Forget Chutes And Ladders, Focus On What Matters

Creating a modern work environment doesn’t always mean going to the extreme (we’re looking at you, companies with slides in your offices!). Here’s how credit unions can create engaging workplaces that, well, actually work.

We’ve all read stories about some of the amazing workplace headquarters out there think free food in the cafeteria, foosball tables, meeting rooms filled with beanbag chairs, and afternoon tai-chi classes. These plush creature comforts make a great headline, but they are also difficult for many businesses to accommodate, particularly those with a limited budget or a customer-facing model that demands polished professionalism.

Silicon Valley startups, Fortune 500 companies, and other national players might dominate job seekers’ wish lists. But securing the coveted title of best place to work in your respective state, city, or county is still an effective way to deepen yourtalent pool, drive positive brand exposure, and exemplify cooperative, community-oriented values.

Below, we highlight three of the common elements outside industries use to create envy-eliciting workplaces and show how credit unions can put these principles to work in their own, slightly modified way.


All too often, organizations focus so much on delivering their products that they lose sight of an equally important factor the way in which they are delivered.

How many times have you ordered a sandwich and been given something that looks nothing like that photo on the menu? How many times have you voiced a complaint, only to be met with an indifferent shrug? Well, at Zingerman’s, that just wouldn’tfly.

That’s because this company is just as focused on customer service as it is on the quality of the food products that it serves.

Founded in 1982 by two partners in a Midwestern college town, this tiny gourmet delicatessen has since grown into a community of businesses including a bakery, creamery, coffee roastery, candy workshop, a sit-down restaurant, and even catering(1).

To manage its complex business network, Zingerman’s had to master the art of effective onboarding and training. In fact, this company has created an internal culture where employeesnot only consistently follow company standards but also are responsible for teaching them to others. On an operational level, this brand fanaticism helps reduce the training burden associated with Zingerman’s rapidly growing footprint. And onthe front line, it leads to consistently positive customer experiences and a steady flood of referrals and return business.

The company now even offers ZingTrain consultation for businesses of all types (2). These on-site sessions help organizations across the nation focus on everything from their business visioning to customer service and implementing the company’s owntrademark open book finance policy. And like all Zingerman’s products, corporate training comes with a satisfaction guarantee or your money back.

All this and an amazing pimento cheese. What’s not to love?

How To Make It Work For You

Most credit unions focus heavily on encouraging member referrals and engagement as a way to enhance their business. But by comparison, relatively little time and effort is spent converting employees themselves into true brand believers.

Whether you have 10, 100, or 1,000 employees in your organization, these individuals are in direct contact with thousands of potential members in their daily lives. But they will not leverage these connections for you unless they have a good reason.

Look to see what percentage of employees currently do their financial business with you if the results are not what you expected, it might be time to take these important relationships off of autopilot.


Zingerman’s approach reinforces the concept that stringent structure produces consistently positive experiences. However, as the following example proves, sometimes less is actually more.

From its humble beginnings as a shoe store back in 1901, Nordstrom has grown to become one of America’s largest high-end retailers, competing with Bloomingdales, Lord & Taylor, and Neiman Marcus. The company currently sells everything from designerclothing to make-up, operates more than 250 stores across the nation, occupies a regular slot in the Fortune 500 list, and continues to grow revenue at almost a double-digit annual rate (3).

Part of the reason for this success is the quality of Nordstrom’s employees. In a world where retail service expectations have fallen and high turnover is the norm, these individuals break the mold with their renowned attention to detail, exceptionaltaste, friendly approach, and vault-like memories especially when it comes to their repeat customers.

For years, the culture of independence that drove this performance was exemplified in the legendary Nordstrom employee handbook, a simple 5 x 8 inch gray card with a mere 75 words on it (4). The card read:

Welcome to Nordstrom.
We’re glad to have you with our company. Our number one goal is to provide outstanding customer service. Set both your personal and professional goals high.
We have great confidence in your ability to achieve them.

Nordstrom Rules:
Rule #1: Use best judgment in all situations.
There will be no additional rules. Please feel free to ask your department manager, store manager, or division general manager any question at any time.

Of course, times do change and the handbook at Nordstrom now also includes the kind of required legal language found in employee materials all across the country. However, the heart of its empowerment culture remains unchanged, and use your bestjudgment continues to be the company’s customer service mantra.

How To Make It Work For You

We trust you is one of the most valuable words an employee can hear. Yet this needs to be much more than just a platitude or a rote recitation. It should be the fundamental concept upon which the entire organization is built.

Employees who are empowered to do what is necessary will do what is necessary. What’s more, this expanded trust allows them to have true ownership of your member service standard. Once established and cultivated, they will defend these self-imposedtenets not just out of duty or obligation but also out of personal and professional pride.

Creative Freedom

We all want to work for Google. As a company, it makes money hand over fist. It has legendary April Fools’ Day pranks, a daily vegan selection in its free employee cafeteria, and the option for people to work in their pajama pants (5). Vince Vaughnand Owen Wilson even made a movie about going to work for the company.

A full 99.9% of businesses simply cannot operate like Google, including financial institutions like credit unions. A loan manager in pajama pants does not inspire confidence. Still, some of Google’s business practices have become the standard in SiliconValley and have even crept into the mainstream.

Take for instance Google’s 20% time, a now scaled back program which once allowed employees to use up to one-fifth of their normal workweek to pursue special projects.

What exactly was considered a special project? It might have been something directly related to an employee’s job or maybe an outside interest or idea with which they wanted to tinker.

This might seem far-fetched, but the company did reap tangible rewards by allowing time for these daydreams to be put in action.

Many definitive Google products (including the now ubiquitous Gmail) actually started out as projects in the 20% time program.

While Google has moved away from this benefit in 2013, its arch-nemesis Apple now offers a similar Blue Sky initiative that allows small teams to explore side projects. Facebook and LinkedIn also now have their own incubator offshoots.

Yet it was the Minnesota-based manufacturing giant 3M that first allowed employees this privilege (then called 15% time) long before Google co-founder Sergey Brin built his first motherboard (6). The biggest success from those early efforts was a littleinvention called Post-it notes.

How To Make It Work For You

If you’re worried this concept can only yield benefits in the tech space, think again. Everyone in your organization whether teller, loan officer, or board member likely has a great idea up their sleeve.

When done right, these undertakings shouldn’t interfere with the normal operation of the institution, and because they are passion projects, they rarely feel like extra work.

You should also feel free to start small, with a 5% time policy or a trial group of select employees. Even gradual improvements add up in aggregate, so you won’t need a Gmail or Post-it level invention in order for this investment to rapidly pay foritself.

Sources: (1) (2)
(3) (4) (5) (6)
December 17, 2014

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