Best Companies to Work For: Anatomy of a World-Class Workplace
It’s got to be more than ping-pong tables, right? And the novelty of office Nerf gun battles surely must wear off quickly. So what is the secret formula for becoming a company where people aspire to work, where every job announcement draws a flood of qualified applicants—but all those announcements come from the company’s growth, because no one wants to quit?
When we survey employees for the annual Best Companies to Work For program, we ask them their attitudes about four categories: benefits, leadership and management, opportunities for growth, and company culture. To make the list, companies must be strong, if not exceptional, in all of those categories.
Utah’s top companies seem to be in an arms race to offer the best, most generous, over-the-top benefits packages. Comprehensive healthcare benefits are standard among the Best Companies to Work For, as are 401(k) matching programs. Many offer unlimited or above-average paid time off. That’s in addition to fully stocked break rooms and frequent catered meals, not to mention game rooms and massage chairs. And happy employees invariably mention flexible schedules as a benefit they highly value.
An employee of Dell EMC sums it up: “In addition to great health, dental, etc., I enjoy our flexible work schedules, UTA passes, on-site health & wellness counselors, a great gym, game room and café.”
Whew. How could a smaller company with fewer resources possibly compete with that? Well, it’s true the benefit package is important when it comes to recruiting high-skilled workers. But benefits aren’t everything. Some companies that apply to the Best Companies to Work For program offer gold-plated benefit structures, but their employees complain about poor management or a toxic culture—and those things far outweigh 100-percent covered healthcare when employees consider their satisfaction with their employer.
And while larger companies can typically offer greater benefits than smaller companies, that’s not always the case. Plus, smaller companies can get a little creative with their benefits. PDQ.com, for example, provides free tax preparation to its 33 employees via its in-house CPA. Employees at Kodiak Cakes love their “early-out Fridays,” as well as “being able to hop on my mountain bike at lunch and ride out of the office doors to the world class mountain bike trails that are within minutes of our office doors.”
At the small tech firm Finch, “We joke that we’re small, but global, with around half the employees in foreign offices,” explains Jason Lowry, COO of Finch. “This presents travel opportunities for employees who desire to work out of an international office for an extended period with reasonable accommodations for families. We call this the ‘Finch Migration Program.’”
Schedule flexibility comes with no out-of-pocket costs for many employers—but is an immeasurably significant benefit for employees. 97th Floor, for instance, operates in a “results only work environment.” Annalee Peters, communications manager for 97th Floor, explains, “This means that employees can work whenever they want, where ever they want. Hours and days off are not counted. The amount of time spent at the office doesn’t matter because all we care about is that the established goals for projects are met. This allows employees to create the schedule they need to balance work and personal needs. One example of this is that we have many employees who spend the afternoon with their kids, and then work again at night once they are asleep.”
In their surveys, 97th Floor employees repeatedly praise this schedule flexibility. “It means that the only thing we are judged on is our work, not when we work or where we work from. It allows for a lot of extreme ownership and autonomy,” explains one happy employee.
Utah tech companies are in an all-out war for talent, and that’s led to an escalation of the perks and benefits companies provide. Here are a few of the unique benefits companies are offering to set themselves apart from the crowd:
- Humanitarian trips
- Vacation stipend
- Casual dress code
- Laptop/tablet benefit
- Maternity wardrobe benefits
- Baby bonus
- Newborns welcome at work
- Childcare subsidies
- Ski and golf passes
- Onsite grocery store
- Free haircuts/onsite barber
Most “wished-for” benefits
The Best Companies employee survey asks respondents to list the benefits they wished their company offered. Many of the responses are along the lines of “Are you kidding? I can’t imagine what else they could possibly offer!” One CHG Healthcare employee, hard-pressed to think of anything else they’d want, finally came up with “music in the bathroom.” Here are the benefits employees most commonly say they’d like their company to provide:
- Tuition reimbursement
- Flexible schedules
- Telecommuting options
- Higher 401(k) match
- Paid maternity/paternity leave
- Onsite gym or paid membership
- Stock options
- More PTO
- Pet insurance
The well-worn adage is that people don’t quit their job, they quit their boss—meaning, it’s often a dysfunction in that relationship that causes people to leave a job. It’s easy to imagine what an ineffective, mean-spirited manager looks like. But what are the characteristics of effective managers and leaders?
When happy employees describe a high-functioning management team, they mention clarity of vision, the ability to communicate, and a willingness to actively listen and incorporate feedback. Also, contented employees often report that top leaders know their name and are “approachable.”
At Spectra Benefits, CEO R. Brent Bennett says two-way communication is a key priority for the company. “Our employees know our mission and goals. We discuss them openly and involve and ask for interaction and suggestions. We recognize and reward risk and pay people for their ideas.”
If you’re going to solicit employee feedback, it’s a good idea to not ignore that feedback. “We make a point to say ‘yes’ to employee suggestions and ideas as much as possible. We call it our 95 percent rule—i.e., we try and say yes 95 percent of the time,” explains Spencer Hoole, CEO of Diversified Insurance Group.
Employees value that openness to ideas, as well as a feeling of camaraderie throughout the organization. An employee of Sorenson Media puts it this way: “Our CEO, CFO, CMO and other executives eat lunch with us, joke with us, take part in activities with us, and welcome approaches and conversations from anyone in the company. This is a family and management really keeps that at the forefront.”
With its 147 employees, Sorenson Media is a medium-sized company. But that feeling of openness can happen in large companies as well. Ivanti, for example, has grown into a large tech firm with nearly 2,000 employees in several locations. Nevertheless, one Ivanti employee says, “My management team (all the way up the chain to the CEO) feels very open and available to me. I honestly feel like if I had an issue that needed addressing, I wouldn’t be questioned or discouraged from approaching any level of that team … I’ve personally met with almost every level of management for nothing more than ‘How are you doing? Is everything good for you? What can I do to help make you more successful?’ and I felt like each one was personally interested in my success.”
1-800-Contacts operates a large call center—an environment that, with the wrong management approach, could easily become cold and impersonal. But one employee reports that the company’s management is “always available for anything, even if you just wanted to talk for a bit. They care about their employees. If I (a call center employee) wanted to go speak with the CEO, honestly I’d bet they’d be more than happy to set up a meeting.”
In many companies, employees say they love their direct supervisor but feel alienated from top-level managers; others feel the frontline managers are terrible, but they have incredible respect for the company executives. It’s the rare company whose employees feel positively toward the entire leadership chain. Lucid Software is one of those companies.
“I interact with our product manager daily, and he is very accessible,” explains a Lucid Software employee. “We have biweekly meetings with the upper management to be accountable, and there are also biweekly company updates at which the upper management answers questions and is completely transparent about the current status of the company. All of the important numbers are available to all employees.”
A frequent complaint from employees is that managers don’t deal quickly or effectively with poor performance. Employees with performance issues seem to “get away with” the behavior; they are not coached or reprimanded. These situations impact morale throughout an organization—especially if favoritism appears to be a factor.
That’s why employees are particularly appreciative of managers who are tough but fair. “I feel like management here is a friend that you can count on to be tough when you need them to be,” says an employee of Pure Storage. “They are readily available to talk about any issue no matter the target. They do work hard to get every member where they want to be and where the company needs them to be. I feel I can trust them to be honest but also not be overbearing.”
Opportunity for growth
Perhaps the most compelling benefit a company can offer is the opportunity for personal and professional growth. No one wants to feel stuck in a dead-end position, or to feel their performance and strong work ethic won’t be rewarded with greater responsibilities and compensation.
One dissatisfied employee expresses the frustration: “I’ve hit a cap. There is no further place to go. Sure, they’ll tell you that you’ve got places to go and you can make a difference within the company, but there is literally no place to go further.”
This is one area where larger companies, with multiple departments and management layers, definitely have a leg up on smaller companies. In a very small company, employees see fewer pathways forward for their career—unless that company is growing rapidly, in which case the sky is the limit. Employees can get in on the ground floor of a startup and end up in the leadership ranks within a few years.
“Run as fast as you can,” advises a Podium employee, “and be as successful as possible in your current position. Podium is growing really fast so there are lots of opportunities to grow and develop within the company if you can prove yourself.”
Tuition reimbursement is a highly valued—and highly sought-after—benefit for employees. They also appreciate companies that pay for professional certifications and conferences. Spectra Benefits encourages its employees to become insurance-licensed, and it pays for all study materials and testing. It does the same for other professional designations as well. On top of that, employees can submit a proposal for additional training requests, such as conferences and industry training.
Cicero Group is another company that invests heavily in employee development. It offers tuition reimbursement, funding for ongoing education and certificate programs. Management also details a career growth trajectory for each employee, providing information on what skills and experiences are needed to advance to other positions. That map comes with a timeline and expectations for advancement.
“There are vast opportunities for growth and development within the organization,” agrees one Cicero employee. “Management has clearly written out the career trajectory from analyst to engagement manager. They have done a good job of emphasizing and communicating opportunities for growth within the company.”
Formal processes and pathways for career growth help set employee expectations; they know what they need to do to move to the next level and how long that will take.
At Disruptive Advertising, an employee explains, “I have had meetings with my direct supervisor and the CEO to put in place a solid path for me to grow and hit tangible goals. Hitting those goals results in increases to my yearly salary. I also have monthly bonus opportunities that are mapped out and easy to keep record of. This company is the easiest company I have ever worked for, in terms of knowing where my future is going and what awards I can earn.”
A Prestige Financial employee says that firm has great policies on growth and development. “They have clear guidelines for what you need to complete to qualify to move to the next step in the company. They know that everyone works at different paces and they let you complete the qualifications at your own speed. I have been able to move up two steps and working on the third in the past four months. The managers are there to push and assist you along the way.”
Management support is crucial in giving employees the motivation and encouragement to continue growing. In fact, it can make all the difference. “I initially had no desire to advance into leadership,” says a CHG Healthcare employee. “However, with the coaching and encouragement of my manager, I now see how my skills would effortlessly fit into the role of a leader and am now working toward that. She recognized my strengths and unconditionally encouraged me.”
Along with providing clear career paths and internal support, employees appreciate policies that open new positions to internal candidates before external candidates are considered. SelectHealth, for example, opens up positions internally for a short period before opening them publicly. At Tesani, “Whenever there is an open position in any department, the company guarantees an interview for anyone that currently works here that is interested in the position. If the person isn’t qualified for that position, management works with them to let them know how they can become more qualified for future advancement.”
“We’re family.” Invariably, that’s how happy employees describe their workplace culture.
“This is where Grant Victor is absolutely amazing,” explains an employee. “It is a family. There is no other way to describe it. People care about each other and when something is needed by a fellow employee, there are at least 30 people ready to help. (Even if it is not work related).”
How employees feel about their company culture seems to hinge on how welcome they feel there. Do they have friends? Is the management friendly? An employee of Jane.com puts it this way: “I tell people I have 100+ friends at Jane. We’re a strong team and we all feel ownership in our roles and the success that we help generate from our individual and team efforts.”
Workfront has adopted a “no jerks” policy to keep the culture positive—and it seems to be a policy that works: “I like it here. They fire jerks. I don’t like jerks. The culture is just right—a good mix of fun and performance.”
Many employees list “culture” as a benefit to working at their company. PDQ.com has gone to great lengths to foster its unique culture. In fact, the company has a grueling four- to five-hour interview process to make sure new hires will fit within the nontraditional culture. (Its spontaneous and frequent celebrations are called “Whiskey Time.”) Managers call these celebrations to recognize weekly and monthly achievements, and employees drop whatever they are doing to gather in the mezzanine. “There, we relax in recline-able lounge chairs and share in achievements, hear announcements, participate in ‘getting to know each other’ trivia type games and simply sit and enjoy another moment working at PDQ.com in good company with good people,” explains one employee.
Indeed, a strong culture doesn’t just happen. Business leaders must pinpoint the values they hope to instill in the culture and then make a game plan for communicating and developing that culture. At BambooHR, employees say the culture is constantly discussed and encouraged. “Our mission statements are there to help encourage and perpetuate the open, honest, encouraging culture here. HR has been presenting one of our mission statements each month and challenging us to really think about and apply those,” says a BambooHR employee.
Spectra Benefits identifies employee concerns in monthly coaching sessions and in open dialogue. An outside consultant conducts anonymous employee surveys twice a year. “We review the responses seriously and address the outliers, and specifically address the company takeaways and action plan,” says CEO R. Brent Bennett. “We can’t address all concerns or suggestions, but this method of gathering information from employees has been a game changer for us over the past few years. Many great ideas and suggestions have come from identifying a problem through the survey, then asking the group in an open setting how we resolve it.”
It helps when a company has a mission that employees can really get behind. “Foremost on our minds and frequently discussed in our meetings is our mission to help people live the healthiest lives possible,” says an employee of SelectHealth. “We consider small details and work to implement them, if it will help improve someone’s life. We are encouraged to serve in our community and many employees do.”
At HealthEquity, “People actually believe in what HealthEquity is trying to do to change healthcare. They find purpose and drive in what they do, and believe what they do does in fact make a difference.”
Not every business can claim that kind of built-in, life-changing mission. But they can still engage employees in charitable service and giving projects—and almost all of the Best Companies to Work For offer some sort of community involvement opportunity for employees, whether it’s paid time off for individual volunteer work or company-sponsored projects.
Nonconformists may get the shudders when confronted with the idea of a rah-rah corporate culture. But a unified culture definitely does not require employees to all have the same life experience or background, or to all hold the same beliefs. An employee of O.C. Tanner describes the company as a melting pot that attracts people from across the globe—and says that’s what makes the company strong.
“I love that we are all different people,” says an employee of Young Automotive Group. “We all come from so many backgrounds. You don’t have to fit a perfect mold to work here. The BEST part is that we have the company’s values at our heart … that’s what brings us together and we can all work together as one.”