Spirit, results, community

Firms on Best Workplaces in Canada list offering healthy mix of benefits – and fun
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 04/23/2013

Employees at Vega in Burnaby, B.C., are offered vegan meals prepared by an in-house chef, with complimentary smoothies, soups, salads and snacks on a daily basis. Healthy food offerings make sense for a company that sells plant-based natural health and sports performance products.

“We believe that a plant-based, whole foods diet reduces stress so therefore it’s going to be more energizing for our employees as well during the day,” said Angela Hutchinson, HR generalist at Vega, which ranked seventh among the top 50 medium companies on the 2013 Best Workplaces in Canada list, according to the Great Place to Work Institute.

Company spirit is also boosted by wellness events that include an after-hours clinic with massage therapists and acupuncture, foosball tournaments and team outings such as a trip to the spa. Employees also participate in events such as the Tough Mudder obstacle course challenge.

“It’s pretty intense but it’s a lot of fun because we have a really supportive environment here at Vega… whether it’s work-related or just a personal goal that they have of their own,” said Hutchinson.

The 117-employee organization wants employees who contribute to its spirited culture.

“We look for people who have really great core values, aligned with our own,” she said, citing integrity, a passion for customer service, being performance-driven, embracing change and thriving in a high-paced, dynamic work environment as examples.

Vega also fosters a culture of empowerment and entrepreneurship, said Hutchinson.

“For an employee who wants to take the ball, they have the freedom to make things happen and then they’re rewarded for their efforts. So whether or not you’re in a management role, you are still given the opportunity to be a leader in your position.”

Vega has an open-door policy, so everyone has full access to managers and the president, said Hutchinson. There are also weekly one-on-one meetings with managers and monthly staff meetings, plus a new program for coaching and career development.

And last year, Vega rolled out an employee survey in which it asked people to take their lowest-scoring and highest-scoring sections and come back with action plans.

“We really want to empower our employees to take charge on how they want to see their engagement level and their teams improve by doing that. We’re there to support them,” said Hutchinson.

Performance bonuses are based on quarterly goals, and each employee receives an annual profit-sharing bonus. Benefits include a health spending account along with life insurance, travel insurance, an education reimbursement, a green incentive, a fitness reimbursement and free products every month.

Admiral Insurance drives for results, fun

As the call centre for an auto insurance company in the United Kingdom, Admiral Insurance in Halifax is busy handling new business and renewals. But it also knows how to have fun, as seen when employees race remote control cars down its hallways.

“There’s a vibe, an energy — it’s very relaxed, it’s anything but corporate. We are professional, of course, but it’s very relaxed and people can be themselves,” said Nick Beynon, senior human resources manager at Admiral, which placed eighth among the top 50 large and multinational companies in the Best Workplaces in Canada competition. “If people like what they do, they’ll do it better. That’s our vision — it’s that simple.”

There are always games going on, he said, and a “ministry of fun” comes up with zany ideas such as a mini golf course at the office or a game of “survival” involving teams from different departments, with weekly eliminations. There is also a “ministry of health” focused on wellness programs such as on-site yoga and massages, daily free fruit and subsidized gym memberships.

A sports and social committee has also come up with ideas that include an annual haunted house attended by a nearby daycare, and Admiral also sponsors sports teams.

“We hold (employees) to such a high standard, we’ve got lofty goals and we’re a successful company and we’re just trying to balance the needs, driving for results but, at the same time, having fun doing it. And we’ve achieved that,” said Beynon. “People are working as hard as they can, they’re motivated but, at the same time, they’re smiling, they’re laughing… We’ve struck that fine balance.”

When business becomes particularly busy, Admiral rewards people willing to put in extra overtime, perhaps on weekends, with double or triple overtime pay, or laptops and large-screen TVs.

Every one of the 430 employees is also a shareholder, so they’re passionate about the company’s success, said Beynon, and, depending on people’s performance, they can receive additional shares.

Employee communications include quick, weekly buzz meetings with managers, an annual town hall, “tea parties” that are like focus groups with randomly selected employees, monthly surveys, an anonymous email feature on the corporate intranet, a monthly magazine, quarterly newsletters and poster campaigns.

A Facebook page is also popular. Put up initially for recruitment purposes, it also builds morale, said Beynon.

“Staff enjoy seeing different events up there, finding out what’s coming (up), like an awards gala or the next ministry of fun event.”

Admiral also has a strong internal recruitment philosophy. As a result, over its seven years in Canada, it has only filled two roles externally, said Beynon. And employees get involved with promotions, as a committee of individuals has to give a thumbs up before someone becomes a people leader.

“That’s kind of unique, getting our employees to buy in on potential future leaders.”

G Adventures focused on values

Small group travel company G Adventures anchors its business philosophy around five core values: love changing people’s lives; lead with service; embrace the bizarre; do the right thing; and create happiness in community, according to Amanda Chew, vice-president of talent and culture at the Toronto-based company, which came in seventh among the top 50 large and multinational companies.

“Literally, it’s the lens which we look through for everything — the people experience and that includes the customers and our staff,” she said. “We work really hard to make sure that we’re living and breathing them — they aren’t just slogans or sitting on the wall or T-shirts.”

Helping to express those values among the company’s 1,500 employees (including 160 in Canada) is a culture club, made up of three individuals who find ways to celebrate and promote the values. And the corporate intranet, “G-nation,” acts as a big communication link for employees, with video often used, said Chew.

“We’ve really created a community of like-minded individuals and the glue is the values,” she said. “The real vision for the organization is to evolve beyond an organization that’s purely interested in profit but to be a social enterprise and to have purpose, so there’s a real attraction around that.”

In Toronto, there are monthly gatherings related to food, such as hotdogs-and-haircuts days, as food can serve as a common element of community, said Chew. There is also an annual event held outside Toronto, “G-Stock,” in which 150 staff from other offices are invited.

“We have this really diverse mix of 300-odd individuals, and they’re here over a period of time, and we do a lot of learning events while they’re here, social events to connect people,” she said. “It culminates in this full day of messaging from (the CEO) and then a big costume party at night, from a celebratory side. And that’s a huge way of communicating messages and engaging people.”


Top employers

Canada’s Best Workplaces

Top 10 medium-sized companies (fewer than 1,000 employees)
• Habanero Consulting Group
• 360incentives
• Ambir
• SaskCentral
• The PEER Group
• Intelex Technologies
• Vega
• Lutherwood
• Ontario Hospital Association
• Ames Tile & Stone

Top 10 large and multinational companies (more than 1,000 employees)
• Google
• Intuit Canada
• Microsoft Canada
• AOL Canada
• NetApp
• SAS Institute
• G Adventures
• Admiral Insurance
• Mercedes-Benz Financial Services Canada
• Four Seasons Hotels

Source: Great Place to Work Institute

Click here, for a full list of the 50 winners for each category.

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