By all rights, Noran Neurological Clinic in Minneapolis should be a terrible place to work. Just ask its president.

"This is a highly charged, highly stressful environment," said Dr. Steve Janousek. "It has all the potential to be one of the worst places to work in Minnesota."

In fact, it's just the opposite. Noran is one of the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces. It has made the list five years in a row — every year the survey has been conducted — one of just 14 companies to achieve that distinction.

"It really is a good vibe-y place," Janousek said. "I would love to take some credit for how happy people are, but I can't. I walked into kind of a happy culture, I think."

Culture — the word pops up a lot in conversation with leaders of the five-time Top Workplaces winners. It suggests that some of the factors that make an organization a nice place to work are as intangible as good vibes. Oh, generous benefits are always welcome, and few employees would say no to a fat paycheck. But perhaps just as important are qualities like cooperation, friendliness, responsiveness and mutual respect.

"We reinforce this culture of service to our fellow team members," said Tom Gunkel, CEO of Mortenson Construction in Golden Valley.

"We wrap it in a culture of wanting to help each other out," said Todd Butzer, Edina-based regional director of Keller Williams Realty.

"We work really hard to create a culture of appreciation," said John Estrem, CEO of Wayzata's Hammer Residences, which provides services to people with developmental disabilities.

But if culture is so important, how can employers go about developing a healthy one?

"If I knew it I'd bottle it up and sell it — I'd do it on the side, though," joked Michael Phillips, director of human resources at PreferredOne, a health benefits services company in Golden Valley.

It probably doesn't hurt to hire upbeat people in the first place. And to get everybody together for a good time now and then; company leaders spoke of parties, barbecues, breakfast with the CEO. Enlisting employees in group volunteering is also popular. And here are a few other strategies:

Build careers

When Jeff Gau started St. Cloud-based Marco, he sold office furniture and typewriters. Seeing his work as "a career, not just a job" helped Gau, president and CEO, make the transition to providing high-technology products and service. Now he helps others do the same.

"When somebody joins our company, I'll talk to them about their career from day one," Gau said. "If we build a company and careers that people want to be part of, you'll attract them and you'll keep them."

Allianz Life Insurance prides itself on its internal promotions, said Chief Actuary Neil McKay. So does Securian, a St. Paul financial services company, said Kathy Pinkett, senior vice president of human resources and corporate services.

"We hire folks that are high potential and want to build a career with Securian," Pinkett said. The company helps by "giving them meaningful work and showing how their work fits into the larger picture."

Ask for feedback

At UCare, a health insurance provider in Minneapolis, employees are asked for input on the company's annual Strategic Plan, said Hilary Marden-Resnik, senior vice president and chief administrative officer. "It's not about what leaders say to employees. it's what we all say to each other."

At Mortenson, 95 percent of employees respond to a biannual survey regarding attitudes toward work, Gunkel said. Then, "to the extent we can, we correct or adjust and make improvements that we think will make their lives better."

Marco also gets a high response in its annual employee surveys. "Do you trust your supervisor? Does management know what they're doing? We ask tough questions of ourselves," Gau said. "And you know what? We take action and we follow up."

At Allianz, "we constantly ask our employees for feedback," said Human Resources Officer Suzanne Dowd Zeller. Their responses have led to a number of company initiatives, including an annual 5K walk/run.

Keep it flat

"We have a flatter structure than some, we're not as hierarchical," said Phillips of PreferredOne. "The CEO is oftentimes in the same lunchroom with everybody else."

At UCare, the CEO gets together with every new employee for an informal chat in her office, Marden-Resnik said. "Everybody has this opportunity to meet the CEO and hear a little bit about her style and her priorities."

Estrem also described Hammer's culture as flat. "We're pretty casual. We're not terribly corporate. More relaxed. More open. Any staff member can stop in at any time to talk to me."

Same at Keller Williams. "Keller Williams has 100,000 associates," Butzer said. "The leadership, the owners, are completely accessible to us. We can text them. We can call them right now and talk to them."

Let people have a life

"We have a strong commitment to work-life balance," said Anne Sample, senior vice president and chief human resources officer at Thrivent Financial. "We have many different flexible work arrangement programs that allow people to balance their personal and professional life."

So does Securian, Pinkett said. "We realize employees have lives outside of work. We always put the business need first but within that we are flexible with schedules."

At Marco, "being a workaholic isn't going to win you any awards," Gau said. "If you can't make an event at 4 o'clock in the afternoon because you're coaching your son or your daughter's Little League game, we're OK with that."

Katy Read • 612-673-4583