Workplace Tips from the Pros

What three stand-outs from Oregon Business Magazine's “100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon” can teach us about building a great workplace.

By Randy Gragg October 1, 2013 Published in the October 2013 issue of Portland Monthly

For 20 years, Oregon Business Magazine and local polling firm DHM have surveyed workers to choose the annual “100 Best Companies to Work for in Oregon.” This year, Oregon Business kindly let Portland Monthly peek at the data. We wanted to learn about how to build great workplaces by hatching great ideas that don’t really cost much money. What counts? For starters: feedback, teamwork, trust, flexibility, and fun. Three companies stood apart. 

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Talk It Out 

Founded in December 2011 by two financial planners, Finity Group works with young, financially struggling physicians in training, then reaps the rewards as they climb up the salary ladder (and thus invest more). Started with 17 employees and now up to 30 (with an average age of 28), the company sticks to an ethos that’s all about communication, says cofounder Anders Ramstad. Every new hire is voted on—“thumbs up, thumbs down”—by staff. Every six months, Ramstad and partner Michael Merrill meet with every employee for 45 minutes with “no agenda.” And every month, they send out an anonymous e-mail poll to identify the company’s top performer, with an open comment box for “general thoughts”—stuff a worker might not say aloud. “Happy staff,” says Ramstad, “happy Finity.” 


Keep It Light

“We want to be that firm where word on the street is that you treat your employees well,” says Paula Barran, cofounder of Barran Liebman, a 15-year-old, 35-person employment-law firm. That means minimizing hierarchy. “No job is above pitching in for the family,” she says. The managing partner regularly unloads the dishwasher. There are no lawyer-only social events; support staff is always invited. Barran adds that the firm keeps an annual budget line labeled “morale,” sometimes distributed in $100 bills passed out to everyone on a dreary day. Her motto: “Behavior that is rewarded is behavior that will be repeated.” 


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Build Trust

Diane Boly is 71, but she still wants to work in the “bullpen,” elbow to elbow in an open office with staff members half a century younger. “Every generation is here,” she says of the 32-person consulting and recruiting firm. “And we’ve got dogs.” Boly:Welch also has teams: the sustainability squad figures out things like how to replace a noisy soda dispenser without going to bottles or cans. Another focuses on wellness, with guided walks through the city, afternoon stretching, yoga, and the occasional Friday bike ride that ends with ice cream (low fat). Management may make the decisions, but the group activities foster a sense, according to HR director Carie Strahorn, “that you can raise your hand and say, ‘Yes, but....’” 

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