Take This Job & Love It: Three Chicago Workplace Cultures Disrupting The Daily Grind

Jennifer Boeder

A good company culture is hard to find — just ask the nearly 70% of American workers who describe themselves as disengaged. Most of us have at some point endured a dysfunctional work environment, harassed by nagging Lumberghs, feeling disrespected, dispensable, and skeptical about the very idea of “company culture.”

But creating a genuinely thriving company culture is no hollow exercise. Over at Forbes Magazine, Josh Bersin recently proclaimed culture “the hottest topic in business today.” Corporate America is finally figuring out that happy, engaged employees who feel supported at work reap huge profits for their employers. Google, Zappos, Southwest Airlines, CostCo, and Starbucks have proven that cultivating a positive work environment isn’t just good karma: it’s good business.

Here in Chicago, three companies have made culture their cornerstone. Yes, they’re providing happy hours and in-office yoga classes — but they’re also building teams of inspired people who feel truly supported in all avenues of their lives.

1. IDEO. “What we do is a way of life, not really a job, and it feels good.” David Kelley, The Little Book of IDEO

IDEO first caught my attention when a friend who worked in the Chicago office laughingly informed me that he didn’t have a boss. I stopped by IDEO Chicago one day and asked where his desk was. “I don’t have a desk,” he told me. “We move to different work spaces depending on the project.” No bosses? No assigned desks? What kind of chaotic, hippie excuse for an office was this place?   

Turns out IDEO’s the kind of place that designed Apple’s first commercially available mouse in 1980, as well as the Palm V and the stand-up toothpaste dispenser. Ranked #10 on Fast Company’s list of 25 most innovative companies, this singular global design firm is revamping the voting process in LA County and developing new school systems in Peru. They’ve even partnered with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to lend their signature design thinking process to help the world’s poorest people access safe drinking water.

Despite these many accomplishments, founder David Kelley writes in The Little Book of IDEO “I am most proud of the culture of the place.” In the same book, Paul Bennett, IDEO’s Chief Creative Officer, describes the common denominators of IDEO’s offices: “Warm, embracing, fun, human, serious, businesslike, and playful.”

IDEO’s designers are proud of and grateful for their singular culture, but conscious of the effort it involves: “Culture is like love,” says Travis Lee, Managing Director at the Chicago studio. “It requires work to create and sustain it.” Finding talented people who share IDEO’s core cultural values demands an in-depth hiring process. Instead of the traditional pyramid structure, IDEO is a flat hierarchy constructed around many project teams, with leadership supporting, mentoring, and enabling from beneath. This atypical structure supports the creativity, risk-taking, and growth their work requires. IDEO’s people have a great deal of individual autonomy (one staff member described working at IDEO as a “Choose your own adventure” experience).

With core values such as “Collaborate” and “Make Others Successful,” and their commitment to fostering a culture of empathy, the power of the collective is at the heart of IDEO culture. In their article “IDEO’s Culture of Helping,” the Harvard Business Review was openly amazed at how IDEOers took such “apparent joy in collaborative helping.” Kelley famously wrote that he created IDEO because “All I really wanted to do was work with my friends on cool projects.” Clearly, he’s made that dream real for himself and IDEOers around the world.

2. Centro

“Getting the culture right is the greatest determinant of a company’s success.” —Shawn Riegsecker, founder and CEO

This digital media technology company is only 13—yet they’ve already got 684 employees, offices in 32 different cities, and 67,000 square feet of space at their new Chicago Loop headquarters (which includes a yoga studio and a meditation room). Founder and CEO Shawn Riegsecker credits Centro’s growth and success to a culture that puts employees first: “I’ve been very open with the organization that customers aren’t our number one priority at all. Our employees are number one. Customers are number two and investors are number three.” (In casual conversation, I’ve had employees tell me they give more at Centro than they have at any other job: “They actually care about me here,” one young woman assured me.)

As the four-time winner of Crain’s Chicago Business’s “Best Place to Work in Chicago,” Centro is famous for investing generously in their staff’s health and growth. In addition to free food and three yoga classes weekly, Centrons can access tuition reimbursement programs, gym memberships, career mentorship, paid maternity leave, and new parent counseling sessions. (Full disclosure: I’m Centro’s yoga instructor, so I’ve been part of their employee benefits for nearly five years.) All staff members receive ten “Ferris Bueller Days” (i.e., “It’s too nice out to come to work today!” days) annually, plus a paid day off to volunteer for a cause of their choice.

“I’ve never understood the nickel-and-diming that still goes on with many companies with regards to perks and benefits for employees,” says Riegsecker. “Centro invests a lot of capital into our employees, for good reason.” As Centro grew, its generous healthcare plan became more difficult to manage, but Riegsecker refused to reduce benefits: “A value only becomes a value if it costs you money,” he insists. What others might call lavish spending, Riegsecker sees as both investment and savings: “Fifty percent of all our employees come from internal referrals, which probably saves us $1 million in recruiting costs.”

With his oft-repeated slogan “Happiness is the new ROI,” Riegsecker is on a mission to shift the business world paradigm: “We must prove that a corporation can focus on the growth and well-being of its employees and be financially successful at the same time.”

3. Rise Interactive

“A healthy, positive culture results in staff that is more innovative and more productive.” —Brad Messinger, Rise Senior VP, Marketing

Rise Interactive is a marketing agency specializing in digital media and advanced analytics. Founder and CEO Jon Morris was the sole employee in 2004; Rise now has 160 staff members, and plans to double that number by 2017.

Data is Rise’s strong suit; just to obtain an interview, candidates must take an exam described as a cross between the GMAT and a digital marketing quiz, which fewer than 25% pass. But their analytics acumen is complemented by a very warm and human atmosphere. Rise has won countless awards for their work, but by making Chicago's “Best and Brightest Companies to Work For” list in 2014 and 2015 (as well the national list in 2013 and 2014) they won recognition for their employees’ quality of life.

The layout of their Loop headquarters, for example, was carefully designed to promote openness, communication, and workspace flexibility. Instead of Human Resources, Rise has an Employee Services department: “We see staff members as our clients,” says Scott Conine, Senior VP of Operations. At a new employee orientation, Conine emphasizes how much each individual matters at Rise: “If you’re ever not happy and fulfilled here, come talk to me,” he urges the group, and the sincerity of his invitation is clear.  

Rise is so invested in employee satisfaction that they conduct an office-wide engagement survey quarterly, and Morris himself reviews the responses. “Jon holds himself publicly accountable to the employees for improving our scores,” says Brad Messinger. “Our commitment to culture isn’t just something we pay lip service to—it’s real.”

Risers are careful to clarify that their culture is about giving as well as getting: “Culture is sometimes used as a catchall term for perks like free beer and foosball tables,” says Conine. “Culture is about much more than consumption. Risers aren’t just absorbing culture—they’re generating it.”

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