Back away from the doughnuts.
Rewarding employees with free food is useless if they don't feel valued. Experts agree that perks only work if a company has a culture that makes employees feel creative and appreciated.
Working to establish a positive environment can be profitable. "The best places to work have historically outperformed the stock market by just about double," says Seymour Adler, senior vice-president at the Chicago consultancy Aon Human Capital.
So how can your company become a great place to work? Here are five elements that the best workplaces have in common:
1) Sense of purpose.
Most workers do not perform brain surgery or rescue children from burning buildings. Creating a sense of purpose can help employees feel as though their jobs have meaning. "Generations Y and X want meaning in their life. They want to work with a leader in a company that has a higher purpose," says Jim Bandrowski, president of Strategic Actions Associates, an organizational consultancy in Danville, Calif.
One of Mr. Bandrowski's clients, Shure Inc. in Niles, pushed a new mission to become the audio industry leader. "That gives everyone a sense of purpose that we are going to do a great thing in the industry," Mr. Bandrowski says.
Successful workplaces are structured to hold both employees and management accountable. Annual reviews, for example, may include comments from peers or subordinates.
Transparency gives workers a sense of trust. "It provides predictability, so you don't feel like you could have the rug pulled out from you at any moment," says Linda Ginzel, clinical professor of managerial psychology at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
3) Opportunities for autonomy.
Small, daily choices can have a big impact. Successful workplaces allow employees to choose when they arrive in the morning, take a lunch break or tend to specific tasks.
"It's respect, recognition," Ms. Ginzel says. "Give them choices from a menu of options so they have more discretion with their time."
4) Customized benefits.
Successful workplaces identify which benefits would best help employees. Younger employees raising families, for example, are engaged by work-life programs, while older workers may be excited about the option of phased retirement.
"The best workplaces are as customized as possible," says Carol Sladek, principal and head of the work-life consulting practice at Lincolnshire-based human resources consultancy Hewitt Associates Inc. "No longer do we have one kind of employee with one kind of need."
5) Hope. Employees worried about their company's future aren't satisfied or productive.
Successful workplaces acknowledge employee concerns and provide a sense of assurance.
"There has to be an element of optimism: People are getting laid off, but we have a strategy (to get) out of this," Aon's Mr. Adler says. "Employees can deal with a lot if they have both trust and hope."