Attracting the best ‘knowledge workers’ is one of the building blocks for a successful company. The key today may be linked with quality-of-life issues and the core values of a company, rather than with more conventional attractions such as pay increases, bonuses and company status. To discover how some of the world’s best companies are attracting and retaining the best people, it is important to see beyond the advertising, the marketing and the annual reports, and take an in-depth look at the company.

Seeing a company from the employees’ point of view is essential to understanding what makes it attractive. With this in mind, a group of delegates from the UK government, private companies and universities travelled to the west coast of the US to learn more about knowledge capitals, the links between creative companies and their location, and the role that innovation and creativity play in successful companies.

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“Keep your tax incentives and highway interchanges – we will go where the highly skilled people are,” says former Hewlett-Packard CEO Carly Fiorina. Many companies are choosing their location based on factors such as tax incentives, grant aid and labour costs, but companies that rely on highly skilled knowledge workers argue that it is more important to be where they can find the best workers. Such locations are usually good places to live.

Nike focus

At Nike’s headquarters, for example, it is clear that the company does not rely solely on the attractions of Portland, Oregon, to lure knowledge workers. Nike is focused on producing the best athletic apparel in the world and this is reflected across its campus. Successful athletes are revered as heroes, their names adorning buildings, and their images in pictures and statues.

The campus is replete with sports grounds, gyms and climbing walls. Employees walk or cycle between buildings, wearing Nike clothing. The Innovation Kitchen is where Nike creates new ideas: a hive of new designs and new products.

Apple’s arts

Another company that the UK delegation visited has had huge success in attracting and retaining the best knowledge workers: Apple, it is widely agreed, has creativity and innovation down to a fine art. Could the Apple iPod, one of last year’s blockbuster products, have been created in Helsinki, London, Paris or Madrid? Probably not, because some of the best engineers in the world flock to California – home not only to some of the best companies in the world, but also to beautiful beaches, cultural hotspots and diverse cities.

One Apple employee says: “Creativity has to have the right conditions to survive. It has to be valued and then employees can feel free to be creative. You can’t create it but you can create the right conditions for it to flourish.”

According to Patty Hsiu, former head of talent acquisition at Apple: “Apple is a through-and-through California company. It is a free-thinking, don’t-follow-the-pack, and dare-to-be-different place.” Again, this emphasises the link between location and innovation.

At Apple, the atmosphere, integrity, product, people, strategy and willingness to look beyond themselves is extraordinary. There is an openness and honesty about the company like none other, and throughout the UK delegation’s visit, members were made to feel as though they were the company’s best customers and friends.

Google’s goal

Google’s headquarters is reminiscent of a beehive where everyone seems to be focused on the same goal: to “organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Google has not only revolutionised how people search for information, but has also pioneered new ways of working. It is famous for its free lunches but also has some good methods of stimulating new thinking: engineers are given time to work on their own pet projects, people are actively encouraged to share ideas, and the atmosphere is one of collaboration and creativity.

Unique approach

REI (Recreational Equipment Inc) is one of the biggest retailers of outdoor equipment in the US. Based in Seattle, it is also one of the most interesting companies that the delegation visited because of its unique approach to business and how it attracts people.

REI, which has featured in Fortune’s Best Places to Work lists for 11 consecutive years, is run as a not-for-profit co-operative and members are given 10% cash back on all purchases made during the year. The company donates millions of dollars for outdoor conservation and looks after its employees well. Members of staff are eligible for paid sabbaticals, discounts on apparel, tuition reimbursements and a pension scheme. The company’s financial performance reflects its success: in 2007, its revenues were $1.3bn, with profits of $41.4m.

Home of giants

Portland, home to Nike, Colombia Sportswear, Adidas and high-tech giants such as Intel, is a good example of quality-of-life factors playing a part in employee attraction. In recent years, it has won numerous awards, including best place to live, best cycling city, and quality-of-life awards. It has the US’s biggest city-centre park, year-round skiing and some of the best beaches on the west coast.

However, it is the city centre that is remarkable. Free city-centre trams, buses and light rail encourage people to use public transport and there are skate lanes for people who want to skate to work.

A recent study commissioned by the city of Portland, The Young and The Restless, proved how important these attributes have been to the knowledge economy in the city. It showed that Portland attracted more 25-to-32-year-olds than most other metropolitan areas in the US and is experiencing net domestic in-migration from the rest of the US, as well as from other countries.

Young, talented workers cite the urban fabric, the city size, walk-ability, cycle lanes, and distinctive neighbourhoods and independent businesses as some of the key reasons for locating in Portland.

These young people are statistically the hardest working (and most mobile) segment of the US population. The so-called ‘creative class’, they play an important part in helping the city to attract the best companies. They are also the lifeblood of metropolitan areas and help to keep an economy, and a city, moving during a downturn because they are more likely to start up new firms and create innovative new products.

These knowledge workers are vital for companies to flourish. Without the highly skilled engineers, technicians, designers and many others, the companies could not continue to reinvent themselves, as Apple has done.

The UK delegation found that businesses attracting and retaining the best knowledge workers have a mix of creativity and focus, and strive to create stimulating and open workplaces where creativity can thrive. The cities in which the companies reside also have a part to play in creating an environment in which the companies can thrive.

Philip McNamara is founder of Inspire Nation, an international best practice consultancy.