What's changed in the 10 years since the Tampa Bay Times' first Top Workplaces survey

DIRK SHADD   |   Times   Staff mugshot of Graham Brink taken at the Tampa Bay Times studio Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
DIRK SHADD | Times Staff mugshot of Graham Brink taken at the Tampa Bay Times studio Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018.
Published April 5, 2019

I remember sitting in my office on a Thursday in January 2010 waiting for the results of the Tampa Bay Times' first Top Workplaces survey. The company we partnered with to crunch all the numbers had promised the results by noon.

I was the Business editor back then. It would be my job over the next couple months to figure out what to do with the list of winners — what stories to tell and which companies to feature in the special section.

The worst recession in a generation was officially over, though it hardly felt like much was getting better. The state's unemployment rate remained above 11 percent. Layoffs were as common as sunny days. Even those who still had a job fretted about when the ax might fall. Foreclosures kept setting records. People spent less. Businesses folded.

Scary stuff, for sure.

Top Workplaces: See all of this year's Top Workplaces winners for the small, midsize and large categories.

It made me wonder what the survey might reveal. Would it be a tsunami of doom and gloom, even at the best workplaces?

Part of me figured the winners would come from industries least affected by the downturn like health care and education or that paid the most like banking or other financial services.

Sure enough, when the list hit my email, health care and financial services were well-represented, including some of the area's marquee names — Moffitt Cancer Center, Raymond James Financial, PricewaterhouseCoopers.

New York Life and American Strategic Insurance took the top spots in the large and mid-sized categories. More financial services — check.

St. Mary's Episcopal Day School was the No. 1 small workplace. Education — check.

But the list was full of surprises. Construction companies and real estate firms made it. So did retailers like Lazydays RV Center, and even a handful of manufacturers. The Great Recession had gutted these industries and here was a chance for employees to rip their bosses or criticize their companies in an anonymous survey administered by a third party. Instead, they glowed about why they loved their jobs. Despite the carnage all around, these workplaces had managed to foster a culture that made their employees feel valued.

What had they and the other companies that made the Top 60 mastered?

That year, and the following years, we learned that pay and benefits matter, but a truly top workplace needs strong direction. Employees at top workplaces put a premium on feeling confident that their leaders knew what they were doing. The businesses felt well-run, even if the economy had dealt them a lasting wallop. The employees said they were appreciated. They said they had room to grow in their careers, in part because they had capable managers helping them along the way.

These were core values, the employees said, non-negotiable for creating a top workplace. So it's not surprising that when we asked our survey partners at Energage to ferret out what had changed in the past 10 years, the answer was "not much," at least when it comes to what it takes to keep employees motivated and happy.

Employees favor a workplace that allows them to reach their full potential a little more than they did back in 2010, Energage found. Managers, good ones that help workers learn and grow, also grew in importance, but not by much. Work-life flexibility was slightly less of a priority. Benefits and pay were even less important than in 2010, when they ranked at the bottom for what makes a great workplace.

The list has grown from 60 to 100 top workplaces. In the first year, 17,000 workers took the survey. Now, it's more than 40,000. Many of the business names on the list have changed. Some stopped participating. Others lost track of those core values and saw their scores fall enough to drop off the list.

Extra kudos to the 10 companies that have made it every year — American Strategic Insurance, Banker Lopez & Gassler, Bouchard Insurance, Century 21 Beggins, Capital One, Ditek, FrankCrum, Progressive Insurance, SouthEast Personnel Leasing and T-Mobile. Another four have made it nine consecutive times.

Many of them have weathered layoffs, leadership changes and myriad other challenges. Still, year after year, their employees say they love their workplace. That's not easy to do, in good economic times or bad.

Congratulations to them and to all the top workplaces that made this year's list.

Contact Graham Brink at Follow @GrahamBrink.