Staff are happy and business is great at London broker Centor, which has just been named UK Best Small Workplace 2010. So what is its secret?

For Sam Keep, assistant claims manager at London-based broker Centor Insurance and Risk Management, there is no such thing as that Monday morning feeling. Keep thoroughly enjoys his job and is very happy at Centor. “I really enjoy coming to work,” he says. “There’s a great friendly atmosphere and we all get on.”

His enthusiasm for his company would delight senior managers in any business, but Keep’s praise for Centor will be no surprise to its directors: in May the company was named ‘UK Best Small Workplace 2010’.

The award was made by research and management consultancy the Great Place To Work Institute and followed its survey of nearly 294,000 employees in 1,300 European companies.

Each company’s score was based on a confidential staff survey and a culture audit that focused on camaraderie, pride, trust and fairness.

Other companies in the insurance sector rated as a Best Workplace include Chubb Insurance Company of Europe and car insurance group Admiral, which also made it into last year’s Sunday Times 100 Best Companies To Work For.

These awards aren’t empty labels – the statistics suggest a direct link between employees’ perceptions and business performance. Companies on the Best Workplace list grew by an average of 15% in 2009 and enjoyed 30% less sickness absence than the national average. Centor has certainly fared well; the business has seen 62% growth over five years and boasts 2009 client retention of 98%.

Boosting the trust

So what is the recipe for success? How can you measure pride and trust? The fact that work culture surveys exist suggests that being an excellent workplace has more to do with method than some intangible X-factor. And what makes a company not simply a good, but an exceptional place to work?

The Great Place to Work Institute’s managing director, Williams Johnson, says an outstanding workplace is one where you trust the people you work for, have pride in what you do, and enjoy working with your colleagues.

More than 87% of employees in the top 50 Best Workplace companies believe their management is open and honest. By contrast, the UK average is 55%, according to the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) in its quarterly report for winter 2010.

Trust is clearly based on open communication. “It’s essential that managers have a dialogue with staff either through a so-called ‘open-door policy’, which means senior managers are accessible, or regular appraisals,” Johnson says. Centor’s Keep emphasises the good relationship between management and staff at the company. “Our directors and managing director take a genuine interest in staff and that includes our family life,” Keep says. “The relationship is far more personal than in other places I’ve worked. You really feel like part of the business.”

So how do you boost the trust between managers and staff? Johnson says that, first, you should understand employees’ perceptions.

“You need to know where you are at,” he says.

“If a company tells us that their staff are dissatisfied, our first question is: have you asked them? Are you making assumptions?”

Human resources manager for Chubb in the UK, Lisa Skeels, agrees that understanding the needs of staff via surveys and appraisals is vital. “We listen very carefully,” she says. “It means we can shape our HR policies according to their needs, for example by providing flexible working.”

Recognition of individual achievement is a common factor in Best Workplaces. At Chubb, awards are presented to staff who uphold the Chubb brand and its values. Anyone can nominate a colleague, and achievements recognised range from landing a large account to providing support to another member of staff – or coming up with an innovative idea. About two presentations are made each month. The company also arranged a mini-Oscars ceremony in 2008 to reward high-performing staff.

Centor similarly encourages staff to recognise each other’s successes. Staff presenting an idea that is taken up can earn £25. “It makes you feel that your ideas count,” Keep says.

Nurturing staff development is another common factor among Best Workplaces. Strategic marketing executive for Chubb in the UK, Karin Knobel, started four years ago as a member of a project team. “Chubb has allowed me to grow,” she says. “I’ve been able to follow my interests and have been supported to make the move.”

Lead by example

Achieving a work/life balance is also important. Of staff surveyed by Great Place to Work, 69% of employees feel they are encouraged to balance their personal and work life. That is a marked contrast to the UK average of 32%, as calculated by the CIPD.

Clear communications is also vital. Johnson says: “The number of companies that have, for example, great policies for flexible working but don’t communicate them is unbelievable. Staff simply don’t realise what is available to them.”

So what are the other barriers to becoming an exceptional workplace? “A common problem is that leaders have a different set of rules for themselves,” Johnson says. “For instance, managers may require staff to give two weeks’ notice if they wish to take leave, but bend the rules for themselves. It’s very important that leaders display integrity and lead by example.”

According to Great Place to Work, the main misconception about what makes a great workplace is that pay and financial benefits are most important, when there’s a raft of research to suggest that non-cash rewards are at least as effective at boosting morale.

“Financial rewards offer a short-term boost,” Johnson says. “In the long run, it is the employees’ sense of belonging and their satisfaction that counts.”

Experts and employees agree that developing a sense of belonging is about good communication. Centor’s Keep says: “There’s an all-round good vibe, so it’s a pleasure to come to work.” IT

Ten top tips

1 Know where you stand. Find out staff perceptions through a confidential survey, or delegate the task to a consultancy like the Great Place to Work Institute (www.greatplacetowork.co.uk) or Best Companies (www.bestcompanies.co.uk). The Work Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation, can also offer advice (www.theworkfoundation.com).

2 Lead by example. Managers need to behave with integrity to win the trust of staff.

3 Talk. At appraisals, talk about how individuals feel they are getting on with colleagues. Encourage them to discuss personal issues, such as childcare, that can affect work.

4 Have good internal communications. Publicise promotions and achievements. Ensure staff know about company benefits.

5 Give feedback. If someone does not get offered that promotion, explain why.

6 Measure your achievements. Look at staff retention rates and other data.

7 Reward individual achievement. “Employees need to be acknowledged for putting in that extra effort,” Great Place to Work’s Johnson says.

8 Socialise. Spending time with colleagues outside work can help build trust.

9 Have fun. You may not have to go so far as car insurer Admiral, which has a ‘Ministry of Fun’, but the odd bit of fun can help relieve tensions.

10 Be charitable and accountable. Research shows that corporate social responsibility activities improve motivation and engagement. Staff like to know that their employer cares.