Ten lessons from Ottawa's Best Places To Work

lessons from best places to work ottawa
Editor's Note

The Ottawa Business Journal's Best Places To Work feature appeared in the fall edition of the newsmagazine, which you can find at the end of the article.

What do a video game and interactive media development studio, chartered professional accountants and a provider of business security camera systems all have in common?

It might not be evident on the surface, but they — along with seven others — have all been named as Best Places to Work, following an extensive survey measuring dozens of metrics to determine what employees most value. The survey was organized by the Ottawa Business Journal and the Ottawa Board of Trade.

What makes them the best place to work for doesn’t necessarily all come down to money, rather philosophies and practices that keep their workforce happy and engaged. 

And after more than a year-and-a-half of lockdown, it probably doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that employee wellness is at the top of everyone’s minds.

To find out their secrets to success when it comes to keeping their employees satisfied, Ottawa Business Journal talked with the 10 winners of this year’s list to dig deeper into the workplace cultures and figure out the Top Ten Secrets to Success.

Decisive Group

What they do: Customer enterprise IT infrastructure solutions that improve business processes. 
Lesson: Celebrate big, celebrate little, celebrate often

Decisive Technologies believes the little wins should be just as important as the big wins. 

Decisive Technologies wants to show how much it appreciates its employees by building a close community, from organizing virtual reality gaming nights, virtual social drinks, to meals sent home for families to enjoy together. 

“We are an organization with a lot of shared interests but also diverse backgrounds and stages of life,” CEO Mitchell Carkner says. “We try to meet people where they are by providing a wide range of activities. Everything from fitness challenges to drone flying nights, scavenger hunts to pasta making, [Ottawa Senators] games, and charitable activities. They all make up the fabric of who we are as an organization.”

Employees have more choice than ever on where they work, Carkner says, adding that COVID increased the pace of change to a more distributed workforce. 

“We view our corporate culture as one of the main ways we distinguish ourselves from other employers,” he says “One of our organizational principles is allowing our talent to shine and thrive in an environment that promotes curiosity, passion, fun, growth, learning and well-being.”

Carkner believes customers also benefit when they feel the care the employees put into everything they do. 

“Just as employees have more choices than ever, our customers do too,” he says. “They will continue to choose organizations that exceed their expectations, that deliver consistently, that go above and beyond.”

DNS Networks Corporation

What they do: IT management services company specializing in cloud, IT hardware infrastructure and more. 
Lesson: Provide real career (and life) support.

Shawn Ebbs says he believes offering professional coaching from an outside advisor helps build stronger bonds between the team, a sense of pride and belonging, and knowing their leadership has employees’ backs when things are difficult. 

“COVID has shined a light on corporations and how they are mismanaged, and it’s just a matter of time that most will fail and struggle to grow,” he says. 

“For those businesses that aren’t focusing on mindfulness, transparency and personal development for their teams — and more so on the leadership — they will all wake up one day and realize how time flew by and their lifelong goals were not met, and at that point it’s too late.”

Employees spend so much time at work and/or thinking about work that if that culture doesn’t fit with an employee’s values, then they’ll move on. 

“I hope through our business development practices that we bring balance to their lives and help them find a purpose in our organization,” he says. “Once they know their ‘why,’ it provides them [with] a sense of belonging, the motivation to get them up in the morning and the drive to help make a difference.” 

Ebbs believes life coaching is a crucial ingredient to the company’s success. 

“Businesses need to shift their focus on their employees,” he says. “Revenues will follow without even having to focus on it. We have proven it, and [are] always open to sharing this business practice with other firms if they need.”

Hendry Warren LLP

What they do: Chartered accountants. 
Lesson: Look beyond the office.

Community service has always been important to Hendry Warren — giving back to the community was essential to the founding partners and is a philosophy they passed on to new partners over the years. 

“Getting staff involved in events has always been important as it helps inspire the spirit within them so that they continue to support their community no matter where they end up living,” Marie Fraser, partner at Hendry Warren, says. 

“We have often seen staff take on individual volunteer opportunities after they see how rewarding it is to give back and help other people.”

For years, Fraser says the company has supported the Kiwanis Club of Ottawa with its annual holiday hamper packing initiative where volunteers will pack over 500 boxes of food over three nights in December to be delivered to families in need. 

Other favourite staff-inspired events are the Angel Tree for the Boys and Girls Club, which gives gifts to children who might not otherwise get one, the CIBC Run for the Cure every fall and an annual Thanksgiving Food Drive for the Ottawa Food Bank. 

“These events are great for team building within the office,” Fraser says. “Having conversations while participating in these events allows us to see each other from a different perspective and appreciate each other as more than just accounting, tax and administrative professionals.” 

It’s a chance for employees to know their colleagues as people and to discover interests and hobbies they have in common — and that, Fraser says, makes the team feel closer and more connected when they return to the office. 

Knak

What they do: Email design.
Lesson: Big rewards work best.

Companies have many ways they reward their employees for their hard work: bonuses, extra days off, a work anniversary gift — but Knak takes it to the next level. 

They’ll book a company vacation for the entire team.

As CCO Chris Davies explains, the company sets annual goals. If the company meets those goals, then everyone is put on a plane to a relaxing beach vacation as a way to say thank you for all their hard work — at least, that’s the destination for this year. 

And setting big goals, means big rewards, Davies says.

“We had a massive collective goal to hit a certain number of annual bookings,” Davies explains. “We are pretty aggressive in what we try to accomplish every year, and we reward ourselves as a team when we hit those goals.”

While COVID restrictions are in place, Davies says the company is figuring out this year’s trip — destination currently unknown— but he’s pretty sure it will be somewhere in the Caribbean.

“We’re also really big on opportunities for advancement and opportunities for learning within the organization,” he says. “Having that balance and letting people perform at their best with a work-life balance also allows them move up in the organization. 

And we reward based on what people accomplish and we have really good performance reviews set up. We promote based on performance and that happens even though you’re on leave — like maternal leave, or anywhere — you still get your reviews and will still be promoted based on past performances.”

Noibu

What they do: Error monitoring platform for eCommerce.

Lesson: Put yourself first.

Noibu believes in putting people first in every decision it makes — and that means focusing on employee wellness. 

Among the perks they offer are sending monthly snack boxes to employees and extending every long weekend in the summer, calling them Noibu bonus days.

“It encourages employees to take care of themselves,” says Sarah Crandlemire, director of people and culture. “It’s important to take time off. We don’t subscribe to burnout culture and we lead by example.”

Crandlemire says management wants to provide the best place to work for its team, and hopes they feel fulfilled and cared for.

“When it comes to being people first, we tell employees to put themselves first, too,” she says. “And whenever one of our founders takes vacation, they’ll talk about it with the team as well to just demonstrate the importance of taking time off … it really is important for our team to take time off.”

It’s a practice that employees have appreciated, Crandlemire says. Not only is feedback from employee surveys “overwhelmingly positive,” but it helps keep employee turnover low.

It’s been the company’s approach since it opened in February 2020. Noibu now has 45 employees and plans to add another five this autumn. 

It’ll also organize outings with the team, such as socially distance socials. For example, employees went wakeboarding in August.

Rewind

What they do: Data protection apps. 
Lesson: Don’t overwork.

Building software is a lot of mental work, so for employees to be effective in their roles and enjoy the challenges, Rewind spokesperson Ryan Gibson says people need to be well-rested so they can think clearly. 

That’s why he believes employees who log longer days and weeks are less effective in their roles, so they’ll encourage their employees to take time off to rest and come back to work ready to solve hard problems. 

That’s in sharp contrast to some of the largest software companies in the world, which are notorious for pushing employees to their limits as they rush products to the market.

“These values have been a pillar of Rewind since day one,” he says. “It was very important to the founding team that we wouldn’t jeopardize our families and relationships.”

This, he adds, ensures the company respects people’s personal time by not expecting employees to work more than eight hours a day, and encourages people to maintain a work-life balance.

Too many companies avoid addressing the fact that a career is just part of someone’s life and likely not the most important part, Gibson adds. 

“We want our team to have a great work-life balance and build great relationships with their families, friends and in their communities,” he says.

And it’s an approach and philosophy employees value and appreciate. Gibson says he’s heard from employees that they find the philosophy “refreshing,” and it’s had a positive impact on the company’s reputation. 

“We believe that these values, along with the other values that Rewind has, have helped us keep our workforce, reduced our turnover rate and helped us be one of Ottawa’s fastest-growing companies.”

Rogers Communications Inc.

What they do: Canadian communications and media company. 
Lesson: Think bigger.

“We believe in challenging work, rewarding opportunities and building an inclusive future so all of our team members feel proud to bring their whole selves to work,” Rogers Communications spokesperson AJ Gratton says. 

“Our team’s health and well-being is more important than ever, so we provide our team members access to expanded benefit supports for physical and mental health, financial well-being, supports for parents and virtual health care for our team members and their families to help them cope during the health crisis.”

As part of their efforts, Rogers launched a National Wellness Fund to give the team expanded benefits support for mental health, financial well-being, support for parents and Virtual Health Care to help them cope during the pandemic.

Some of the services offered include access to virtual healthcare professionals, including nurse practitioners and doctors since 2019, parental benefits including virtual educational resources, progressive return from maternity leave and more. 

“Also, with today’s reality one of the key factors is the fact that the majority of our team members are equipped to work from home safely and efficiently. From the onset of the pandemic, our team members' safety and well-being has been our top priority.”

Other elements affecting Rogers’ employee engagement are the different resource groups that build awareness and a culture of allyship for equity-seeking groups, Gratton adds. This includes groups representing people of colour, LGBTQ2S+, Indigenous Peoples, persons with disabilities and women.

Snowed In Studios

What they do:  Video game and interactive media development. 
Lesson: Subvert industry norms.

From day one, Snowed In Studio wanted to create the best environment for its colleagues to thrive. That meant being mindful of concerns with overtime and crunch — two things that plague the video game, studio head Jean-Sylvain Sormany says. 

“While we now see a few more studios adopting similar guidelines, we are proud of the environment we’ve created and the adoption of this culture at all levels of the organization,” he says. 

“For engagement in the office, while the COVID-19 situation and the working from home has made personal engagement a little harder, we provide support to any employee that has ideas on how to engage with others. We encourage and provide resources to make sure that no good idea is left without a chance to be put in place.” 

Because Snowed In has a people-first mindset, retention is high in an industry that has a lot of turnover. 

“In the end, we perform well as a studio because our teams are experienced, motivated and feel trusted,” he says. “Our employees get more than a job with a paycheck. It’s an environment where they are listened to and where the organization makes efforts to adapt to what they really want. We understand they work to have a great life, not the other way around.”

In a recent show of appreciation, Snowed In sent lunch gift cards to everyone in the company. Now, the Christmas committee is working on starting their activity plans — and they cannot wait for their first big (and safe) “in person” activity.

Solink

What they do: Cloud video security system. 
Lesson: Ownership motivates

When you work at Solink, not only are you an employee — you are part owner of the business as well. 

“Employees are granted options through their employment and as the company grows, the goal is for those options to gain value,” says Erin Bailey.

Employees don’t need to sign up for the shares — they’re automatically given to every full-time staffer.

The idea is to provide autonomy to the employees, Bailey says.

“We want all of our employees to feel like they take ownership and have an impact on the business,” he says. “I believe that they do, by having the impact that they do by making suggestions or finding better ways to do things.”

By offering the shares, the company hopes employees feel they’ve made the best career decision possible. 

“We hope that it has an impact on their career goals and helps them grow, both personally and professionally.” 

But it’s not easy to develop an unconventional, Bailey says.

“There’s definitely a lot of things that, when you trailblaze, there aren’t set processes or policies,” he says. “So, we’re developing a new way of doing things, and sometimes that can be challenging..”

With 117 people employed at the company, Solink wants to build a sense of community and be transparent with information to help everyone reach their goals.

Stoneworks Technologies 

What they do: Custom IT infrastructure builder for corporations and government. 
Lesson: Longevity matters.

According to Stoneworks’ CEO Jody Burton, the company has always taken a team first (or work family) approach, and management believes in a strong corporate culture. 

“I feel that in taking this type of approach, we have created an ecosystem that everyone believes in and loves to be a part of, or contribute to,” Burton says. “We work hard as a team and we play hard as a team as well. It creates a great synergy amongst the team when we can collectively pay it forward together in various ways.”

What they do, Burton explains, is have the team take on charity and community services that they feel they can add value to or be assisted with. 

“Whether it’s a corporate function or teammates doing initiatives on their own, our hope is that in having this culture [it] cultivates positive behaviours for our company and the community we serve.”

There’s no such thing as a “punch clock,” Burton says. If someone needs to do something during work hours, a teammate is always ready to help pick up the slack.

“Most importantly, we love to laugh and to have fun. We are passionate about what we do and encourage everyone to be an integral part of making our environment as fun and as humanly possible.”

The payoff? The company says it has an extremely low turnover rate.