A good time is good for business

  • Article by: DEE DEPASS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 25, 2011 - 10:24 PM

Companies find playful atmosphere is a powerful investment in employees.

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Steve Gilbertson and Sarah Asebedo celebrated their goal in the daily foosball tournament at Accredited Investors in Edina.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Stroll into the Accredited Investors office at 4:45 p.m. on any afternoon, and you'll get front-row seats to the daily foosball table tournament. Twelve of the firm's 36 financial advisers face off daily, as co-workers cheer and sip soda and lattes provided on the company dime.

Some people call it costly play. Company principal Kathy Longo calls it "employee engagement." The firm's foosball smack-downs, cozy fireplace and Friday barbecues encourage staffers to work and play hard, Longo said.

The culture makes it fun to come to work, executive assistant Suzie Ridenour said. "They never stop looking for different ways that they can accommodate the staff and the clients' needs,'' she said.

After a brutal recession, a host of firms are making similar moves across Minnesota and the nation. In ways large and small, pizza, coffee, company picnics, department drinks, parties and other outlets of fun are back on the menu of the American workplace.

3M, Graco, Target, UnitedHealth Group and Mosaic have scheduled big employee-picnics this year. And other local firms also say they are bringing back the company picnic, hosting movie nights or making plans for office outings to the Twins or St. Paul Saints.

There's a method to the merriment.

"Salary budgets are back; 401(k) matches are coming back. And now this is that final component with companies saying, 'We are spending money on pay and benefits, now let us invest in our culture again and make sure that morale is getting back to where it was. Let's have fun again,'" said Eric Gonzaga, a Minneapolis-based managing director for the compensation and benefits consulting giant Grant Thornton.

After weathering the recession, benefits consulting firm Cleveland Co. decided it needed more employee bonding and levity in the workplace. So managers recently rounded up employees and spent several hours packing meals for the hungry before heading out for a night of drinks and dinner -- all on the company.

Next, "we are looking into a bowling alley event with video games [for] an afternoon of fun," said partner Michelle Cleveland Maher.

Office workers are thrilled. "For all of us it was really nice, really fun. ... It was a first," said employee Amy Ostergaard, who started three years ago in the depths of the downturn.

Mary Younggren, owner of the Advent Group Inc. employment agency in Edina, said the Cleveland Co. is not alone.

"A lot of our human resource [clients] say they are focused on employee engagement and are trying to make the workplace fun. It's a buzzword right now and a tool that prevents people from jumping ship," Younggren said. "If workers are engaged and are happy, they will stay where they are."

Company picnics return

The Company Picnic People in Golden Valley plans massive "employee picnics" for corporate clients. After demand dipped during the recession, the company is enjoying a surge in scheduling. It's one more sign that the economy is on the mend. After all, the company's mega-picnics can set clients back $15,000 to $45,000 for one fun-packed day of grilling, soda, popcorn, bouncy rides and games galore for hundreds of workers and their families.

"We did see a lot of companies not do picnics last year and the year before," general manager Jim Dolan said. "But this year it seems to be picking up."

Maher at the Cleveland Co. said she's not surprised. "Employers are wanting to keep their employees happy. They always have," she said. "But during the last few stressful years, making the bottom line work has been really their focus."

Now that things are better, companies are realizing that these employees are the ones who got them through recession. And they deserve a little fun.

At the Nerdery in Bloomington, fun has equal footing with work, because the company believes it spurs creativity and problem solving. Oh, yeah, and because it makes the Web development firm one of the coolest workplaces in the world, managers insist.

"We kind of want this to be 'the' place and the ultimate destination for nerds," spokesman Mark Malmberg said. The Nerdery, previously called Sierra Bravo, sponsors Friday night "Bottle Cap" keggers for its 200 workers and a "Nerd Olympics" that sports a Lego luge competition.

The firm, which just completed a major expansion, also added a "Nerd-a-torium" -- a 250-seat theater that houses employee movie nights, staff and community meetings, pizza parties and more. The Nerdery also offers workers yoga, a masseuse and video arcade games. It also buys lunch each week for the five employees who win the firm's "shout out" award.

"It's in the name of fun. But it's an investment, and it more than pays for itself," Malmberg said. All fun also helps the company heal a wound.

The company lost its president and co-founder in a Wyoming plane crash in October. Employees named the new theater after him. It's called the "Luke J. Bucklin Nerd-a-torium," Malmberg said. "He would have loved that."

Back in Edina, where the foosball smackdown is wrapping up for the night, workers said they enjoy the company gym, yoga classes and a match of up to $250 for every charity donation they make. They also get paid to perform up to 40 hours of volunteer work here or abroad. Longo spent her week volunteering with St. Paul-based Common Hope at a school in Guatemala.

When companies go out of their way to be sensitive and provide perks, flexibility and a dash of spice for everyday workers, it gets noticed, especially by the younger employees, said Younggren, of the Advent Group agency.

"Money is really not everything, particularly to that millennial generation,'' she said. "To them, it's really about having a life."

Dee DePass • 612-673-7725

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