Columnist Jim Olszytnski shares his findings on the characteristics that define a quality workplace.

Busy employees tend to be happier than those with too much time on their hands. Photo by Sgt. Bradly Shaver, courtesy of USMC.
As a trade journalist for more than a quarter-century, I've visited hundreds of manufacturers, wholesalers, reps, contractors, engineering firms, associations and other types of organizations at their places of business. Usually I can sense within a few minutes of the visit whether this is an organization that's good to work for. You can tell by nuances in employee behavior whether they feel comfortable and enjoy their job.

Good organizations come in all shapes, sizes and cultures. Good jobs can be found in big and small firms alike. Some operate with a very formal business-like structure, and some so loosely it seems the inmates are running the asylum. Some have dress codes and a lot of other rules governing employee behavior, some don't. Some bosses/owners have a hands-on management style, others are somewhat aloof.

These are the superficial characteristics of a business. Different personalities may fit better in one type of organization than another, but the traits I'm about to discuss transcend corporate cultures. Whatever the culture, there are certain characteristics that make a company or organization a great place to work. Here are some that I've been able to identify:

People are busy. This may seem counterintuitive, but I've noticed a correlation between employee morale and the amount of work they have to do - and it's the opposite of what most people would think. People who are busy at work tend to be happier than those with too much time to kill.

There's a limit to the workload you can expect out your people, of course, but it's better to be busy at productive tasks than figuring out ways to look busy. When employees have to stretch themselves to do their jobs right, people feel needed, secure and motivated. With idle time comes gossip, rumors and workplace intrigue.

It's no coincidence, of course, that when people are busy, the organization is likely to be doing well financially. This leads to raises, promotions and job security, all of which make people happy. At some point, your people may be so busy it's time to hire more of them. But first make sure your heavy workload is sustainable over the long term. Nothing is more devastating to morale than layoffs and emergency cost-cutting.

A good staffing philosophy is to make sure your employees have to put in longer than normal hours when work is at a peak. They can do this for days or weeks at a time, but if overtime (paid or unpaid) becomes more the rule than the exception, it's time to hire more help. At some point, you can cross the line between challenging them and burning them out.

Employees are empowered. Don't you hate it when everyone you talk to has to consult a superior or pass you along to someone else before you get your problem solved? Anyone who deals with customers ought to have a reasonable degree of authority to make decisions that help customers, even if those decisions cost money. Assign reasonable spending limits, but even low-ranking clerical people ought to be able to make $100 decisions using their own best judgment.

Marketing is happiness. One would seem to have nothing to do with the other, but it's become apparent that people seem happier in companies that do a lot of advertising and marketing than in organizations that don't. It's because people feel proud to be associated with organizations that are visible and well known. They also will be quick to recruit talented friends and associates to work for a firm they believe is a good place to work.

No Mickey Mouse rules. Don't get me wrong. Every business needs to have rules, and rules need to be enforced or chaos ensues. But this doesn't mean you need a rule for every little thing, and it doesn't mean every rule needs to be enforced to the letter. For instance, if an employee habitually comes in early and stays late, does it really make sense to call that person on the carpet for taking 15 minutes longer than allowed for lunch break?

I'll never forget the time years ago when I visited a company shortly after management came out with a policy forbidding employees from decorating their workspaces with photos and other personal effects. Everyone was in a foul mood over the pointless rule. It came about because one of the co-owners - a younger sibling too stupid to be trusted with financial or customer duties - was assigned the role of personnel manager. He took that to mean that his job was to think up picky rules that made life miserable for the people who had made him wealthy.

Nordstrom's department store is famous for its customer service and regarded as one of the best places to work in the retail industry. Its employee handbook has a section headed “Rules,” which reads as follows:

“Use your best judgment at all times. There are no other rules.”

You need to trust the judgment of the people on your payroll. If you don't feel you can trust them, why in the world did you hire them?

Flex time rocks! Time off means more to many people than extra money in today's hectic world. Often they need time off from work to deal with child or elder care issues.

Employers would go broke giving too much free time, but flexible time permission is a great trade-off wherever practical. For instance, give someone an afternoon off in return for that person working an extra two hours on two other days, or coming in for a half-day on Saturday. Companies that allow flex time schedules usually have happy and motivated work forces.

Flexible work schedules tend to be easier to arrange for office personnel than field crews, but don't rule it out for people in the field. Sometimes craft workers can be more productive when they're working alone, away from distractions and jobsite congestion. Flexible hours may not be practical for every jobsite situation but, in some cases, it may not matter. Think again about the concept of employee empowerment. Ask your crews if and when they could be productive working odds hours. Then trust their judgment.

Have fun. You don't need to throw parties - although once in a while that might not be a bad idea. What you do need to do, though, is create an atmosphere where a little good-natured humor and banter becomes part of the daily routine.

A relaxed working atmosphere adds rather than detracts from productivity. People who like one another and kid around are likely to share information and lend a helping hand. As the boss, make it a point to smile as much as possible throughout the day, and be generous with compliments. (Always praise in public, but criticize in private.)

There need to be boundary lines, of course. Having fun at work cannot be allowed to degenerate into physical horseplay or intrude upon customer contacts. Banter becomes hazardous when it deteriorates into insults or sexual innuendo. Even if every person except one regards something as inoffensive, that one killjoy has the power of making life miserable for everyone in the company.

Nonetheless, it's still possible to have fun without offending anyone. A good rule of thumb about humor always is to poke fun at oneself, never at anyone else.

Think about how your company stacks up in these areas. Big/small, formal/informal, strict/freewheeling are not the main determinants of a fun place to work. It's all about feeling good about the people you work with and the surrounding environment. Think about this - many people spend more waking hours at their workplace than they do with their loved ones. How they react to that environment has a lot to do with how productive they may be.