Best Places to Work 2010

Ten businesses that go above and beyond the standard cubicle culture

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We know what you’re thinking: After two years spinning in an economic crisis, with national unemployment rates teeter-tottering toward ten percent, every workplace is a veritable playground. Any job is a good job. Every company is a Best Place to Work.

The reality is, apathy toward employee satisfaction is as dangerous today as ever before. If you are an employee just going through the motions, if you are an employer who thinks your staff should just be happy they’re not laid off, take note: These ten Madison-area businesses remain committed to creating exceptional workplaces, and—despite these unarguably challenging times—it’s an effort that’s shining through in their bottom lines.

“Everybody says, ‘Employees are our most valuable resource,’ but they don’t treat them that way,” says Moses Altsech, marketing department chair at the Edgewood College MBA program and CEO of CallMoses.com, a Madison-based private consulting firm. “You need to think of your employees or coworkers as internal customers. Then, just like your goal is customer satisfaction for external customers, your goal becomes customer satisfaction for internal customers, too.”

It’s a tall order, but those who are doing it right clearly try to reach its heights. Whether it’s HospiceCare Inc. with 348 employees, or the seven-member-strong Community Shares [pictured above], staff members at all levels are just as valuable, just as nurtured, as each company’s customer base itself.

And it can’t be faked. The Madison Magazine Best Places to Work project is not a cherry-picked popularity contest; it’s an intensive study conducted by third-party Madison-based employee engagement research firm Next Generation Consulting, compiled from more than twenty-five thousand records from across North America.

The anonymous, forty-question survey had to be completed by at least fifty percent of a company’s employees and sought to measure performance in six key indicators: trust, management, development, connections, rewards and life-work balance. The 2010 survey was updated to weight trust, management and survey participation together into a seventh indicator, and it also separately ranked companies with fewer than and greater than 100 employees. Next Generation experts consider any overall average score over eighty percent exceptional; the lowest any of our ten winners received was a remarkable 87.9 percent.

According to Altsech, a consistently applied, anonymous measure of employee satisfaction like this is one of the bedrocks of a solid best place to work—and indeed, nearly every one of our winners already implements a similar survey on an annual basis. The key, says Altsech, is to act on the results.

“A best place to work is not born that way, it’s built that way,” says Altsech. “You can transform any organization into a best place to work.”

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Community Shares moved to a new building in 2003 with more efficient work spaces, more lighting and better
aesthetics, directly in response to feedback on their own biannual employee satisfaction survey. Executive director Crystel Anders regularly seeks input from staff and works hard to foster a spirit of cooperation and inclusiveness.

“Obviously the buck stops with me,” she says, “but I try to engage everybody to think creatively and move forward collaboratively.”
Anders also walks the talk when it comes to work-life balance, and makes sure to model it by sticking to forty- to forty-five-hour workweeks and taking time off when she needs it.

“I think leaders often say they want you to have work-life balance,” says Anders, “but then they work sixty hours a week themselves.” This type of leadership style breeds trust, a key measure of employee engagement also bolstered by transparency and communication. The Creative Company [pictured above] holds weekly meetings to communicate every aspect of the business, and president Laura Gallagher took a forty percent pay cut, modeling sacrifice to survive the current economy (“They saw their leader in the trenches, too,” she says.) Shauna Breneman of Big Wild Communications stresses an “atmosphere of candidness,” and at M3 Insurance employees “appreciate the ability to talk to the president of the company candidly.”

Development is also key to any good organization, but training must go far beyond technical skills. CG Schmidt [pictured above], a construction management and general contracting firm, schools its employees around its core values, with the hope they will feel empowered to make critical decisions with those values in mind—which, as senior VP and twenty-year employee Dan Davis puts it, eliminates ethical gray areas. “You can make a mistake, as long as your motivation is that you’re doing the right thing for the client,” says Davis. “It’s clear what the company’s values are, and we’re trained to just do the right thing and the company will back you up.”

Similarly values-driven, HospiceCare Inc. requires intensive orientation, where “employees go through more classroom training and shadowing than any other local health care workers,” says communications director Dan Chin, and then encourages frank sharing in meetings that double as support groups and training opportunities.

Personal bankers at Wells Fargo receive four weeks of off-site training (and tellers receive two) before they ever have any customer contact. “And that doesn’t even begin to touch on the ongoing coaching, training and development we do,” says Benjamin Udell, VP and district manager for south-central Wisconsin.

At Door Creek Dental [pictured above], work-life balance is a priority. Office manager Jill Korfmacher is also a registered hygienist, assistant and front desk person—a strategic training decision implemented so she can fill in whenever another staffer needs time off. “This has made each employee more conscious,” says Korfmacher, adding that her bosses set the tone by putting personal needs first, and empowering staff to treat patients and each other as family members. “We look at the office needs before our own because we feel very fortunate to work for such great people.”

Connection to the community and feeling a part of something bigger than a paycheck are qualities in abundance among this year’s winners. CG Schmidt bestows its financial Ovation Award twice a year for small to mid-sized, lesser-known nonprofit businesses within the community. M3 Insurance’s giving policy strictly states it will focus funding on the local communities surrounding its offices. Big Wild Communications is an ardent supporter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma society (in large part due to co-owner Joan Gunderson’s breast cancer survivorship), EZ Office Products values breast cancer research and environmental concerns. And, of course, Community Shares was founded entirely on building social and economic equity and making it sustainable for everybody who lives here.

Maintaining competitive pay and benefits was an obvious challenge in 2009, and though many of our winners were forced to make sacrifices, they did so with transparency, thoughtfulness and in many cases creativity. In an effort to continue to provide quality service during the current economic crisis, UW Credit Union [pictured above] issued a temporary downward adjustment in employee benefits—this sacrifice applied to everyone, right on up to the CEO.

“Our message was that this is a tough time for the community and our members,” says Lee Wiersma, executive VP and chief human resources officer, “so let’s make it our finest hour in service to them.” It worked, and UW Credit Union not only experienced an eleven percent membership growth for 2009, its employees voted it a Best Place to Work.

Community Shares offers a “green benefit” to all staff, an annual stipend for Madison Metro or Community Car. UW Credit Union has reward measures in place, but nothing that pits its employees against each other. M3 Insurance was also able to continue bonuses, merit increases, 401(K) matching and profit sharing, but the biggest emphasis was on recognizing employees publicly. They bestow $500 awards quarterly to selected employees, who are also touted in interal newsletters and meetings. Managers are authorized to hand out $50 spot bonuses for staff appreciation, and in January “Props Month” focused on “props certificates” written by employees to one other. “Halfway through Props Month over 200 certificates were recorded,” says Jennifer Genske, human resources generalist, “which displays a strong commitment to acknowledging and appreciating each other.”

“A lot of what makes an organization a Best Place to Work comes down to tangibly expressing to employees just how valued they are in the organization,” says Altsech. “Sometimes the mentality is, look, these are tough times and I give you a paycheck, should I give you a medal, too? But a pat on the back goes a long way. Sometimes people are happier making a little less money, doing a little less work, when they feel truly appreciated and valued.”

Is it expensive to invest in your staff in this way, especially now? Sure, a little. But according to Altsech, it’s far more expensive not to—and the time is now.

“Right now people are staying put because they’re a little afraid, but soon the economic crisis will be gone and people will start skipping around from job to job again,” says Altsech. “Now is the perfect time, a perfect and rare opportunity, to create the kind of culture that, by the time everybody who works for you now has three job offers on the table from somewhere else, they’re not interested because they love the company they work for. This crisis should not be the excuse to wait, it should actually be the reason to act.”

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