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Their idea of a Best Company

IB departs from the normal Best Company presentation to take the temperature of Madison workers about what makes a best company to work for.

(page 1 of 4)

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Essential qualities of a “Best Company” are in the eye of the beholder, and scores of beholders responded to our recent survey on this very topic. No shortage of opinions were offered by rank-and-file and executives alike in an era when medical insurance costs are spiking annually and our hectic lives demand that employers think about ways to help employees balance work with life.

In many ways, the answers of survey respondents mirrored what Greater Madison executives tell us every single day — namely that work-life balance is of paramount importance, even more so than salary and medical insurance benefits.

That “confirm-our-hunch” revelation was produced by one of a series of five questions requiring respondents to place a value — five for “extremely important” all the way down to one for “not at all important.” The quality that received the most extremely important responses was a company that “promotes work-life balance, including flex time, for employees.” Fully 70% attached extreme importance to that characteristic, besting the 49.5% who attached that level of importance to a company that emphasized salary and health insurance benefits.

We also asked several open-ended questions that yielded telling responses, and they are explored here, too.

Our survey queries might not have been relevant 20 years ago, and 20 years from now they might be considered a quaint afterthought, but they are relevant to the times we now live in.

In addition to gathering data, we spoke to four survey respondents, including people who are managers in their respective organizations but put on their individual-employee hats to discuss their vision of a Best Company. They include the following:

  • Steve Schoenberger, a Madison area resident who is director of sales and marketing for Paper Recovery Services in Rockford, Ill., a 42-year-old paper recycling company that specializes in confidential document destruction. He also is the owner of a company called 21st Century Lighting LLC, which operated in Madison and Rockford before his decision to wind it down, but he can speak from both a management and staff perspective;
  • Nancy Johnson, a support specialist for Healthgrades, a developer of database and customer relationship management technology;
  • Joel Sather, owner of Capitol Coffee & Water Service in McFarland; and
  • Trisha Thompson, founder and senior vice president of Settlers bank in Windsor.

Company values

The Best Company survey began with the value-based questions on a 1 to 5 scale. Here is the full palette of possible responses:

5 Extremely important
4 Very important
3 Somewhat important
2 Of little importance
1 Not at all important

The questions were phrased as follows: What do you look for in a Best Company to Work For? We provided several options that gave respondents an opportunity to indicate which of the above values they placed on the benefit. We led off with the following: “Emphasizes salary and health insurance benefits.”

In an era when wages have been stagnant, Schoenberger attached a four value to these considerations because even with evidence that salary and health insurance are rivaled by flex time, he still believes these are the two most important criteria that employees are looking for — affordable medical insurance coverage in particular. “Health care has always been important but because it’s such a newsworthy story these days, I think that really brings it to the forefront,” he says, referring to Congressional wrangling over the Affordable Care Act. “Plus, there have been so many changes that individuals are very concerned.”

Schoenberger says that if a prospective employee is choosing between a large firm or a small company, the reality is that small companies have a very difficult time competing on the health insurance benefit. “It’s a hot topic and it’s only going to get hotter,” he predicted, “and it’s a critical decision piece for people when it comes time to choose who they work for.”

“I do now understand more deeply that if you have a more unified goal, and if you have more diverse backgrounds, and more diverse experience, you end up with better solutions, and so now I see that sometimes the best-qualified candidate isn’t just about the hard job skills, but it’s also about those other tangential experiences that people bring.” — Trisha Thompson, founder and senior vice president, Settlers bank

As an employee for Healthgrades, the insurance part of this emphasis was very important to Nancy Johnson, who believes that salary and access to health insurance go hand-in-hand. Even though some people roll the dice and go without health insurance because of the expense, most employed people don’t view it as optional from a health or a financial perspective. “I know salary is important, too, but without health benefits I don’t feel most people could move forward,” she says. “I guess they go hand-in-hand with most people because if they don’t have any benefit compensation they’re basically working for a higher salary, or they’re looking at very little pay but with insurance they can afford, so it kind of does go hand-in-hand.”

Business owner Joel Sather answered “extremely important” because attracting good employees is imperative, and employers who can provide good health insurance benefits, especially at an affordable cost to employees, have a competitive advantage. With upward pressure on insurance premiums, the affordability piece of that is difficult to accomplish, but Sather notes that employees can’t be fully engaged in their jobs if they are worried about whether they’ll be able to care for themselves or family members because they can’t pay their bills or become sick. So this benefit is critically important from the standpoint of business performance, as well.

“I don’t know how I could manage myself if I had these worries every day hanging over my head,” Sather says. “If I wasn’t able to meet my obligations or pay my bills or feed my family, or pay my rent or my mortgage payment, and have some health care insurance, I just don’t know how anybody could do a good job under those conditions.”

Donning her individual employee hat, not her executive headgear, Trisha Thompson explains why she gave that value a four, not a five. “To me, personally, we’re all motivated by different things, but those are strongly important,” she explains. “We all have bills to pay. More and more, as I get older, the benefits piece is probably just as important, maybe even more important than the salary at times, but it’s definitely not, for me, my primary motivator.”

Flexing their time

One key motivator for Thompson would be working for a company that promotes work-life balance, including flex time, for employees. This benefit is well established but it has not lost its value to employees; as such, it long ago became “non-optional.”

That’s certainly the case for Thompson, who appreciates not only scheduling flexibility, but also the ability to work remotely, work from home, and last year from her ailing father’s medical care facility. Initially, when this benefit was brought to her attention, it took her some time to wrap her mind around it, but having taken advantage of the flexibility and the technologically enabled accessibility, she fully understands what a “huge enhancement” it is.

“I’m part of the sandwich generation,” she notes. “I went through losing a parent last year, and certainly work is not necessarily top-of-mind when a parent is in hospice care or the ICU. I could take my laptop around when dad was doing better and go out for a break in the cafeteria. I could get work done and people understood and wanted me to have that work-life balance. I’ve heard about other employers who don’t care about what’s going on in your personal life, and you had to be there from 9 to 5 and be at that desk, but I had the flexibility to be there for my family in that situation and also be able to feel like I wasn’t shirking my work responsibilities or putting other people in a bad position.”

In Schoenberger’s view, if anything deserves a five rating, it’s the flex time benefit. Many years ago, one of his first employers out of college offered paid-time-off days, when most people did not know what PTO was. It was a very flexible benefit for that time, and he thought it was wonderful because he rarely had to take a sick day.

“I think there are a lot of employees who abuse sick days and take them simply because they are there, whether they need them or not,” Schoenberger states. “That’s each individual’s prerogative, but I think the time off allows hard-working individuals some time to themselves or their families for personal needs they might have away from the office or the workplace. It’s really important and I think an employer who cares enough about his or her staff to lean toward that, to provide that flex time, they’re going a long way toward having a healthy and happy employee.”

Johnson agrees that this benefit makes for a better employee and better retention rates. “They have to know that you have family and that life happens and if a company recognizes that, you are more willing to work for them and for a longer period of time,” she states. “You’re more willing to stay and you are happy in your work place.”

Sather is in no position to argue. “In our company people have families and if their kid is playing the violin at school they may only get one chance to see that, or not many chances to go see that, so those types of things are very important,” he notes. “It’s easy to be flexible, at least in the business that we’re in, and it allows people to do the things that are important, especially as it pertains to their family and life.”


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