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.

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.”



Philanthropic pursuits

Another value we asked about pertains to a company that stresses paid time off to pursue a philanthropic passion. This value definitely fits in the “trendy” category, but there is a good reason it’s such a strong trend — millennials, who now dominate the workforce, place particular emphasis on strengthening the communities they live and work in.

For that reason, companies have long engaged in such communal efforts, but giving employees paid time off to work at a food pantry or help Habitat for Humanity build homes for the poor enables them to leverage their workforce to put that commitment on steroids.

“For employers who are willing to go that extra mile, that allow their employees that leeway, that only benefits our society,” Schoenberger states. “I know it’s important to be dedicated to your job and to your company and to your employer, but I think society nowadays dictates or is demanding that people contribute and volunteer. Volunteerism needs to increase simply because social services and public funding don’t seem to be able to handle all the needs. That’s going to require individuals to get out and roll up their sleeves.”

Sather also believes it’s important for companies and their employees to remember that they are part of the community, and his workers have contributed to charitable organizations such as the Make-a-Wish Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, United Way, and the Carbone Cancer Center. He also references one additional communal partner. “We always look for opportunities to partner with our customers to support causes that we think are important, and we’re trying to lead by example,” he says.

Settlers bank hears the same desire to give back from people who recently on-boarded, and bank employees have lent a hand to causes such as Habitat for Humanity. Thompson herself appreciates opportunities to visit schools and talk about financial literacy, among other interests. “That is a huge driver,” she says. “People do want to give back and I want to give back, so making time available for that is something I’ve always greatly appreciated.”

Diverse direction

Promoting diversity and inclusion might not be a fringe benefit per se, but there is a compelling business case for companies that stress a diverse, inclusive culture. That business case involves not only employers and suppliers but also customers — business-to-business or business-to-consumer — who prefer to buy from companies that stress “D&I.”

“It always helps to have diverse backgrounds because you get different perspectives about how to solve problems, or just come up with ideas,” Sather notes. “You don’t want everybody with the same ideas, the same background, or the same education because you are going to get basically the same solutions. That’s why it’s important to have diversity, whether it is different ethnicities or different genders.”

Johnson viewed this as extremely important because the “world doesn’t just live in one lane.”

“We live in a diverse world and if you don’t accept that, then you don’t accept change, and if you don’t accept change, it means you are never going to move forward,” Johnson states. “It’s kind of a must just because it’s an ever-changing world. That’s why I felt that particular category was extremely important because of the diversity of customers that you’re relying on, but also with your co-workers and your teammates because they are often very diverse.”

Schoenberger, who assigned an “extremely important” rating to diversity, believes an emphasis on cultural diversity should be “a given” for companies. In his view, if employers are not trying to create that sort of organizational culture, then they are at risk of creating an unhealthy atmosphere. “Our country and our society and our communities are becoming more diverse every day and every year, and if employers are not keeping pace with that then, boy, good luck.”

Thompson acknowledges being a gradual convert, noting that for many years she has separated job candidates by focusing on a traditional approach to qualifications. “I wanted the best person for the job. I wanted the best-qualified person,” she states. “I didn’t care whether the candidate was male or female, and I didn’t care about ethnicity or background. I wanted the most qualified person for the job.

“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,” she adds, “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.”

Path-finding pivot

The final value we asked about pertains to a company that is diligent about performance reviews and opportunities for advancement. This characteristic has always been important, but astute companies have put a different spin on it — the opportunity for career-path discussions.

Thompson admits to being divided on this characteristic. Performance reviews would get a three or perhaps a four, but opportunities for advancement would get a four or a five. At Settlers bank, which employs about 30 people, the concept of a formal, annual, or semi-annual performance review is evolving into more frequent opportunities to provide more immediate feedback and recognition for a job well done. Employees still go through the formality of a review, but they should not walk into that room and be surprised, Thompson says.

“More and more, we’re using it for planning,” she notes. “We have it on our calendar to do some hard planning for career growth and development more so than to go in and find out about a mistake you made six months ago.”

Sather admits to not being as diligent about performance reviews as he probably should be — “We try to do them once a year” — but he, too, places more emphasis on advancement for the employees who want it. “It’s very important for people to have opportunities to advance. Several of the managers I have — the service managers, the warehouse manager — all started in different positions and advanced. It’s good for the company because they get a broad view of how the company works, and you’re able to have a really strong feeling about the person, their capabilities and their strengths, and maybe their weaknesses before you promote them into a position.”

For Johnson, it’s another way to improve retention, and she rated advancement opportunities a five. “It’s extremely important for our company to not only strive for itself but also to strive for its employees, too,” she states. “If you have room for investment or opportunity within the company, employees are more likely to stay with the company. If a person is furthering his education, whether it is communication-wise or what have you, it’s just very important for our company to accept that change, as well. If your employees can grow with you, they will stay with you longer.”



Most valuable benefit

We also asked survey respondents, and interviewees, a couple of open-ended questions, starting with the following: What benefit at your current employer do you find most valuable?

As already indicated, flexible schedules and occasional remote working are highly valued. Schoenberger, a Madison resident whose Illinois-based job requires him to travel, appreciates his employer’s flexibility. If the weather is bad or something else comes up, Schoenberger is permitted to work from home. That implies a high level of trust that the work will get done, and it makes the employee feel as though the boss is looking out for him.

“He does his due diligence when he is hiring; if you’re getting your work done and you’re reaching your goals and you’re doing what’s expected, he’s extremely flexible,” Schoenberger says. “They’ve got an employee handbook and they’ve got their policies laid out, but he’s flexible. I just think the world of employers like that because I have worked for people who aren’t that way. Boy, when they’re not that way, you learn to feel very unappreciated and fairly quickly.”

Sather can answer the question on behalf of his employees and as an executive who has found ways to moderate his company’s medical insurance costs.

He identified the health-care benefit as the most valuable one, with some paid time off to recharge their batteries coming in second, and a decent wage third. “That’s critical,” he states. “If you have an employee working for you, that’s number one on the list when we talk about hiring people — that we pay the full health care benefit. There is nothing that is even close to that.”

Asked how he was keeping up with recent premium increases, he says Capitol Coffee & Water Service hasn’t seen any because he’s been able to make a few changes with his insurance coverage. Sather estimates the company will save $40,000 by increasing its deductibles on health insurance, thus reducing the fixed cost of premiums, and by implementing a health reimbursement account (HRA) to pick up the increase to its employees.

Sather credits Schwarz Insurance with helping him after he asked them point blank what he could do to reduce health insurance costs. The company buys its health insurance through the Sauk City insurance company, but it’s provided by Unity (now part of Quartz). Schwartz Insurance finds this solution works for many of its clients because most of the medical claims incurred on a company’s health plan — 85% of medical claims — are by only 15 to 20% of its enrolled members, according to Jeff Miller, a senior employee benefits specialist with Schwarz.

Sather notes that people don’t believe him when he says his health insurance is “way down,” but adds there are ways to attack fast-rising costs and actually reduce costs, rather just simply moderate the rate of increase. He concedes, however, that it’s a never-ending battle, but it’s important for retention that good benefits be provided as affordably as possible.

He’s been in business for 22 years, with one employee who has been with him for 17 years and five or six others who have been with him for more than one dozen years. “I swear it helps dramatically with employee retention, and my employees know their customers, they know their children, they know their birthdays, and we have very strong relationships,” he states. “Everybody’s had that same experience where you go to a different business and they deal with a different person every time and you have to explain things over again, and that’s not good. It’s the way we differentiate ourselves from the larger competitors that we have.

“What the future holds, I really don’t know, but we’re committed to providing that benefit and it may be more expensive in the future,” Sather notes, “but it’s really just the cost of doing business.”

Speaking as an executive, Thompson appreciates the opportunity to be an entrepreneur, to come in and be a part of starting a business. As an employee of Settlers bank, she says her fellow staffers appreciate its ability to maintain an affordable health insurance benefit with reasonable copays. That effort included shopping around on the much-maligned health insurance exchanges established as part of the Affordable Care Act.

Each year, Thompson says her chief financial officer comes in her office and tells her of conversations with other CFOs about expectations for 20% increases, but she says the bank saved $80,000 this year in premium costs. Settlers bank has had the opposite experience of many employers even with a staff that’s diverse from an age perspective, so it’s not all from a younger, healthier risk pool. “We actually went this year to an Affordable Care Act plan offered through Unity [now part of Quartz],” Thompson says. “That’s through diligent shopping every year, and we also should give kudos to staff because our trends are very good, meaning people are doing a lot of preventive things. People are being mindful of their own lifestyle choices so we’re not having heavy usage.”

Donning a CEO hat

It’s always nice to think of yourself as the “big boss,” so we gave our interviewees a chance to imagine being the CEO of a company or a nonprofit organization, and think about what they would emphasize in order to become a Best Company to work for. A couple of them did not have to imagine what it’s like to run things, and Schoenberger has been in both spots.

While he understands the importance being placed on matters like a strong, collaborative, and respectful corporate culture, at the moment he thinks employers have to take care of the basic necessities. Right now, he contends that health care is number one, flexible work schedules are number two, and compensation is number three.

“When my father was out looking for work years ago, compensation was probably the number one thing,” he states, “but now the employer has to come up with other things and so I would put health care number one. That’s going to vary according to the employee and also whether or not they are single, part of a couple, or a family, but health care has got to be up there and then I think comes flexibility and compensation.”

If Healthgrades’ Nancy Johnson were to become a chief executive of a company, she would do a lot of what Judene Sennott, vice president of consumer support, does now because she has an open-door policy, and that impacts every conceivable workforce issue. Sennott, she notes, worked in the financial services industry before joining Healthgrades, and as such benefited from the same flexibility that her employees now do, which helped give her an understanding of its importance to workers.

“Open lines of communication is the best policy between you and your employees,” Johnson states. “She’s not going to ever please everybody but as long as you narrow it down to certain things that most of the employees want or need, then I think you’re headed into the right direction. Again, it’s the communication lines, as well as keeping the paid time off and making sure that employees are happy.”

As the founder and executive vice president of a bank, Thompson really doesn’t have to wonder about being a top executive, but she was happy to don her employee cap to answer this question. She notes that Settlers bank has a very flat organization, which is important when employees need to bring ideas to management. As she rose through the ranks in banking, there were banks where the person with the biggest desk was not to be disturbed. Staffers certainly didn’t just walk into that office and initiate a conversation about best employment practices.

Similarly, when she joined another bank and the chief executive was going over the financials, she was told not to raise her hand or to speak. Initially, she was baffled by that, but eventually began to understand that simply was the organizational culture.

“What I’ve experienced here is a very flat culture, which means we have an ideas forum,” she says. “We ask people to come to us with any idea they have, such as what benefits should we offer? Anybody could walk in here and share their ideas with the CEO or the president. I think that’s really empowering and the company has benefitted greatly from it. People know at least they will be heard.

“We obviously can’t implement every idea that comes forward because we don’t have the money to institute everything, but for some things you do your due diligence and you find out it’s a great idea.”



Survey says: What’s on their minds?

As part of our Best Company survey, we asked what workplace benefit could your current employer provide that would increase your job satisfaction or retention? Some of the responses are one or two-word answers, while some are more expressive and indicate that some employers still have work to do.

So what’s on the minds of Madison employees? Everything from additional health care insurance options to better vision insurance was listed, but a few of our favorites included mental health days and sabbaticals.

Some respondents had the whole company in mind with fondest wishes such as team-building exercises, while other ideas sounded like camaraderie-builders but also had a pleasurable angle for employees. “We should provide catered lunch — this would provide another means for people to interact.”

Competitive salaries more aligned with the local market, more flexible hours, career planning and career-pathing programs, telecommuting opportunities, and more time off were common requests, with one respondent offering specific advice. “Summer hours so that we could work four 10-hour days and have a Friday or Monday off.”

One local employer was lauded for providing services such as massages, chiropractic care, and yoga, but the survey respondent lamented the lack of time available to enjoy the perks. Other requests sounded like pet peeves. “OTJ training instead of expecting it to happen during off hours,” one complained. “Provide more training and updates for new employees,” replied another.

Cultural issues were also top-of-mind, as noted in one submission: “We have some cultural challenges and communication issues that start at the top. There is an obvious gap between leadership and those in the trenches, which creates a lot of confusion and dissension, resulting in a lack of focus and direction.”

The more expressive requests sounded like the basis for a lengthy collective bargaining process. Check this laundry list, which comes from a single response: “More competitive salary; job descriptions that actually represent responsibilities; normalized process for changes to avoid ripple-effect failures; VP and C-suite management with better communication and understanding of the impact of their decisions on business practices; investment in infrastructure; transition plans for new changes.”

Whew! On the retention front, it sounds like one local employer has its work cut out.

Survey also touts most valuable benefits

What benefit at your current employer do you find most valuable? It’s a question worth pondering, so we asked our Best Company respondents to do just that, and their answers should give local employers a clearer idea of what local workers covet.

There were many answers related to flexible hours and extensive paid time off that allows for better work-life balance, while others lauded medical insurance benefits, even for “only” part-time employees. One company practice is to make a $500 company contribution each year to employee health savings accounts. Says one happy camper: “Health Insurance plan options and retirement plan options provides opportunity to create plans that fit your specific needs; maternity leave — full 12 weeks paid.”

“Generous time off,” states another. “Generous time off and work-from-home policy,” adds another. More specifically, another chimed in with the following: “Generous time off policy for salaried employees; we get six weeks of time,” while yet another happily stated, “Results-oriented workplace environment; essentially, no set paid time off but flexibility to take time for whatever needs (family, time away, etc.) as long as we’re producing expected results.”

More evidence of this value is provided in perhaps the most expansive response to the most valuable benefit question. “The flexible work schedule, casual work environment, and paid time off, work-life balance,” notes the respondent. “Many directors allow employees to work flexible schedules to accommodate their every day life, which is awesome. The casual work environment allows employees to be comfortable while they work and be relaxed. The four weeks for paid time off is great for allowing employees to rewind and get away from work to enjoy other things in life. The work-life balance is great as employees are not in the office for long days, which allows employees to enjoy their family and life. Many employees work eight hour-days, even salaried employees.”

Other comments were indicative of a happy workforce linked to the importance of people on corporate culture, diversity and inclusion, and openness to new ideas. “Good supervisors,” chirped one. “Cool people,” states another. “I work with very talented people,” states another. Also, “The passion they have for both their clients and helping customers, as well as the care for their employees.” And finally, “Besides numerous opportunities for advancement both personally and professionally,
we have a great culture full of brilliant and fun people.”

Culture and environmental considerations also pleased this mood-conscious worker. “Pleasant work environment, consideration of employee’s personal needs, and NATURAL LIGHT!”

Speaking of moods, the following policy always puts employees in a good frame of mind: “A generous PTO policy that also includes a volunteer day to do the important things in life. We can also make up time when appropriate to save PTO for the important things.”

More basic needs such as opportunities for advancement, career planning, and adult education/training were cited as valuable. Says one appreciative worker: “Support for career growth. I have held multiple positions in different areas of the business. This has allowed me to grow and evolve without having to leave the organization. All of this was supported and encouraged.”

“Well compensated and consistent opportunities to perform and advance,” cites another.

One person’s early impressions have not been lost. “Trust — my employer, team, and direct manager are open and showed me trust early on. That made it very easy to find value early.”

Finally, one simple statement says it all about the value of a pat on the back: “Appreciation for my work.”

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