What would your dream workplace look like?  What environment would your employees be working in?  What would the culture be like?  What kind of attributes and values would be prized – and what would not be tolerated?

We will all have a slightly different view of our personal workplace utopia, but according to HR gurus Gareth Jones (former BBC HRD) and Rob Goffee (London Business School), there are six key principles underlying every great place to work.  What’s needed, they suggest, is an environment where difference is valued, leaders are radically honest and people are encouraged to add value to the business.  Authenticity, work that has meaning and simple rules complete the equation.

Speaking at the CIPD’s recent annual conference, Jones and Goffee argued that it was down to the good folks in HR to build the ‘social architecture’ that would lead to these ‘dream’ organisations.  Now of course HR can’t do this alone – and indeed many SMEs don’t have the luxury of a dedicated HR person who can devote their efforts to creating heaven at work.  The core principles, however, apply to any business that is keen to grow and create an engaging environment for its people.  So how could you apply the six steps in your SME?

Accept Difference

It’s a fact of life that people tend to recruit people who are like themselves.  They find it easier to work with others who perhaps share the same personality traits and like to work in a similar way.  The problem with this, however, is that if you are not careful you can end up with a workforce of company clones.  It’s no good, for example, surrounding yourself with creative types who are great at coming up with new concepts if there’s no-one in the business with the attention to detail needed to put them into action (or to make sure the accounts add up at the end of the month).  Equally, a company that is made up of people predominantly from one generation, gender or cultural background will miss out on the different insights and perspectives a more diverse workforce would bring.  If you’re an SME owner (or the person responsible for recruiting) look around you and make sure you are not unconsciously filtering out people who don’t fit the mould but who could play a key role in helping the business grow.  Forward-looking businesses celebrate difference – rather than trying to eradicate it.

Radical Honesty

In an increasingly connected world, there’s no point trying to hide facts or gloss over the truth.  If you want to build trust and engagement with employees, you need to be open and honest with people about what’s happening in the business now and what your plans are for the future.  Even if you’re not sure exactly what lies ahead, tell people what you do know and when you’ll be able to update them further.  Avoid the temptation to sanitise bad news or tell half the story – people will waste time speculating and thanks to social media, will find out very quickly anyway.

Extra Value

Although there will always be people who come to work and just go through the motions, the majority of employees want to feel they are adding some kind of value to the business they work for.  Make sure you are clear about where people’s skills and strengths lie and invest in developing them so they can make the maximum contribution to the business.  Do your best to let people know they are valued by celebrating their successes, rewarding them in whatever way you can for a job well done and regularly saying thank you.


Employees won’t buy into corporate hype, glossy mission statements and lists of values pinned up on the wall of reception.  They need to see real evidence that they are working for authentic leaders who walk their own talk and are clear about what the business stands for and how it should go about its work.  Allowing people to be their own, authentic selves at work is important too.  People spend a great deal of their time at work and it can be a real strain if the prevailing culture makes them feel they have to present a false front and be ‘someone else’ in front of their colleagues.  If you accept your people for who they are (with all their faults and foibles) and allow them to make mistakes and show vulnerability, you will have a much healthier, happier workforce.


Feeling they are doing work that has ‘meaning’ is important to many employees – and research suggests that Generation Y employees now entering the workforce are particularly keen to do something that ‘makes a difference’. Help people see how the work they do on a day-to-day basis fits into the bigger picture – even if they are spending most of their time selling widgets.  Give employees the opportunity to contribute to charities or their local community too – through projects, volunteering or fundraising.  It will create a feel-good factor and can also help people develop new skills they can bring back into the business at a later date.

Simple rules

Nothing frustrates people more than working in an environment where they are restricted by unnecessary bureaucracy or petty rules.  Rules about conduct at work and the way people do business do of course have to exist – particularly if you are working in a regulated environment.  But keep it simple and straightforward and make it easy for people to find out what procedures they need to follow and which rules are non-negotiable.    The latest developments in technology make it easy to ensure everyone knows what is and isn’t acceptable.  HR portals (like the one which comes with Cezanne OnDemand for example), provide a central place where this kind of information can be housed, kept up-to-date and easily accessed by anyone who needs it.

How does your business measure up against these six key principles?  What steps could you take to move nearer to creating a dream workplace?

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Erika Lucas author image

Erika Lucas

Writer and Communications Consultant

Erika Lucas is a writer and communications consultant with a special interest in HR, leadership, management and personal development. Her career has spanned journalism and PR, with previous roles in regional press, BBC Radio, PR consultancy, charities and business schools.