There are several “standard” interview questions I wish employers would retire. At the top of that list are the ones I consider foregone conclusion with obvious answers—the derivatives of Why are you looking for a job?, Why do you want to work here?, and Why should we hire you?. These questions are off-putting, and there are better questions to ask that will elicit the type of information those questions seek. One such question is, What is your ideal work environment?
Why is it a better question? Because, unlike the others, which understandably run the risk of getting a set response, it’s open-ended and leaves room for a more thorough, personal answer.
Why employers ask, ‘What is your ideal work environment?’
Employers who ask the question What is your ideal work environment? are attempting to get a sense of the job seeker’s personality, preferences, and expectations for both the role and the organization. It is an opportunity for a job seeker to explain how the beliefs, values, and culture of the organization align with their own. It’s also a way for interviewers to return a more objective, and less biased, evaluation.
How to answer, ‘What is your ideal work environment?’
To provide the best answer to What is your ideal work environment?, a job seeker must first assess their values and needs. In addition to pay, benefits, work hours, location, and the duties and responsibilities of the position, make a list of non-negotiables as well as a list of things that you’re willing to compromise should enough of your non-negotiables be satisfied to accept the role if offered.
Wanting to appear more like a team-player and less rigid, some interviewees fall into the trap of saying what they think the interviewer wants to hear. In doing so, they ultimately compromise what is best for them. Articulate must-haves in a clear, concise, complete, and tactful manner and answer in a way that gives a sense of how you plan to navigate the workplace if hired.
Connect your skills, experience, and desired career development trajectory to the organization and the position for which you’re interviewing. To do this, research the organization, the team, and the role to get a sense of how they operate. With what you’ve gathered, provide examples of experiences, behaviors, and aspirations you possess.
Consider environmental factors
When considering the environmental factors that influence an ideal work environment, oftentimes, the examinations focus in on how your physical proximity and surrounding area impacts productivity. You might ask questions like:
Is the commute manageable?
Is the office kept at the optimal temperature?
Do I need to reduce clutter?
How can I limit distractions?
Does the workspace configuration maximize productivity?
While these are important considerations, as much scrutiny, if not more, should be applied to the conditions under which employees are working and the ways in which employee satisfaction impacts productivity.
The McKinsey Women in the Workplace 2021 report showed that an ideal work environment is one that decreases the instances of burnout. “Women are even more burned out now than they were a year ago, and burnout is escalating much faster among women than among men.”
One environmental factor that leads to burnout is work-life imbalance. When defining ideal work environments, women in particular, should also consider what ideal work-life balances mean for them. Components of work-life balance include:
Lack of career advancement and career stability are also environmental factors that can lead to burnout. As the McKinsey report revealed, women still lag behind men in managerial jobs and for promotions. Additionally, women also have less job security than men. A Center for American Progress report revealed that women lost 5.4 million during the first 10 months of the pandemic—almost 1 million more than men. This is due in large part to the fact that industries dominated by women were hit the hardest by the economic downturn.
Read more: How Microaggressions Affect Health at Work
As more organizations invest in diversity, equity, and inclusion strategies and programs, for many, an environmental factor that has a profound impact on whether a work environment would be ideal is its ability to feel mentally, emotionally, and physically safe. Employees who are subjected to behaviors that adversely affect their mental, emotional, and/or physical safety are also likely to experience burnout.
According to the McKinsey report, while, overall, women are more likely to face microaggressions at work, women with marginalized identities and those from underrepresented and historically excluded racial and ethnic backgrounds not only experience microaggressions more frequently, they reflect a wider range of biases.
In addition to creating work environments where regardless of gender, racial, ethnic, sexual orientation, and age one can feel included and like they belong, disability accessibility is also a factor that should be considered. The Women in the Workplace report determined that “Less than half of women with disabilities feel they have equal opportunity for advancement, and almost a quarter say their disability has led to missing out on a raise, promotion, or chance to get ahead.”
Assessing whether a potential employer offers an ideal work environment should be done before, during, and after interviews. Before the interview process starts, this is done by outlining what attracted you to the organization and the role, examining the position description, researching the organization, asking questions of the recruiter, and evaluating your experience leading up to the formal interview.
During the interview, ask clarifying questions to gain a better sense of organizational and team priorities, expectations for the role, and how you see yourself fitting in should you be hired. Post interview, reassess, re-calibrate, ask any follow-up questions, and re-evaluate your experience getting feedback, tough questions answered, and updates on how the process is progressing for you.
Remember, the ideal work environment should be determined for you and by you from the inside out. Your prospective employer should be vetted based on what you value most.