Building a Great Place to Work

What are you really working for? CIO.com columnist Rob Enderle discusses how successful companies build rewarding workplaces, engender employee loyalty and create great products. Spoiler alert: sky-high CEO bonuses aren't part of the recipe.

Having worked for large and small companies, I have seen massive layoffs and reorganizations, and watched painfully as entitlements were stripped in order to feather executive bonuses. In the end, there are companies that value employees and those that don't, and, given a choice, my recommendation based on a lifetime of experience is to find a path to work for the former.

Living for the 5 p.m. bell, the weekend or retirement has not made sense to me after I watched a close friend suddenly die one year short of retirement, which almost assuredly wouldn't have happened had he made different choices about his life and work. Yes, he made a ton of money, which his heirs will now spend, but I've shifted from the belief that "he who dies with the most toys wins" to "the person how had the most fun in life wins."

My recent visit to Plantronics only reaffirmed that conviction. Here is a company that has transitioned itself from an environment characterized by a typical employee grind to a successful and fun place to work. This is a place where accomplishment is more important than compensation, and employees, when given a choice, often opt to come to work rather than work at home, even when it's inconvenient. In a way it is also a contrast to Google, which I wrote about earlier this year, because Plantronics is embracing this concept while Google, another great place to work, appears to be abandoning it.

Let's talk about some of that.

Great Place to Work

There is some irony in writing this. What I saw at Plantronics was what I'd hoped to build myself someday. But, as it often works out, I ended up taking a different path.

Still, I did work for the one company that actually established a "Great Place to Work" department. This was an idea of some of the young executives who believed that if you built a talented group whose entire focus was the care and feeding of employees you could do amazing things.

Perhaps the most inspired insight was the realization that if they collected all the money spent for company parties they could build a company recreation center, and ROLM Corporation had one that rivaled any in the world with racquetball, basketball and tennis courts, a state-of-the-art weight room, aerobics classes and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. They put on monthly beer busts where employees and executives socialized together and folks like me who thought that work and fun shouldn't be separate jumped at the opportunity.

Unfortunately, we took this for granted at ROLM, and when it was acquired by IBM these critical aspects of the company were eliminated before I left. Instead of being a place where people wanted to work, some divisions like engineering had a 200 percent turnover rate, meaning that on average the entire team was being replaced every six months. On the revenue side, we went from a $750 million company to a $250 million company and slid from an incredibly profitable venture to a position where we were losing millions of dollars a day.

I'd write a book on the burning of ROLM, but it would just make me, and everyone else who was there, that much sadder.

Plantronics Transformation

While Plantronics does not have a Great Place to Work department, human resources has picked up this responsibility under Pat Wadors, and the end result has been an amazing transformation. The company used to have the typical dingy, fluorescent-lit cubicle farms common to most modern companies. Pat and her team smashed this model and replaced it. Plantronics is now largely bathed in natural light, and instead of grungy mini-cubs and executives who sit in isolated offices, everyone now shares the same brightly lit environment and teams are co-located to enhance collaboration.

Areas have been set up like restaurant tables where ad-hoc groups can form and enjoy their lattes (yes, they have a wonderful latte machine) and discuss projects. Conference rooms come in all sizes and have dedicated AV equipment, cameras and TVs with connections to Skype, Microsoft Lync or Cisco Telepresence so that remote workers can be conferenced in and the walls are white boards they can write on and share ideas. I observed one engineer working with his remote counterpart sharing a Lync session and he appeared to be having a great time.

Plantronics has a very distinct logo, a kind of stylized sound wave that appeared on most surfaces, reinforcing the connection between the employees and the company, and there were highly visible showcases of existing Plantronics products and prototypes. The company even had a public wall showcasing trends, something that often only select teams and executives get to see. This is to keep the employees connected to the product lines and the vision for the company's future.

I doubt that most employees in typical companies have even seen the firm's products, and fewer still actually use them. For instance, I was told of a story about General Motors a few decades back when the CEO looked in his own parking lot and saw it filled with Toyotas. I didn't see anyone wearing a headset that did not carry the Plantronics brand, while I can recall seeing a lot of folks on Microsoft's campus with iPods during their Zune years.

Over the years, I've seen a lot of companies restrict work at home because they believed that most employees, given the choice, wouldn't come in, and they'd likely be less effective working remotely. Plantronics promotes work at home, but the folks I spoke with actually indicated that they prefer to come in. Not because they felt left out -- the more normal reason -- but because HR had created such a great work space and, admittedly, for many of the social aspects.

Making the Right Choices

We all have choices in our lives. I've watched CEOs decide to trade off long-distance business-class travel in favor of better corporate jets for their own use, or forgo updating company offices in favor of higher personal bonuses. Generally the employees catch on, and these CEOs are shot down from inside as their top human assets go to greener pastures or stick their hands in the company till, following the examples the top executives have set. These environments aren't fun for anyone, and as I think about the massive number of people who are currently working under the expectation that they may be part of the next layoff, I am reminded, and want to remind them, that there are better places to work and it is often the folks laid off that are the lucky ones in these cases.

I use a number of Plantronics products, from the Savi 740 to the Voyager Pro, and they are the best in their segments. I doubt they could be if it wasn't for the company's high level of employee care. I wish all companies were this focused on creating great places to work, and I can't help but wonder if it is truly more valuable for a CEO to have that extra yacht that he'll likely never have the time to use, or a large number of employees who will follow him with unfailing loyalty. HP's high-profile CEO Carly Fiorina is a case in point. Had she taken care of the HP employees they would have taken care of her, and she'd be a senator now. Instead, they worked to make sure she wasn't elected, and she was not.

Plantronics CEO Kenneth Kannappan and HR Vice President Pat Wadors deserve kudos for making the right choices.

Rob is president and principal analyst of the Enderle Group. Previously, he was the Senior Research Fellow for Forrester Research and the Giga Information Group. Prior to that he worked for IBM and held positions in Internal Audit, Competitive Analysis, Marketing, Finance, and Security. Currently, Rob writes on emerging technology, security, and Linux for a wide variety of publications and appears on national news TV shows that include CNBC, FOX, Bloomberg and NPR.

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