If someone calls your workplace a zoo, it just might be a compliment. The word zoo is often flung out as a derogatory term to indicate chaos and disorder. But have you been to a good zoo lately? If you have, you may have noticed that the good zoos treat their animals more humanely than some businesses treat their employees. So, if you want to create a great work environment, start thinking like a good zookeeper.

Relaxed in a good environment. Credit: Ucumari Photography

My view is that good business leaders are good zookeepers. For those placed under our care—both “animals” and “guests”—we must create and manage an environment where everyone can thrive and be happy.

What makes a good zoo?

According to the American Humane Society, who is going to start certifying zoos in the Humane Conservation program, a good zoo is a place where animals are “healthy, positively social, active, safe, and living with proper light, sound, air, and heat levels.”

Why the zoo analogy works

I know what you’re thinking? Zoos are places where animals are held captive against their will? And people are not animals. But stick with me for this analogy.

While our employees do not live in our offices all day like animals in a zoo, these wonderful people are held captive in our workplace for about 8-10 hours a day. Our employees cannot roam where they wish or when they want to, just like the animals in a zoo who are confined to a designated living area.

Additionally, employee workplaces are not their natural habitats, just like zoo habitats are not the natural habitats of these animals. Employee natural habitats are their homes or the places where they socialize, like churches and bowling alleys. So to make these employees happy you need to create a good zoo environment.

Creating a good zoo environment

A good zoo replicates the natural habitat of an animal, providing the right temperature, foliage, light, space to roam, etc. so the animal will feel comfortable and thrive.

Like good zoos, good workplaces also provide the right environment. Cubicles and office habitats can be personalized, gyms are available for exercise, snacks are provided for between meal needs, and different work “habitats” are provided for personal and work needs.

These habitats can provide either privacy or socialization for our employees. Closed off spaces are provided for when employees need privacy to concentrate, and open spaces are provided when employees need to socialize or collaborate.

Some businesses are even using architects like the NBBJ firm to analyze and design better workspaces that take these different needs into account, while other companies are choosing different furniture styles and arrangements to make the social and work environment better.

So the next time someone says your business is like a zoo, say thank you.