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How to Become Illinois’ Best Place to Work

Companies that respect, challenge and value employees earn the highest marks for staff engagement, satisfaction and loyalty. Here’s how to be one of them. By By Clare Fitzgerald | Fall 2015

fall Best

Ping-Pong tournaments and happy hours are nice, but fun is only one piece of the puzzle when it comes to landing yourself on one of those avidly read and much-touted “best places to work” lists.

So just what does it take? Competitive compensation and comprehensive benefits are top-of-mind, but for the companies that landed on this year’s list of "Best Places to Work in Illinois", offering a supportive environment that encourages friendships and professional growth is the real driver.

Before you chalk this up as a gimmicky pay-to-play marketing tactic, know that the “Best Places to Work in Illinois” list is promoted by The Daily Herald Business Ledger in partnership with the Human Resources Management Association of Chicago, the Illinois Chamber of Commerce, the Workforce Boards of Metropolitan Chicago, MRA-The Management Association and the Greater Oak Brook Chamber of Commerce. Added to that, direct employee feedback accounts for a major chunk of a company’s ranking.

According to Susan Springer, director of workplace assessments at Best Companies Group, the organization responsible for identifying and recognizing the nation’s best employers, the award, now in its 10th year in Illinois, is based on a two-part assessment—an employer-completed questionnaire and an employee engagement and satisfaction survey. The employee survey, which drives 75 percent of the assessment, focuses on how employees feel about eight key areas—specifically, leadership and planning; corporate culture and communications; role satisfaction; work environment; relationship with supervisor; training, development and resources; pay and benefits; and overall engagement.

“We assess things like privacy and office environment, whether employees feel like there is room for growth and advancement, how satisfied they are with their work and whether they feel like they are taken care of and supported personally,” says Springer. The assessments ask targeted questions about each participant’s level of engagement (“Are you proud to work for your company?” “Would you recommend your company’s products and services to friends and family?” “Do you plan to stay at the company for the next two years?” for example). The survey also asks open-ended questions, such as what improvements employees would suggest.

Springer has seen a number of key trends emerge among the companies making the grade, most notable of which is greater schedule flexibility. “Companies are allowing telecommuting and flexible work weeks, and they’re creating environments that are much more employee friendly.” She further explains that the key values that resonate with employees today are, “Trust, camaraderie, making a difference—they come up every year and are as important as ever.”

Several accounting firms landed on this year’s Best Places to Work in Illinois list, including Weiss & Company LLP in Glenview (#2 in small companies), Warady & Davis LLP in Deerfield (#15 in small companies) and Crowe Horwath LLP in Chicago (#10 in large companies). Touting employee engagement scores of 92 percent compared to the national average of just 41 percent, it’s safe to say these firms are doing a lot right. Here are five things driving their success.

ONE: Collaborative Relationships

At Crowe Horwath, Warady & Davis and Weiss & Company, fostering a friendly, inclusive atmosphere goes a long way towards building strong, committed teams.

“We have a very close-knit, friendly culture,” says Leslie Flinn, director of marketing and recruiting at Warady & Davis. “We have an outstanding team of people who develop friendships in and out of the office. Those friendships contribute to creating an exceptional, cohesive team of people who are passionate about what they do and are committed to each other. If you get a flat tire in our parking lot, you’ll have five people trying to help you.” At Weiss & Company, which has earned a spot on the list for four consecutive years, each new hire becomes part of an extended family, says Kristen Dallman, the firm’s director of marketing. “We have a very welcoming environment where people genuinely enjoy working together,” she explains, noting that part of the firm’s hiring process includes screening for people who will fit into that familial culture.

Of course, a little extracurricular fun goes a long way for Illinois’ best employers. “We provide a lot of opportunities to interact outside of work hours,” says Dallman, highlighting concerts at Ravinia, post-tax season events and parking lot barbecues as examples of events that help to bring the team together.

For Warady & Davis, volunteer activities, like the Illinois CPA Society’s CPA Day of Service and its one-on-one mentoring program, help to forge strong bonds between employees. “Ninetynine percent of the time our mentors are assigned only one mentee, so they can really focus on that person instead of juggling several people’s needs,” says Jo Ann Porter, CPA, partner and managing director of human capital at Warady & Davis.

TWO: Trust and Transparency

Accounting and finance professionals tend to try to quantify everything, but as Stuart Miller, managing partner of Crowe Horwath’s Chicago and Oak Brook offices, points out, keeping employees motivated and happy is qualitative—and it’s more art than science.

Caring about and being truthful with employees plays a huge role. “So often, for employees to be happy, it boils down to them being able to trust the organization. You have to care about your people and do the right thing for your clients and employees,” says Miller. “We try to be as transparent as possible, and we make sure our employees aren’t mistreated. In fact, we’ll walk away from clients if they don’t treat our people professionally. We strive to make sure our clients win and our employees win. If we do that, the firm wins.

“With young people, the more transparency you can build, the better,” he adds, explaining that Crowe Horwath prides itself on the accessibility of its partners. “We let staff know that we’re open to taking time to talk about whatever the issue or question of the day is. Millennials like to talk through problems and find solutions.”

Similarly at Weiss & Company, partner offices are situated around the perimeter of the workspace, and staff is encouraged to stop in to chat or ask questions. “Everyone gets exposure to the partners and everyone’s door is open,” says Dallman.

THREE: Flexibility

Quality of life has been a hot topic for some time now, so it comes as no surprise that the companies earning high marks among employees are those committed to flexible scheduling and outside- the-box work arrangements.

“Work-life balance is always a challenge for accounting firms, but we do try to focus on it,” says Flinn.

Warady & Davis offers flextime and telecommuting options, as well as generous paid time-off year round, especially in the summer. “Our professionals understand expectations and know what they need to get done,” says Porter. “As long as the team can work efficiently and meet goals and deadlines, no one is watching the clock.”

FOUR: Growth Opportunities

If you want motivated, engaged employees, they have to know that there’s something “more” to be working towards. A clear path for growth gives them that.

Weiss & Company, for example, uses a core competency metric system to outline responsibilities and show associates how they can advance. “We don’t want the path to the next lane to be some sort of mythical secret. We make it very clear how to go above and beyond and how to get to the next level,” says Dallman.

Similarly, Crowe Horwath strives for constructive feedback to drive performance. “We have really honest conversations about what people are doing well, what they can work on and what it’s going to take to advance,” explains Miller. In other words, employees are encouraged to take ownership of their work. The firm promotes an entrepreneurial mindset and allows staff members to explore areas that interest them outside of their strict roles. Ultimately, the firm challenges its employees to create value.

“Too many times in public accounting we put people in a box. At Crowe, we allow people to look at what they can or want to do next. We want people to find what they are really good at and grow them in that, even if that means moving to a different practice area or pursuing an area other than where they started,” Miller explains. “We want our people to be challenged to create products and services that engage people’s minds; we want to develop builders and engage people beyond the monotony.”

What really makes “best companies” stand out, though, is their investment in their people. At Warady & Davis, for example, an intensive internship program grooms college accounting students for full-time success after graduation. The firm’s professional development curriculum, “W&D University,” starts at intern year one and goes all the way through partner. “We start investing in our staff from day one with the goal of developing and promoting from within. This allows people to see the great opportunities they have here at the firm,” says Porter. “We’d much rather promote from within than hire laterally from another firm.”

FIVE: Staff Appreciation

Companies that stand out as top employers make sure their staffs know their efforts are appreciated. “A lot comes down to respect and knowing that they are valued,” says Flinn, who explains that employee appreciation is a big reason Warady & Davis has an extremely loyal staff, including a large percentage of people who have spent their entire careers with the firm.

“Feeling valued comes naturally when companies acknowledge contributions, treat staff like family, develop and reward people with higher profile work, and encourage camaraderie,” says Springer. “Championing that type of culture pays off. Every time you lose an employee it affects the bottom line in terms of lost productivity and the time it takes to recruit, rehire and retrain. Increasing engagement increases loyalty. It’s not just about keeping people happy, it’s about keeping happy people.”

So will your company be one of Illinois’ best places to work in 2016?