The moment the 2014 Great Places to Work (GPTW) list was released, Thomas Lundgren, CEO of furniture store The One, called a meeting of his staff at their Jumeirah office. While The One remained the number one local company on the list, it had slipped down one slot to number five, from the fourth position overall it had enjoyed the previous year.

“It was to congratulate them, as well as discuss strategies to get better,” says Thomas.

The One staffers are already a pretty satisfied lot. And why wouldn’t they be? Their benefits include flexible working hours, employee bonding programmes with drumming sessions, training and development programmes, extended maternity leave, new mothers are allowed to work part-time, a great health insurance package, laughter yoga sessions (where staff learn to laugh and let go off their tension together), a relaxed dress code, fitness classes at the office, a welfare fund with equal contributions from the employer for emergencies, sporting events, employment of people with special needs, an attractive bonus scheme and 40 per cent discount at The One outlets.

They also get a monthly breakfast where deserving staff are rewarded, free lunches for warehouse staff and staff participation in social welfare schemes in developing countries.

With such an active interest in staff welfare, Thomas really didn’t need to go for certification from GPTW, a US-based company that rates great places to work from the staff’s point of view in 42 countries. But he did, and like the previous four years (The One figured among the top six of the 15-company list all four years), he plans to keep at it.

“I never believed in these company rankings, but in 1994, while working on my business plan for The One, I read a magazine article on the top 100 US companies,” he says. “That is where my dream was born – a dream of creating the world’s best company to work for.

“When I heard about GPTW launching a list for the UAE in 2010, I was still quite sceptical, but decided to give it a go just to get an idea of where The One stands.

“It is a globally recognised ranking in 42 countries across the world. Today I am a believer, since this survey gives us an indication every year of how employees in each of our business units feel and we can use that data to improve.”

That is what most companies on the UAE’s top 15 list have to say. The annual list was released last month. Multinationals DHL, Microsoft Gulf, Omnicom Media Group Mena and Ericsson took the first four positions. Obviously, it’s simply not enough now for companies to think a good salary is the way to attract talent – or to make their company a great place to work.

Take 13th-placed Hyatt for instance. Each June, Hyatt hotels around the world participate in Celebrating Our People, a week-long event that recognises the company’s “most important asset and their tremendous dedication”.

So what exactly is it that makes an organisation a great place to work? “Our 25 years of research indicate that all great workplaces share a common thread – a high degree of trust in the workplace,” says David Robert, partner and director of GPTW UAE.

“We collect a significant amount 
of data related to best practices, which we share frequently with clients, but no one set of best practices can guarantee that a company will be a great workplace.

“Every company is different and no two companies will take the same path. However, the single most important factor that drives high trust is the effectiveness and strength of the relationship between employees and management.

“Great workplaces are not built based on what they offer; they are built based on how the programmes are implemented.”

Essentially, it is a company’s employees who determine whether it makes the list. GPTW’s evaluation process consists of two parts.

The first is an anonymous survey of the employees, called the Trust Index. This measures the trust the staff have in the management.

The second part is the Culture Audit – a survey of the management policy and how it measures up against global standards.

The results of both surveys are analysed and scored by a team of consultants. The Trust Index makes up two-thirds of the final score and the Culture Audit one third.

All registered companies have to meet minimum thresholds to make the grade. No company scoring less than 70 per cent in overall scores 
is considered for the list.

Any company that has done business for two years and has 50 employees in the UAE can approach GPW to be assessed. For more info 
go to www.greatplacetowork.ae.

Where do UAE companies stand compared to companies in other parts of the world in terms of work culture? “Great workplaces will look and feel different depending on the country, market or culture they are 
in – but at the core of every workplace is trust,” says David.

“How trust gets built or broken also looks very different from culture to culture, but from our perspective all employees want three basic questions answered: Where are we going, why is it important, and how am I doing? All great workplaces have leaders who consistently answer these questions for employees.

“The top companies in the UAE, although they may look and feel different from top companies in other parts of the world, consistently answer these questions.”

Is there a formula that makes for a good workplace culture?

“There is no formula,” says David. “Each company must spend the appropriate amount of time understanding who they are, where they would like to go, and the best path to get there.”

This often requires in-depth data gathering and an effort to get all the leaders on board. Once the company has the support of all its leaders, then it’s the right time to begin action planning. What a company decides 
to pursue will depend on the results of the data gathering.

“Fun City’s vision is to put a smile on everyone’s face and to do that we started with our employees,” says Silvio Liedtke, COO, Landmark Leisure the parent company of Fun City, that placed 12 on the top 15 places to work. “Happy employees translate to happy customers for us. We have managed to extend smiles to our employees by creating an environment of trust, participation and inclusiveness. “Our employee growth programme prepares our team to grow internally without having to look for similar opportunities externally. This is reflected in our very low attrition rate of 3 per cent. The pride and happiness exuded by them is a result of our continuous hard work and efforts to create a culture of fairness and contentment.”

Google, the company that was number one on GPTW’s World’s Best Multinational Places to Work 2013, achieved it partly through Google Reach. The programme sends a small group of Google staff to an evolving area to help local organisations and small businesses address development challenges. In 2013, 
47 Google staff travelled to Ghana 
and New Delhi, India.

The company’s Donations for Doers programme encourages volunteering by donating 
$50 (Dh184) for every five hours a Google staffer volunteers with an approved nonprofit organisation.

As part of a separate initiative, in 2012, Google gave more than $100 million in grants and $1 billion in 
free and discounted ads, apps and products to non-profits 
around the world.

Not only do Google staffers take tremendous pride in their work, but 99 per cent say they enjoy special and unique benefits. In its efforts to attract and retain top talent, Google’s famous employee-friendly perks include on-site cafés, dry-cleaners, bowling alleys and nap pods, all designed to encourage collaboration and help Google staffers work around the clock.

Some of these perks were featured in the 2013 movie The Internship starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, who visited the company 
as part of researching their roles.

Microsoft, which topped the list last year, was also voted Best Multinational Employer in the World 2012 by GPTW New York, for the huge range of healthcare benefits it offers its staff and their dependants. Unique among these is a benefit for autism therapy. The company also offers back-up care when regular childcare arrangements break down, assistance with tuition for staff’s children and if an employee volunteers for a charity, Microsoft will donate $17 per hour to their chosen cause.

But it’s not necessary that companies give their staff outlandish benefits to gain their loyalty. “Just focusing on motivating its employees to emotionally connect them to their jobs [is all that is required],” says David. “Such companies give opportunities to their employees 
to socialise and develop friendships 
at work and have a bit of fun.’’

Consistency and continuous improvement have been key factors in the success of the UAE’s winner, DHL Express, says Anu Daga, UAE 
HR manager, DHL Express. “Our team understands where the company is going and is fully engaged in our journey from good to great. We recognised the things that employees were happy with and continued them – particularly with regards to communication of our strategy, training and development, recognition, regular feedback and celebrating success.

“There were several opportunities identified from the last survey that we knew we needed to focus on. We focused on health and well-being, CSR, internal career opportunities, maternity policies and other similar initiatives to further develop a great workplace for our employees.

Listening, adapting and acting on feedback has really helped us to keep a pulse on employee engagement and ensure that our employees stay motivated and have their best day every day.”

Another important factor is the relationship the company and the management has with its employees. David says, “The main focus areas are: Does the leadership consistently apply polices and programmes across the board? Does it give them an opportunity to make decisions and give them some amount of autonomy? Does it include them in decisions that directly impact them at the workplace?”

Omnicom Media Group Mena has its priorities right. “Our ambition is to become the UAE’s number one employer, so everything we do is driven by this goal,” says Fadi Chamat, regional executive director for talent and organisational development, Omnicom Media Group Mena.

“Based on last year’s results and audit, we addressed the issues that needed some attention, such as internal communications at every level. While we’ve maintained all our previous programmes and initiatives, we’ve paid closer attention to the personal needs of our employees. One of the most salient initiatives is our wellness programme, which seeks 
to address the work-life balance.”

According to David, the UAE HR market has matured enough to rank among the best globally. “The fact that we have a ‘top companies’ list is an indictor that the UAE can stand up against other markets,” he says.

“The Great Place to Work Top Companies lists all use the same criteria, so if a company earns a post on the list, it is recognised as an elite company in any market. We don’t modify the eligibility requirements from market to market.”

The benefits to companies that engage their staff positively are many. “Committed and engaged employees who trust their management perform 20 per cent better and are 87 per cent less likely to leave an organisation, resulting in easier employee and management recruitment, decreased training costs and incalculable value in retained tenure equity, says David.

“In addition, analysts indicate that the financial performance of publicly traded companies on our 100 Best Companies List consistently outperform major stock indices by 300 per cent and have half the voluntary turnover rates of their competitors.”

The lesson here, it seems, is that 
it takes more than just money to win staff loyalty.