How a Small Government Contractor Can Become a Great Place to Work
"Why be a great place to work?"
I’m often asked why I care so much about making Ingenicomm an amazing place to work. If the company is quantitatively successful – winning new contracts, increasing revenue and profits, and so forth – then why does being a great workplace matter?
The answer is that quantitative success does not occur in a vacuum, particularly for a small company in a highly competitive marketplace. Ingenicomm has certainly been financially successful, but this success could not have happened without tremendous drive and dedication on the part of each and every Ingenicomm employee. It is ultimately the caliber of staff which a company is able to retain – and their willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty to ensure that projects are delivered under budget, and ahead of schedule, customers are wowed, and missions are a resounding success – that leads to sustained success for a company. I’m proud of the tangible results that Ingenicomm has achieved, of course – but I’m even more proud of the fact that, in the history of our company, not a single employee has chosen to leave it.
Three Elements of a Great Workplace
There are three key elements that a company needs to become a great workplace:
- A robust benefits architecture that effectively incorporates direct compensation, fringe benefits, and unique perks.
- A corporate structure that empowers individual employees and rewards drive, creativity, and innovation.
- A company culture that builds employees’ intrinsic motivations into a singular purpose of action for the entire company.
Each of these factors is critical; a company can certainly succeed without implementing all of them, but to truly make the company a great place to work, all three are needed.
The first element of the great workplace equation is the tangible benefits architecture. A company that doesn’t offer a strong core benefits package – which can take the form of salary, medical coverage, paid time off, and so forth – will find it exceedingly difficult to retain staff and maintain morale, much less build itself as a great place to work. However, basic benefits are not enough, especially in today’s environment where almost every company will offer them. To be a great place to work, a company needs to go beyond the basics and offer some truly extraordinary benefits to its employees.
One great way to enhance a company’s benefit package is through creative application of paid leave. At Ingenicomm, for example, we have an unlimited time off policy – employees can take as much leave as they want whenever they want, provided that they get their work done. Our employees have been thrilled by the flexibility of this policy. Some use it to take regular short vacations or long weekends; others use it for extended multi-week travel or sabbaticals. And while the leave is unlimited in principle, employees have remained conscientious of company needs; actual paid leave is well within the expected parameters for a company of Ingenicomm’s size.
The second element of being a great place to work is having the right corporate structure to empower employees and make them feel that their contributions to the company’s success are valued and appreciated. This can range from basic elements such as the corporate hierarchy itself, to employee growth and development opportunities, to social activities and team-building events.
For a small company, corporate hierarchy is usually the easiest area to deal with. At Ingenicomm, for example, we’ve instituted a flat structure, without middle management or multiple hierarchical layers above an employee. Instead, different employees act as leaders on individual projects – and every employee has the opportunity to lead some projects while being a supporting part of a team on others. This approach provides opportunities for employees to grow their own careers, builds camaraderie among teammates, and gives each employee an appreciation for the work involved in leading a team.
The same principles can apply to other corporate activities, such as strategic planning. In many companies, strategic planning is done by a small team that’s isolated from the rest of the company. In a small company, this doesn’t have to be the case. At Ingenicomm, our strategic planning process involves the entire company. We gather everyone for several days every year to develop our plans for the following year, and allow – and expect – everyone to take part. Most employees are thrilled to have the opportunity to participate in high-level planning, since it gives them a chance to feel that they’re truly part of the company’s leadership and can help determine Ingenicomm’s course. It helps, of course, that the strategic planning sessions become social events as well. Some years, we’ve had parties or happy hours in the evenings after the sessions. This year, we’re taking it up a notch and bringing the entire company to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands for a four-day corporate retreat.
Open corporate structure can also be applied in tangible form to things such as office design. At Ingenicomm, for example, we’ve filled our hallways and common areas with whiteboards, and encourage employees to congregate and discuss things wherever they wish. This has created a pervasive atmosphere of open and honest collaboration among staff that has served us well in our work.
The third key element of being a great workplace is company culture. To build a robust culture that will bring employees together and create the common sense of purpose that lets the company act as a cohesive team, a company needs to develop a strong shared vision that will permeate the fabric of the company’s daily activities and strategic thinking.
As a company that focuses primarily on supporting scientific and exploratory space missions, for example, Ingenicomm is driven by the idea of leveraging advanced technologies to unleash innovation for the benefit of mankind. This common goal is one that was shared by the founders of the company and has been embraced by everyone who has joined us since. The passion that Ingenicomm’s employees feel for this vision can manifest itself in surprising ways. Recently, for example, an off-the-cuff remark by a customer, who told an Ingenicomm team that they were “superheroes” for brilliantly supporting a critical mission operation, led to the employees coming together to design an actual superhero mascot for the company; posters of the superhero since have gone up around the office, and numerous employees have told me that they identify with the motif.
A shared culture will manifest not only internally, within the company, but externally, in how the company interacts with stakeholders, customers, and others in the business community and beyond. At Ingenicomm, for example, we’ve established a tradition of providing charitable support for science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs in schools, including both financial support from the company as well as personal volunteer support from individual employees. The STEM programs we work with resonate with our shared passion for enabling scientific exploration, and working with the children in those programs has allowed employees to better see the impact of their work on the world at large.