Top Workplaces winners find ways to incorporate gravy

Employees-first culture outranks pay and benefits

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I love gravy.

It perfectly accentuates things like turkey, mashed potatoes and the workplace.

What's that? No, I'm not suggesting cannibalism, though who among us hasn't wondered how that guy from the information technology department might taste smothered in a rich giblet gravy?

But when it comes to work, the gravy isn't the edible sort. It's the benefits we receive, beyond just a paycheck. Things like health care, dental plans and perks ranging from gym memberships to company-issued iPads.

They aren't the main course of our work lives. They're the things that enhance our experiences, giving us security and, in an ideal world, making life easier.

When you look at the Top Workplaces in Chicago, you'll find generous benefits across the board. Workers want that gravy on the potatoes they spend each day mashing, but, surprisingly, the Tribune's Top Workplaces survey shows that benefits are not the key ingredient to worker satisfaction.

Of the things most important to employees, "My benefits package is good compared to others in this industry" came in at the bottom, far below things like "I feel genuinely appreciated at this company" and "My job makes me feel like I'm part of something meaningful."

In another part of the survey, employees had to rate the importance of "My Pay & Benefits" along with the following work factors: connection, direction, execution, my work and my manager. Again, pay and benefits were at the bottom, with connection given the highest importance.

So, the benefits we receive from our companies aren't the main course. But that doesn't mean gravy isn't important. (Though some cardiologist might disagree.)

To study the role benefits play in workplace satisfaction, I ventured to Schaumburg and spent a day at Assurance, a fast-growing insurance brokerage that ranked No. 2 among midsize companies on this year's Top Workplaces list. The description of Assurance's perks and benefits made it sound irresistible: up to $2,000 annual company contributions to a health savings account, free Starbucks coffee, a "penthouse lounge with a Wii," birthdays off and a "Wheel of Fortune"-like wheel that comes out quarterly and gives employees a shot at cash prizes.

Before I left, my editor made me promise I'd come back. I unholstered my straw and got ready to drink in some gravy.

To be honest, I was skeptical. There's a reason workers don't rank benefits and perks high on their list of what's important. These are bells and whistles and, frankly, if someone tried to woo me with a giant, spinning cash-prize wheel, I'd roll my eyes like a hipster at a Miley Cyrus concert.

But what I found at Assurance surprised me.

The company has many avenues for keeping its employees happy and healthy.

There is a wellness program seamlessly integrated into day-to-day life, with workers encouraged to participate in lunchtime walks and after-hours exercise classes, along with free annual health screenings, and weekly deliveries of fresh fruit and granola.

Volunteerism is encouraged, with an in-house committee that partners with different groups and charities, and each employee given a paid day off a year to volunteer at an Assurance event.

The company, which employs about 300, pushes continuing education, employing a full-time teacher who runs lunch-and-learn classes and arranges for all manner of presentations and course work to help people advance their careers.

Recognition is also key, and employees or managers can give kudos via an electronic "high-five" system, the results of which are broadcast on monitors mounted throughout the building.

Marketing manager Stephanie Paulauskis described Assurance's perk-heavy approach like this: "It's like the employer is giving back as much as you're giving in. I feel like they're always trying to outdo us. Which is good."

But how does a company keep these benefits from coming across as cloying or overly peppy?

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