Keep up the good work

Recognition and respect are essential to employee satisfaction, leaders say

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The panel

Comcast's senior vice president of the greater Chicago region Leann Talbot (upper left), Loyola University President Father Michael Garanzini (upper right), Abt Electronics Co-President Jon Abt (lower right), and Jill Smart, worldwide head of human resources for Accenture (lower left). (Chicago Tribune staff photos)

I want to live in a world where every workplace is on a list of "best workplaces." I also want a jet pack, but I'm guessing neither of those things will happen anytime soon.

So the non-jet-pack-related question is: How can you make a workplace better?

To answer this, I tracked down leaders from four of the entities on the Chicago Tribune Top Workplaces list and talked with them about what it takes to make employees happy.

Not surprisingly, there were common threads in all their answers: communicate with your employees, respect your employees, make sure everyone understands the rules and the mission.

No question, the simplest way to make office life good is to be a decent human being. Yet it's a concept that's not always embraced.

My conversations with business leaders who, at least based on the Top Workplaces survey, are doing things right all echoed that theme of decency.

Here's a little of what each had to say:

LeAnn Talbot
Senior vice president and leader of Comcast's greater Chicago region

One Veterans Day, Talbot sent a message to all 7,000 of the people who work for her, acknowledging the contribution veterans have made to America. She's a regular communicator, often sending out video messages to make it more personal for those who work remotely from Comcast trucks and are rarely in the office.

The note resonated with one customer service representative who replied to Talbot saying her son was back from Afghanistan after being injured. The two mothers email back and forth, and Talbot still gets regular updates on the woman's son.

"Those things that you do as a leader, that makes the difference," Talbot said. "You can put a bow on anything, but if the core is not one of value and respect, then it doesn't matter what you give employees. That, to me, is a tenet of a great workplace."

She said visible leadership and clear goals are two of the keys to making sure Comcast workers stay focused and motivated.

"We really work on communication," Talbot said. "How do you know if you're winning if you're not keeping score? We do monthly score cards, weekly score cards and really let employees know the progress areas and the areas they need to focus more on. We work on areas where we're falling short, and we celebrate the areas where we're overachieving."

But what of the gripes Comcast's customer service employees invariably receive, calls from fired-up customers having cable problems?

"We do know that our customers are really passionate about our service," she said. "They love it, it's a big part of their lives, and when issues arise, they can get upset."

I asked her how she keeps her team's morale up when they deal with emotional exchanges. The answer is, basically, to give the employees as much support as possible in dealing with customer problems.

"I'm not going to say we're perfect and we don't have rough spots," Talbot said. "When customers are experiencing challenges with us, it's my job to make sure I take away those roadblocks and empower our workforce so they can take care of the customers."

This approach, she said, is all the more effective when the employees are happy with their jobs in the first place: "You build that framework where people feel valued and trusted to make decisions on behalf of the customers they serve. Even when you get a challenge from a customer, you're in a better frame of mind and you feel that you can take care of the customer's concerns."

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