for all the participants, both Aboriginal and not. “When a corporation is prepared to invest in initiatives like these, it's because it cares about its people,” says Tanner, who also organized a “medicine walk” on the Piapot First Nation reserve to educate coworkers on the healing powers of indigenous plants and flowers. In both cases, SaskTel senior management threw its full support behind each event. “Where else could you work that gives you that?”

Caring about its Aboriginal employees is a strategic goal for this 98-year-old Crown corporation, which provides cellular, phone, Internet, and multimedia services to 13 cities and more than 500 remote communities in Saskatchewan, many of them inhabited by First Nations and Métis people. Those groups currently make up almost 8% of SaskTel's workforce, a number company president and CEO Robert Watson is hoping will one day mirror the provincial population of 13.5%. But what makes SaskTel different, says diversity manager Terry Bird, is that the $1.2-billion company does more than pay lip service to its representative workforce strategy. By valuing Aboriginal participation and supporting the goal of self-determination for Saskatchewan's 130,000 Aboriginal people, SaskTel also encourages its employees to think of new ways of doing business that will directly benefit First Nations and Métis people.

Case in point: For the past seven years SaskTel has contracted a call centre to service its customers in three different First Nations languages. In 2004, the company also set up a high-tech, interactive drop-in centre at its Regina headquarters to encourage Aboriginal youth to consider careers in Saskatchewan's growing telecom industry.

SaskTel says such moves have helped position it as an employer-of-choice in a province where a rapidly aging workforce threatens to create skilled-worker shortages. “Making the workplace more inclusive benefits everyone,” says Carolynne Warner, human-resources diversity manager. “This is not just about engaging our employees within the workplace, it's about creating opportunities for them outside these walls too. Saskatchewan's youth are our future employee base–and our future customer base.” E.P.

S. C. Johnson and Son Ltd.
Brantford, ON | manufacturing, personal and household goods | 463 employees

S. C. Johnson is a family company. No, really, it's right there next to its name: S. C. Johnson, A Family Company. Yes, it's true that the 119-year-old manufacturer of household goods with international headquarters in Racine, Wis., has been run for five generations by the Johnson clan. But the company–whose products include such well-known brands as Edge, Pledge and Windex–also treats its employees like kin. From an on-site massage therapist and recreation complex to local day care and a cottage resort on ritzy Lake Joseph in Ontario's Muskoka region, S. C. Johnson offers the kind of perks you'd want your relatives to have. Not to mention an excellent bonus system that includes extremely generous profit-sharing, something the company offers to each and every employee. Perhaps that's why more than one-quarter of its workforce has been with Johnson for more than 15 years, and the company has never had to lay off a single employee. Ever.

Drew Franklin, president of S. C. Johnson's Canadian division, says that while those benefits certainly stand out, it's the company's flexibility and informal culture that attract and keep people working in Brantford, a 90-minute drive southwest of Toronto that is a little off the beaten track for most consumer packaged-goods businesses. For example, S. C. Johnson allows employees to telecommute or work flexible hours to meet the needs of their families and do their jobs. “More students and new recruits are looking for some of those intangibles,” says Franklin. The organization also lets workers recover from illness or family emergencies at their own pace by offering two weeks of sick leave at full pay and 24 weeks at two-thirds pay after just one year's service. After five years, employees get 10 weeks of sick leave at full pay, and 16 weeks at two-thirds pay.

One Canadian-only program is the company's Kid's Camps, which operate on days such as Easter Monday and school breaks when day care is closed. Instead of forcing employees to choose between finding alternative child care or taking vacation time, they can, for a nominal

fee, bring their children into work, where they are taken care of by YMCA staff, says Shirley Harries-Langley, vice-president of human resources. The company will also hand out pagers for a period of time if employees need to be instantly reachable by their families. Harries-Langley says the idea started for expectant parents, but has evolved to cover many other scenarios. “We allow our employees to have a relationship with us that provides them with a situation where there are fewer work/life trade-offs,” she says.

Although S. C. Johnson has sales offices in Calgary and Montreal, and a small manufacturing plant in Varennes, Que., most employees work in the Brantford facility, where there is a full-sized gym–which doubles as an assembly room for semi-annual full-employee meetings–a squash court and a weight room that spouses and children can also use free of charge. Two or three times a week, a ball-hockey game will break out during lunch. After all, the family that plays together, stays together. A.H.

Keller Williams Ottawa Realty
Ottawa | real estate | 175 employees

No matter how great a workplace is, it won't be a perfect fit for everyone. A successful company must attract and nurture the right mix of people. Case in point: the real-estate franchise Keller Williams, which has more than 380 branches in the U.S. and Canada. Its values statement gives “spirituality, family and then business” top priority. At the Ottawa office–quite a culturally diverse agency–some 20 co-workers gather over lunch every Tuesday to discuss the Bible. That's not a common practice in your typical secular workplace in Canada, but Keller Williams promotes such soulful pursuits, even urging individuals to adopt a “personal mission.” For some, it may sound strange. “Oftentimes, we're called an airy-fairy company, or we're called a cult,” says CEO Mo Anderson on a recruiting DVD. “And I just say to people who just get so worried about that, 'Oh honey, don't worry about it. They're just ignorant.' They don't know the difference between the words “cult”–that's where you drink the Kool-Aid–and “culture,” which is simply a belief system or a value system that you have clearly defined and you attempt to follow.”

Keller Williams' pay structure encourages teamwork–quite uncommon in the ultra-competitive real-estate world–because profit-sharing is based on the commissions of recruits agents refer to the company and, in turn, those people's referrals. Each year, agents give up 30% of their first $50,000 in commissions to the agency (about 10 house sales), but keep 100% over and above that. And unlike most real-estate brokerages, if they fall short of target, they don't have to top up the difference. The result? A positive atmosphere that supports new recruits. “There is a learning environment that I've never seen at any other real estate office, and this is my third,” says Lori Briard, director of agent services. In less than five years, Keller Williams' Ottawa office has become one of the largest agencies in the city. That's good for more than just the soul. A.W.