Get All Access for $5/mo

Beyond the Free Snacks: Spotlighting the Best Small Workplace Practices A look at the innovative small-employer practices at the companies that made our annual list.

By Jason Fell

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Some companies give employees free snacks and beverages. Others offer on-site massage therapy or even dry-cleaning services. While those can be attractive perks, the companies on this year's Top Small Companies to Work For 2011 list go far above the standard when it comes to working environments.

Compiled by the Great Place to Work Institute, our annual list showcases the top 25 successful small companies that have some of the most satisfied employees on the planet. The Great Place to Work Institute is a San Francisco-based research, consulting and training firm that works with organizations to identify, create and maintain great workplaces.

The Top Small Companies to Work For 2011 »

How do they do it? Here are highlights of the creative ways that five companies on our list are solving common business problems, including reducing turnover, raising productivity and other workplace-related challenges.

One of's annual Office Olympics opening ceremonies events.
One of's annual Office Olympics "opening ceremonies" events.

Fostering community.
Ensuring that new hires acclimate quickly and smoothly into company culture is a priority at Snagajob (Ranked No. 1), a Richmond, Va.-based online community for hourly workers and employers. Founded in 2000, the company has created the "Culture Squad," a team that meets monthly to discuss the pulse of the business and its 230 employees, who are referred to as "snaggers." Snagajob says the group's mission is to serve as advisors to employees in creating "a positive, energizing and fun" work environment.

The Culture Squad must be doing something right. Snagajob says annual voluntary turnover among full-time employees is at five percent, and has stayed at that mark over the last several years. Meanwhile, annual full-time job growth has soared to 88 percent.

The squad also helps speed up bond-building with new hires by managing "Snagger Confessions." New employees are asked to share their unique talents and experiences in a brief questionnaire and the answers are shared among employees over the company's employee-only online network. When new hires are introduced at weekly company-wide meetings, employees are quizzed about the responses and get token rewards such as candy for each correct answer.

"It's a fun way to hold our employees accountable for learning about our new 'snaggers,'" says Betsy Kersey, whose title at Snagajob is director of people.

Related: Why Your Business Should Be a Great Workplace

The squad also fosters community by staging Snagajob's annual week-long Office Olympics event in April. Employees form teams, choose different countries to represent and kick off the week by re-enacting an Olympics opening ceremony parade. Previous parades have included fire twirling, fake crocodile wrestling and colorful floats. The games -- held during the week during office hours -- have included relay races, paper basketball games and office-chair curling.

"Everything we do cascades down from our core values: collaboration, accountability and passion," Kersey says.

Part of AutomationDirect's DirectWellness program, employees participate in a company cycling club.
Part of AutomationDirect's DirectWellness program, employees participate in a company cycling club.

Encouraging healthy lifestyles.
The management team at Cumming, Ga.-based AutomationDirect (Ranked No. 4) has developed its company culture around a "Wheel of Life" analogy. AutomationDirect's wheel has six spokes: family, career, social, financial, physical and spiritual. Each represents a goal the company's nearly 200 employees should, according to AutomationDirect, seek to achieve in their lives.

"If these spokes are in balance, a person has a rounded 'wheel' that can handle the ups and downs of the road of life and business," says AutomationDirect founder Tim Hohmann. Started in 1994, AutomationDirect is a direct seller of automation controls for manufacturing machines.

Hohmann started applying the "Wheel of Life" philosophy a year after the company launched. "If our company could create an environment to facilitate and encourage all of us to balance our 'wheel,' we would have more motivation, more creativity and more positive energy," he says. "After 15 years, we have achieved significant dividends for our customers, ourselves and our families' quality of life."

One program is called Wake Up and Learn. Between 8 and 9 a.m. four times a year, the companyhosts a variety of speakers to discuss personal and professional development topics including budgeting, managing stress and healthy eating. Another program is DirectWellness, which offers employees access to on-site Weight Watchers meetings, yoga and Pilates sessions. There's also a smoking cessation program that awards employees with a $250 bonus after 90 days, $500 after six months and $1,000 after one year without smoking.

Winners of one of McMurry's WOW Projects.
Winners of one of McMurry's "WOW Projects."

Inspiring innovation.
Employees are encouraged to come up with ways to cut costs, make more money and generally improve the working experience at Phoenix-based content marketing firm McMurry (Ranked No. 8), founded in 1984.

Here's how it works. Employees submit their innovative ideas -- called "WOW Projects" -- through the company's internal computer network. Toward the end of the year, president and CEO Chris McMurry and several senior managers consider each of the hundreds of pitches that come in and award up to $10,000 for the best ideas.

"Our business, and every business, needs to innovate constantly if it seeks an enduring future," McMurry says, explaining why the program got started.

Related: Three Tips for Building a Great Workplace [Video]

One winning pitch came from a group of three employees who pored over U.S. Post Office regulations and came up with a way for McMurry to re-sequence how it distributes mail on behalf of its clients, saving those clients millions of dollars, according to McMurry.

Encouraging its staff of more than 170 people to dream up creative business ideas and solutions has "cemented innovation into our culture," McMurry says. "It's now part of what everyone does. It has put all my colleagues in a continuous improvement mode. There literally isn't a week that goes by where someone doesn't implement a better way of doing something."

McMurry says "WOW Projects" improve a swath of company functions, from billing accuracy to workflow to shipping procedures. All have improved the company's bottom line. Last year, McMurry's revenues were about $44 million.

XPLANE employees collaborate during the company's Visual Thinking School.
XPLANE employees collaborate during the company's Visual Thinking School.

Enhancing workplace creativity.
At Portland, Ore.-based communications and design consulting firm XPLANE (Ranked No. 17), employees who think critically as well as visually are considered valuable assets. In 2005, the company created the Visual Thinking School as a collaborative lecture, enabling founder David Gray to connect with the company's new designers. The program has evolved to enhance the visual and communications skills among its 63-person workforce, and to offer a break from the daily grind.

Twice a month for two hours, employees meet to discuss various topics of personal and professional interest and work on collaboration, storytelling and presentation skills. "The Visual Learning School is about using pictures to help people better think about complex issues, solve problems and communicate more effectively," says XPLANE creative director Matt Adams. "The most valued result is team building and the strengthening of relationships through learning, spontaneity and improvisation."

XPLANE, which was founded in 1993 and had $8.4 million in revenues last year, also has an "Inspiration Wall" -- a designated space in the office kitchen where employees can post anything they have created or want to share that inspires them. "It helps us express new ideas and personal findings which foster surprising connections, creative collaborations and, at its simplest, helps us all know each other better," Adams says.

Employees at Arlington, Va.-based Decision Lens gear up for a day of competitive go-kart racing.
Employees at Arlington, Va.-based Decision Lens gear up for a day of competitive go-kart racing.

Building teams.
Before John Saaty and his brother Daniel founded Arlington, Va.-based Decision Lens (Ranked No. 25) in 2002, John worked at several large corporations and was turned off by what he called "lame" annual company barbeques or bowling excursions. He wanted to engage his employees with group activities and trips they otherwise may not be able to on their own.

For example, Decision Lens paid for its 35-person staff to visit the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's Goddard Space Flight Center about 20 miles northeast in Greenbelt, Md., where they listened to astronomers discuss how they've been using the Hubble Telescope. Last month, employees geared up for a day of competitive go-kart racing.

"If you want to play paintball or go bowling, you can do that with your friends on your own time," says Saaty. "The idea is to inspire people to do what they didn't think they could do. If an employee has a bad day or run of days, I want them to remember that these are the people that had his or her back and who shared an awesome, one-of-a-kind experience. That goes way beyond work."

Decision Lens sponsors the excursions twice annually during usual work hours. They are paid for in full by the company, which pulled in $6.7 million in revenue last year.

Another fun perk: Decision Lens awards top-performing salespeople with custom-made action figures designed to resemble the employee. "It's a humorous way to acknowledge the great efforts of our sales team, and something that's more memorable than the usual plaque or something like that," Saaty says.

Jason Fell

VP, Native Content

Jason Fell is the VP of Native Content, managing the Entrepreneur Partner Studio, which creates dynamic and compelling content for our partners. He previously served as's managing editor and as the technology editor prior to that.

Want to be an Entrepreneur Leadership Network contributor? Apply now to join.

Side Hustle

The Side Hustle He Started in His College Apartment Turned Into a $70,000-a-Month Income Stream — Then Earned Nearly $2 Million Last Year

Kyle Morrand and his college roommates loved playing retro video games — and the pastime would help launch his career.

Business Ideas

63 Small Business Ideas to Start in 2024

We put together a list of the best, most profitable small business ideas for entrepreneurs to pursue in 2024.

Growing a Business

How to Determine The Ideal Length of Your Marketing Emails Your Customers Will Actually Read

Wondering how long your marketing emails should be? Here's what consumers say — so you can send them exactly what they like.

Business News

A Former Corporate Lawyer Now Makes Six Figures on YouTube — Here's How She Does It

Here are the secrets to starting and growing a successful YouTube channel, according to a YouTuber with millions of subscribers.

Business Culture

You'll Always Have Anxious Employees if You Don't Follow These 4 Leadership Tactics

Creating a thriving workplace environment hinges on the commitment of company leaders to nurture and inspire their teams.

Science & Technology

Why We Shouldn't Fear AI in Education (and How to Use It Effectively)

Facing resistance to new technologies in the educational process is nothing new, and AI is no exception. Yet, this powerful tool is set to overcome these challenges and revolutionize education, preparing students and professionals for a future of unparalleled efficiency and personalized learning.