Newsletter and Subscription Sign Up

Creating Engaging Workplaces

Published Tuesday Sep 19, 2023

Author Scott Merrill

easter seals race

Team PROCON participating in the 2023 Eversource Walk & 5k Run for Easterseals. (Courtsey of PROCON)

Many people have experienced the soul-killing workplace cultures played for laughs in movies like 9 to 5, Office Space or Horrible Bosses. And while they offer comic relief validating people’s experiences, for those working in these environments the pain is real.

An unhealthy workplace culture sows mistrust and ultimately leads to confusion, anxiety, anger and people running for the door (not to mention scathing reviews on sites like Glassdoor). Healthy workplace cultures, on the other hand, engage employees and provide opportunities for personal and career growth. Healthy workplaces, in short, take the whole person into account, which in turn drives productivity. 

Despite the fierce battle for talent, it is apparent many companies still struggle with creating an engaging culture as only half of American workers, according to a March 2023 PEW Research survey, say they are extremely or very satisfied with their jobs overall. 

To delve into what it takes to create a workplace that attracts and retains employees, Business NH Magazine turned to NH organizations with a proven track record of making a healthy workplace culture a priority—current and past winners of the Best Companies to Work For competition. These employers share common values of trust and open communication while providing tangible benefits that meet the needs of their employees.

It’s About Values
Creating a culture that is a magnet for employees starts with the company establishing a clear set of values that are the basis for how it does business and communicates those with customers, employees and potential employees. “We need to make sure [the] employee’s values and what they want to do with their lives matches the company they want to work at,” says James McKim, CEO of Organizational Ignition. “If it’s not a match, chances are [the employee and the employer] are not going to be satisfied.”

Job interviews are a critical way for both potential employees and the employer to ask questions that explore whether their values are aligned, as organizations often espouse certain views, but the actual culture may not live up to those values. “The interview is a time where both parties are asking questions,” he says. “This requires that the person looking for the job has reflected on themselves enough so that they know what their values are.”

NFI North pride

NFI North Pride Event booth. (Courtsey of NFI North)

Creating a Culture of Trust 
NFI North, a nonprofit behavioral health agency serving Maine and NH that employs over 400 people, strives to create a workplace culture where people believe their work is meaningful, says Executive Director Paul Dann. And this focus has paid off. NFI North has been the recipient of numerous awards, including the 2023 Impact Award from the NH Center for Nonprofits and recognition as one of the Best Companies to Work For. “We want to make sure people have a sense of engagement,” Dann says. “It’s universal, but people don’t always think about it in that sense.” 

To create an engaging workplace, Dann says NFI North starts by asking important questions. “What’s the nature of the normative culture? How do we participate together? Are we working in a way that displays our true values?” he says, adding that employees want an opportunity to learn and grow. “They don’t want to just punch a clock and go home.” 

Creating an environment where people are willing to take risks with new projects is critical, Dann says. “And if you’re going to take risks, you have to have a culture that is going to forgive people when there are missteps,” he says. “You need to have a way to work together that is supportive of people’s initiatives and efforts. These things sound simple, but it’s complicated to achieve.”

That is because workplaces are made up of individuals with various—sometimes competing— viewpoints and feelings. The sociologist Max Weber was famously quoted as saying “Man is an animal suspended in webs of meaning he himself has spun,” and without effective communication and a culture of trust, companies can quickly find themselves caught in sticky situations with employees who are disengaged, unhappy or leaving.

And companies cannot communicate enough with employees. One of McKim’s mantras, he says, is “Communication, Communication, Communication.” This can involve having regular employee group meetings—fitted to the size of the company—where leaders can share decisions have been made or are being made, discuss goals and values, seek input from employees and recognize employee achievements.  All these messages should be reinforced by supervisors and line managers. And companies should make sure employees have plenty of avenues to communicate with leaders. “That is a foundation for trust. It shouldn’t just be the word coming down from on high,” McKim says. 

Building trust with employees also means respecting the fact that they have lives outside the company and may need to deal with their personal lives while on the job. McKim says this is another area where line managers can play a big role in helping employees balance productivity with personal demands. “[Line managers] have the ability to schedule the work so an employee has flexibility to do it when they are able to,” he says, adding that this is especially important in workplaces where people are working remotely. “Managers used to ask, ‘What are you doing? When are you doing it? How is it getting done?’ They used to use command and control. But a collaborative approach is more effective.”

Bangor Savings Bank clean

Bangor Savings Bank employees. (Courtesy of Bangor Savings Bank.)

Bangor Savings Bank, which has employees across Maine and NH, makes work-life balance a top priority, says Ryan Albert, director of human resources and employee development. That includes providing employees anywhere from 168 to 272 hours of paid time off annually as well as up to 32 hours of paid time off to volunteer. New parents receive 16 weeks of paid time off. The bank also offers flexible work arrangements to help employees accommodate school drop offs or pick ups, child care challenges or to pursue a degree. Employees also have the option to work remotely. “We want to make sure people have as much time at home as possible,” Albert says, adding the company also provides wellness benefits including bank-wide chair massages. “And we give all of our employees a free or discounted Fitbit and run regular wellness challenges.”

The Bad Boss 
Dann says too many companies focus solely on money to keep and attract talent. While there is some truth to this—the PEW survey found only 34% of Americans were satisfied with their pay. “It’s true, people move for money, but it’s less likely if the organization has some of the other important elements in place,” Dann says. “You have to pay people fairly, but if they also feel plugged in, they will stay with you.”

When employees feel empowered and heard they also stay longer, McKim says. “It takes roughly three times someone’s salary to replace them,” he says, adding that turnover is high at companies where leaders are only focused on the bottom line. “Organizations don’t always do such a good job of training managers and leaders who know and hold onto their people.”

Indeed, one of the major reasons why people stay or go is their boss. The bad boss experience, or BBE, as Dann calls it, can be corrosive to workplace culture. “The BBE is one of the most toxic things in a work environment,” he says. “One of the things we’ve done is to develop our supervisors and leaders in terms of their training capabilities.” 

Every year NFI North holds a six-month leadership development training led by Dann for a cohort of promising employees who have been recommended by their supervisors. “We’re invested in this program as well as in supervisory training that mirrors our values of respect, responsibility and engagement.” 

Fostering Collaboration 
At PROCON, an architectural and construction management firm in Hooksett, Managing Directors John Stebbins and Jenn Stebbins Thomas hire employees who want to collaborate. They say fostering a positive attitude comes from a sense of working together. “We look for people with incredible skills, and we’re always talking about whether people would be a good fit for PROCON in terms of their ability to collaborate,” says Jenn Stebbins Thomas.

It is a strategy that has paid off for PROCON. John Stebbins says many of their employees have been with the company for a decade or more, and 22 out of its 150 employees have been with PROCON for more than 20 years. One of those employees has worked for the company for 43 years. “He could retire, but he likes coming to work and he has a wealth of knowledge,” John Stebbins says. “It’s wonderful to be able to go to people like this and to ask questions about the history of various projects.” 

“It makes good sense business wise that employees stay for a while because the cost of training can be very expensive,” he says. “People get better at their jobs the longer they do them.”

So, how des PROCON engender such loyalty? Jenn Stebbins Thomas says the company has an open-door policy that includes a monthly “Breakfast with the Boss” with six to eight employees. “Honestly, most of those conversations are about learning about people outside of work, which is fun for us and gives people an opportunity to be heard,” she says. “We have always thought it was important to see people as a whole person and not just their 9 to 5 lives. Our people are the lifeblood of what we do.”

national guard singer

Spc. Victoria Fatukasi energizes the crowd during the 39th Army Band’s performance at the Ilopango Airshow on Feb. 5, 2023 in El Salvador. (Spc. Kelly Boyer, 114th Public Affairs Detachment)


A Sense of Purpose and Service
The new generation of employees want to know they can make a difference at their job and have a true sense of purpose. At NH National Guard, which employs around 3,000 people, 25% to 30% of the force is between the ages of 18 and 25. Mikolaities says there are several reasons young people want to join and stay with the Guard, a past winner of the Best Companies to Work For competition. 

Major General David J. Mikolaities, the adjutant general for NH National Guard, runs an organization that places an emphasis on a “higher calling” where people can “make a difference in their community,” he says, explaining that this starts with the initial training that soldiers receive. 

“They’re learning those values in their initial training, and when we bring them into the organization it’s a constant process,” he says. “We like to use the term that the active-duty Army uses: ‘People First, Winning Matters.’ For us, it’s all about our people and we try to highlight our people by affording them the opportunity to learn and grow as individuals.”

That includes offering extensive education benefits, including 100% tuition reimbursement for college courses and several leadership training programs. The NH National Guard also offers a tuition waiver for the spouses of soldiers who reenlist after their initial six years of service. 

Mikolaities, who has been in uniform for over 30 years, considers himself fortunate. After growing up in Manchester, he attended West Point and the U.S. Military Academy. “I started out on active duty and when I departed active duty, I stayed in part time. Now I’m back full time.” His longevity, and that of others in the organization, he says, is driven by a sense of “purpose, a sense of mission, and of serving others.”

Mikolaities draws an analogy between the National Guard and a civilian company by comparing the diversity of positions and levels of complexity within the organization. “We go from flying KC-46 refuelers, to infantrymen, to having a band,” he says. “For us, there is a lot of leadership development focusing our time on creating leaders who take charge of those different units and ensuring they have the resources and tools to be supported with dignity and respect.”

Mikolaities says the top two traits he looks for in young officers are empathy and humility. “You have to have the empathy to listen to your subordinates, to understand where they are coming from, what their concerns are, and the humility to walk in their shoes,” he says, adding this means “never asking of them what you’re not willing to do yourself.”

All Stories