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Creating best places to work takes a complex recipe

What makes a great workplace? Employees helping one other. Sense of purpose. Pride and loyalty. Attention and care from top managers. A healthy dose of fun. Most of all, a clear mission and confidence in leaders.

So say the findings of an extensive survey conducted by Workplace Dynamics based on responses from nearly 17,000 area workers and followup reporting by the St. Petersburg Times. Sixty companies here made the inaugural Top Places to Work list, including those publicly traded and privately owned, nonprofits and even some government agencies. It's an impressive and diverse mix of businesses.

Among the 60 best area workplaces, I count nine technology, seven health care, seven insurance, six nonprofit and five financial service businesses. There are four companies in each of these industries: retail, real estate and professional services like law and engineering. A sprinkling of education, construction, government and hospitality rounds out most of the players.

Why should we care about really good workplaces? Because businesses that are top places to work can better attract and keep the best workers. Anyone who has worked with extremely competent, motivated co-workers knows what often happens in such environments. Their enthusiasm rubs off; their quality skills get shared. Then you, too, can pay it forward.

That becomes all the more critical as we start to move out of this recession. Unhappy workers will flee mediocre workplaces and lousy leaders when hiring picks up. Top workplaces will face less turmoil in a rising economy and prosper all the more.

If you are looking for work, what better place to start than with an in-depth look at some of the best places to work in the metro area? (One reason workplaces are "top" is because they are always scouting for talent.)

There's another reason top workplaces produce superior results. It's called productivity. The word's gotten a bad rap in this job-cutting recession, as in, Hey, if we fire 10 workers and leave 10 to do their work, we can double our productivity! Top workplaces tend to be more productive, often without cutting jobs. That's a huge factor in such companies winning more business, providing superior service and maintaining lower operating costs.

Why else do top workplaces matter? If you're in a business seeking better ways to operate, what better competitive intelligence is there than to see what makes such places thrive?

The survey generated a boatload of area work force information. I got to know plenty about a lot of well-run Tampa Bay area businesses that frankly, even after 19 years of reporting here, I knew little about.

Take, for example, New Port Richey's Applicant Insight Inc. The employee screening company, one of our 60 top workplaces, says it pulled together in the tough economy and decided to reduce staff hours to 32 while salaried workers took a 5 percent pay cut. The group decision worked — at least as of the time of this survey: No one lost a job or benefits, a group sacrifice the company is proud of.

Among the 60 Top Places to Work, 17 operate in Tampa, followed by nine in St. Petersburg, four in Clearwater and two in Oldsmar.

The others are scattered as far north as Brooksville, as far east as Seffner, or sprinkled in places like Largo or Palm Harbor. Two companies here are headquartered elsewhere in Florida. And 10 of the 60 are based in other states, from California to New York.

What I gain most from this in-depth survey is an appreciation for how challenging it is to create and sustain a "top place to work." Every day seems to start with a renewed dedication to make something so hard seem so easy.

Don't misinterpret these findings. This is not a survey of area businesses that are simply fun places to work. This section is not about spotlighting workplaces where employees don't have to work very hard. And this is certainly not a list of businesses that simply pay better or have superior benefits.

Quite the contrary.

These winning businesses are disciplined, motivated places where people feel inspired to work hard and be innovative when they know they will be recognized and respected for their accomplishments.

Pay and good benefits count, no question. But they are not enough. Survey results show that other factors are more important in creating a top workplace.

Employees, for example, most value workplaces with direction — where the corporate mission is clear and leaders can articulate goals. Right behind comes career issues, meaning workers feel they have futures and are provided with the skills or training to move up the ladder. Then comes execution (managers who help get things done efficiently and include workers in the game plan), then conditions (good working conditions and family flexibility), and then management (do I have a good boss?).

Building such workplace cultures often starts at the top with executives who set good examples. The survey identified three CEOs as top leaders. So we asked the trio — Tom James from the 7,000-plus-employee Raymond James Financial, John Auer from 167-employee ASI, and Barry Shevlin from 110-employee Vology Data Systems (formerly called Network Liquidators) — to come together and share their ideas on what makes a good leader. Each runs a business of very different size.

Listening to them, I was struck by some contrasts. James, heading by far the biggest of the three companies, pounded on the need for growing companies to build and maintain strong corporate accountability systems and a culture of tough, honest talk from the top brass. But I also was impressed by the similarities of all three CEOs as high-energy, personally competitive people who can motivate their troops.

Bottom line? Smart people eagerly follow these three leaders. And that's a powerful asset.

Most of us spend a lot of our time at work. Wouldn't it be great if we did so at a top workplace?

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Creating best places to work takes a complex recipe 03/21/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 2:45pm]

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