What sets apart the industry’s best workplaces?

In a year that challenged companies like never before, some have thrived and emerged as the best workplaces of 2020. From an employee perspective, everyone would like to work for a company where they feel valued, believe in the company’s mission, and see success from their efforts. From a company perspective, employers should be striving to create a desirable workplace, if not for the employee’s personal experience, then for the economic value.
Employers should be striving to create a desirable workplace, if not for the employee’s personal experience, then for the economic value.

Great Place to Work, in its Fortune 100 Best Trends report, broke down what set apart employee experiences at the best workplaces in the United States. When it studied the qualities that differentiated the 100 best companies from the rest, ‘three themes emerge: trustworthy management, innovation and fairness’. While nationally only 58 percent of employees say their company is a great place to work, the statistic jumps to 91 percent at the Fortune 100 best companies.

‘Employees at the 100 Best are highly motivated compared to the average US employee, with 84 percent saying people look forward to going to work, compared to just 42 percent of employees in the US workforce,’ according to Great Place to Work.

A deeper look into the data gives some insight into what sets these companies apart and makes their employees more motivated. The first area of difference is management. The trustworthiness of managers was significantly higher within the 100 best companies: ‘83 percent of employees at the 100 Best said management’s actions match its words, versus 42 percent of employees at the average workplace.’

If it is not obvious why this is important, the data clearly spells out that when employees have managers that are honest and ethical, ‘they’re five times more likely to want to work there for a long time, and 11 times more likely to think the workplace is great’. Honesty in management contributes to employee retention in a significant way.

Good management also leads to more innovation. Trustworthiness and genuine leadership play an important role in creating a safe space for new ideas to be exchanged. ‘When managers create a safe environment to express ideas and make suggestions, employees are 31 times more likely to think their workplace is innovative,’ according to Great Places to Work. Additionally, the 100 best companies ranked ‘significantly higher in management seeking suggestions and ideas (83 percent at the 100 Best vs 43 percent nationwide) and celebrating people who try new ways of doing things (83 percent at the 100 Best vs 45 percent nationwide)’.

When employees trust their management enough to risk sharing new ideas, innovation can flourish. From the company’s perspective, not only does innovation increase but ‘employees at innovative companies are four times more likely to say they’re proud to tell others they work there, and four times more likely to give extra to get the job done’. That is a significant increase in employee motivation, all from having supportive management in place.


Taking pride in one’s work and workplace can mean more than most other job perks, including increased pay. Great Places to Work found that the most influential element of overall satisfaction was pride in both company and work. Its research found that while employees said fair pay makes them ‘twice as likely to think their workplace is great’, employees who are proud of their work ‘are 20 times more likely to say it’s a great workplace’. Pride in an employee’s work and workplace ranked higher than pay, perks or personal recognition and made employees ‘20 times more likely to think their company is a great place to work’.

“They can put a zipline in the break room but if they are treating you like a cog and working you like a dog, it is just window dressing”

Claire Hastwell of Great Place to Work broke down the more personal aspects of what makes a great workplace: community, trust and caring. In terms of community, employees at 100 Best companies ‘express a sense of winning together when times are good – and sticking together when times are tough’, according to Hastwell. This leads into the caring element, which became crucial during the pandemic. Companies needed to care for and support their employees more than ever.

The pandemic also forced more trust from companies in their employees. While this research was done pre-Covid, Hastwell found that ‘many of the 100 Best Companies trust their employees to work flexible hours and from remote places. This flexibility makes employees more dedicated and engaged because they feel trusted to meet their business goals in a way that works for their life’. For many this year, working from home became a mandate, not a choice. Employers had to trust that their employees would maintain their performance outside the office.

Claudia St. John, president of Affinity HR Group, explains what sets apart a good workplace from an HR perspective. According to St. John, good management is critical. ‘The fish rots from the head down,’ she says. ‘The workplaces that are authentically wonderful have at the helm leaders who truly care about their employees and who are authentic in their consideration for their employees.’

“Honesty in management contributes to employee retention in a significant way”

According to St. John, ‘If you have a leader who truly cares about employees and understands that they are the most important thing, then you can feel that. Those leaders recognize that different people have different needs, drives, and situations outside of work.’ 

While true care shines though, conversely, attempts to be a fun workplace without genuinely caring for employees is also easy to spot. ‘They can put a zipline in the break room but if they are treating you like a cog and working you like a dog, it is just window dressing,’ says St. John.

‘Business owners will say, “We care about customer service and being trustworthy and putting our employees first”. Often those are things that are put on a coffee mug or a mouse pad, but if you walk into that space and you don’t feel that they care about those values, then they become aspirational rather than practical and you can end up instilling a lot of resentment.’ Companies should be careful not to overpromise and underdeliver.

To develop a truly caring and open environment, St. John encourages employers to ‘put together a process where everybody from the organization at different levels can come together to discuss what are their own personal values. That is how you will find out what shared values you as an organization have with all of your employees. Those are authentic. Organizations that view the values their employees have as the values of the organization tend to be more authentic than those who are doing it as an Instagram campaign or a marketing strategy.’

“Now the number one goal is communicating effectively and authentically with all of your employees. That comes first, and it is hard”

St. John also addresses what sets apart companies that transitioned to homeworking successfully. ‘The ones that are doing it well have the managers or supervisors, anyone who is in the chain of command of having employees report to them, checking in regularly and making sure they are ok and that they have what they need.’

These check-ins are not just business-related, but rather to open a dialogue during a difficult time. ‘Even if your employees do not want to share what they are going through, they are going through something,’ says St. John. ‘Leadership needs to do those personal check-ins but also create an opportunity of vulnerability so that others will be willing to share or know that you are not invincible and that they are not alone.’

During 2020 and into early 2021, the days of working together in an office and passing reports over cubical walls are gone. Communication is not an assumed part of the workday, either professionally in the meeting room or personally around the coffee pot. A thoughtful effort must be made to stay in touch.

‘Now the number one goal is communicating effectively and authentically with all of your employees. That comes first, and it is hard. No one has a magic bullet on it but those who are trying are probably succeeding,’ says St. John.

Many companies managed to succeed last year, both in communication and business, despite the global pandemic and less-than-ideal working conditions. Hammer Packaging, Inland Packaging, Steinhauser and Syracuse Label & Surround Printing all received the Best Workplaces in America award from Printing United Alliance for 2020. L&L interviewed each of these companies to figure out what qualified them as best workplaces.

Hammer Packaging

‘Our employees are our most valuable asset in the business,’ says Kimberley Flynn of Hammer Packaging. Hammer put its money where its mouth is while battling the Covid-19 pandemic. ‘We took a hard stance on Covid,’ she continues. ‘The minute anybody had a stuffy nose, you weren't coming in. We knew what that meant for business. Telling production people not to come in meant we were lowering our production capacity. It meant we were low staffed while trying to keep up with a higher demand, but we put our people first.’

Putting staff first also means offering job perks at Hammer Packaging. ‘We have flexible hours and our production workers can swap shifts when needed,’ says Flynn. But in her mind one of the biggest benefits is support for continuing education, something Flynn is currently taking advantage of to pursue a master’s degree.

‘Hammer will cover 100 percent of tuition if it is job-related, which is a huge benefit. With Hammer, it is not only the financial support but also managers asking, “What classes are you taking this semester and how can we work that into your job function right now?” or “Do you want to sit with someone in another department and see how your education can translate?” If you are going to school for something and it means shifting your job in a way that allows you to grow and be happy, we will do that.’

Additionally, prior to the pandemic, Hammer offered onsite wellness that varied from yoga classes to financial counseling. ‘Everything that we do here is based around wellness: physical, mental and financial. We want to make sure everybody has all the resources they need, both in and out of work,’ says Flynn.

Obviously, those opportunities changed during 2020. There were many lessons to be learned in the process of adapting to remote work. ‘Covid taught us different forms of communication. We couldn’t get everyone together in a room anymore, so we implemented video messages. We could subtitle these videos in Spanish or Mandarin to make sure everyone can understand that message from our management; we wouldn't be able to do that if we were live in person,’ says Flynn.

She continued: ‘If you could work from home, you were working from home. It became really important to find a way to be face to face so every two weeks we had a video message go out. We were early adaptors of Teams and Zoom. The day after we were sent home, we were on it chatting together and connecting online.

‘Managers, of course, were checking in on their employees to make sure they had everything they needed at home, and not just work-related. We were asking questions like “Are you getting to the grocery store?” and “Is there anything we can do to help you?” Hammer's approach is holistic, so we want to make sure our employees are ok inside and outside work.’

From a business standpoint, Hammer adapted to the pandemic by working with the government. Flynn explains: ‘We worked with state and local governments to ensure our business was considered essential throughout the entirety of the pandemic. Maintaining that status ensured that our associates remained employed. We also gave incentive pay to our front-line production employees.’

Inland Packaging

Inc magazine surveyed over 150,000 employees about their workplaces and found that ‘Honored companies had a set of baseline employee benefits. Health insurance, dental insurance and retirement plans aren't extras. They're table stakes. Employers are also sweetening the employee experience with benefits like longer maternity leave, paternity leave, innovative health and wellness initiatives, and flexible scheduling’. Like Hammer, Inland Packaging is raising the stakes and offering extra benefits to employees.

Kim Young, marketing communications specialist at Inland, explains: ‘We offer opportunities for flexible hours as well as work from home options. In addition to the flexibility, we offer three different plan options for health insurance, as well as vision insurance, dental insurance, 401K with company match, employer-paid life insurance, and long-term disability. Inland also has an employee assistance program, referral bonus program, wellness program, profit sharing, fitness club member discount, leadership development, recognition for years of service, and financial support for continuing education.’

This commitment to benefits may become the standard for workplaces hoping to attract the best talent. Additionally, in the era of Covid-19, companies who take employee safety seriously will stand out. Inland implemented extra cleaning, social distancing and additional break areas to limit staff in any given area. In the early days of the pandemic, when supplies where hard to come by, Inland produced sanitizer and antibacterial spray in-house.


For Steinhauser, it all comes down to culture. ‘We have worked really hard on caring for our team and being present. Creating a feeling of community and kindness from interview stage to onboarding to when I walk the floor every morning and talk to everybody is key,’ says Tara Halpin, CEO and owner of Steinhauser. ‘It comes down to just caring about people. It sounds so simple when I say it out loud, but it is so important.’

Part of that care comes through being honest, according to Halpin. ‘Being transparent has set us apart. We share almost everything with the entire company so that they know how the company is doing and if we are reaching our goals. It establishes trust and helps the culture.’

Opening up about company details to employees was not easy. ‘Being a small company, you debate how much should you share or not share, but I need everybody rowing in the same direction so I decided the more information I can give them the better.’

“When employees trust their management enough to risk sharing new ideas, innovation can flourish. Employees at innovative companies are four times more likely to say they're proud to tell others they work there, and four times more likely to give extra to get the job done”

Steinhauser has made conscious efforts to build up its company culture and is seeing the benefits. This effort includes, says Halpin, ‘taking time, even during Covid, to have a meal together’. Those meals look different now with social distancing and health and safety measures, ‘but it is worth it because our team really enjoys being together’.

With some employees working from home during the pandemic, communication has increased at Steinhauser. ‘Our managers have been diligent with their teams to have regular communication and one-on-one meetings.’ Similar to what Claudia St. John says, these meetings are not just business related. ‘Everybody is struggling with something – something outside of work – so we want to make sure we are empathetic and understand what people are going through,’ says Halpin.

Syracuse Label & Surround Printing

‘The employee ownership culture is one of the best attributes of Syracuse Label & Surround Printing,’ says Kathy Alaimo, president. ‘Each employee-owner is a stakeholder and works together to ensure the success of our organization.’

Syracuse works to engrain new employees into the company culture through mentorship. ‘Each new team member is assigned a skilled mentor to support onboarding and training in the position,’ says Alaimo. In addition, Syracuse tries to promote from within and promotes cross-training to expose staff to other skillsets and pique interest in other aspects of the company.

‘We encourage employees to be part of various teams,’ said Alaimo. ‘Lean Kaizen events assemble a diverse group of staff to interact and develop a comprehensive solution to challenges and promote teambuilding.’

In terms of job perks, Syracuse offers flexible hours and external training. Syracuse also has a strong focus on employee recognition. There is quarterly recognition of good job achievement, ‘for when folks go above and beyond in their duties,’ says Alaimo. There is also yearly recognition of attendance and years of service awards.

‘Although we are 100 strong, we are still a committed family unit sharing in the success and challenges of our members. Longevity of staff is instrumental in promoting knowledge exchange and support of succession planning,’ says Alaimo. 

On adjusting to working in a pandemic, Alaimo says: ‘Our focus was to protect employees and promote a safe, comfortable working environment. We recognized, established and maintained safety precautions from the onset. We also aligned with local manufacturers to collaborate in a cohort tasked with sharing best practices for Covid management.’ 


To learn more about Claudia St. John and Affinity HR Group, visit: affinityhrgroup.com

Watch St. John's Virtual Label Summit 2020 presentation here