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Eastern Iowa Employers Focus on Cultivating Company Culture

It's a typical Wednesday afternoon at MediRevv, a medical billing company here.

The Cornell team—a group of about 23 that works with the Weill Cornell Medical Center of New York City—unplugs from their desks to convene for their weekly meeting called a "scrum." The first half of the meeting is devoted to business, including kudos for hitting a tough sales goal.

Then the fun begins.

A homemade board with about 20 sunken red Solo cups is spanned waist-high between two tables for a game they call "MediPong." Think beer pong from a tailgate party, except there's no beer. Team members try to sink a Ping-Pong ball from about 15 feet away.

Colored tabs in the cups reference colored balloons on the ground, which contain perks such as gift cards from Java House or Pancheros or tokens for an hour of paid time off.

All 170-some employees at MediRevv participate in similar weekly "scrums," an example of the unconventional practices that makes MediRevv a great workplace—an external recognition proudly displayed in the lobby.

But staff and leadership say creating a desirable workplace goes beyond quirky activities like "MediPong" or perks. It is a constant and conscious effort infused throughout the workplace to cultivate an engaged staff.

"We look for activities that remind people you can have fun at work," said Mairin Burke, an operation supervisor who serves on the "ethos team," which focuses on company culture. "It is not necessarily what you are doing, but just something that gets people engaged."

Nice perks and pleasant work environments aren't necessarily novel, but some in Eastern Iowa are pushing to make this the norm. The Iowa City Area Development Group, for one, believes a groundswell of happy workplaces is critical to strengthening the workforce by giving people more choices that will keep them around and attract others into the Corridor.

ICAD and employers such as MediRevv are pushing an employee-first philosophy.

They say the approach helps employers' bottom lines through better productivity and is a cure for struggles with filling vacancies. Development groups such as ICAD also see potential to leverage a stronger workforce in recruiting new businesses to the area.

ICAD has been driving this effort and leans on the example of standout employers such as MediRevv and Geonetric in Cedar Rapids to help lead the charge.

"Our belief is that if we are known as a region that has a cluster of places with a good work environment, we will have more success in recruiting people to the area and it will help them in recruiting their friends and family to come with them," said Mark Nolte, president of ICAD.

ICAD has organized training boot camps and a yearlong "building culture" workshop series that drew 60 businesses. This spring and summer will bring additional workshops as well as a road trip to Hagie, a manufacturing plant in Clarion that's been recognized by national model for workplace excellence, Zappos.

There is no magic to building a good workplace culture; it takes a conscious effort that gets refined over and over, said Brad Baldwin, vice president of operations at MediRevv.

"A lot of people think culture just kind of happens," Baldwin said. "It does, but you have to try. You have to be deliberate in your effort to create a great place to work."

MediRevv has a multiprong approach. They have games such as "MediPong" and "minute to win it," where staff break from routines for a burst of hula-hooping or another activity. Because they are too far away to step out for a restaurant lunch, the company has lined up local restaurants, such as Sparti's, to serve lunch in the break room once a week.

But the glue at MediRevv is worker empowerment: involving employees in processes from the beginning, incorporating their ideas, being transparent with results and building camaraderie through contact across the workplace, Baldwin said.

Leaders of workplaces such as MediRevv or Geonetric say instead of being customer focused, their businesses are employee focused, which is a fundamental shift in philosophy some may be unwilling to make.

But a happy staff will lead to better end results, or so the theory goes.

"I don't believe this to be a fad," Nolte said. "It is good management in a day and age where workers have choices.…This is not being cool for the sake of being cool. It's about being committed to the whole, improving the bottom line, and treating people better than they have in the past."

Eric Engelmann founded Geonetric, a web development company for the health care industry, when he was 24, and has made a mark with innovative ideas for workplace culture. Fourteen years later, Engelmann continues to push the envelope.

About a year ago, Geonetric eliminated the role of manager. So no bosses, no organization charts, just a staff on even footing, Engelmann said. He'd been toying with the idea for some time and planned in earnest for six months before executing the change.

The idea borrows from a strategy called "agile," a collection of techniques for self-management. Engelmann said it spreads the sense of responsibility across the staff.

"You have to embody that trust in the teams themselves and they suddenly take ownership for things that previously was a manager's responsibility," he said, adding this could be duplicated in any organization made up of "professionals."

Alongside ICAD, Engelmann is pushing the regional great workplaces concept, too, although for a slightly different reason.

"We've really experimented with what is being done around the country but not in the Midwest," Engelmann said. "I am happy to be the test bed, but I'd like to foster the ideas in other companies so we aren't just learning by ourselves."

Other employers come to Geonetric for tours to see how the company operates, and Engelmann participates in panel discussions on the topic locally and nationally. Engelmann also has a network of peers with whom he discusses ideas and successes and failures, and he reads and travels around the country seeking ideas to try, he said.

"You have to be willing to challenge the standard orthodoxy, or at least think about it," Engelmann said.

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