What Makes a Workplace One of the Best?

Six ways local companies create productive, loyal and happy employees

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Dishing up fun at the office and fostering camaraderie shows up on the bottom line, according to the 2008 Gensler U.S. Workplace Performance Survey.

The Gensler survey, conducted by the international architectural design and consulting firm, found that employees in the most successful firms in today’s knowledge economy can spend up to 20 percent of their time in office social interactions. “Firms that develop a robust social infrastructure are likely to be more successful,” notes the 2008 survey. “Companies with the most effective workplace environment show higher profits, better employee engagement and stronger brand position.”

But having fun has to be about more than just ramping up the cash flow. “Part of it is just to make people feel comfortable,” says Murakami.

Having fun also makes employees want to come to work, says Dawn Mahi, a program administrator at Kokua Kalihi Valley Comprehensive Family Services, which operates seven healthcare locations. She says the staff consider each other family and work together with a spirit of trust and generosity.

On Friday afternoons – “Zumba Fridays” – employees don workout clothes at the main clinic on North School Street for an hour of exercise and dance moves. Staff members often get together to share lunch or someone will cook for the whole gang.

“It’s fabulous because you feel like you’re supported by your coworkers,” says Mahi. “It’s like your family. You know, if you have a problem, you have your sisters and brothers there to help you. It makes you feel like you have a more trusting environment and it makes you want to go to work.”

     HiHR’s free lunch and table tennis
     Photo: Rae Huo

Island Insurance also offers Zumba classes and is pondering topping that off with kick-boxing, yoga, pilates or weightlifting programs.

Bowers + Kubota Consulting builds solidarity among its far-flung staff by bringing them together for monthly meetings and employee recognition awards, included a catered dinner. The company also brings the whole crew together annually for a Christmas party, a nine-hole golf tournament and a University of Hawaii game –picking up the tab for tailgating supplies and hotel rooms.

“The company has 105 employees now and we’re spread all over the Islands, so the owners make a point of having one gathering a month so employees get to know one another,” says project manager Kurt Kunimune.

Back at Atlas Insurance, president Murakami finished out 2010 in another costume – a local-style Santa Claus outfit with a giant white beard and eyebrows, and a red suit with short pants and slippers.

To celebrate July 4, a vice president and another manager passed out free lunches dressed as a hot dog and ketchup. Valentine’s Day brought red roses and chocolates to all the desks. Each August, the whole office is sent to the movies for an afternoon with $10 each for snacks. A committee with a rotating membership helps plan events that everyone will enjoy.

“The fun speaks a lot about Murakami and the spirit he brings,” says his assistant, Sandy Tsukada. “We’re a mid-size company and I believe this helps employees build a relationship with him. He’s the president, but he’s human and he’s fun to be around.”

Empowering Employees

After the shock and grief brought on by the sudden death of real estate analyst Harvey Shapiro last year, Honolulu Board of Realtors staff member Floyd Murashige went into action. He closeted himself and went through Shapiro’s notes, formats and mysterious methodology.

“Four days later, he said, ‘I think I’ve got it. … I figured out his process,’” remembers the board’s CEO, Rochelle Lee Gregson.

With help from other economists, and using Shapiro’s techniques, the board produced its monthly real estate sales report “without missing a beat,” says Gregson. Murashige’s actions were just one of many examples that show that the board’s staff feels comfortable solving problems without first running their ideas up the chain of command.

As study after study has shown, empowering employees pumps up their job contentment, hastens the resolution of complaints and trumps even money in keeping them happy.

“Employee empowerment has a stronger effect over employee satisfaction than other variables, including employees’ salaries,” says human resources expert Victor Voisard, writing in the California Sociology Journal in 2008. “Employee empowerment may offer organizations an invaluable tool in their quest for organizational competitiveness.”

Companies that rank high in the Best Places To Work survey know this and make it part of their corporate culture. While some call it empowerment, others speak about offering workers autonomy, or building a strong connection with company values, or a strong sense of mission.

At Servco Pacific, chair and CEO Mark Fukunaga highly values a self-reliant staff. “The thing we discovered is that for people to take that step for their own development, and to grow and really get excited, they’ve got to, among other things, believe in what the company stands for,” he says. To that end, Servco went through a values development process a decade ago to build a sense of shared company values.

“You need a foundation of values,” says Fukunaga. “That’s where it starts. And that’s also a foundation of trust. People aren’t going to go the extra mile in their jobs and their own personal development unless they trust what’s going on.”

After that foundation of values was built, Servco’s profits climbed and employee engagement rose from less than 60 percent 10 years ago to 82 percent now, according to annual surveys. “They’ve all gone up together – customer satisfaction, employee engagement and profitability,” Fukunaga says.

Shell Management Hawaii, which oversees five vacation ownership resorts in the Islands, preaches a similar message, says regional VP Linda Anthony.

“We really think nothing of an employee running out and running a special errand for a guest,” says Anthony. “Say an employee discovers it’s someone’s anniversary or birthday; they’re empowered to make sure we get flowers or champagne to that guest. No employee would think, ‘Oh, I can’t bring this up because I’ll get into trouble.’ ”

Employees at Shell thrive on knowing they can make decisions and make things happen – without first checking with upper management.

At the Kona Coast Resort, employee Alena Callejo heard that four couples traveling together had decided to renew their vows during their stay. “At the drop of a hat, she went to great lengths to arrange music, to get a minister to come and to get flowers for everyone, all within a day’s notice,” Anthony says. “The people were just floored.”

Shell does extensive employee training to develop this culture. “We have a director of training who comes to the resorts at least every quarter and the training focuses very heavily on customer service. The same kind of thing happens if an employee learns a guest is dissatisfied. They don’t have to go through layers of management to fix it. They can just do it.”

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