This year will be remembered as one of disruption, uncertainty and possibly ingenuity.

Companies that were able figured out how to make a telecommuting model work after states asked businesses to help slow the spread of COVID-19. Manufacturers have had to prioritize worker safety and pivot to new lines of business to stay open.

Now, as they start to think about opening offices again, or their longtime customers start placing more orders, they have a chance to redefine their workplaces and what they value in their staffs.

The national conversation on equity that started after George Floyd died in Minneapolis police custody is another opening for meaningful change.

"So much Minnesota innovation has changed the world," said venture capitalist Mary Grove, the keynote speaker for this year's Star Tribune Top Workplaces virtual event. "There's no reason why we can't continue to lead around the future of the workplace."

The companies that make up the Star Tribune's Top Workplaces have had a head start building a culture that cultivates communication and employee engagement, according to Philadelphia-based Energage, which partnered with the Star Tribune on the project for the 11th year.

"In times of great change, it is more important than ever to maintain a connection among employees," said Energage CEO Eric Rubino. "When you give your employees a voice, you come together to navigate challenges and shape your path forward based on real-time insights into what works best for your organization."

The Top Workplaces process is based on a scientific survey of employees who rate their workplace culture and is done in more than 40 markets each year.

Any company in Minnesota with more than 50 employees can be nominated. The company then agrees to participate in the Energage survey and is ranked based on national benchmarks.

This year, 2,926 employers were invited and 333 agreed to have their employees take the survey. Those surveyed employ 148,516 people in Minnesota.

The top 150 companies were ranked based on the surveys and their size. An additional 103 companies were recognized for exceeding national benchmarks.

The 24-question survey gathered information on several broad issues relating to workplace culture: company alignment, coaching, connection, engagement, leadership, performance and basics like pay and benefits.

The survey showed that feeling a connection to employers is the most important theme explored.

Minnesota employers again scored higher than the national average on every measure except benefits. Compared to other markets, Minnesota employees felt their company had "clued-in employees" 6% more and "clued-in management" 7.3% more often.

One of the cultural elements measured is appreciation, and there is not a definition for it on the survey, said Energage founder Doug Claffey.

"We don't tell an employee how they should gauge their feelings about it," he said. "They use their own definition, and even more, employees know it when they feel it. And they can also readily distinguish between what's authentic and what's simply lip service."

As people transition back to workplaces, Claffey said, companies must consider employees' emotions and individual roadblocks to coming back to the office.

If someone fears coming back because of COVID-19, or has child-care issues because school is not fully in session or extra responsibilities taking care of parents, these situations must be considered if productivity and engagement is to continue, he said.

"This is the new reality," Claffey said. "Be deliberate. Be thoughtful. Make your employees feel like they're part of the planning process and that their input matters."

In other words, clear and more open communication is more important now than ever, he said.

That includes making sure the senior leadership team is on the same page about the company's business plan through the crisis.

They also must be deliberate about gauging employees' concerns and making sure they know exactly what is expected of them and what is coming.

"Clued-in" leadership is about upward feedback and employees feeling heard, Claffey said.

If employers struggle in this area, workers find it harder to connect with the organization, he said.

"And when leaders really aren't clued in to what's happening, they're missing valuable insight from those closest to the customer: their employees," he said.

To be successful, all managers must keep communicating throughout the company hierarchy. Company town halls on Zoom or similar platforms can be effective to communicate key messages and hear direct feedback.

Demonstrating this connection really makes the difference between an average workplace and a great one, Claffey said.

If that spirit of open communication can be applied to all areas, that's where the culture can improve, Grove said.

"I'm of the opinion that as we're coming out of deep pain, [a spirit] of innovation can take place as we move forward," she said.

Catherine Roberts • 612-673-4292