Top workplaces investing in new technology to make employees happier

  • Article by: WENDY LEE , Star Tribune
  • Updated: June 23, 2011 - 11:54 AM

Minnesota's top employers find that satisfied, loyal employees often help to create satisfied, loyal customers, too.

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Starkey excels at integrating technology, training and benefits into the workplace. Research audiologist Elise Gregoire talked with a test subject and hearing aid user Donald Learned about using an Ipad to calibrate his hearing aid.

Photo: Richard Sennott, Star Tribune

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Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple, once said he wanted to "put a ding in the universe."

Minnesota's Top Workplaces are following Jobs' advice while also changing the way traditional businesses operate, making schedules more flexible, using cutting-edge technology to make life easier for customers and pushing for long-term environmentally friendly goals. The result? Happier and more loyal customers and employees.

FAME

Last year, CEO and President Lynne Robertson wanted to reward employees for their hard work.

She called them into a meeting and presented slides recapping the retail branding agency's performance. Then, she told them to claim their free iPads.

The slick devices were given to 55 full-time employees, including the receptionist. Robertson said she believes the iPads benefited her employees personally and professionally.

"The goodwill generated from a gesture like that is tremendous," Robertson said. "Appreciating your employees is an important thing. Words are one thing, but something like that went a long way."

Gillette Children's Specialty Healthcare

Want to work fewer hours and still have health benefits? The hospital said 419 part-time employees who work an average of 20 hours a week are eligible for health benefits at the same cost as full-time employees. The hospital has 586 part-time employees.

Take Sandy Erickson, a 55-year-old nurse. She said at her age, she couldn't continue working nights and lifting patients on an orthopedic unit, tasks she did when she first started working at Gillette. Erickson now deals with patients by phone and works part time.

"In this job, I can use my 30 years of experience in a way that helps families and fits my lifestyle," Erickson said. "I like to say I'm 40 percent retired."

The hospital said its willingness to be flexible helps it retain great employees. Gillette said it had a 5.82 percent turnover rate last year, compared with the annual health care industry rate of 12 percent.

Starkey Laboratories

Starkey patients no longer have to rely on an audiologist's guess to adjust the sound quality of their hearing aids.

The Eden Prairie-based business spent at least $500,000 researching and developing technology called SoundPoint, which works with its top-tier hearing aids. Through that program, patients can track their finger across an iPad screen and listen to various sound settings for their hearing aids. If they like what they're hearing, patients can place a pinpoint on that area of the screen and compare it to other options.

The idea for SoundPoint was inspired by a musical instrument synthesis program at University of California Berkeley.

"Steve Jobs says new ideas come from making connections," said Brent Edwards, vice president of research. "They don't just 'poof,' come from the air. It's about seeing things in this field and that field and applying them in a new way."

General Mills

Even Betty Crocker has a free app on the iPad. The iconic brand launched its cookbook for the tablet last year. Users can plug in the ingredients they have at home to find which Betty Crocker recipes would work for dinner. Or users can also look up recipes by category.

The cooking steps are written in a large type size, allowing a user to view the iPad's screen from 5 feet away in the kitchen, said Mike Bettison, General Mills' interactive marketing manager. There is also a timer in the app. For example, if the recipe calls for whisking eggs for 15 minutes, the user can set the timer to send an alert at that time.

"We really want to extend the reach of our food content and recipes for these new, emerging technologies," Bettison said.

Mayo Clinic

As part of a larger environmental initiative, the Mayo Clinic spent more than $900,000 to build 462 solar panels on the roof of one of its parking structures in Rochester. The clinic said at peak output, the panels can produce 145.5 kilowatts, enough to power the entire building. If more solar energy is generated than the building requires, the surplus is diverted to Mayo's downtown campus.

The clinic received $419,000 worth of rebates from the federal government and the local power company.

Mayo also installed three rain gardens in its parking lots to better filter storm water before it goes into drains.

"We've always had a concern for the environment," said Donald DeCramer, division chair of facilities project services. "This is just part of that bigger picture."

Sunrise Community Banks

Almost 10 percent of the 160 employees at Sunrise Community Banks can work from home one day a week. That perk, given through manager approval, has helped some employees be more productive working remotely and given them the convenience of avoiding a long commute, the St. Paul-based company said.

Joel Johnson, director of human resources, said the flexibility has allowed him to watch his son's 3 p.m. tennis matches.

"It's a real nice benefit to the job that I have not personally experienced [before] in my over 25 years of working," Jhnson said.

Wendy Lee • 612-673-1712

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