Features: Best Places to Work: The New Philly Workplace

We know — it seems like you work all the time. But fear not: We found some local companies that make the office feel a little more like home

In the past few decades, Philadelphia seems to have developed into the world’s largest office park. We have quality infrastructure, plenty of top-notch colleges to supply eager graduates, and open land from Malvern to South Jersey just begging to have office buildings parked on it. Hundreds of local and national corporations have noticed, and have either relocated here or expanded their existing operations.

This means, of course, that we now have more corporate employees in the area than ever before, and this is not a good time to be a corporate employee. Whereas college grads used to stay at the same company until retirement, they can now look forward to changing careers five to seven times during their working years. Layoffs are a fact of modern life, and economists bleakly offer the news that this generation will be the first since World War II to earn less than the one before it.

And then there’s the stress. Depending on how you look at it, computers and cell phones and faxes make work either more accessible, or inescapable. Either way, the conclusion is that the lines between leisure and labor have blurred. Only 14 percent of office workers still use their two-week vacation to actually go on vacation, and when they do, they probably take their laptops with them.

A grim trend? Yeah. But fortunately, a counter-trend is emerging in its shadow. It’s not about spending fewer hours at the office, but about companies making those hours more relaxed, creative and rewarding. Which is why I decided to go work for four of them.

The Anti-Corporation

I am in a meeting at Gyro Worldwide, listening to a young man describe a possible marketing campaign for some tennis equipment. His t-shirt bears the name of an indie rock band. One of the young women in the group is wearing a tank top and sitting cross-legged on the floor, chewing gum. The atmosphere is less high-­powered business meeting and more free period in high school.

The young man describes what he’s working on: a sports equipment ad featuring a tennis player who’s down to his last gasp in a tournament. He describes a visual image of a player who has given his all in the competition and is struggling, physically and emotionally.

“Yeah, yeah,” interrupts Gyro’s CEO, Steven Grasse, getting the image. “And he has blood spilling out of his head.”

The young man pauses, looks around. “Uh, no. No blood.”

Grasse nods, still enthusiastic. “Okay. No blood. Go ahead.”

This is how Grasse has built Gyro into a multimillion-­dollar media empire; by creating an environment that encourages, rather than stifles, creativity. If the CEO thinks nothing of throwing out outlandish ideas, he figures others will be inclined to follow suit.

Later, after the meeting, we sit in Grasse’s office. In place of the imposing cherrywood desk and leather-backed chair, the traditional symbols of power, Grasse has some 1970s ­Jetsons-style chairs around a plain dining room table. It looks like the company’s seat of power was designed by a frat boy making an effort on parents’ weekend.

In fact, the entire office has a college-dorm vibe. The entrance hall near 13th and Sansom blares some good ­singer-songwriter folk music as you wait for the elevator. Hardwood floors and huge windows give a light, airy feel to the room, where dozens of employees clack away at keyboards. It’s a cube farm without walls, where everyone can see into, and out of, each others’ work space, and the atmosphere is so casual that, in a pressed shirt, I’m the best-dressed guy in the room.

This anti-corporate atmosphere fuels Gyro’s unique approach to marketing. Nothing in the environment, from Grasse’s simple and mildly disorganized office to the cheerful youngsters in jeans and t-shirts, has the ring of corporate culture. Gyro has the office ambience of a nonprofit organization — ­committed youth, scattered paperwork — rather than a company that this year is expected to gross $20 million from its offshoot clothing line alone.

“I hire people,” Grasse says, when I ask him how he mines for creativity, the hardest of qualities to identify from a résumé. “I get good people, and they stay. We find the people, and then we try to keep them.

“We used to have a turnover problem,” Grasse admits, which he attributes both to his hyperactive personality and to the cluttered and cramped work space Gyro occupied before it moved to the Sansom Street location. But creating a work environment with happy employees is a skill that businessmen have to develop, he explains.

From Gyro’s Center City office, it seems that Grasse has learned well. The fresh-faced young people in their tank tops and jeans, lounging on couches and sitting on the floor, make the high-pressure, competitive world of marketing seem almost … relaxing.

Workplace Nirvana

From the hip and ultra-modern inner-city office of Gyro, I drive to King of Prussia, to the offices of Beyond.com. Started almost 10 years ago in CEO Rich Milgram’s house, Beyond.com is a help-wanted website that rather than merely finding people jobs, stays with them to help develop their careers. The company offers advice on everything from repaying student loans to health benefits to … happiness in the workplace.

On this last subject, they are clearly experts. No one can be as happy at work as everyone seems to be at Beyond.com. I am instantly suspicious. Behind the sunlight and the trees in the big picture windows, and the friendly smiles of the employees, surely there’s a dark secret. Some kind of Stepford Wives We’re-all-robots secret, or a Logan’s Run We’ll-kill-you-when-you-turn-30 kind of a thing.

But Tara Gerard, the PR rep who gives me a tour of the office, is non-robotically genuine, and I notice employees who are in their 40s and 50s. Gerard takes me back to the break room, where there’s a fully stocked fridge (in case anyone forgets to bring lunch, she tells me), pastries and fresh-brewed coffee. I am told to help myself. I sample a pastry. It is soft and fresh. Mmmmm. I have found Workplace Nirvana.

Gerard and her colleague, Kim Erk, lead me around the Beyond.com workplace and pepper me with company information. As at Gyro, the work spaces here are what they call “low cubes,” offices with no walls, to enable everyone to see everyone else. “It makes everything brighter and more open,” Gerard explains, “and it lets you see other people, so you get a sense of community.” Cynic that I am, I thought that this style originated because bosses wanted to make sure their employees weren’t playing World of Warcraft or surfing porn during office hours.

But most of the design here has been initiated with the employees in mind. There’s a gym and a game room, complete with an air-hockey table. And despite being in a generic building in a King of Prussia office park, Beyond.com’s headquarters have a bright, personal aura.

I notice a rich, warm smell coming from down the hall. It seems that vice president Steve Kraut is sautéing onions … on a grill on his desk.

“We don’t do this every day,” Gerard tells me cheerfully. “This is our end-of-summer barbecue.” An end-of-summer barbecue? These people don’t need much of an excuse for an office party. Sure enough, as soon as lunchtime rolls around, we all go outside to rows of picnic tables set up on a patio, where Kraut and other senior managers have cooked up a buffet line of hot dogs and burgers for the staff.

Food spilling out of my mouth, I hunt down CEO Rich Milgram for an interview. I have some hardball questions for him. “How do you … hire such nice people?” I ask.

“It’s all about fit,” Milgram explains. “Personality plays a key role. Finding people who fit, that trumps skill sets.” This is a paraphrase of what Steve Grasse told me, and I wonder if it’s a new and little-known recipe for business success. Do résumés no longer matter? Did they ever?

The practice of hiring people rather than résumés has achieved results that surprised even Milgram. “When I moved into our first offices, we had a staff of 22,” he remembers. “And I got everyone together, and I said, ‘This is it. This is going to be our staff.’ But we just continued to grow, and now we’ve got almost 50 people working here.” At the end of the day, Milgram says, his corporation really is nothing but people. So keeping those people happy, with the stocked fridge and the barbecues and the open-door policy and the suggestion box, is all part of the plan for success.

Lunch is over, and everyone is heading back inside to work. Or so I think. I pass a conference room where a group has gathered to play Nintendo Wii tennis. I watch them for a while through the glass.

I sooo want to work here.

At the Vanguard

Maybe there is hope for the American worker after all. The progressive ideals of Gyro Worldwide and the warm, attractive environment of Beyond.com give me some optimism about corporate culture. But these are two companies that have the luxury of allowing skill sets to be trumped by creativity and energy. What about a profession where being uptight is, traditionally, a job requirement? What about, say, mutual-fund investment?

Vanguard is one of the largest investment firms in the country, and it sits right here in its own office park in Malvern. There’s a guard at the gate, and he gives me a Marine Corps salute as I go past his checkpoint. It turns out the campus’s similarity to a naval base isn’t merely accidental; as I find out later, the buildings are all named after the ships of Lord Horatio Nelson’s fleet at the Battle of the Nile in 1798. It seems founder and former CEO John Bogle was a naval history buff.

“He had a real respect for the underdog,” says PR rep Amy Chain, as she shows me the statue of Bogle on the campus lawn. Though he retired as Vanguard’s CEO in 1996, Bogle is still alive and well, which makes him one of very few people outside of a banana republic who can walk past a public statue of himself. That must be cool.

Chain gives me a detailed analysis of how Vanguard is different from other investment firms, and how Bogle was at the vanguard (ha! A pun) of driving down the cost of mutual-fund investment. She eventually becomes aware that her explanation is going over my head. Hey, I’m not a Wall Street Journal reporter, okay? She dumbs it down for me: Vanguard made buying funds simple and cheap.

Much as I’d love to understand money, I don’t. I’m more interested in why this ­mutual-fund investment company consistently has such a high rate of worker satisfaction and was recently named in BusinessWeek magazine as one of the best places in America to begin a career.

Chain shows me around the campus, and I notice that every amenity is taken care of. There are certain shared characteristics at all these places where the workers are happy: good lighting, the latest equipment, plenty of open space. But there’s more to worker satisfaction than feng shui. Chain takes me to the computer room to show me the Vanguard Intranet.

Vanguard has a complex Intranet for its “crew” (the nautical theme permeates every aspect of Vanguard company life, though the men’s room, thankfully, isn’t called the head), on which one can keep track of all the company goings-on. Aside from lots of stock information, employees can register for classes at Vanguard University, where they can earn MBAs and CFAs. That’s one reason why, among entry-level hires, Vanguard boasts an after-five-years-of-employment retention rate of 96 percent.

And Vanguard repays the loyalty — no one has ever been laid off. “You have two groups of people you have to keep happy at all times — your crew and your investors,” says Michael Miller, managing director for planning and development. “There’s more to this business than money. Credibility is an asset. Trust is an asset.”

For a company with more than a trillion dollars in assets, Vanguard is also surprisingly egalitarian. Come tax season, senior management participates in what is called the “Swiss Army,” a customer-service phone bank that’s supposed to solve customer problems. Someone who calls Vanguard for information during this time could wind up talking to the CEO.

And for a trillion-dollar company, the atmosphere isn’t as stodgy as I had expected. “We have fun, too,” Chain tells me. “We just do it in suits.”

The Firm

Most of what I know about working in high-powered law firms, I learned from reading John Grisham novels. For instance, I know that high-powered lawyers are always plotting to kill each other. And they like teak and mahogany furniture. And their offices are immaculate.

None of this information jibes with what I’m seeing at Dilworth Paxson LLP. Larry Holmes, the partner who has invited me here, has an office that, to put it nicely, seems lived-in. And the conference tables are serving as document storage areas for a current case. And clearly, none of these people are planning to kill each other. There is a palpable feel of camaraderie.

One of the most established law firms in Philadelphia, Dilworth Paxson occupies three stories of the Mellon Bank building at 18th and Market. The entrance hall is opulent enough to make Grisham proud, but upstairs, the grandiosity is replaced by, well, lots of people working.

Dilworth Paxson is a busy place. Secretaries and paralegals walk quickly up and down the narrow hallways, their hands full of important papers. People call out to one another from what I now recognize as “low cubes.” Phones ring, and fax machines hum. Holmes leads me out of his cluttered office down to the lunchroom.

“We have lunch together every Friday,” he tells me, and I am taken to the Friday lunch. There is a long buffet table spread out with every imaginable food group. Everyone who is introduced to me is, according to the colleague making the introduction, one of the best in his field. “He taught me everything I know,” one lawyer says of another. “He’s the nicest guy you’ll ever meet, humble, and really smart,” another says, describing a partner who’s just stopped by. “Don’t trust this guy,” Holmes says, introducing me to a fellow who looks trustworthy. They laugh.

Everyone who hears I’m writing about great places to work in Philly asks the same question: “What are you doing here?” Then they laugh. That’s a good sign. If they asked that question, then cast their eyes down and walked away, I’d worry. But everyone here is cheerful and upbeat.

So this is what it’s like to hang out with lawyers. They don’t seem so evil. They just seem like a bunch of guys who have high-pressure jobs, who could gain or lose large sums of money for their clients based on how they perform every day.

Later, back at Holmes’s office, with a glorious view of the Ben Franklin Bridge, he tells me why he has been at Dilworth for 14 years and plans never to leave.

“They trust you here,” he says. “My first year, I was working on cases, doing things much more substantial than my peers. I’d talk to guys I was in law school with, and they’d be doing doc review all day.

“One of the things I noticed right away is how accessible everyone is. There’s a level of respect. Partners, associates, it doesn’t matter. The other day I walked over to an event with the chairman, and we just chatted like regular people.”

He looks around his cluttered office. “You know,” he says, “I spend more time in this room than I do in bed. And I love it.”

Iain Levison last wrote for Philadelphia about Al Taubenberger. E-mail: mail@phillymag.com