Happiest workplaces offer autonomy, transparency, parties

  • Article by: KATY READ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 18, 2013 - 11:25 AM

Four-time Top Workplace winners share secrets for satisfied employees


(Left to right) Virginia Bourgeois played a card game called Skip Bo with Activity Assistant Sanika Brown in Gardenview at York Gardens (Ebenezer's senior housing development in Edina). (Gardenview offers memory care apartments and is part of the York Gardens development.)

Photo: Joey McLeister,Special to the Star Tribune,

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Forget those casually idyllic workplaces you hear about, with their flip-flop-wearing CEOs, their pingpong tables, their free catered lunches.

Frills are fine, but according to management experts, the elements of a happy workplace are more fundamental: quality of management, pay and promotion opportunities, overall workplace culture, job flexibility, a sense of helping make the world a better place. Oh, and an occasional picnic or party doesn’t hurt. “Different things are important to different employees,” said Teresa Rothausen-Vange, a professor of management in the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas.

AdvisorNet Financial must be doing something right. Along with 18 other companies, it has ranked among the Star Tribune’s list of Top 100 Workplaces for each of the four years the paper has been commissioning the research.

“I knew when I first interviewed that this is where I wanted to be,” said Jill Hardie, AdvisorNet’s vice president for administration. Working there confirmed her initial impression that the environment is “supportive, positive, helpful.”

The company maintains that reputation in a variety of ways, including annual employee-appreciation picnics, extra days off in summer, and transparency about the company’s financial health and progress.

“We run the company in a way that [if] we were in the shoes of any of our employees, that’s how we’d want to have it happen,” said Daniel May, AdvisorNet’s president and CEO.

Happy workers aren’t just pleasant to be around. Employees who feel emotionally committed to their company and its goals “are more motivated and productive,” said Victor Lipman, a former Fortune 500 executive who writes about management for publications including Forbes and Psychology Today.

Yet, in a recent national study by Dale Carnegie Training, only 29 percent of employees said they felt fully engaged. More than a quarter were outright disengaged. Findings in research by the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence were similarly dismal, with majorities of employees saying they felt underpaid and unheard, and only about half feeling valued. Meanwhile, U.S. businesses reportedly lose $11 billion a year to employee turnover.

So, how to run a happy workplace? We turned to a group of experts — leaders from some of those 19 companies who’ve made the Top Workplaces list each year — and asked their secrets for engaging employees:

Give them autonomy

At Keller Williams Realty, councils of agents run each of the company’s individual offices. “We believe the agent is the center of all things real estate,” said Todd Butzer, Keller Williams’ Edina-based regional director. “We listen very, very carefully to what it is they need. We don’t issue directives to them.”

Plunkett’s Pest Control also trusts its employees on the job, said President Stacy O’Reilly. “In some companies, the quality control departments want to catch you doing something wrong. That’s not our style. We’re supporting them and helping them instead of watching them and checking on them.”

Keep them informed

In 2010, Tactile Systems Technology faced a cash-flow problem, and its leaders had to ask employees to take a substantial pay cut. Yet that same year, the employees rated Tactile one of the top workplaces in Minnesota.

“We promised that if we hit our plans and got back on track, we’d pay them back,” said Jerry Mattys, CEO of the company, which supplies equipment for in-home medical treatment.

Apparently, the employees trusted their bosses, thanks to a policy of openness regarding finances and progress, Mattys said. Sure enough, the company kept its payback promise and has since almost doubled in size.

Minneapolis marketing firm Periscope holds quarterly off-site meetings for all its employees, where leaders “share the financials, share our vision, and share what our challenges are,” said CEO Greg Kurowski. He opposes “the mushroom theory of management,” which he translates as, “Leave them in the dark, (er, fertilize them) and hope they will grow.”

Help them make a difference

  • These companies have made the Top Workplaces list every time:
    AdvisorNet Financial
    Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America
    Gillette Children’s Specialty Healthcare
    Hammer Residences
    Keller Williams Realty
    Noran Neurological Clinic
    Plunkett’s Pest Control
    Right at Home
    SafetyCall International/Pet Poison Helpline
    Securian Financial Group
    Tactile Systems Technology
    Thrivent Financial for Lutherans
    Werner Electric
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