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How to Find the Best Place to Work

Advice from author Ron Friedman, who just may have the answer

It seems like every other day, there’s a news story or a list about workplaces with fun, quirky, benefits. You know, ones where beer is always on tap or pets are welcome every day or employees get free gourmet meals.

But psychologist Ron Friedman, author of the new book, The Best Place to Work, says those types of perks aren’t really what makes a terrific workplace. Instead, he says, the key is creating an organization that fulfills people’s basic psychological needs — like autonomy, flexibility, variety, respect and the opportunity to learn new things.

I spoke with Friedman, founder of the Pittsford, N.Y.-based Ignite80 management consultancy — which specializes in building extraordinary workplaces — to get his advice for job-hunters and employees looking to work in places that will make them happiest.

(MORE: Is This the Best Employer for 50+ Workers?)

Ron Friedman

Highlights of our conversation:

Next Avenue: What do you think of all those Best Places to Work lists? Are they useful for job seekers?

Friedman: The trend is a good one. The problem is we haven’t perfected the practice; it’s not a standardized test. Different surveys use different measures and have their own formulas.

Also, they’re often self-selecting. Organizations have to reach out to the list compiler and say they’re interested in being involved. This explains why sometimes you see one company that’s high on one list and not show up on another one. I think the lists that look most closely at the psychological experiences, and whether they’re fulfilling their employees’ needs, are the most effective at determining whether they have engaged workforces.

Sometimes, employers on these lists don’t necessarily have great places to work, they have unusual places to work.

That’s right. Building a great workplace doesn’t require having a volleyball court or a ping-pong table. Having access to amenities helps, but it’s not a requirement for a good workplace.

So how should people read these lists?

Look at what the list is measuring: Some may simply feature unusual amenities; that’s not necessarily helpful to you. A company can have the most expensive billiards table in the world, but if there’s a stigma around taking breaks, that won’t create an environment of playfulness. It comes down to the attitude of the managers.

(MORE: How to Get a 4-Day Workweek)

You say there are three keys to creating an extraordinary workplace. What are they?

The first key is creating an organization that fulfills people’s basic psychological needs. There are decades of research that show that people have a need for connection with those around them and for feeling confident that they are good at what they do.

Organizations that are able to fulfill employees’ psychological needs tend to have more engaged, happier and more productive employees. They get employees engaged in their work by providing opportunities for them to learn new skills and experience autonomy.

What’s the second key?

Organizations are more effective when they address the limitations of the mind and body.

We have limited mental bandwidth. So employers should encourage employees to take breaks and exercise to the extent possible before, after or during work. Radio Flyer reimburses people for riding a bike to and from work; that’s a pretty smart way of encouraging people to exercise.

And they should consider offering private spaces where employees can take naps. There’s an extraordinary amount of research showing that taking a nap of up to 30 minutes has a rejuvenating effect, almost to the same extent as starting fresh in the morning. Some companies have quite rooms to meditate or to nap.

(MORE: 2 Surprising Keys to Happiness at Work)

And the third?

Empowering employees to integrate their working life and their family life. It used to be, once upon a time, that work was 9 to 5 and then you tended to your family. That world doesn’t exist anymore. We’re constantly connected by email and phone and are constantly working.

So are you talking about work/life balance?

No. Rather than encouraging employees to see work/life balance, which is frankly a myth, it’s better to provide them with the flexibility to take time out during the day when necessary to address their personal needs. To the extent you allow employees to excel in their personal life, they will perform better at work.

The research is clear: The more you allow your employees choice of when they work, the more engaged they will be and better they will perform. There is a business case for increasing the degree of autonomy your employees feel.

Do employers get this?

Ten years ago, there would’ve been more resistance, but with the changes of technology, you really can work from just about anywhere. The last time you had a great idea, chances are you weren’t sitting behind your desk.

Are there certain types of jobs that make people happiest?

Yes. Research has found that jobs where people are the happiest are ones that let you help other people and be recognized for it — ones like nurses, firefighters and teachers.

You say that making more money doesn’t lead to sustained happiness, status does. What do you mean?

Status feels better than a raise. In one study of MBA graduates, some acquired jobs a year after graduation making $40,000 and some made three times as much. It turns out salary wasn’t the best predictor of their happiness. Far more important was how much others respected them; those who had more respect were more satisfied than those who earned more. What that tells us is the importance of feeling that we are acknowledged for our contributions at work.

What’s your advice to job hunters who want to find great places to work and places where they’ll be happiest?

When you’re looking for a job, prioritize the amount of freedom you’ll have over the size of your paycheck. Studies show that autonomy is a better predictor of psychological health than income. Even if you’ll make $10,000 or $15,000 less, if you’ll have more control over how you shape the work you do, chances are you’ll be happier.

What else?

Look for a position with variety. If you have a job that lets you excel in different aspects of work, you’re less likely to become bored.

And look for a job with opportunities to learn new things. Growing competence is fundamental to getting engaged at work, but most employers get this wrong.

How can you know whether you’d get respect or an opportunity to learn new things when you apply for a job?

It’s very difficult. But one way to find out is by asking questions about these things at the end of your job interview. Make use of that time to get good information. One of best questions I’ve heard is: Who was the best person you had in this position and what made them different? Often, you can pick out clues about the job based on what the hiring manager is emphasizing.

Should job applicants say they’re looking for flexibility when they go into interviews?

I’d be hesitant to recommend asking about flexibility in advance or making demands, but I do encourage looking into this before you apply.

And how can employees get their employers to make their workplaces better?

It generally helps to put yourself in the perspective of the manager and know what his or her priorities are. To the extent you can present that what you want to change is in the interest of the business and will help achieve the managers’ priorities, you’ll be more successful getting changes to make people happier.

For example, if you want greater flexibility at work, rather than saying: Why don’t you let everyone work where and when they’d like, you might suggest trying this one afternoon a month as a pilot program to see what the outcomes are. You can make more headway that way, rather than taking an all or nothing approach.

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