Manager Mysteries & Mishaps Podcast

How employees describe the best work environments.

This episode explores the mysteries of which words are used by employees to describe the best work environments, which of those words you should focus on in your own team, and how some of those words relate to employee engagement.


In the previous episode I went pretty in-depth on describing employee engagement at a conceptual level. It’s good to know what employee engagement is, but it’s also important to have a better understanding of cultural benchmarks of other organizations. Especially those organizations that have higher-than-average levels of engagement. These benchmarks serve as kind of a goalpost to aim for or at least keep in mind, and can offer you food for thought when it comes to engaging your own team.

Quantum Workplace provides an all-in-one toolset that makes managers the central drivers of workplace culture. What we also do is host America’s Best Places to Work contest, in which over 8,000 organizations compete annually across roughly 45-50 cities in the United States. I mention all that because the survey that employees respond to has a variety of questions included, and the question that I’m going to explore in this episode is as follows: What three words best describe your work environment?

So before going any further, that’s actually a great question for you to think about yourself. How would you describe your workplace, using single words? Are the words positive? Negative? A mixture? Are you overflowing with the number of words that come to mind, or are you kinda drawing a blank? And how do you think your direct reports would answer those questions?

With the Best Places to Work survey, I analyzed responses from over 400,000 employees. As I review the results, you can compare the words that you thought of (when thinking about your own organization) to the words that represent what are arguably among the best work environments.

So I’ll be going over three mysteries throughout this episode. First: what words describe the best work environment? Second: which of those words should you focus on, put more attention towards? Finally, the third mystery is: how do some of those words relate to employee engagement?

Words that Describe the Best Work Environments

Rather than only focusing on the top 3 or 5 words, I wanted to expand the list to the top 20. After all, this list is based on over one million words from hundreds of thousands of employees. As I’m going through these words, I want to emphasize that you should really write them down, or at the very least commit several to memory that you would like your team or organization to aspire to.

So without further ado, these are the 20 most frequently used words that describe the best work environments, starting with the most frequent: fun, challenging, friendly, engaging, rewarding, collaborative, flexible, supportive, exciting, caring, family, professional, busy, fast-paced, innovative, teamwork, motivating, positive, comfortable, and integrity.

What did you hear in those words? What did you think about? Do they seem to reflect your current organization, or the complete opposite? Could your team or organization eventually embody some of those words, or does that seem like a pipe dream, just not gonna happen?


Whenever I’m presented with a list of more than about five things, I like to look for themes, related ideas. With this list, I saw five different yet related themes. The first theme that came to mind is…higher energy, an activated mindset. The words in this theme are fun, exciting, busy, and fast-paced. The second theme revolves around fulfillment, including words like challenging, engaging, rewarding, and motivating. The third theme is kind of…cohesiveness or camaraderie, with words like friendly, collaborative, family, and teamwork. The fourth theme is about accommodation, with words like flexible, supportive, caring, and comfortable. The fifth and final theme I could see is a bit tricky to put a label on, but it includes the words of professional, innovative, positive, and integrity. Maybe a high-level theme like cultural practices or something.

Anyway, I didn’t actually plan on finding themes that each had four words, it just kind of worked out like that. Though I want to stress that those are the themes that I saw in those 20 words. You might’ve heard or considered completely different themes, or might move some words around into different themes. The point of mentioning those themes is not about being correct in what the themes are or what words belong in them, but rather adding some order to a little bit of chaos. Twenty words in isolation is a lot to remember or take in. Remembering five things, or five themes in this case, is much more manageable.

The main takeaway from this first mystery is that there are a variety of words that a lot of employees indicated as being evidence of a great place to work. Those words can be summarized across five themes, including higher energy, fulfillment, team cohesion, accommodation, and kind of a catch-all of cultural practices. Ask yourself: what can you do, or being an advocate for, to make the jobs of your team more fulfilling? Can you be more accommodating, or in different ways? Is there a sense of camaraderie within your team? It’s these kinds of questions that I’ll always ask of you in this podcast, and ones that you should also get into the habit of asking yourself from time to time if you don’t already.

Which Words You Should Focus On

I did come up with five themes based on the 20 words. But if we step back a bit and consider the words themselves, which of them are most important? It’d be easy to take the top five and say those are the most important because those are the words employees used the most to describe their places of work. Importance by consensus. I took it a step further and compared the top 20 words of 2018 with those of 2017. Without getting into the nitty gritty of which words rose or dropped in rank, or even fell off the list entirely, the words fun, challenging, and friendly were the top three words across both years. The fifth highest word this year, and fourth last year, is rewarding. So based on year-over-year consistency, ultimately what this suggests is that if you want to have a great organizational culture or great team culture, then your work environment should be fun, challenging, friendly, and rewarding.

I want to make a note that the 20 words I’ve described so far are based on employees’ perceptions of their work environment, which could include multiple teams across a variety of functions and departments, different shifts, etc. So you as a manager may not have the ability to influence the overall work environment, but you can definitely have a strong impact on the work environment and general culture of your immediate team. And if that impact is positive, productive, beneficial, and all that, then those factors could potentially spillover to other teams and bring about larger change within your organization.

But back to you and your team. Similar to what I asked earlier: Does your team seem to have any fun? Do you support or accommodate the potential for fun, like team activities, hangouts, not taking things too seriously? Are you friendly to your direct reports, and they to each other? And finally, is your team being appropriately challenged and rewarded? If you’re unsure, then as always, ask. Have a team meeting or send out an email or text asking what your direct reports like to do for fun, what would make work more fun for them, whether they’re being challenged enough with their jobs, and whether they believe their work is rewarding or that they’re being appropriately rewarded for the work they do.

It’s also important to find a “sweet spot” for any of the words I’ve mentioned; not too little, not too much. For example, employees should be challenged enough so they’re not bored or not having their strengths utilized, but they shouldn’t be challenged so much that they become stressed, burned out, or feel helpless. That sweet spot will be different from person to person, which is why it’s important to have you, as a manager, be a key part of employees’ growth and development.

The main takeaway from this second mystery is that if you want a great work environment, whether for your team or the entire organization, it should be fun, challenging, friendly, and rewarding.

How Some of the Words Relate to Employee Engagement

I found the 20 words that employees used most frequently to describe their work environments, then I compared those words over two years of data. But I didn’t stop there. I conducted one more analysis. Specifically, I explored whether any words differentiated highly engaged employees from less engaged employees. And remember that we define employee engagement as the strength of the mental and emotional connection employees feel toward their jobs, teams, and places of work.

I found the top ten words used by at least 5% of those employees who are most engaged. And 5% may not sound like much, but when we’re talking about tens upon tens of thousands of employees, it adds up. So those ten words are as follows: fun, challenging, friendly, engaging, rewarding, collaborative, exciting, supportive, flexible, and caring. Not much different from the original list of 20, as would be expected. But among the least engaged employees, the top five words are as follows: stressful, challenging, busy, friendly, fun.

The words “challenging,” “fun,” and “friendly” are in both groups. Yet the surrounding words for each group are quite different. For highly engaged employees, they are words like “engaging” and “exciting,” whereas the two other words for less engaged employees are “stressful” and “busy.” To be challenged can be a positive experience. Through challenge you can learn, grow, and feel accomplished after finishing an especially difficult task. Yet to be challenged can also be a negative experience. If something is too challenging, you can become overwhelmed or unable to complete certain tasks. Likewise, workplaces can be fun and friendly in a supportive and caring sense, but they can also be fun and friendly in a negative, or at least counterproductive, way by focusing too much on fun or socializing and not enough on work. That work may be stressful to less engaged employees, so they may compensate by having fun or hanging out with coworkers to avoid — or at least temporarily forget about — the negative challenges associated with their job.

Engagement as a Mindset

All of this suggests to me that engagement is a mindset. How you perceive and react to common aspects of work probably depends on how engaged you are. For example, highly engaged employees likely perceive stress as something that’s positive and exhilarating, whereas less engaged employees are more likely to interpret stress as something that’s negative and overbearing. Highly engaged employees seem to focus more on the potential for enrichment that they can get from their jobs, seeing opportunities and possibilities. Barely or disengaged employees, on the other hand, probably focus more on the limitations that their jobs place on them, seeing barriers instead of bridges.

This all means that employee engagement can be thought of as a mindset, one that filters how the workplace is perceived and responded to. Engagement itself could even be framed as a coping mechanism, with highly engaged employees perhaps being able to more effectively cope with challenges, difficulties, stress, etc., and less engaged employees having more problems overcoming those issues. If your goal is to have a more engaged team — or become more engaged yourself — then think about what needs to be done in your team to have a change of mind, to strengthen those coping mechanisms.

The main takeaway from this third mystery is that engagement is a mindset, one that can influence how employees perceive their work environments. Find out if your team is too stressed, too challenged, or too busy, then work with them to try and reduce those obstacles.



As a recap, I discussed which words describe the best work environment, which of those words you should focus on, as well as how some of those words relate to employee engagement. Those words can be summarized across five themes, including higher energy, fulfillment, team cohesion, accommodation, and cultural practices. If you want a great work environment, it should be fun, challenging, friendly, and rewarding. Finally, engagement can be thought of as a mindset, a filter, and a coping mechanism, all in one.

From this episode I hope you think more about the words I’ve reviewed, both in a general sense and how you may be able to work towards them in some way. Remember back to the very beginning when I asked you to think about what words you’d use to describe your own workplace. Write those down or type those up, then consider how you can connect the dots between your words and the 20 words I reviewed. Those pathways can be action plans for you and your team to commit to.

Being able to change some of the factors I mentioned throughout this episode may not be within your control, and I understand that. So what’s important is even if that’s the case, think about what you can do to make things a little easier, a little brighter, by gently pushing, pulling, or nudging individuals in a certain direction. And because this relates to the work environment, those individuals could go beyond your team, such as meeting with other managers, raising concerns or ideas to HR and having a thriving partnership with HR, or voicing ideas during a larger departmental or division meeting.

Likewise, if you’re especially interested in what makes a best place to work, you can check out Quantum Workplace’s annual employee engagement trends report by downloading it from our website.

And that’s it for this episode! Join me next time on Manager Mysteries & Mishaps, where I’ll discuss the silver bullet to people management.

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