What Makes a Best Place to Work?

The pandemic changed everything. So what does it take to be considered a top-notch workplace in 2022 and beyond?
Bptw22 Opener

Eight years ago, Madison Magazine’s then-biennial Best Places to Work story concluded that, despite significant changes to the economy, technology and civic leadership, “The fundamentals of a top-notch workplace are standing the test of time.” Those now-familiar fundamentals — trust, management, development, rewards, connection and work-life balance — have informed the Best Places to Work rankings in the ensuing years.

As we again recognize the Best Places to Work, we’re looking not just at the fundamentals themselves, but also at assumptions about the working environments that give those fundamentals value. This includes the spaces where work takes place, the role of workplaces (traditional and otherwise) in a healthy (or health-challenged) society and economy, and even the desire to work itself. How does anything “stand the test of time” when the unimaginable tenor of the times defies testing?

In that same issue, columnist Rebecca Ryan, who for many years led Madison Magazine’s Best Places to Work research and reporting, wrote: “If you’ve ever had a great idea in the shower or in the car or on vacation, you know that your best work doesn’t happen at your desk.” And thus, what poet John Keats called our “negative capabilities” — our ability to entertain questions or even evidence that contradicts our assumptions — are tested. What makes a “good” workplace in (another) year of pandemic, climate crisis, racial tension and societal divide? How do we define the workplace? Best for whom? The 20 workplaces recognized in this issue deserve credit for, among other things, thriving in the midst of the contradictions.

It’s a pretty safe bet that all 20 of the noteworthy businesses are navigating challenges for which neither business school nor experience prepared them. Anticipating what’s next will demand equal amounts of determination, creativity, vision and context, as well as willing, engaged and satisfied workers. And all of that must happen in an environment of unprecedented turmoil.

National business services provider Kastle Systems recently estimated the average office capacity is at 43.6%. In other words, fewer than five in 10 employees have come back to the office. That number is up over the first half of the year, but it contrasts with statistics showing dramatic increases in NBA ticket sales, restaurant reservations and the number of airline passengers. All of which leads Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce President Zach Brandon to conclude that “we are returning to life, but we’re not returning to work.”

But Brandon rejects the notion of a “great resignation.”

“I would call it a great rebalancing, a reprioritizing,” says Brandon. What businesses need to understand are the reasons people have left the workforce, what they need to return and what happens to the life to which we hope we’ll be returning if employers don’t unearth these things. Brandon says one factor is that 55- to 64-year-olds came out of the pandemic and the recession in much better shape than one might expect. They largely kept their jobs; their 401(k)s held their value; credit card debt went down and savings went up because they weren’t traveling or buying cars; and what spending there was — on home improvements for many — increased the value of their homes.

So we saw this “weird blip where 55- to 64-year-olds said, ‘I’m not going back to work.,’ ” says Brandon. “Maybe this next nine or 10 years is more important than work. The pandemic shocked people into thinking about bucket list stuff.”

Brandon cites factors including a desire to not stay in the same position, labor gaining the upper hand in negotiations and management “trying to figure it out.” Meanwhile, women — some men, but more women — left the workplace amid tough decisions about child care when kids couldn’t go back to school because they weren’t vaccinated.

There’s no overestimating the importance of figuring out child care in making a return to the office — to work, period — more attractive. The current system is by and large what Brandon calls a double market failure. Providers can’t raise costs, so they can’t raise wages — and banks are less likely to lend to them. It is, says Brandon, an opportunity.

“Child care feels like something we could lean into and solve,” says Brandon. “[It] would move the needle on the economy and reestablish Madison as a beacon of progressive ideas in the country.” Now, who’s going to figure it out?

Meanwhile, the risks of a hybrid office/work-from-home approach — assuming even that is enough to lure back needed employees — are twofold and significant. The first risk is to the innovation and creativity one finds throughout this year’s 20 Best Places to Work. Brandon says both require “intersections … people interacting with each other … where there is positive human friction.” He says both stumbled during work-from-home even as productivity largely stayed stable.

The second risk is the impact that not returning to the workplace would have on our community’s economic and civic vitality — what happens outside of the eight hours a day we typically spend at work. Brandon calls it the proximity economy: the restaurants, retail stores and service centers located in proximity to the workforce. He argues anything that disrupts that synergy threatens the fabric that makes a business a great place to work, or a region a great place to live.

Productivity, quality and satisfaction might seem fine, but the other part of the equation is eroding. This is not just an oversight. Rather, Brandon sees a dangerous selfishness in play. Selfishness in a sense that it hurts the team and the organization and is personally risky, because the ones who show up are the ones who get promoted.

“There’s a selfishness to ‘I don’t want to do X, but Y will be fine,’ ” says Brandon. “The reality is it’s not going to be fine. So if you’re thinking about the best places to work and you’re only thinking about it as what happens during the eight hours of work, you’re thinking about it wrong. You have to think about the whole 16 hours [which counts the daily waking hours of the average person], because that’s where people make a life.”

Acknowledging our selfishness, and committing to resist it, may be the hardest challenge we face in the working world of 2023. But if the fundamentals of a best place to work are going to once again matter, it’s probably where we have to start.

Neil Heinen is former editorial director of Madison Magazine and WISC-TV.


Small (10-24 employees)
SARA Investment Real Estate
Literacy Network
The Employer Group Inc.
Atmosphere Commercial Interiors
IA Management LLC
C. Blohm & Associates Inc.
Nimble Therapeutics
Orange Tree Imports
National CooperativeRx

Medium (25-99 employees)
Tools of Marketing Inc.
Kneaded Relief Day Spa & Wellness
Singlewire Software

Large (100-999,999 employees)
Fairway Independent Mortgage Corp.
Rural Mutual Insurance Co.
Baker Tilly US LLP
Fleetworthy Solutions

The 20 businesses above ranked the highest in a survey conducted by Quantum Workplace that measured six key engagement categories: communication and resources, individual needs, manager effectiveness, personal engagement, team dynamics and trust in leadership. Quantum conducts a security audit to verify the company surveys and compiles and analyzes results to determine the rankings. Think your workplace should be on the list? Nominate your company next year in Madison Magazine’s Best Places to Work survey.

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