Good companies know how to make work a better place

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But it isn't rocket science.

It's much more complicated.

That's the thing every well-intentioned company learns when it sets out to create an environment that motivates workers to perform at their highest levels and to entice others to work there.

There is no magic formula, no equation that logically computes success.

"We put a lot of energy around the employee experience and how we can improve it," says Ann Owens, a vice president at Qualcomm, which ranked No. 23 this year on Fortune magazine's annual list of "100 Best Companies to Work For."

"Even with that effort, you're never quite sure what will work," she said.

San Diego-based Qualcomm has made Fortune's list before, as well as other similar compilations.

The wireless technology developer understands that it needs creativity to thrive and to do that it needs a workplace that inspires employees and makes their lives easier and better.

In its Jan. 23 print issue, Fortune identifies Qualcomm as one of 14 companies on its 2006 list that provide medical insurance coverage free of charge to employees and their dependents.

"From time to time, we look at the cost of health care, and you immediately think that having employees share in the cost is a good solution," Owens says. "But we know from surveys how highly our workers value that benefit so we look for other ways to save money."

It is the attention to survey results and the later follow-up that help Qualcomm and others on the Fortune list stand apart. But no two corporate strategies are alike.

"We're always looking for 'differentiators,'‚" says Owens. "We look for the things we can do that differentiates our company from others."

Sometimes, those can be surprising. Qualcomm, long a proponent of carpooling, has a fleet of vehicles available during the day for carpool workers who need to run errands on their lunch hours. The borrowed car program gets high marks in employee surveys.

Intuit, which has 1,000 employees in San Diego, was No. 43 on Fortune's 2006 list. Execs at the tax software company also say they pay particular attention to employee surveys.

"There's a lot of two-way communication in our company, and we encourage that at all levels," says Sherry Whiteley, Intuit's senior vice president for human resources. "Our employees definitely feel comfortable letting their voices be heard."

Mountain View, Calif.,-based Intuit often responds to what employees want at individual locations. That's why the San Diego location has access to dry cleaning, car washes and oil changes on site during the work day - all at discounted rates.

"We've found that if you can help remove some of the chores people have to do in their lives while they're working, it makes them appreciate the job a little more," Whiteley says.

Intuit also allows workers 32 hours of paid time off each year to contribute to community groups or causes they believe in. Whiteley says allowing individuals to choose the cause enhances the value of the benefit.

"Sometimes you listen to the employees but can't give them everything they want," Whiteley says. "At our corporate office, we have a farmers market twice a month. Our employees like it so much they want it here every day, but that's just not possible."

What successful companies seem to know is that being attuned to employee wants and desires is more effective than just throwing money into the benefit pool. Both Qualcomm and Intuit say that some benefits cost very little but have a big impact; neither company revealed how much they spend.

Even small benefits can make a difference.

The environmentally sensitive shoe company Timberland offers workers a $3,000 subsidy if they buy a gas-electric hybrid car; drug giant Eli Lilly offers a month of paid vacation to pregnant workers before they give birth and Worthington Industries offers $4 on-site haircuts.

The secret to a great workplace seems to be respecting employees and valuing their ideas on how to make work a better place.

There's no science involved, just an attitude that workers matter.

© Copley News Service

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