Back to News Room – What Really Keeps Employees Happy?

By Carrie Rossenfeld | Orange County

Combs: “What makes employees happy? Listening to them, respecting them and valuing them.”

NEWPORT BEACH, CA—Perks like getting their birthday off and having flexible hours mean a lot to employees, RiverRock Real Estate Group’s principal John Combs tells His firm has been named by a local business journal as one of the best places to work in Orange County for the last seven years. We spoke exclusively with Combs about why he thinks the company has earned this designation, what truly makes employees happy and what employers can do to attract and retain top talent today. Why has your firm been named one of the best places to work in Orange County for the last seven years?

Combs: When I started RiverRock, I had gone through the transition of CB buying Insignia and the Irvine Co. internalizing the management of its portfolio. I decided one of the key performance indicators was if we won best place to work because happy people give better service. What better way to measure that besides an outside firm surveying your employees and comparing their results to similar-sized companies the find the best companies to work for? That was a major KPI for me when starting RiverRock. What makes a company attractive to employees today?

Combs: What makes employees happy? Listening to them, respecting them and valuing them. Every year, we survey our employees on what they want, and then we take the results of that survey and our executives sit in a room and analyze it to figure out how we can improve areas where we score weak. We develop a plan of attack to improve each year. People don’t necessarily want massages in the office or manicures, but they tell us what they need more of in their job.

Year after year, most people wanted flex time. What does that mean? It could mean a lot of things. So, we created an employee form, crossed geographical and departmental boundaries and a non-executive who didn’t take down names facilitated getting the meaning of their answers and got feedback from them. What we discovered is that for them, flex time means a variety of things: working part-time from home or working four 10-hour days or just working part-time. We took this seriously and had an all-employee call, and we said if you want flex time, you can have it; just get approval from your client or supervisor to be accommodated. Of course, some people can’t work on flex time because a building has to be manned, but we can make accommodations depending on what the job is. Out of 130 people, 12 came forward on this. What else do they want?

Combs: Everyone wants to be heard. We have an intranet with music playing in the background. Our employees said they hated that music, so we went to one of our young tech employees and said, “How hard is it to get rid of that music?” and he said it wasn’t hard, so we had him take the music off.

Also, for their birthday, we just give them the day off. Everyone can take their birthday off, and people love it. Last year, we improved on this and started sending each person a birthday card and a $75 allowance to do whatever they want on their birthday and expense-report it. So they can go for a massage or play golf or whatever they want to do. Some people aren’t remembered on their birthday, so at least they’ll be remembered here.

We also discovered that Millennials were giving us lower satisfaction scores, so now we have lunch with our Millennial employees, when they can ask questions about the company and we can find out if they’re getting what they need. We want to know how we can compete against the tech companies that are recruiting their friends. We will also have some events that are run by the Millennials and funded by me. Maybe we’ll go bowling or some other activity—as long as it’s building family-like relationships and creating a home outside of the home, why not? What other things can employers do to draw in top talent and retain good employees these days?

Combs: It’s been noted that Millennials will have three to seven career changes—not just job changes, but actual career changes—in their lifetime. They want to understand what the strategic plan of the company is and how they can impact that. The number-one thing every Millennial in the business world wants to know is what they can do to get promoted. When the market’s good, that’s easier than when the market’s not so good. They all want to come to the home office and see it. Kids don’t want to come to Disneyland to just watch the show; they want to be in the show or affect the outcome. People want to manipulate what’s going on. They want field trips so they’re not just stuck at their property. They want to see other properties and get exposed to other ways of doing things.

The big thing for this year was being a healthy employer, so we gave everyone biometric tests and a discount on their health insurance if they get a physical and take the biometric test. It saved two lives because a lot of the people don’t go to the doctor, and one employee went because of what we were offering and discovered she had breast cancer, and another employee did the same and discovered he had major high blood pressure and blood sugar. They also want to do volunteer activities, so that’s the next thing we’re going to roll out.

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