A year ago, the Star Tribune and Pennsylvania research firm WorkplaceDynamics set out to identify the Top 100 Workplaces in the Twin Cities. We found in our 2010 survey that good employers share similar traits workers consider important.

In this year's Top Workplaces 2011, we expanded our reach to include all Minnesota employers and ended up finding even more top workplaces. This survey is about companies whose employees have awarded them high marks. It's a "good-to-great" ranking, not a "worst-to-first" competition. Companies chose to take part in the survey process.

So what's most important at these high-performance workplaces? According to employees, they value feeling "genuinely appreciated," feeling "confident about my future with the company" and believing that the organization is "going in the right direction."

Employees ranked pay and benefits below concerns about conditions at the company, execution and their company's strategic direction. Some find this surprising. But Douglas Claffey, CEO of WorkplaceDynamics, said pay and benefits are minimum expectations -- the ante to the game.

More important, Claffey said, are people's engagement with the company. Employees want to be appreciated, but also want to know their company is headed in the right direction.

"There is a sense that if your company is not reinventing itself, then the future gets a little more worrying," said Claffey.

Companies that scored best on the statement "New ideas are encouraged at this company" were among the higher-ranked companies, such as The Nerdery, ranked fourth in the mid-size category, and Keller Williams Realty, ranked first in the large-company category, Claffey said.

WorkplaceDynamics started by contacting 1,241 employers in Minnesota. To qualify, companies had to have at least 50 employees and agree to allow employees to take a confidential survey. In all, 278 companies participated and 60,538 employees responded using either paper surveys or an online application. WorkplaceDynamics requires a response rate of at least 35 percent. Employers with fewer than 85 employees must have at least 30 respondents. Larger employers have the option to randomly sample employees.

Experience has shown that smaller employers tend to score higher than mid-size employers, and mid-size employers tend to score higher than large employers. The reason? The smaller the company, the more likely employees are to know and interact with top management regularly.

WorkplaceDynamics ranked the employers within their size band based solely on the employee responses. The top employers in each band were selected as the 100 Top Workplaces in Minnesota. They employ 109,691 people in the state. There was no charge to companies or employees, nor were they compensated.

In addition, another 40 companies scored high enough to qualify as Top Workplaces against WorkplaceDynamics' national benchmark, although not high enough to crack the Top 100 Workplaces. These companies are listed alphabetically on page 30.

If you know of a company that deserves to be considered for next year's Top Workplaces ranking, go to startribune.com/nominate2012.