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Earlier this month, Bak USA earned first place among medium-sized businesses at the 2017 Best Places to Work Awards presented by Buffalo Business First. But why? And how?

To find some answers for our customers, partners, and neighbors, I sat down for an interview with Bak USA’s vice president of people, Eva Bak. Little did I know—though I was pleasantly unsurprised to find—that a three-question interview would turn into a 30-minute conversation. Eva and I had a lot to talk about, so much so that I needed to divvy up our convo into two parts. Here’s how the first half went down, give or take a sidetrack or two.

James (that’s me): Eva, nice work on taking home the gold at the BPTW Awards. In your own words, why do you think we won?

Eva: Why did we win the Golden Elephant? [Laughs]

James: Yes! We named her Ellie. [Laughs]

Eva: Honestly, I was very surprised. I hope we won because people feel at home here, and people feel invested in what we’re doing as a company. And I would say that that’s a part of our core values—that we want everyone here feeling included. Not just included in terms of “We accept you for who you are,” but also included in the sense that “You are part of what makes Bak USA what Bak USA is—each and every one of you.” And for that reason, when we handed out the [Best Places to Work] surveys, we saw a huge turnout of our employees wanting to fill them out. People were filling them out in the middle of their lunch breaks—in whatever moment that they were able to do it. I think that their dedication to participating in the survey was because they feel that if Bak USA is successful as a company, they are as well. And I would hope that’s why, or that’s part of why, we won.

James: Cool. You mentioned Bak USA’s core values. That’s certainly a huge part of who we are. I know I write about it a lot. And you mentioned some ideas about people feeling a genuine sense of self-worth. Could you elaborate a little about what those core values are and why they’re important?

Eva: Sure, alright. Core values: Transparency, family-like atmosphere, striving for excellence, innovation, and giving back. Those are our core values.

James: Okay. And why are those so important? For example, in what way would Bak USA be considered “transparent,” and why do you think that’s important?

“All departments work together in unity to bring this company to where it is.”

Eva: So, yes, first of all we try with our physical layout to highlight the transparency—we have a lot of clear [glass] walls—and that’s to really showcase the fact that we don’t necessarily think of departments as separate from each other. All departments work together in unity to bring this company to where it is. I also see that anyone can talk to anyone. So you can walk into the president’s office and you can talk to her about anything you want, and that’s transparency to me. There are really no closed doors. And if you need an answer to something you can get it. So I think that’s a big part of what makes people feel included—going back to the inclusion aspect—that if you feel like there are no walls between you (because of the title that you might hold or even the experience that you might have), there is still an openness about, “Hey, I can stop by and say what I want.”

James: So it sounds like “transparency” on a physical or human level exists as a person’s availability.

Eva: I think that’s part of it, yeah.

James: I once worked at a place where I would see the CEO every day, and I was fairly convinced he had no idea who I was. I’d be walking past this person every day, but there was no real interaction—which is exactly the opposite of what happens here. It was a bummer. And weird, too! Because years later I saw him out and he came up to me and smiled, said my name, and shook my hand. I was flabbergasted. I never would have guessed that he’d remember me. He’s a good enough dude for sure, but seemingly disconnected from his employees. At least that was my experience.

Eva: Oh! Wow. But you’re right, and I feel like that happens at a lot of places. And so I would also like to say that our managers are encouraged to give feedback to their employees as often as they possibly can, so you’re not necessarily waiting for your yearly review to know how you’re doing, but instead you have small pointers, maybe a weekly check-in that’s, “Hey, you could do better in this,” or “Awesome job on this!” Just feedback so your employees know where they stand—I think that’s a part of transparency. Not having people walking around wondering, “Am I doing a good job or not? Do they value me or not?” Someone should always know where they stand.

“You can walk into the president’s office and you can talk to her about anything you want, and that’s transparency to me. There are really no closed doors.”

James: Totally. I think that’s important, because how else could you operate in a healthy and happy way? Because if a manager doesn’t inform his or her employees—of the good or the bad—then the product suffers. If someone doesn’t feel good about what they’re doing, or isn’t recognized for making a meaningful impact, or is generally unsure of how things are going—then what would motivate that person to do the best job possible? I know that when I felt unnoticed by that one particular CEO, I perceived that my work wasn’t important, and it definitely damaged my enthusiasm there.

Eva: Exactly. And this may sound like a silly example, but one of the reasons you feel comfortable at home with your family is because you know where you stand. You know that they know what you’re good at, what you like, what you’re all about—they sort of know. And that’s actually part of the comfort, and it’s part of what we’ve seen here—that sense of, “Okay, I know where I stand.”

James: Oh, for sure. I still think like a teacher a lot, sometimes. So I imagine the workplace the same way I do a classroom, where a teacher needs to create a comfortable classroom environment. An office of employees is no different than a classroom of kids. If you don’t feel comfortable, whether it’s something a simple as a dress code—if we needed to wear a suit and tie every day, I wouldn’t feel as comfortable and my work would suffer because I would constantly be thinking about how uncomfortable I was. Students can’t succeed if they feel uncomfortable or underappreciated either. And to really get to know them, students or employees or just people in general, puts everyone at ease which helps them be productive.

“We’ve tried to bridge the gap between your personal life and your work life. Because you do spend more time at work than you do in the waking hours at home.”

Eva: And you could even add to the beginning of why we think we won [the BPTW Award] is the sense of comfort here. We’ve tried to bridge the gap between your personal life and your work life, because you do spend more time at work than you do in the waking hours at home. The line of thinking where “Now I’m at work and I have to act this way,” and then you leave who you really are at home—I’m not a fan of that. If we hire James, it’s in the company’s best interest that James brings James to work. Not someone else. And as much as we can celebrate and encourage them to bring who they really are to work, then I think that we all benefit from that.

James: Yes. That’s keeping it real. If you hire somebody who is him or herself, you’re going to get that person every day. You’re getting that person’s most authentic self, which generates confidence that ultimately results in quality work.

Eva: Right. It’s the little things. And so sometimes—like you said about the dress code—it’s the small things that make people feel really comfortable, and therefore they put their best face forward.

James: Yeah, I agree. The more comfortable you are, the better you’ll feel and the more pleasant the experience will be.

Eva: I think so!

— End of Part I —

For Part II of “Two people and a workplace,” visit next Wednesday, March 29!


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James A. Colombo III

James A. Colombo III is a content writer at Bak USA. He’s constantly thirsty and he sweats when he eats.