More than ever, employees prize company culture, whether it comes in the form of events to reinforce camaraderie, overt pathways for moving up the organizational ladder, a broad range of DE&I initiatives and staff-development programming or supreme flexibility for employees to care for family at home.
“Ramping up opportunities for culture and bonding is a start, but keeping morale is trickier. You can’t force it or fake it,” says Lisa Tamborello, chief talent officer at Elevate Healthcare, a repeat Best Places to Work winner. “It must be part of the agency model from the start to support, reward and insist upon a culture free of politics and other undesirable distractions. Then you give people every possible opportunity to bond and feel good about themselves and each other, and be part of elevating their work and careers.”
In other words: Company culture may be an abstract, eye-of-the-beholder phenomenon, but it is the aftereffect of innumerable decisions large and small over a long period of time.
One of the major ways that Best Places to Work honorees made their employees feel valued was through robust personal and professional development initiatives. Heartbeat’s Learning and Development offering, a suite of programs geared for continuing education and setting up workers for professional success, is a fine example.
The offering starts with an advertising 101 series called “Beat Basics,” with classes on user experience, public speaking and creative brief writing. There is also a manager’s bootcamp and manager’s manifesto training, which ensures leadership-readiness for employees on the rise.
“Classes are open to everyone, and everyone is encouraged to participate to deepen their industry knowledge,” says Heartbeat VP of human resources Michelle Edwards. “And while not new for us, these programs were utilized far more extensively throughout the pandemic.”
Like many of its Best Places to Work peers, Heartbeat offers access to an online library of courses as well as tuition reimbursement for degree programs and certifications. Other initiatives that struck a chord with employees include one-on-one coaching and mentorship programs with local nonprofits.
“We increased our learning curriculum considerably during the pandemic and made courses available to all employees,” says Verywell SVP and GM Rachel Berman. “The courses help foster community and productivity during a time when many of us have been feeling isolated and burned out.”
Staffers extolled these types of offerings. Not only do they represent ways to learn new skills and improve performance, but they demonstrate that their employer values them as people. There’s something in it for the company, too: Happy people make for a happy workplace, and a workplace populated by people with a wider range of skills will do better work.
“Personal and professional development training may be one of the most important things for companies to do for their people,” Tamborello stresses. “It keeps them motivated, builds a higher degree of satisfaction with the path they’re on and helps them realize leadership is concerned and cares about their development. For the company, it’s a simple proposition: Investment in training leads to better work and more satisfied, happy people.”
CDMP president Craig Romanok agrees, adding, “When we talk about being a life-changing agency, we don’t just mean for our clients or the work. We want to be life-changing for our people, too. That means creating an environment where everyone has the means and space to learn new skills and grow their career.”
Indeed, team-building has long been a priority for health-adjacent marketing firms. When COVID-19 prompted companies to go virtual in early 2020, the most urgent issue was ensuring that the shift to remote work proceeded as smoothly as possible. In 2021, the emphasis was on less immediate — but no less important — concerns, such as maintaining employee morale and combating burnout.
The now fashionable virtual happy hours, milestone celebrations and informal check-ins have been augmented by health-and-wellness stipends, mental health webinars and creative team-building exercises. Elevate employees participated in virtual escape rooms, while DiD Agency staffers were treated to a virtual baking course with a professional chef.
Then there was Create NYC, which set up a “choose your own adventure” event affording employees a choice among pasta making, cocktail mixing, charcuterie and magic. “Staff were given a shopping list and we took it from there,” says agency president Lauren Wetmore. “It gave everyone the chance to pick what they enjoyed, but still interact with people they don’t get to work with every day.”
Best Places to Work winners also prioritized letting employees recognize each other. CDMP instituted a monthly Grand Achievement Award, where team members can nominate certain peers for a $1,000 prize. Elevate instituted Bonusly, a recognition program awarding points that can be redeemed for various items — or given to their co-workers. Heartbeat’s Lovebeat is described by agency co-president and executive planning director Nadine Leonard as “an expansive employee appreciation week with seemingly endless gifts and special activities to thank our community for being genuinely awesome.”
The companies that scored well in MM+M’s survey, not surprisingly, were those that allowed all types of employees to thrive.
“People reacted to the pandemic in very different ways,” notes Health & Wellness Partners president Jani Hegarty. “Some of us withdrew a bit and pulled back on activities beyond the essentials, while others took the time to engage in personal and professional development.”
The shift to virtual work during the worst of the pandemic, and the attendant rebalancing of work and life, enabled a more emotionally healthy environment once offices reopened. Many survey respondents expressed gratitude for employers who went out of their way to show how much they cared about staff members as people.
Here, too, the pandemic presented an opportunity for organizations to re-examine their approach to work/life balance. In many cases, Best Places to Work honorees went the extra mile in helping employees navigate the ongoing stressors, whether in terms of child care or mental health.
“We expanded our offerings to think beyond systems and processes to ensure we consider the whole employee,” says Create NYC SVP, director of operations Tina McCord. “Parents are a large part of our team, so we launched a fantastic program with a child life specialist and included resources parents could use with their kids.”
Many companies added programs to help employees navigate stress, touching on everything from communication styles and relaxation techniques to confronting bias and setting boundaries. These types of offerings clearly strengthened a sense of community and fostered the notion that everyone at a company was in this together.
“Attributes such as kindness, empathy, optimism, being driven, inclusiveness, creativity and trustworthiness come to life in new ways each and every day,” says Klick Health CEO Lori Grant.
Meanwhile, clearly articulated commitments to positive social impact, fair governance and sustainability set many of the Best Places to Work apart from their competitors. Diversity, equity and inclusion initiatives were also highly prized by staffers, especially when companies committed to those values in practice and not just in theory. Many of the highest-scoring Best Places to Work companies earned top marks on questions about diversity and inclusion at every level of the company, as well as on the ability for women and nonwhite people to advance into senior leadership roles.
“When we gain a greater appreciation for those around us — not only learning but celebrating the unique histories and backgrounds and perspectives that each of us brings — it makes us stronger as a community,” Leonard says.
And let’s not forget: Executive leadership can establish the conditions for a positive company culture to take root, but ultimately employees define that culture. Employees of companies that fared best in MM+M’s survey were quick to rhapsodize about camaraderie, collaboration, family-like atmospheres and ample opportunities for personal and professional growth.
“Positive energy connects employees to succeed with synergistic outcomes that exceed what any one person can achieve on their own,” says Xavier Creative House founder and CEO Sunny White.
It’s a virtuous circle. When companies focus on their people from the interrelated perspectives of development, opportunity, diversity and engagement, they support their growth, goals and priorities, according to Lockwood president and CEO Matt Schecter. “When people know they are heard and supported, they are empowered to do their best work — and they enjoy it.”
6 More Top Destinations
For the third year in a row, MM+M ran into the same problem: There are more empathetic, forward-minded employers than there are slots in each Best Places to Work category. Here’s a sampling of verbatim comments from employees at six organizations that impressed the judges.
“There’s great internal training. My manager finds projects that are appropriate for my level and will help contribute to my growth.”
“I’ve built friendships at Biolumina and am genuinely impressed by the quality and competence of our leadership and staff. We have positive momentum.”
“I’ve been most impressed with our company president’s consistent COVID updates, and the emphasis on every person deciding what’s best for them.”
“The no-asshole policy is a real thing here.”
“People seem to genuinely enjoy each other. There’s lightheartedness and jokes in meetings.”
“Our company’s approach to reopening our physical space has been comprehensive and considerate, with appropriate precautions and respect for individual needs.”
CMI Media Group and Compas
“I didn’t think companies such as this existed when I joined the workforce. This company has invested in me throughout my career.”
“Each person has a written employee development plan.
There are ample training and tools to help employees advance, as well as opportunities across departments and companies.”
“Employee well-being is always the company’s first priority, even more than profits. How they’ve handled working during the pandemic is proof of this.”
Havas Health & You
“Havas Health goes out of its way to make sure employees are moving forward in their careers at immense speed.”
“I’ve taken leadership, management and pitch-training courses here, and have taken courses outside of work and used the tuition-reimbursement program.”
“We support each other because we share one P&L. It really makes a difference for our agencies — and, just as importantly, our clients.”
“As a new employee, I have been welcomed by everyone I’ve come in contact with. The culture feels close-knit.”
“I love working with people who are smart, committed and want to do well by our patients.”
“This organization strives to ensure that its actions matter. That goes for clients, patients, employees and community members.”
“The company believes in doing well by doing good. This attracts a certain kind of employee: One who’s driven, creative and believes in improving outcomes for all.”
“They established an additional three-day weekend in months without a national holiday. That way everyone is off and can recharge without having to respond to email.”
“They sent us branded North Face jackets!”