Companies on this year’s list offer activities and benefits to create a cohesive workplaceJanuary 28, 2012 6:00 AM
by Catherine MacDonald
Photo by Clement Britt
If five minutes go by at the office of Elephant Insurance Services without the sound of laughter, something’s wrong. The auto insurance company’s Henrico County headquarters has been the scene of cupcake eating contests, table tennis tournaments, Nerf-gun wars and Friday dance parties. To put it simply, it’s never quiet.
“We do lots of different things to build up the camaraderie,” says Andrew Rose, president and CEO of Elephant.
This year the company will hold its third curling competition as part of its annual in-office Winter Olympics. The sport usually involves sliding a polished granite stone across a sheet of ice toward a target, but “Elephant Curling” consists of about 40 employees pushing colorful ice discs across a tarp taped to the floor of the office. “You want people to be smiling, laughing,” Rose says.
The Elephant “herd” is not alone in its hunt for fun at the office. A laid-back work environment is a trend among the companies that made this year’s list of Best Places to Work in Virginia. Other standout features include good pay and benefits and performance incentives, such as a $1,000 shopping spree to a local mall.
This issue marks the second year Virginia Business has compiled its Best Places to Work in Virginia in collaboration with Best Companies Group, a Pennsylvania-based firm that has worked on similar projects with more than three-dozen publications.
Best Companies ranked firms for this year’s list based on the results of surveys given to participating companies and their employees. Best Companies analyzed the survey data with a focus on a number of core areas, such as leadership, training, pay and benefits, and overall engagement. More than 90 Virginia companies signed up to participate.
In the end a total of 70 companies, up from 50 last year, made the final cut for this year’s list. They are divided into three groups: small companies (fewer than 100 employees), midsize firms (100 to 249) and large companies (more than 250). Elephant, for example, ranked 15th among midsize companies.
Jackie Jackson, founding principal for Jack Consulting in Richmond, says providing a fun environment makes the companies on this year’s list stand out. Because of economic woes, the typical workplace can be tense, if not gloomy. Jackson says tough times also mean there are fewer people in the office, and they are working longer hours. Companies that offer social activities and a relaxed atmosphere can gain a step on competitors in recruiting and keeping the best employees available.
“What I see are people building communities within their business,” Jackson says. “And making sure that what they’re doing is supporting people in their business hours so that they can be better in their whole life … The best work communities are the ones when they see their people are under stress, and they want to help them.”
Part of a comfortable work culture includes enjoying the company of co-workers — a core value on this year’s list. Employees at 96 percent of the Best Places to Work companies agreed with the statement, “I like the people I work with at this organization.”
At Vaco Richmond LLC, a consulting and recruiting firm, the 25 in-office employees work together in an open space — the same setup used at Elephant. Rather than sitting silently in their cubicles, employees interact and help one another throughout the work day.
“It builds a lot of team camaraderie and synergy in the office,” says Renee Fisher, managing partner at Vaco, which ranked sixth among small companies. “It’s not that everybody’s in your business; it’s when you’re at work you want to be empowered by the people around you.”
If employees need an energy boost, they get up and throw a football around or play darts. The work environment is all about “getting your mind in a better place when you’re dealing with the outside clients all the time,” she says.
Letting off steam
Many companies offer activities so workers can let off steam and bond. Centreville-based CARFAX Vehicle History Reports, ranked No. 6 for large companies, has a running team and a 23-foot shuffleboard, a table-top game similar to air hockey. Employees have their pick of seven sports at Kearney and Co., a government contractor based in Alexandria that ranked fifth for large companies. The choices include skiing, soccer, basketball, dodge ball, kickball, softball and flag football.
Besides sports, this year’s winners emphasize events and parties as a way to promote interaction and boost morale. Virginia Beach-based Commonwealth Financial Partners, an independent broker/dealer that nabbed the fourth-place spot for large companies, sponsors many events including an annual black-tie awards banquet.
A black-tie holiday party also is highly popular among employees at Reston-based Veris Consulting, ranked No. 4 for small companies. “Personally, it would be difficult for me to imagine working at a company that didn’t promote socialization between co-workers like Veris does, because it adds such an important element to the work environment,” says Jeff Hart, a senior consultant at the firm.
An enjoyable workplace apparently also puts a low premium on suits and ties. CARFAX’s survey, for example, lists casual dress code as its most popular workplace feature. Employees at Elephant can wear shorts every day. Nine firms mention opportunities to wear jeans. In fact, only four companies on this year’s list require business attire.
All these extra privileges point to an employee survey category with more positive responses than any other: “happiness with work environment.” Four of the six survey questions in the category garnered 95 percent or more positive responses from employees at all companies that made the list. “I think that Veris has taken the approach that allowing for a more laid-back office environment that regularly incorporates fun allows people to be themselves in the office and develop closer relationships with fellow employees. In the end, I think this fosters a very close-knit, entrepreneurial culture,” says Hart.
Pay and perks
Having fun in the office, of course, won’t keep employees from leaving without competitive perks and pay. Other than a group dental plan (offered by 100 percent of this year’s firms), the most popular benefits are bonuses and incentive plans — offered by 99 percent of the companies making the list.
Workers at Cassaday & Co. Inc., an independent investment advisory and financial planning firm in McLean, love the company’s compensation plan, which is tied to its revenue growth.
“We pay everyone based on the top line revenue of the firm. If we get a client, it benefits the receptionist,” says Steve Cassaday, the CEO and president of the firm, which ranked ninth among small companies.
Under the compensation plan, administrative staff members can make six figures. Pay like that means his employees are equivalent to the “LeBron James” of their field, says Cassaday.
According to Best Companies’ employer’s survey, exempt employees (those not entitled to overtime pay) at the firm averaged $217,000, the highest of any company on this year’s list.
In more than 35 years of professional experience, Cassaday has noticed that support staff members don’t usually have a chance to participate in the success of the firm. As a result, workers tend to quit once they hit a pay ceiling. “I wanted to design a compensation plan so that a person could get really good and stay forever,” he says.
In fact, Cassaday says he managed to avoid layoffs during the economic downturn.
Jackson sees a growing trend toward performance-based employee recognition programs, which she believes are gaining popularity over annual bonuses. She says employee recognition helps establish the sense of community within a company. “It rewards everybody. It doesn’t just reward the top performers like bonuses,” Jackson says. “Then you get into a competition that does not build community.”
Not all incentive programs involve money. Vaco offers internal contests based on revenue goals that employees set for themselves, with quarterly prizes like an afternoon at a shooting range. The financial competition coincides with team building events and competitions, like a game of cornhole played in a park near the office.
After a full year of reaching revenue goals, if an employee reaches a company sales target, Vaco offers trips to destinations like Costa Rica and Panama, Fisher says. If enough of the sales force earns a trip, the administration gets to go, too. This year’s prize is a trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.
Similarly, Commonwealth Financial last year offered a trip to Kiawah Island, S.C., as an employee incentive. The company also has sales campaigns throughout the year, with prizes like a $1,000 shopping spree at a local mall.
Employers who care about their workers and reward them for good effort win their loyalty. Employees at 97 percent of companies on the Best Places to Work list agreed with the statement, “I am willing to give extra effort to help my company succeed,” and 93 percent agreed, “I would recommend my company’s products/services to a friend.” In terms of role satisfaction, 95 percent said, “I like the type of work that I do.”
Bill Franczek, managing partner at Norfolk-based Vandeventer Black, says many employees have worked for the law firm for decades. In addition, a number who left to work somewhere else have come back to the firm, ranked sixth for medium-size companies. “That’s been a real testament for how we’ve treated our employees and the morale over here.”
He recalls one paralegal at the firm who worked through the night on a project. “I never asked him to do that — I didn’t expect him to do that,” Franczek says. “He wanted to make sure his job was done perfectly.”
At Elephant, Rose also emphasizes keeping employees on as long as possible. He says that stability has helped the company double in size in the past year. “People who like what they do, do it better. And the customers feel the difference,” he says.
He looks to Elephant’s parent company, Admiral Insurance in the United Kingdom, for inspiration. Admiral’s “Ministry of Fun” makes an enjoyable workplace the collective responsibility of the entire staff. The company, started 20 years ago, now is the second biggest auto insurance company in the UK.
“Spend a little bit of money making staff happy and that increases the bottom line. There’s business logic and rationale to what we do,” says Rose.
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