Employees at Bovis Lend Lease Inc. in Los Angeles are given as much as $500 by the company to pay for pilates sessions, jazzercise classes or even to join a bowling league.

At DMI Music & Media Solutions in Pasadena workers can bring their pets to work, while at Creative Channel Services in Culver City a masseuse visits the office every other week to offer free stress-relieving massages.

Sound like a bit much? Not in an era when a still strong Los Angeles economy and low unemployment has even some of the most desirable companies offering all sorts of perks to attract and retain talented employees.

But to truly be considered a great place to work, a company must do more than give its workers generous benefits and a good salary even if Fido can curl up underneath your desk. The best places to work often foster an environment of respect and recognition rooted in interpersonal relationships among employees at all levels.

"In my experience, there is regularly a misconception that the best workplaces are a function of compensation and benefits," said Rich Boyer, managing partner of ModernThink, a Wilmington, Del.-based workplace research company.

"I'm not going to say that those things aren't important, but at the end of the day, the quality of the relationships that a person experiences day in and day out is more important than the figure on their paycheck."

To that end, Best Companies Group, a Harrisburg, Pa. firm that conducts Best Places to Work programs nationwide, with the help of ModernThink surveyed nearly 10,000 employees from companies across the county to produce the Business Journal's first annual list of the top workplaces in Los Angeles. Companies did not have to be headquartered locally to make the list, only maintain a workforce here.

The research firm, which has produced similar lists in 20 different states, tries to take a comprehensive approach when determining the award winners. Among aspects they examine are the culture of the organization, the communication between employees and the growth opportunities available to workers. An anonymous employee satisfaction survey accounted for 75 percent of the ranking, and an employer survey of salary, benefits and other information accounted for the rest.

Since larger companies often have more financial resources, they typically offer better benefits to their employees. As a result, ModernThink assessed the companies against similarly-sized peers. After all, while some might be attracted to the opportunities for travel at a Fortune 500 company, others like the more informal atmosphere of a far smaller enterprise.

With over 1,400 employees, the Capital Group Cos. Inc. took the top spot among large companies (which had to have at least 250 local employees.) Employees like working at the laid-back Los Angeles mutual fund manager with its atmosphere of mutual respect so much that 10-year veterans are common. Employees also get free tickets to Lakers, Clippers and Dodgers games, scholarships for children and reimbursement of car-pooling costs.

The Glendale offices of Denver contractor PCL Construction Services Inc. was the No. 1 medium-sized company (25 to 249 local employees), while the 18-employee L.A. office of Boston marketing firm Aquent was named the best small sized company (with fewer than 25 local employees.)

In the end one of the defining characteristics of the companies that top these rankings is that management is invested in creating the best possible work environment. "It takes a commitment from senior leadership in terms of their belief that taking care of their people and doing the right thing for their people is the right thing to do," Boyer said.

Satisfaction profitable

Though pay may not be the most important factor in determining the top workplaces, it nonetheless can have a significant impact on employee morale especially as the huge baby boomer workforce ages.

Catherine Shepard, a principal with Mercer, a New York human resources consulting firm, said companies have begun ramping up their bonus pay programs in an effort to attract young workers as older ones retire.

"Merit increases aren't enough to really motivate people anymore," she said. "Bigger companies are formalizing more structured bonus plans; smaller companies are doing what might be called a spot bonus program."

Whatever it is that satisfies workers, companies might be wise to emulate those on this list. Research indicates a direct correlation between good work environments and business success.

Jeffrey Pfeffer, a professor of organizational behavior and human resource management at Stanford's Graduate School of Business, has written more than 10 books about the workplace over four decades. One thing that his research has shown repeatedly but which he says has mostly gone unacknowledged is that companies with happy employees and good work environments are often the most successful.

"Having a good workplace cuts turnover, which is costly in a thousand different ways. You're more likely to produce outstanding products and customer service the relationships are many," he said. "There's an enormous body of evidence which doesn't seem to impress the executives in this country."

The incentives most valued by employees, he said, are those that relate to family and improving the balance between each employee's work and non-work lives. Those include flexible scheduling, time-off policies and vacation days. Indeed, more companies today are offering some of their employees a several-month sabbatical from work as much as 20 percent of companies offer some sort of sabbatical leave, according to recent studies.

Though most of these companies offer this benefit as unpaid time off, Seattle-based Wongdoody, which has offices in Culver City, will give a three-month paid sabbatical to employees who have 10 years at the company.

"I know a lot of companies don't offer this, so the fact that there is something like this to look forward to really gives us an incentive to stay with the company," said Connie Sung, a senior account executive with the company.

CresaPartners, a Los Angeles commercial real estate firm, has also embraced policies directed at the so-called work/life balance. The company not only permits flexible scheduling, but also allows employees to bring children to work if they are having childcare difficulties.

"With today's working parents, sometimes there are issues when there are school holidays or closures," said office manager Daphane Duncan, who particularly likes the casual nature of the office. "It's important that you like where you work because you spend so much time there."

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