When dietitian Lisa Diers went to work for The Emily Program in 2006, she considered it her dream job to work in the field of eating disorders. A few years later, she combined that with a passion for yoga.

Under Diers' direction, The Emily Program offers 11 to 15 yoga classes a week around the Twin Cities and Duluth, including classes on body image that Diers teaches alongside a therapist.

"I took the yoga torch and the place is now burning with yoga," she joked.

Diers said her notion of integrating yoga with traditional treatment blossomed because managers at the St. Paul-based company give employees flexibility, autonomy and support to try new ideas to improve patient care.

"Being in an environment where I'm allowed to be creative and experiment for the clients' benefit is No. 1 for me," Diers said. "It's why I'm still here."

Employee sentiments such as these helped land The Emily Program atop the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces 2011 survey for medium-sized companies. It was the first year the organization participated in the survey.

Similar themes run through other winning Minnesota businesses, lauded by employees because they "operate as a family business" or hire "smart people who want to stay on top of changes in the industry" and "put a premium on training."

With the job market tight, medium-sized companies of 150 to 499 employees can't always dole out high salaries and benefits to attract and retain workers. Many emphasize flexible schedules, morale-boosting events, wellness programs or other perks to keep employees healthy, happy and productive.

PreferredOne Administrative Services, a health plan administrator, rents the roof deck at Target Field and takes employees to a Twins game. The Nerdery, a Web development firm, has a video game arcade and offers movie nights in its 250-seat "Nerd-a-torium."

Technicians at Plunkett's Pest Control get liberal use of company vehicles on weekends, sometimes eliminating the expense of a second family car. At Microsoft, employees work remotely and have access to the latest tools and technology. (Microsoft qualifies as a medium-sized company because its Minnesota operations employ 248 workers; only Minnesota employees were surveyed.)

This year's lineup includes a number of service and health care-related firms, and workers at these firms said they enjoy helping others solve problems or doing "meaningful work."

Allison Blaisdell recently was promoted from her job in the product development area at Golden Valley-based PreferredOne into a job that promotes health programs to more than 300 employees. It's an area in which she has strong interest and aligns with her personal value of promoting wellness.

"This is a very employee-oriented company," Blaisdell said. "We have good benefits and profit sharing. We're always looking for strategies to get employees out of our cubicles for awhile to get to know each other."

Stacy O'Reilly, president of Plunkett's Pest Control in Fridley, said offering health care to its 280 employees (some outside Minnesota) is a financial struggle, particularly with rising gas prices, but her family-owned business considers it a moral imperative.

"When we're hiring, we're literally hiring for a career of 15 to 25 years," she said. "We try to hire reluctantly to make sure we have a long-term job for them."

O'Reilly said Plunkett's technicians also tell her they appreciate the flexible schedules.

"Plunkett doesn't ask you to work eight hours a day, five days a week," she said. "We ask you to get the work done. If the guy wants to bust his tail Monday and Tuesday and then take off Friday and go fishing, fine. If you want to spread it out evenly, that's fine, too."

Kim Brust, a Plunkett's Pest Control technician, appreciates the extensive training procedures. "Our training is the best in the business."

A final theme common to top workplaces is that employees feel a sense of camaraderie with co-workers and feel valued by their managers.

During a high-risk pregnancy, Diers, The Emily Program yoga instructor, needed additional time off. Her co-workers responded by donating so much of their personal time off that she was able to work half time for five months. The first to step to the plate was Emily Program founder Dirk Miller, who offered 40 hours.

"It played a key role in a healthy pregnancy, labor and delivery," Diers said. "I call this my work family. I was very grateful to them."

As thanks, Diers worked with Emily Program's art therapist on a painting of a tree she donated to co-workers.

"It's this idea of strength in the foundation, feeling grounded and strong," she said. "There's hope in the center, acceptance of the condition I was struggling with, and, finally, finding peace."

Jackie Crosby • 612-673-7335


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