What’s your definition of a fabulous place to work? You might start with exceptional benefits and choice perks. They’re concrete signs of an employee-friendly workplace. But they don’t tell the whole story.

That’s because the benefits and perks you love most will likely depend on your age, personality, life stage, gender, profession and career aspirations. For instance, new moms and dads may covet a generous parental leave package, young advertising execs might love the in-house basketball court and onsite spa to get their creative juices flowing, and older managers may treasure the matching 401(k) contributions.

There’s no denying these extras are nice — OK, really nice — and workplaces that consistently rank high on “best places to work” lists offer plenty of them. But they also give employees things that all human beings want and need to feel fulfilled. Intangible rewards like respect, appreciation, encouragement and fun.

Granted, these “benefits” may not grab your attention the way onsite haircuts and car repair services do or fire the imagination like working in a treehouse-themed office, but ultimately they may foster deeper and lasting employee satisfaction. After all, the place where you spend eight-plus hours a day should inspire you to reach your potential both on and off the job, not make you dread the sound of your alarm clock each morning.

Keys to workplace happiness

Office meeting at night At work, we want to know we’re making a difference and contributing to something bigger than ourselves, not just counting the minutes until quitting time. (Photo: dotshock/Shutterstock)

Here are six of the most important things that make a workplace great.

1. A meaningful mission. We all want a killer salary, but we also want to do work that feels important. We want to know we’re making a difference and contributing to something bigger than ourselves, not just showing up at our desk each day and counting the minutes until quitting time. Employers that state their larger purpose and help employees see how they’re helping achieve it — whether that’s producing well-made shoes or healing sick patients — engender a greater sense of loyalty and commitment, according to Harvard Business Review. Which means people keep showing up for work and giving their all.

2. Colleague cohesion. According to Fortune, workplaces that inspire employee loyalty use a “one culture” approach, often focused on their mission. That is, people who work there identify with the company’s unique goals and “way of life” and view themselves as members of a special tribe. These employers foster camaraderie by keeping employees bonded via social networks, frequent face-to-face interactions and other team-building activities.

3. Time and space for inspiration. This is where the breakroom ping-pong table, yoga classes at lunch, onsite organic cafe and office nap times come in (yes, some employers provide sleep rooms or pods in hopes of spurring employee health and productivity).

The best bosses know that the greatest creativity often arrives when you’re hardly working, not necessarily when you’re working hard. They don’t crack the whip from nine to five, but give employees ample time to unwind, relax and have fun around the office (which is also enhances the bonding process described in the previous point).

Good bosses also encourage staff members to try out ideas (even their wackiest ones) and allow them to fail, says Greater Good Magazine. They understand that unfettered risk-taking – without fear of consequences – is often the best route to revolutionary new products, billion-dollar innovations and maximum marketplace impact, not to mention a boost to employee confidence, satisfaction and loyalty.

meatpacking plant, circa 1910 Great bosses trust employees, treat them with respect and offer plentiful opportunities for career growth and advancement — a far cry from employers of yesteryear, like this meatpacking plant, circa 1910. (Photo: The U.S. National Archives/flickr)

4. Equality, trust and opportunities for collaboration. The best places to work go the extra mile to make employees feel valued by treating everyone fairly and respectfully. They regularly ask employees for ideas and act on them, trust employees to manage their own time, and view everyone as full team members no matter their job position, gender, age, ethnicity or sexual orientation, says Fortune.

Oh, and these workplaces also put their money where their values are by letting employees share tangibly in their success through profit-sharing plans, bonuses and even ownership options.

5. Long-term tools to flourish in and out of work. Employees are individuals with individual career goals. The best workplaces, says HuffPost, help everyone chart their own unique career paths by offering training programs, mentoring opportunities, tuition reimbursement for outside education, and other chances to expand career-wise.

The most beloved employers also encourage work-life balance by offering flex time and work-at-home opportunities. They give employees space and flexibility to handle things in their private lives, and may even encourage them to pursue outside interests. They recognize that well-rounded workers bring more skills, knowledge and resilience to the office.

6. Chances to be good citizens. A rising number of employees want their workplace to reflect their values, to care about more than the bottom-line or efficiency. They want to be proud to work there. Employers that operate sustainably, create products that help people and the planet, support their local communities and actively encourage employees to volunteer (even during office hours) tend to appear on “best places to work” lists again and again, according to Network for Business Sustainability.

6 things that make a workplace great
High pay and cool perks are good, but the best employers also fulfill deeper human needs.