It used to be that businesses bragged about profits and revenue. Now office culture is all the rage, as companies seek to stand out in an often crowded, competitive marketplace. A workplace’s identity can be all the more important when the economy is improving and employees have more options in where to work.
Few agree, however, on what exactly culture is, or what the perfect company looks like. Here’s how some Top Workplaces try to instill a sense of belonging:
On your first day at family-owned real estate firm Bozzuto, you’ll get a crash course in workplace etiquette: Stand up when someone enters the room. Greet everyone with a smile and a handshake. Always dress to impress.
“We’ve always been a coat-and-tie company,” says chief administrative officer Julie Smith. “When the rest of the world went casual, we didn’t.”
The vibe starts at the top with chairman Tom Bozzuto, who ran the Greenbelt, Md.-based company for nearly three decades before passing the torch to his son, Toby. Tom stays involved through regular visits to the company’s residential development sites, and his son borrows from past generations in his management approach.
“My grandfather drove an oil truck, and he used to say he’d give anything to work at a place where he had the privilege of wearing a tie,” Toby says when asked why he cares how his colleagues dress.
The same ideas filter down to how employees are supposed to interact with clients. If you’re a concierge at one of Bozzuto’s many apartment buildings, you’re expected to memorize the name of every person and every dog living in the building. You’re required to keep close tabs on who’s getting married, who’s having children, who’s graduating from college. It’s a culture based on kindness rather than competition, Toby says.
“If you want be more cutthroat and aggressive, this is probably not the place to work.”
At Knight Point Systems, a 250-employee IT consultancy based in Reston, Va., sports are important. The company was founded by four lifelong friends who all had been college athletes.
“We have conference rooms reserved just so we can have a basketball game on,” said human resources chief Rich Cable. “In the reception area, if you turn that channel off ESPN, you’re probably going to get in trouble.”
The place runs on what Cable calls “healthy competition” based on various forms of positive reinforcement, but mostly the rivalry is just for fun.
Each month, everyone’s name goes into a hat, and the winner gets to order a “Fathead,” one of those giant cardboard cutouts of faces often seen at sports games. The image is displayed in the office kitchen for the rest of the month.
At break time, employees gather around the foosball table. Chief executive Bob Eisiminger rarely loses, Cable says, and the reigning champ gets a WWF-style belt to display in a cubicle.
When it’s time to sit back and chill out, the company has a “Jimmy Buffett” room complete with a tiki table, fake palm trees and a pair of margarita machines stashed in the closet for special occasions.
Every organization has some way of giving people a pat on the back. But the Defense Forensics and Biometrics Agency, a 250-person Pentagon sub-agency that uses forensic science to track military adversaries, has a pretty unique way of doing it.
Every week since director Don Salo joined the agency in January 2013, he has renamed the central conference room for a rank-and-file employee who did something special the week before. The winner’s name is placed in a small card holder outside the conference room door, and for the rest of the week high-level military officials plan the agency’s actions in a conference room named for that person.
“Sometimes in an organization you really lose track of all the important things that people do,” Salo said. Renaming the conference room “is just a small way of saying, ‘Hey, we appreciate what you do and your contribution to the organization’s mission.’ ”
There are no strict criteria for who gets the honor. One week in April, agency chief engineer Bill Zimmerman got the award for “leading extensive discussions on the organization’s database.” Another week, the organization’s policy team received the award for pulling together an update for the Department of the Army. Many get the honor right before leaving the company, as a special kind of send-off.
Sixteen years ago, when Ed Moore finished his tenth year at Edelman, his bosses realized he was the first outside hire to reach that milestone. Founders Ric and Jean Edelman wanted to get him something special, something he wouldn’t buy on his own. So they bought him an expensive Rolex watch on the company’s dime.
Two-and-a-half decades later, Moore is still at Edelman, but now he’s president of the company. The tradition stuck, and now every employee who hangs around for ten years at Edelman gets a Rolex courtesy of the company.
“We realize people are coming here every day willingly,” said Jigi Dahagam, Edelman’s manager of talent acquisition. “They’re coming here because they enjoy it and they like it, and we try to show appreciation for that.”
Expensive watches aren’t the only way the company rewards loyalty. For every five years employees spend at the company, they get a four-week sabbatical during which they’re not allowed to check email or enter the building.
After its 10th year in operation, the firm took everyone — including spouses and families — on an all-expenses-paid trip to Disney World. The firm has grown tremendously since then, but it still respects that tradition. When the company reached its 25th anniversary in 2013, it did the same thing, with more than 400 employees at the time.
Dahagam says picking up the tab to bring all of those people to Disney World can be pretty expensive, not to mention the cost of handing out scores of Rolex watches at tenth anniversaries. But it’s worth it to make people feel that management cares, she says.
“It all goes back to that notion of appreciation,” Dahagam said. “If we’re doing well, we think, ‘How can we show that appreciation back to our employees?’ ”
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Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the length of Ed Moore’s tenure at Edelman Financial Services. Moore celebrated his tenth year at the company sixteen years ago, not eighteen years ago. This story has been updated.