Top Workplaces winners find ways to incorporate gravy

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"All these events and programs, they're part of the daily schedule," Paulauskis said. "You eventually find yourself on the bandwagon whether you want to or not. It's just part of the culture."

On the day I visited, a group of employees was volunteering at a nearby forest preserve, clearing buckthorn — it's an invasive species of shrub and small tree — and tossing branch after branch onto a crackling bonfire.

Company President Dan Klaras was there, wishing he hadn't worn shorts, given the falling ashes and patches of poison ivy. He said that when he joined the company eight years ago, he and Assurance's leadership team recognized the truth behind this simple formula: Happy employees = happy customers.

"That's when we really made it a part of the core mission of the company," Klaras said. "This is insurance, and people don't usually think of an insurance company as very exciting. We wanted to change that."

Along with fun and engaging stuff — and good health care and retirement planning — he lumped in "career pathing" with the benefits employees receive.

"Right away when somebody gets here, there's someone talking to them about where they're going," Klaras said. "What do you need? It's education. It's mentorship. That's what helps people move forward."

Liz Smith, president of employee benefits, made it clear that the company has an intentionally broad definition of benefits.

"A lot of employers lose the opportunity to promote benefits beyond just insurance," she said. "We've taken advantage of making benefits about more than just insurance and really integrating it into the whole company. We really studied how to deploy it throughout the whole organization. I think it's subtle."

I think she's right. The employees I spoke with there, in keeping with what the Top Workplaces survey found, said that at the end of the day, the work is what matters most. But the perks, the team-building and educational opportunities, the focus on volunteerism and good health, those are the things that fortify their contentment.

And company officials say they're getting a strong return on their investment. Along with improved employee retention, an Assurance study of the implementation of its health care and wellness plans found that the company saved nearly $1.7 million over a five-year period while spending only about $180,000.

"At the end of the day, all we want are engaged employees, and by every measure we're getting that," Smith said.

That's when I realized what Assurance is doing right. It's stirring the gravy into the mashed potatoes so you get some with every bite.

"We've made a commitment as an organization to make all of this a priority," Smith said. "We don't want it to be a one-hit wonder. We want it embedded."

Brenda Ellington Booth, a clinical professor of management and organizations at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, said it takes consistency for companies to succeed at building employee-first cultures.

"The key to having that model is this notion that it needs to make sense, it's not a flavor of the month, it's an integral part of their strategy," she said. "The company has a strategy and they're looking at employees as an integral part of that strategy. In publicly held organizations, for example, CEOs come and go, there are mergers and acquisitions, so it can be really difficult to sustain that. It takes work, and it takes dedication."

But an employee-first approach, compared with models that are customer-focused or based on operational excellence, consistently yields good results.

"Companies that have these people-first philosophies, they have a high degree of trust among employees," Booth said. "Numerous studies show that people-first models deliver above-average returns. But it requires a discipline from the organization, the discipline to stick to it."

After seeing the success of Assurance's approach — a success mirrored by other companies on the Top Workplaces list — I have to wonder why more companies don't go all-in on a benefits system that truly helps employees in myriad ways.

Most of the things Assurance does are not high-cost. Something like the volunteer program not only enhances employee contentment, it gives the company a public relations boost. And I'm sure the wellness program cuts down on the company's health care costs.

Above all, it seems like the right way to run a business. If you care about your employees in an authentic way, you're going to foster loyalty, innovation and hard work.

Don't just tease us now and again with a taste of gravy. Find a way to blend it in so we can walk away from every bite satisfied.

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