By Liz Merfeld
Clan. Folk. Group. Tribe. Family. These might not be the first words to roll off your tongue when dishing about your boss or coworkers.
But the winners of our latest "Best Places to Work" contest referred to their colleagues as family so frequently, we found ourselves double-checking the dictionary.
"We're really a family here."
"Team members treat each other as family."
"We treat all of our employees as if they were family."
"We are a big family here and have fun."
What does it mean, in the context of work, to feel like a family?
"Feeling like a family can be interpreted as having one's work valued, being treated with respect, and being given the opportunity to grow and develop in one's career."
That’s according to Dr. Patricia Mullins, senior lecturer in UW–Madison's School of Business and an expert in careers, specializing in life-work balance.
"First and foremost," she continues, "people want to be in a situation in which they are able to do their best work—and having flexibility, connection, trust and development opportunities foster that."
These attributes are precisely what our "Best Places to Work" awards set out to recognize. Every two years Madison Magazine invites local businesses, government agencies and not-for-profits to take part in the contest, in hopes of nabbing a top spot on the list.
This year a hundred companies from the Madison area threw their logo'ed hats, baking aprons and lab coats into the ring. To be eligible, at least fifty percent of the staff had to answer forty open-ended and agree-disagree-type questions in a web-based survey conducted by employee engagement research firm Next Generation Consulting.
Of the seventy-eight eligible businesses, twenty-six emerged as winners based on their scores in these six areas of engagement: trust, management, development, connection, life-work balance and rewards. In five of these six categories, companies needed scores above eighty percent and in the remaining one they could not dip below sixty-five percent.
A sensible algorithm, yet we couldn't help noticing that "Best Places to Work" seem to offer something far greater than the sum of its parts: that most salient sense of family.
In our quest to honor our sizeable swath of winners, we grouped them by size into three categories: 1–10 employees, 11–99 and 100-plus.
This was a record-breaking year, with more winners than ever and scores rising in every single category, compared to previous years.
None of this surprises Next Generation founder, economist, futurist and Madison Magazine columnist Rebecca Ryan, who notes that Madison is now in a period of economic stabilization, reflective of a national trend.
"The Recession probably created a few more 'Best Places to Work,'" she reasons. "There is nothing like a foxhole to bond people to each other, and the Great Recession was a colossal ruckus."
Above all, this bonding built trust, both by and for employers. "At many companies, when leaders reached out to employees and said, 'I'm the first one who’s going to take a salary cut and I need your ideas and energy to help us make it through this,' trust abounds. It creates a sense of connection. And it makes you feel like your manager gets it."