A day in the life of a Best Place to Work

My Experience at the Best Places to Work

April, 2010

Every year, we highlight the Best Places to Work in each category and their great benefits and perks (especially those massage chairs). This year, instead of just reading about those companies, I joined them. For a week in February, I worked at the top companies and got an inside look at what makes each a Best Place to Work.


Weston Solutions: Safety with a side of appreciation

I hate meetings unless there’s manapua involved, but not this one. It’s Friday morning and I’m at the biweekly staff meeting at Weston Solutions’ office in the Davies Pacific Center in downtown Honolulu. Everyone is in good spirits, laughing, talking and generally feeling the pre-weekend euphoria.

An employee starts the meeting with “The Safety Minute.” The mantra at Weston is safety first and no accidents, a task easier said than done when you clean up hazardous materials. The story, though, is not work related; it involves an injured mother-in-law during an impromptu hike on the Big Island. No one on the hike knew the location of the nearest hospital.

Every Weston project has a binder detailing procedure and protocol. In it are two maps with two routes from the job site to the hospital. In every contract, Weston insists on the authority to stop work if it thinks it’s unsafe.

Then comes the “Kudo Minute,” a quick and effective show of peer appreciation. Dave Griffin, Hawaii operations manager, gives his thanks and then goes around the room. One after another, everyone in the room thanks someone else for something. Griffin later explains to me that the company has given gift cards as incentives, but peer-to-peer verbal gratitude shows true appreciation (and doesn’t cost anything).

There’s also the “What’s Up Minute,” a self-introduction for new employees. A new hire says she lives in “Manoa, which is really upper Makiki.” Everyone laughs, including the intercom in the middle of the conference room table. It’s an office member at Camp Pendleton in California. The interruption surprises everyone, but they’re all glad to hear her voice.

The Weston office in Hawaii is a small shop with only 32 employees, but it’s connected to a larger network of 1,700 employees worldwide. The Hawaii office is referred to as the Pacific Rim Profit Center, and specializes in fuel remediation. Some Hawaii-based employees are as far away as Spain, Korea and Okinawa.

The meeting goes by quickly, sticking to the agenda while remaining informal and light-hearted. Everyone has something small to say, but the conversation never meanders into meaningless, completely off-topic banter.

After the meeting, I have my orientation, where I’m handed a paper entitled “New Hire Integration Plan,” which lists my sponsor (an assigned mentor), job description and responsibilities, and a checklist of tasks to complete my orientation, like the human resources visit.

The sponsors help new hires define career goals and career paths. Joseph Weidenbach, an assistant engineer, says he talked with his sponsor about moving from the fuels division to the environmental division, which is where he is today. Sponsors try to find a way to align individuals’ career goals with overall company goals, Weidenbach says.

Weston takes employee development seriously. Mark Ambler, a project engineer and a five-year employee, is enrolled in Weston’s Voyager leadership training program. Potential corporate leaders are identified and go through a Weston-designed leadership program. It takes months to prepare and study, and the program culminates at a three-day retreat at corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania.

For my work project, I go to a gas station in Kalihi for a remediation project. It involves a lot of reporting and sampling, and we’re measuring the water table. A lot of the terminology goes over my head, but in the most remedial explanation I can think of, they’re pulling bad stuff out of the ground and cooking it off in a really hot oven on the roof. (That’s why I’m an editor, not an engineer.)

I don’t need to worry about that right now. Stephen Fallon, assistant engineer, opens up a well and I drop a probe, a long measuring tape with a metal rod attached to the end to gauge the water level. When the tip of the rod reaches water, it makes a constant beeping noise, and when it hits another substance (like an oil slick on top of the water), it registers a flat tone.

It’s not all that interesting, and Fallon tells me this is not the most exciting thing to be doing. Whew. I was getting worried.

Watts Constructors: Everyone Knows Your Name

It’s 6:30 a.m. at Pearl Harbor’s USS Arizona Memorial’s visitor center and the sun is not out yet. Watts Constructors is one week away from opening the first phase of the renovated center – one of the few projects it gets to show off to the public. Watts specializes in military and other federal construction, including design-build, utility, fuel systems, marine waterfront and historic renovation, and has projects all over the U.S. West Coast, Guam and Hawaii.

The changes to the National Parks Service facility are a vast improvement. There’s an inviting, open-air entry, a waterfront promenade, a new NPS office building and a walkway connecting the visitor center, USS Bowfin and USS Missouri.

At 6:45 a.m., Watts employees and all subcontractors go through their morning routine – a few minutes of stretching and a safety briefing. Tony McCullough, project superintendent, updates everyone on the day’s schedule and agenda. There’s less than a week before the project is turned over to NPS, but there’s no panic in his voice. Instead, he booms as you’d expect from a construction manager – gruff with a take-no-backtalk attitude. He knows visitors will be checking the site, but he doesn’t care who they are – everyone needs to wear their PPE (personal protective equipment). “Work safe, work smart,” he closes.

I get the guided site tour and, since I’m not really qualified to do anything (nor am I a union member), I get to pressure wash. Nor do I get any training. “It’s a pressure washer! You point the hose and press it!” McCullough says. It’s comforting to know that construction managers at a Best Place to Work still act like construction managers.

After my fun with the hose (which was redone immediately by someone who knew what he was doing), I talked to a few guys onsite. It turns out everyone has worked with each other and CEO Denny Watts for a long time. McCullough has worked with Watts for more than 10 years, starting back when Watts was president of Fletcher Pacific/Dick Pacific Construction Co. Inc.

Vince Fragomene, construction manager, grew up on Oahu and worked in San Diego before getting a job at Watts and coming home. He’s worked with Kelvin Osborne, vice president of Hawaii operations, at Navy projects around Pearl Harbor. Ryan Terayama, project manager, has worked with everyone a long time, too. He tells me that even the tradesmen have worked here a long time. Watts himself will sometimes come to the job site and say hello to everyone, including the carpenters and operating engineers.

The project at the USS Arizona Memorial is designated LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Silver. About 20 employees are LEED certified.

Because most of its projects are with the federal government, Watts Constructors has fared much better than other construction companies during this recession. In fact, according to its newsletter, it’s the best year Watts has ever had.

Shell Management Hawaii: Satisfied guests, satisfied employees

Rosa Velazquez, housekeeping inspector at Holua Resort, looks at my forehead and hands me a box of Kleenex. “Umm, use this if you’re getting sweaty,” she says, trying to be nice. Who knew housekeeping would be so tiring?

Earlier in the day, I had been hanging around with the bellmen. Holua, located in Kona, is a timeshare property that Shell shares with Wyndham. The bellmen help guests with their bags and escort them to their rooms, chauffeuring them around meandering paths. In the middle of February, however, there weren’t many check-ins scheduled. It’s not that there were vacancies, however. In the winter months, guests stay longer (up to a month or more) to escape the snowstorms at home. So the bellmen had it all under control.

That’s how I ended up in housekeeping. Velazquez gives me a quick training session: First, she hands me latex gloves, then a bottle of Windex and a rag.

Velazquez, originally from Mexico, has worked at Shell for 10 years and is very happy to be there. She’s not the only one. Shell Management Hawaii conducts confidential employee opinion surveys at its five properties in the Islands. In 2007, Holua scored a 76 out of 100. Today, that score is 95.

There are four of us in the plush unit, vacuuming, wiping and changing the dishes. The other three housekeepers are happy for the help and they aren’t letting me slack off. As inspector, Velazquez checks every room before clearing it for new guests. “You need to wipe there,” she tells me as she points at dirt in a crevice of the sliding door. She is helpful and instructive, though. I’m trying to clean the windows and Velazquez sees me jumping up to reach the top parts. She hands me their makeshift extender (a Swiffer mop), places the rag over it and demonstrates. “So you don’t have to jump. We are short here, too,” she jokes.

After lunch, I’m off for pool duty. Lucas Pua, engineer and a member of the maintenance crew, is in charge of the eight outdoor pools and hot tubs. Since they’re outside, they need regular cleaning from wind-blown leaves, algae and whatever else gets in them.

“This is the best job I’ve had so far,” Pua says. And he’s had a few. In the Navy he was a cook on an aircraft carrier, and after being discharged he took a number of odd jobs before discovering Shell at a job fair five years ago. He started off doing repairs and changing light bulbs in the guest units until he was offered the pool cleaning duties. Shell paid for Pua’s pool certification classes, and he’s been at it ever since.

It sounds easy, then Pua explains all the chlorine and chemical levels that need to be checked, the types of chemicals that need to go in, and how to clean up dirt, algae and unmentionables, and soon it sounds complicated. And it isn’t the same everyday. Plus, he has to be a good host because he meets plenty of the guests, and he’ll help other guys in the maintenance department once he’s pau with the pool.

Pua hooks up the equipment so I can vacuum the pool. I move the pole back and forth over the bottom, but it doesn’t seem to do much. “Ah, am I doing this right?” I ask.

“Yeah, you’re doing OK,” Pua says modestly. “I try to imagine mowing a lawn. You just have to see the lines, and move around the outside.” I take his advice and it starts to make sense.

On a hot day, he usually does two pools in a row before retreating into the shade. His supervisors don’t mind – as long as he gets the job done, he can manage himself and his work.

As for me, on this overcast day, I’m enjoying the outdoors and really wouldn’t mind going over a few more pools.

What I Learned from the Best Places to Work

  • Safety first. Both Watts Constructors and Weston Solutions make safety their No. 1 priority. That’s good for OSHA and the bottom line, and makes for happy and healthy employees.
  • Friendly people work at the Best Places to Work. I don’t think I met a single curmudgeon. Even the construction workers were nice.
  • Everyone cares about everyone else. At Holua Resort, Shell Management employees were always ready to help each other.
  • Employees like to be recognized. Shell Management and Watts Constructors both have newsletters that praise employees and their families, and bring people up to date on company events. Weston Solution’s “Kudo Minute” is the cheapest and most effective appreciation tool I’ve ever seen.
  • Pay for training. Each company pays for or reimburse employees for job-related training. The benefits are obvious.
  • Employees are happy because they know they’re making a difference. Watts employees at the USS Arizona Memorial were proud to be a part of a historic monument and project.
  • Employees know what they’re supposed to do and what authority they have. Weston’s new-hire integration document lists all job responsibilities, who to report to, and when to report to them. There is nothing ambiguous in it.
  • Little things go a long way. Shell Management employees all wore buttons with numbers, and employees had to know what the numbers meant. By the way, 78 is the room temperature, and 93 is the customer-service rating out of 100.
  • Experience and familiarity make for happier workplaces. Watts Constructors employees have worked with each other for years. They’ve also done lots of joint ventures and have built solid relationships with other companies with complementary specialties. Good relationships go a long way.

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