John Ryan, CEO of Great Place to Work Ireland, wants to banish that Sunday evening dread for all of us.

A work placement with the then Dublin Gas during his business degree at DCU taught John Ryan a huge amount about the importance of brands: “They rebranded to Bord Gáis and went from ‘Sorry: Dublin Gas’, to the famous three little bears and school kids singing the ‘50:50 cashback’ song. It was amazing to see how you can turn a brand around, and change the customer experience overnight”.
Now, as CEO of Great Place to Work Ireland, John wants Irish organisations to understand that their workplace needs to be a place that their employees look forward to coming to and their employer brand has to communicate that if they want to attract talent.
John says that any organisation of any size in any industry can be great, and Great Place to Work interacts with over 350 organisations every year, helping them to identify the key areas where they need to change to gain the trust that he says is key to becoming a great place to work: “Our assessment covers nine key practice areas. It’s a framework that you work to: a working definition of a great place to work from an organisational perspective as one where you achieve your organisational objectives, where people give their personal best, and work together as a team”.


Know thyself
The nine practice areas (see below) boil down to some very practical things that organisations can do to create that culture of trust. One of the most important is identifying what the culture of your organisation is, and feeding that into how you choose team members: “We say be unique – don’t be generic. Stop recruiting people just for the skill set to do the job, because that should be a given. Be honest and authentic about who you are and hire people who will survive and thrive in that environment”.
Once you’ve worked through what your objectives are as an organisation, communicating them to employees and showing them how they connect to those objectives, is vital: “It doesn’t matter what my role is, show me where it connects to the organisation’s purpose so that I get a sense of purpose and meaning in what I’m doing”. The flipside of this is listening: “Do you know what people are thinking, feeling and believing about the organisation? What are the biggest frustrations they’re finding with trying to get the job done?”
Buzzwords like inclusion and wellness are very much on the radar for most companies these days, but John says that doesn’t mean we’re getting it right: “Inclusion is about bringing people into the decision-making process and giving them a voice, whereas Irish organisations still tend to make decisions and then tell people to implement the decision”.
He says caring for the health and well-being of your employees has to be about more than having a wellness day once a year: “There is no evidence to back up any improvement in performance by doing that sort of thing. Health and well-being can be a huge driver of performance, but it needs to be strategic”.
To address this, John is launching a brand new
certification from Ireland, which will go global, called Healthy Place to Work: “It’s a holistic view of what health actually is, and it’s all about purpose, meaning, learning and development, self-efficacy, job crafting, and social connections, along with the physical health aspects we are all familiar with. Organisations can support employees to be holistically healthier and they will reap the benefits – it’s the ultimate win-win”.

Be radical
Some of the things companies are doing may seem pretty radical to organisations that haven’t embraced this process. Replacing annual appraisals with ‘30:30’ (30 minutes of focused – and mutual – feedback every 30 days), or allowing prospective employees to interview different team managers to decide what team they want to work with, may seem huge – and intimidating – changes, but John says it’s practices like this that make the difference: “your relationship with your manager is absolutely critical”.
It’s about helping managers to be better too: “People say ‘people don’t leave organisations, they leave managers’, and that’s kind of true, but if we dig a little deeper we find that those managers aren’t set up for success; we haven’t given them the necessary skills”.
What John calls “radical transparency” is another area that might seem daunting to say the least. From Spotify, who put all staff appraisals (including the CEO’s) on their company intranet for all to see, to project teams openly scoring each other’s performance, or salary transparency throughout an organisation, it’s clear that there is a huge cultural shift happening, but John says it’s all to the good, even if some of
us might find it terrifying: “We assume it would be negative; we never think we’re as good as we are”.
It all comes back to trust: “We talk about engagement, but an employee’s engagement with their job can go up and down on any given day. Trust is a much more enduring concept. Our nine practice areas feed into the creation of a great workplace and a great workplace is one where you trust the people you work for, you’ve a sense of pride in what you do and you enjoy the people you work with”.

The method
Great Place to Work uses its established methodology of survey, reporting, discussion and analysis to work with organisations, and at the end of the process, those that reach a minimum standard gain Great Place to Work certification. Organisations may be daunted at the prospect of ‘competing’ against multinationals and much larger companies, but John says that’s not how it works: “We assess all organisations around our nine practice areas, but organisations are benchmarked against those of a similar size so that comparisons are appropriate. It’s not about perfection; for example, in our employee survey, if 70% of people believe the organisation is high trust, that will meet the criteria”.
It’s a methodology that measures the whole organisation: “It used to be the case that if the organisation as a whole got a certain score they could be considered a great place to work. Now, if the experience of the executive team versus everybody else is sizably different it’s not great; if the experience of women versus men, or people from different ethnic origins versus everybody else is significantly different, it’s not great”.
As recruitment of skilled personnel becomes an issue in many sectors, John says Great Place to Work certification “100%” gives employers an advantage: “We know from studying organisations across 58 countries for 40 years that the ones who have this employee experience that is high trust are the ones that are winning in the marketplace”.

Closer to home
In the property and construction sector, John says that many organisations still need to get the fundamentals in place to understand what makes a great workplace: “It’s not a nice fluffy thing on the side for staff – it’s core to organisational performance”.
He reiterates his point that this is a framework for organisations to use to achieve their objectives.
This is something construction and property professionals understand all too well in other areas of their work, where regulations and standards for safety and work practices are core elements of what they do: “This is the best framework you’ll ever implement, because it impacts on more people, helping to create a psychologically and emotionally healthy place to work, as well as a safe place to work”.
For SCSI members, the philosophy behind Great Place to Work also has some practical implications in terms of the services they provide to clients. The physical environment of the workplace is a huge part of what makes us want to come to work in the morning, and property and construction professionals are closely involved in creating and managing those physical spaces for their clients: “We worked with an organisation that put barcodes on everybody’s lanyards because they wanted to see who was colliding with whom. And they found that everybody from sales was colliding with everybody from sales, everybody from operations with everybody from operations, etc. They were getting no innovation across the organisation, and what they found was that the physical design of the organisation wasn’t driving the behaviours that they wanted. So they have streets built into the organisation, and the streets are where the coffee and the food is, and that’s where everybody happens to come. So now we’re mixing up the organisation and it’s not all siloed.
So the physical design is hugely important”.
So are Irish organisations taking on the message that creating the right working environment increases efficiency and productivity, and gives a competitive advantage? John says absolutely: “Irish organisations are doing brilliantly. The presence of so many international companies has forced indigenous companies to raise the bar. Irish companies are competing for staff and have to up their game, so we’re doing better than many other European countries. We are perceived as high trust, and as more inclusive too”.
This reputation in turn has a knock-on effect, attracting more foreign direct investment (FDI) and better employees, and John is delighted to have been a part of some of this success: “For me, 10 years on, I’m thrilled that it’s not only the great organisations that knock on our door; over 50% of the organisations that deal with us are a long way away from being great, but they have started on their journey to get better and we help them every step of the way”.


Nine practice areas

Great Place to Work began in the US in the 1980s and since then has spread its message across 58 countries. Its model offers a nine- point framework across three practice areas that it says will help companies to achieve their organisational objectives, in a group of people who are able to give their personal best, while working together as a team or family:


Being accessible for questions, suggestions, and concerns.
Providing honest and transparent information, empowering teams.


Showing how everyone contributes to the wider mission.


Showing appreciation for good work in regular and unique ways.

Offering distinctive benefits that respond to the needs of your team.


Helping employees to nurture their personal and professional gifts.


Hiring people with the talents to contribute to the right culture.

Taking time to celebrate wins in distinctive, creative ways.


Rewarding efforts of all those who play a part in delivering results.

Community spirit

John lives in Bray, Co. Wicklow, with his wife Kelly and three children. He loves golf and football (he’s an Arsenal fan). He also has a passion for current affairs and was mayor of his local town. John is a county councillor and was recently Cathaoirleach of Wicklow County Council.

Ann-Marie Hardiman

Managing Editor, Think Media