The 5 Most Successful Work Environments (and The 5 Worst)

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Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

There are hundreds of different work environment characteristics, some of which can be measured and quantified easily (such as the amount of office space available or the color of the walls) and some of which are more qualitative (such as general feelings of malaise or enthusiasm rippling through the team). Like any entrepreneur, you want the “best” environment — the one that will allow your team to operate at its most productive level and remain satisfied for years to come.

Unfortunately, theres no single “best” work environment. Any one workplace can have characteristics of multiple environments, and how you string them all together depends on your brand, culture, and the attitudes of those you work with. To point you in the right direction, however, I’ve come up with a list of some of the best and worst work environments I’ve ever seen — as an employee, as an entrepreneur, or as a consultant.

Let’s start with the best:

1. The Open Skeptic Environment. In the skeptical environment, everything is questioned because questions are encouraged. When someone suggests a new marketing strategy, someone else asks why it would work better than an alternative. Questions feed discussion, and because everyone’s asking questions, everyone is progressing the company forward. Nobody is judged or reprimanded for their ideas, but all ideas are considered fairly.

2. The Individual-Focused Environment. In an individual-focused environment, the office offers enough flexibility for individuals to customize their own working styles. Some individuals may be allowed to work from home if it doesn’t interfere with their productivity. Others may have flexible hours, and still others may customize their desks and furniture however they like. Everyone works differently, and this environment recognizes and celebrates that fact.

3. The No-Walls Environment. The no-walls environment is all about keeping the team together. There are no offices or enclosed cubicles (or if there are, the doors are open), so everyone can speak freely with one another. These environments usually have a common break room, and teambuilding events to inspire cooperation and mutual appreciation.

4. The Mutual Feedback Environment. This environment favors honest feedback above all other forms of communication. When a worker needs to improve, he’s told about it. When a boss’s approach is unproductive or inefficient, she’s told about it. People trust each other to give, listen to, and act on mutual feedback, and everyone can improve as a result.

5. The Unified Environment. The unified environment allows people to operate as individuals, but still focus on succeeding as a team. This type of environment usually sets “team” goals and allows people to work together in smaller groups to accomplish “team” tasks. Everyone is focused on working together, and everyone holds themselves accountable for the quality of their work.

And, of course, we have the worst:

1. The 9-to-5 Environment. “9-to-5” is more than just a series of working hours; it’s a mentality that all work needs to conform to certain expectations. Overly strict timetables, strict dress codes, strict protocols, and strict operations only restrict the creativity and individuality of your team members.

2. The Compartment Environment. The compartment environment is the dark twin of the individual-focused environment. Rather than giving individuals flexibility to grow and change, the compartment environment forces individuals into silos, closing them off from the group and forcing them to act as individuals. Doing so ruins your hope of achieving a team mentality and makes individuals feel isolated and resentful of the system.

3. The Sink or Swim Environment. In a sink or swim environment, there is either success or failure, with no in between (and usually, failure is unacceptable). This black-and-white view doesn’t allow people to learn from their mistakes, or recognize that despite reaching a goal, their process could be improved. Real life has gray areas; your office should too.

4. The Punitive Environment. The punitive environment forgoes rewarding good behavior for only penalizing bad behavior. There are consequences for missed goals or breached procedures, but no rewards for performing exceptionally. Such an environment breeds motivation by fear, which is inherently inferior to motivation by enthusiasm.

5. The Class System Environment. In the class system, some employees are objectively better than others; bosses can’t be questioned, leaders can’t be challenged, and employees must submit to whatever they’re told. This environment breeds resentment, and loses focus on ideas and cumulative productivity.

When it comes to maximizing the satisfaction and productivity of your employees, these are some of the best and worst environments I’ve ever seen. Hopefully, you can recognize some of these characteristics in your own place of business, and learn from their effects on your team. Your office doesn’t have to be perfect, nor does it have to conform to any one set of expectations, but it does have to give your employees everything they need to feel appreciated and stay motivated to work hard.

For more content like this, be sure to check out my podcast, The Entrepreneur Cast!

Written by

CEO of EmailAnalytics (, a productivity tool that visualizes team email activity, and measures email response time. Check out the free trial!

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