5 Tips on How to Build the Best Workplace

illuminate education was recently named the top workplace in Orange County by the OC Register, and No. 2 Best Small & Medium Company to Work for by Glassdoor.

We’ll admit, it feels pretty nice to get noticed for the work you do. We all need an “attaboy” or “attagirl” sometimes. It’s also a testament to the idea that—for all the hiccups and false starts in the startup life— maybe we’re doing some things right.

But winning an award was never the goal for our company. Recognition, as nice as it feels, is not something that we actively chase after.

Rather, we see it as a fruit of all the real and hard work done at the roots: developing useful products, building a fun and healthy culture, and making sure we keep growing.

Care to know the secret sauce?

We put a premium on relationships. We don’t compromise on our beliefs and expectations in the way we treat one another. We consider everyone in the Illuminate community as family. This goes for both our team members and external customers.

So, what does that actually look like in real life? Here are five concepts that have shaped our relationships and work ethic:

Taking Part in Participation-Age

At Illuminate, we don’t have managers or bosses. (At least, we don’t use those terms.) We are a “participation-age” organization, which means we are empowered to make decisions in our teams rather than constantly “checking with management.”

As made popular by Chuck Blakeman, the idea is centered around treating all employees as creative, messy individuals who bring their entire lives to their work every morning—not just automatons who are told to follow instructions.

Every employee is self-managed and treated as a stakeholder and owner of their work. This means we expect our employees to be authentic and fully engaged in their work, encouraged to take risks and explore their creativity. This also means that everyone is empowered to weigh in on important company issues and propose new ideas for the company, regardless of position or title.

Being Willing to “Carefront”

Anytime you put people together, there will be conflict. As talented as your employees are, they also carry diverse personalities and put forth ideas that can clash at times.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. If team members treat one another with respect and resolve to work together in spite of differences, conflict can often result in positive outcomes. In fact, good, healthy conflict can create progress and growth among team members.

But conflict can be cancerous if it’s not treated properly. If team members are constantly butting heads or at odds with one another, it can negatively impact the office environment. The unresolved conflict can even spread to the rest of the team, as others feel pressured to choose sides or play politics.

To resolve this, we apply a concept called “carefrontation.” If you see someone behaving in a way that doesn’t align with the company values and culture, then you have the responsibility to address it in private with that person. But the guiding principle is that you say it because you care about that person and want a positive outcome for all.

Here are the specific steps we would take in a “carefrontation:”

  • Confront ASAP
  • Address the wrong action, not the person
  • Confront only what the person can change
  • Give the person the benefit of the doubt
  • Be specific
  • Avoid sarcasm
  • Avoid words like “always” and “never”
  • If appropriate, tell the person how you feel about what was done wrong
  • Give the person a game plan to fix the problem
  • Affirm him or her as a person and a friend

We want to look at every conflict point as a chance to improve our relationships and increase communication.

Focusing on Learning & Career Development

Our team members are hired based on their particular skill sets or a role that needs to be filled. Over time, as other needs arise, stakeholders may work with other teams to extend their learning to help meet those needs.

It isn’t uncommon to have someone begin in a client support role and move to another team as their skills advance. We encourage individuals to continue to develop and grow, and should they feel like they’ve maxed out in their role, to explore other roles or ways to contribute at Illuminate.

A big part of this process is having constant feedback from our colleagues. Instead of annual reviews, employees get to select a group of 7-12 individuals to give monthly feedback regarding performance through a survey. This allows for more timely feedback from a broad set of people who are most familiar with your work, not just from “upper management”.

We also host a “Ship-it day” once a year. On this day, all developers are given an opportunity to build whatever they want over a 24-hour period. Projects are presented before the company and we cast votes to award the best ones. Many of these projects end up being featured in our actual software product (and some even become the most loved or used feature!).

The idea is to constantly encourage innovation, personal growth, and learning opportunities for all of our team members.

Promoting Health & Wellness

Over the years, studies have shown that a healthy and physically fit body can work wonders for the mind. That’s why we emphasize health and wellness for all our employees. (It also helps that our CEO and founder Lane Rankin is a major gym rat).

For starters, we provide health and dental insurance at no cost to our employees (100% paid for by the company). To put this in perspective: only two percent of U.S. employers currently offer this benefit.

We also provide multiple full-body scans and blood drawings throughout the year to track vital factors like heart health, muscle mass, and body fat. If desired, there is free nutritional counseling available as well.

There is a gym on site, free and accessible at any time to our employees. Healthy snacks like bananas, apples, grains and nuts are also provided at the office.

All of this helps to keep us aware of our bodies and motivated to maintain our physical health, which in turn will affect the way we think about and approach our work.

Giving Back to the Community

We feel a deep responsibility to our local communities. It’s not so much a burden as it is a privilege—with our success comes a responsibility to help and give back to others.

This includes a couple big projects at the company level. We’ve sent internal team members by the dozens to build homes from scratch in Mexico. We’ve also bought over a hundred Christmas gifts for underprivileged children in various school districts. More practically, on an individual level, we give all of our employees 40 additional hours of paid time off to volunteer in the community. (This is totally optional, a “use it or lose it” sort of thing.)

The volunteer work could include a wide range of activities, from helping as a tutor at an after-school program to serving food or cleaning up at a soup kitchen. The employees can decide whether to spend two hours a week for five months or use the whole week to devote to a project.

It’s pretty flexible, really. As long as our staff wants to get involved, they are encouraged to give back any way they can.

Final Thoughts

From the time that Lane started the company, his goal internally was to make every single team member feel like a stakeholder. The idea was that if everyone felt like they help control the destiny of the company, almost everything else would take care of itself.

And it has. We’re glad to say that our investment and faith in people has been rewarded, and we look forward to building on this work for years to come.