Best workplaces 2006: Universal appeal - best workplaces in 29 nations share key similarities

Best workplaces in 29 nations share key similarities.

The list | The best workplaces in Canada | Building a better workplace culture | Canada and the world

It's one thing to understand what great workplaces in Canada look like, but business is global. So how do the best places to work in this country stack up against those in the rest of the world?

Intuitively, it might seem difficult to compare. HR policies and benefits vary widely from one nation to the next. But while cultural and operational issues will differ, some things — like the importance of trust — are truly universal.

The Great Place to Work model, developed more than two decades ago in the U.S. and now used to survey some 750 companies in that country each year, has since been exported to 28 nations in Europe, Latin America and Asia. In 2005, 3,000 organizations around the globe completed the institute's 57-question culture survey. “We've used the model all around the world,” says Amy Lyman, co-founder of the Great Place to Work Institute in San Francisco. “What we think we're dealing with here is a basic set of human needs and human values. And while there is definitely cultural influence, we think what we've tapped into is something all human beings find valuable and useful, and want to experience.”

The employee surveys have revealed a remarkable consistency in what makes a great workplace, despite a wide mix of industries represented and the size of companies eligible to participate. On each question, average response rates of the Top 10 companies in each country are similar across the board. And if results from emerging economies are removed, average scores are nearly identical.

For example, employees at a company in the Top 10 in any given country agreed 85% of the time, on average, with the statement: “Management is approachable, easy to talk with.” The lowest response rate was 76% in France; the highest was Peru's 94%. (In Canada, 88% agreed.) The overall statement “Taking everything into account, I would say this is a great place to work” was affirmed 89% of the time, on average, especially in industrialized nations, while 90% of employees at the Top 10 Canadian employers agreed.

When responses are aggregated into the five broad dimensions of the survey model (credibility, respect, fairness, pride and camaraderie), the differences in average scores for each section were statistically insignificant. “There are some fundamentals of a strong workplace culture, and also a high-performance culture, that transcend national boundaries,” says Graham Lowe, founder of the Great Place to Work Institute Canada, which conducted our survey. In most cases, Canada was slightly above the global average on every question. That doesn't surprise Lowe. “There is a lot of sophistication in Canadian workplaces about HR issues,” he says. “There's a growing recognition, in part because of the incredibly tight labour market and our proximity to the U.S., that people practices increasingly have to be viewed as part of strategy.”

There were, however, some interesting anomalies in the Canadian responses. For instance, only 60% of employees at the Top 10 organizations agreed with the statement: “When I look at what we accomplish, I feel a sense of pride.” That was well off the global average of 89%. On the other hand, a surprising 89% of Canadian employees say they plan on working at their current company until they retire — 20 percentage points above the worldwide rate.

Still, take the generally high level of consistency among responses as a sign that globalization is raising the bar for workplace practices and culture — even for companies that only operate in one country. “There is still some global pressure to do better,” says Lowe. “For knowledge workers in particular, it is an increasingly global labour market.” Lowe points to India, where information technology firms dominated the Top 10 spots in 2005. “Indian IT firms not only have the technology and the business-development expertise, they've also got expertise creating a productive environment for their employees.”

Lowe thinks Canadian organizations ought to ask themselves how many of their employees would agree that they have a great workplace — and if it's not 90%, what needs to change? “The fact that it is possible to move to this incredibly high level suggests that there are a lot of companies that really need to take this agenda very seriously,” he says. “This is possible. They simply need to act on it.” Why? Because halfway around the world, some company might be leveraging its workplace culture to incredible competitive advantage.