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What makes a "best place to work"?

What makes a great place to work? There are many ways to assess a workplace but in my opinion, a great place to work is one that inspires the passion of workers and unleashes their talent.

Emotional hot buttons are pushed. Workers are turned on by what they do and who they work for or with. They work in a job or an organization for more than the usual reasons - for something deeper and more meaningful than a good salary and generous benefits. While engendering passion and emotion are of course vital, a great place to work is also a place where people are able to apply their talent to the fullest. Where they can grow, nurture and apply their skills and knowledge in ways that enable them to consistently produce excellence. Every day. And in every way.

That’s a great place to work.

Last summer, Madison Magazine asked me to help them to identify the best places to work in Madison based on these criteria. Our methodology had three components: an employee survey, open-ended essay questions, and interviews with top leadership. Using the Next Generation Workplace framework, we created a set of questions to determine what employees valued most along six key dimensions of their workplace experience and the extent to which they experienced these coveted aspects of the job and working environment.

We developed six awards to honor organizations that excelled at delivering these key dimensions of the workplace experience:
Most enriching

This award went to the organization that provided employees with the best opportunities for achievement and learning. Many people value learning and development above any other aspect of work. Companies that provide rich environments for workers to grow their skills and knowledge, not only perform better but keep their people because they don’t have to leave to progress their careers.

Deforest Area Middle School edged out some tough competition to win the Most Enriching Workplace award. Its teachers are supercharged about their jobs, their students and their mission to make the school an outstanding learning environment for everyone. Their dedication is so strong that teachers are not afraid to take risks or try new things in pursuit of learning.

Most Rewarding

This award was given to the organization that did the best job of making employees feel valued through the types of rewards and recognition they receive.

The tendency of most awards competitions is to pick a winner based strictly on the amount of financial rewards it offers its workers. But showing appreciation involves more than paying bonus checks. It also demands leaders that communicate up close and personal with their staff. We focused on all the ways companies conveyed how they valued their workers – with an emphasis on recognition as well as reward.

Brownhouse Designs took this award because of its leadership’s strong and consistent communication with employees regarding their value to the organization and its performance. In the wordsof Laurel McManus Brown, owner of Brownhouse Designs, "I really feel that people instinctively want to feel valued. I think people want to be appreciated in very simple ways, like very sincere acknowledgements and very sincere thank you’s, a pat on the back, recognition in front of their peers. You can see what that does to somebody just by looking into their eyes."

Most participative

This award was given to the organization that went the furthest in giving staff a say in key decisions related to their work, jobs and careers as well as involving them in the governance and management of the organization.

Many executives talk about concepts like ‘empowerment’ but few back them up by giving employees real decision authority in their jobs. Nor do many organizations share vital performance information with all of their workers. And the overwhelming majority of companies are run as autocracies, even if they are benevolent ones. Yet, many workers want a say in their career and financial destinies, and when they are given it, they reciprocate with high levels of commitment and performance.

The winning organization was M3: Mortenson, Matzelle & Meldrum, an insurance solutions business. It took an extraordinary step toward becoming a participative workplace. When it was facing a critical business restructuring decision, it reached out to involve ALL staff in the decision rather than hatch a plan with far-reaching impacts on everyone behind closed doors without consultation with the rest the organization.

Most socially-cohesive

This award was given to the organization that did the best job in the eyes of its employees of building morale, camaraderie and social capital. Many organizations have outstanding work teams, but they are often islands in an corporate sea of distrust and contention. More rare is an enterprise wide feeling of community and affinity with each other.

The winner, First Choice Dental is a text book example of social cohesion in the workplace. Its workers are ùnfailingly upbeat and enthusiastic about their employer. They consider each other family and thrive in an egalitarian culture and management style. Everyone is treated as an equal. Most telling say staff is that the doctors do not act as if they are superior or more important than anybody else.

Most meaningful

This award went to the organization with a purpose and mission that resonated strongly with employee beliefs and values.

Corporate social responsibility is taken very seriously today in many companies. But in most cases, being a good corporate citizen is an adjunct to the core business. This award however honored organizations whose mission and purpose fused both a commercial and a broader societal or individual purpose that reflected deeply held principles and values of employees.

Madison Environmental Group and Community Car won this award because of how well it melds its business mission and purpose with a bigger social and environmental agenda that connects deeply with the personal values and ideals of its workers. Everyone in the organization feels strongly about its mission to bring people together by helping them to realize that they have a common interest in and shared caring about their community and environment. Says CEO, Sonya Newenhouse, "It's not just ideas on a piece of paper. You're making a connection."

Most balanced

This award was given to the organization that best provided employees with the flexibility, programs and support to achieve sustainable work-life balance and quality. The AIDS Network provides its workers with a harmonious physical workspace and lots of flexibility to work the hours and locations that fit each staff member’s lifestyle, and most importantly, an workplace environment that allows workers to meld their personal and professional pursuits and priorities in ways that make them mutually reinforcing.

For the full stories of each of these outstanding organizations, be sure to check out Madison Magazine's coverage of the awards winners or view video reports.

Every organization can become a great place to work

The city of Madison is a great place in many ways, but it has one more thing to be proud of – some incredible human-centered places to work. Each one sends the message and acts as an example for other organizations regardless of their industry, business or size – that any employer can be a great place to work if it develops the same attributes as the Madison Magazine Best Places to Work Awards winners. Creating a great place to work is worth the effort - it shows in your employees, your customers and your business results.

Do you work for an organization that inspires your passion and unleashes your talent? Do you know of other organizations like this? If so, we’d love to hear about them. Please e-mail Tony DiRomualdo at

Tony DiRomualdo is a business researcher, author and consultant. His work focuses on how changes in global business dynamics, talent management practices and information technology-enabled tools and capabilities are transforming the workplace. He helps individual leaders and teams to create Next Generation Workplaces. He can be reached at

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.


Ron Larson responded 9 years ago: #1

Good place to work?
It's been a long time since I've seen that sign in the work place. Most companies are looking for higher profits rather than keeping good employee's. I see ceo's Cio's and others walking away from companies with 10 to 50 million in stock options while the working person is layed off and or pushed to have reduced benifits or wages or both. It's a shame we can't even help people get medical insurance. we used to be one of the worlds best places to work for. but now we have reduced all sort's of moral decency and obligation to simple how much profits can I make. The idea of having a business was to make a profit, but it was also to improve the community, give jobs to people to make a better living, to raise standards so the next generation would have it better. In response the workers would give loyalty and work harder to make a better product. they would be proud to say 'Hey I work for such and such and they are the best company I know" today if you ask people it given with a shrug and no sound of pride it's "It's a job". No pride or loyality. It's sad cause big business and small alike were the ones who made this country. It was them that set the standards, they weret the ones who made the worker proud. they may not have made big profits but they made a company with high standards and people would recognize that. that's what made a company last. Thats what made a company who others could trust. Too bad that trust is gone. Now it's what can I do,to cut something to make a big profit in a short time and to hell with the worker, to hell with the company, I don't care if in five years it's gone just so I can make my profit and move on to the next company. Yes it makes no business sence to reinvest in a company in America today, but is it a moral or loyal decision. Mostly moral as bigger profits are overseas. But pride in keeping it here and letting Americans earn a decent living can make a company a very proud and prifitable one and also letting one have a good nights sleep.

manendra responded 9 years ago: #2

hello i m doing biotech &i want to do summer training in yr company pls allow me for summer training. my .pls send me e mail if u have a place for me.

Marcela Miranda responded 9 years ago: #3

I´m a jornalist in The Mercurio newspaper in Chile. In this moment I am doing an study about: Where the student of business want to work? What companies do they prefer?
Could you help me, please?

Patti Haider responded 9 years ago: #4

Thank you for the interesting article. Once you have worked in a work place that is enriching, participative, socially cohesive, balanced & meaningful, you really appreciate how rare they are and the talented & compassionate leadership that makes for that environment. Thank you to Tom Wolfe, previous owner of Persoft(now Esker Software) and Todd Oberg, VP of Fiserv IntegraSys Madison Business Unit. These are two places that should be on your list.

bob responded 1 year ago: #5

When I think of The best place to work, I do not think of companies that set out to be just that. It has to be a mind set of those who work for the company as a result of the company doing what is right, because that is what they should do. If a company does things the right way, their employees will think that "this is the best place to work".

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