By Melissa J. Anderson

Forbes and the Great Place to Work Institute recently released their annual list of the best places to work – and it should be no surprise that the companies at the top of the list sported perks designed to actively design workplace culture, improve employee work/life balance, and boost morale.

The list, complied based on the Institute’s Trust Index survey, which asks random employees at a company about “management’s credibility, job satisfaction, and camaraderie,” as well as “open-ended questions about hiring practices, internal communication, training, recognition programs, and diversity efforts.” Scores are also based on a culture audit by the Institute, as well as measurements of data on compensation and benefits. This year, 311 companies participated.

This year’s top company was the Cary, NC-based software firm SAS, which Forbes noted, received high marks for its extensive employee benefits, like on-site child care, car cleaning, a beauty salon, and more. But, it explained, the magazine explained, getting the top spot on a list of the best places of works is about more than the perks. It has more to do with an active interest in building a great workplace culture.

Forbes quotes one manager who said, “People stay at SAS in large part because they are happy, but to dig a little deeper, I would argue that people don’t leave SAS because they feel regarded – seen, attended to and cared for. I have stayed for that reason, and love what I do for that reason.”

The Perks

The companies that scored the highest on the list were the ones that operated with an understanding that employees have lives and interests outside the workplace. Many of the top companies on the list were praised for work/life balance initiatives.

In fact, SAS (1), Wegman’s Food Markets (3), Camden Property Trust (7), and REI (9) were each noted for having particularly high marks in encouraging work/life balance. Fully paid sabbaticals were offered by Boston Consulting Group (2), REI (9), and DreamWorks Animation SKG (10).

Other perks included an on-site life coach at (6) and Camden Property Trust’s employees’ ability to rent furnished apartments for $20 per night at vacation destinations. High pay earned NetApp (5) a top spot and BCG, Zappos, and Nugget Market (8) were praised for offering 100% paid health care benefits.

Active Culture Building

The perks certainly do a lot to help companies attract and retain employees in competitive markets. But what really earned companies top billing on the list was an active dedication to building a positive workplace culture. For example, Dreamworks (10) cultivates a culture of openness and creativity across company levels. Employees are offered development classes on how to pitch movie ideas, and any employee can then pitch a movie idea to executives.

BCG employees are encouraged to get involved in social work, Forbes explained. “Its Social Impact Practice Network (SIPN) offers a chance to work with the U.N. World Food Program and Save the Children, while BCG pulled its consultants off client projects to provide on-the-ground support in Haiti following the earthquake.” Recent research into corporate support for volunteering shows that employee volunteer programs build employee engagement and boost development as well. also actively builds its workplace culture, with a dedication to “create a little fun and a little weirdness.” Similarly, Google leadership fosters a culture that encourages colleagues to motivate one another. They can award “peer spot bonuses” of $175 to co-workers, and Forbes says, last year more than two thirds participated.

Finally, REI offers employees deep discounts on adventure and sporting gear. And employees who have been with the company for fifteen years are given a month’s sabbatical, and another paid sabbatical every five years. As a company that sells getaway equipment, cultivating an adventuresome culture helps solidify employee engagement with the corporate mission.