Best Places to Work 2008

n a not so distant past, work was the bitter pill you swallowed to earn your home life, and one had nothing to do with the other. A factory job meant a dark, toxic grind, and going to the office meant nine straight hours locked in a cube. Inaccessible corporate bigwigs seemed to follow a basic formula (minimum wage, quality product, effective marketing) and the employees they hired to do the job were inconsequential. Truth be told, it’s still this way in a whole lot of places.

But not here, not in our 2008 Best Places to Work award-winning companies. Though inordinately varied in size and industry, they share some striking similarities.

Whether in a warehouse, an office building or a nineteenth-century vineyard, the atmosphere at these seven workplaces is one of high productivity, excitement and pride. Pluck a few employees from each of these organizations and ask them how they like their jobs. They’ll say: I feel appreciated. I feel respected. I feel trusted to make my own decisions. My boss understands work is not the most important thing in my life. I am proud of what we are doing here.

Some of you might be rolling your eyes now. If you’re a dissatisfied worker, you might be thinking this is an impossible pipe dream. If you’re an employer, you might be thinking this sounds a little too warm and fuzzy, unrealistic—maybe even pointless. But the bottom line is, it’s all about the bottom line.

“Smart employers have to understand that employee satisfaction is just as important as customer satisfaction,” says Moses Altsech, Edgewood College business professor and CEO of Executive Training and Consulting. “Smart companies measure employee satisfaction not because it’s the nice thing to do, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s good for the company.”

So what exactly is good for companies? It’s Rebecca Ryan’s job to find out.

Ryan’s company, Madison-based employee engagement research firm Next Generation Consulting, oversaw this year’s Best Places to Work competition. Ryan and her colleagues used a survey they’ve compiled of more than twenty-five thousand records from across North America. They asked employees at each nominated business to complete the anonymous, intensive questionnaire that measures company performance in six indicators: trust, management, development, connections, rewards and life-work balance.

“What our survey really tests is perceptions,” says Ryan. “How people feel about their engagement. It’s the little insidious toxins that jeopardize a workplace, and they’re the hardest to measure.”

Each of the winners scored a rare eighty-five percent or higher in all six areas of engagement—an achievement Ryan regards as remarkable. “We consider anything over eighty percent exceptional,” she says.

Interestingly, “rewards” typically garnered the lowest rating of the six indicators. The implication is obvious: If you want happy employees, you’ll have to do more than throw money at them. There is something larger at work.

Trust is widely considered the most important facet of employee satisfaction. Fortune Magazine‘s annual 100 Best Companies to Work For survey is based almost entirely on that element, and the Next Generation methodology, though it delves deeper with its six-dimensional measure, weighs trust most heavily.

At Cascade Asset Management, the company numbers are pasted all over the break room walls. Page after page after page of real figures, profit and loss statements, balance sheets—the sort of stuff kept under lock and key in many places. Rejuvenation Spa does the same thing. One major benefit of involving employees in the finances, experts say, is that if a company is struggling, its staff is more likely to remain loyal and stay put.

“If you tell employees they’re taking a ten-percent pay cut next year, you’ll start a revolution,” says Altsech. “But if they’ve seen the numbers all along, and if they see that the CEO’s company car and bonuses have been cut, it’s a lot easier to swallow. Involving people in decisions that affect their work environment makes them feel more appreciated, and ultimately, feeling appreciated is what leads to job satisfaction.”

Trust and management go hand in hand, particularly in terms of transparency. Effective managers are open and accessible, and they model the work ethic they expect of their own employees.

“There are days where there’s the junkiest work we have to do and I’m right there doing it with them,” says Jennifer Bushnell-Persike, owner of Creative Marketing Specialists. “So they know that I don’t think anything less of them or more of me.”

If trust and management are the milk and honey, then development, connection and rewards are the pantry staples. Even if they aren’t utilized, opportunities for personal and professional development make an employee feel valued. A sense of connectedness, both among employees and to the world at large, adds to the feeling of fulfillment. And though rewards weren’t the most crucial factor to survey participants, this doesn’t mean they aren’t important.

“The paycheck needs to be there,” says Ryan, “but it’s a maintainer, not a retainer.”

“You need to at least pay a competitive wage,” agrees Altsech, “on top of these other things that are irreplaceable.”

Obviously, larger companies can afford to offer more of these types of incentives, but small businesses can capitalize on their size to foster connectedness and employee loyalty.

“Because we’re small we have to come up with ways to make people want to stay here,” says Bushnell-Persike, whose company of ten provides promotional materials and corporate apparel to other businesses. “We can’t pay the highest salaries.”

Each of the 2008 Best Places to Work survey respondents was asked to rate the six dimensions in order of importance to him or her as an employee. The final numbers from all those polled—not just the winners—ranked life-work balance as the number-one most important factor in job satisfaction. Experts say this is a marked paradigm shift—from the traditionalist generation that simply wanted job security and the baby boomers who believed you earned your way by relentless work—to the millennials who may balk at putting in more than thirty-five hours a week.

“One of the things I’ve learned is that I am a completely different person than the majority of my staff by age and experience and generation,” says forty-two-year-old Gretchen Brown, co-owner of Rejuvenation Spa. (The average age of her employees is twenty-three.) “I feel this generation is going to change the world. They have such a huge connection to what it is they want, like good things for the environment, and they want to be able to spend time outside of work making the world a better place.”

The example the millennials are setting is changing the shape of the workplace, and the emphasis on life-work balance is impacting employers of all ages.

Kathryne McGowan’s experience paints a picture that stats and surveys never could.

On only her second day of a new job at Physicians Plus Insurance, McGowan’s son’s appendix burst. It was the type of thing that easily could have done her overwhelmed psyche in, as she had four children at home (the youngest only twelve weeks old), was commuting from Milwaukee, and felt sickeningly torn between her responsibilities at a brand-new job and a family that so obviously needed her.

She needn’t have worried. Not only was McGowan immediately sent home to care for her family, not only was she told not to come back until she was ready, but a few days later her son received a letter from CEO Marty Preizler, a grandfather of two. It said he hoped he was feeling better, and said all kinds of nice things about his mom. It thanked him for sharing her.

“Who does that?” McGowan says, her eyes welling up though five years have since passed. “Talk about loyalty and commitment. That sealed the deal for me here. I would’ve been a good worker anyway, but the whole time I’ve been here I’ve put my whole heart and soul in.”

The next few pages offer a glimpse into the workplaces worthy of this award and the philosophies that sustain them, though it’s barely a scratching of the surface. These seven businesses excel in the six dimensions so thoroughly that candidates are lining up to work for them. Whether you are employer or employee, take note.

Maggie Ginsberg-Schutz is a contributing writer for Madison Magazine.