Call it a hat trick: for the first time in the 15-year history of Fortune's Best Companies to Work For list, we have a three-time champion, as Google reclaims the top spot for workforce happiness (it debuted on our list at no. 1 in 2007, and stayed there in 2008). We've had a couple double headers before -- Container Store, SAS and Edward Jones have all clinched the no. 1 spot twice -- but Google this year marks the first three-peat.
And while the perks of the Googleplex are epic -- everything from bocce ball to a bowling alley, from free food to free laundry -- what set it apart from the competition was one clear thing: its scores on our employee Trust Index, a blind survey of random employees that asks them about their general job satisfaction, attitude toward management, and sense of employee camaraderie.
It's this subjective stuff -- how employees really feel about their job and their workplace -- that makes up the backbone of our survey, which we conduct in cooperation with the Great Place to Work Institute, and of the list itself. Sure, the size of the swimming pool and the company match on the 401(k) plan matter, and we track those easily quantifiable things (you won't find a more complete recreational facility than the one at Qualcomm, for instance, and the holiday party at Salesforce.com is truly epic). But this list is a measure of employees' overall satisfaction with their jobs and the companies they work for -- which, smart CEOs will tell you, is worth its weight in gold.
Indeed, even in a tough economic climate, rather than cutting back on these niceties, the heads of the companies on our list know that investing in building and keeping a loyal workforce pays dividends. The voluntary turnover rates of companies on this list are astoundingly low; the lowest, SAS, is just 2.2%, but consider the rates of Intel (2.3%), General Mills (2.6%) and American Express (7%) -- and compare these figures with the corporate world at large, where rates in the 20s and higher are not uncommon, even in a rough job market.
So while the fitness facilities might help attract the best people, it tends to be the culture that keeps them. Who are this year's Best Companies and what makes them so great? Check out the top 20 companies to work for in the gallery below, and view the full list on CNNMoney.
Fortune's Best Companies to Work For - 2012
Fortune's 100 Best Companies To Work For
Rank: 20 (Previous rank: 17)
What makes it so great?
Employees at the financial services firm for military members work in the largest private office building in the U.S. Among its features: a medical clinic, an indoor walking path, and tennis, basketball, and volleyball courts.
Headquarters: 9800 Fredericksburg Rd.
San Antonio, TX 78288
The TurboTax maker uses its culture to spark innovation, with "idea jams," formal rotation programs for new employees, and four hours of "unstructured time" per week for employees to work on projects of their own.
Headquarters: 2632 Marine Way
Mountain View, CA 94043
A sleek new 63,000-square-foot child-care center that's big enough for 300 children is the largest such facility in the state -- and the latest addition to the natural-gas producer's perk-filled headquarters.
Headquarters: 6100 N. Western Avenue
Oklahoma City, OK 73118
The country's largest Toyota distributor offers profit-sharing, free haircuts, and a state-of-the-art child-care center. In the spirit of founder Jim Moran, it keeps a fleet of yachts for use by employees during appreciation events.
Headquarters: 100 Jim Moran Blvd.
Deerfield Beach, FL 33442
Traditions like the "Housekeeping Olympics," which features blindfolded bedmaking and the "vacuum dash," and a $10,000 employee prize for best service keep this hotel operator from feeling like a big chain.
Headquarters: 222 Kearny Street, Suite 200
San Francisco, CA 94108
The company has never had a layoff, pays 100% of its workers' health insurance premium, and matches 401(k) contributions up to 6% of pay. It also lends the corporate jet to employees in times of crisis.
Headquarters: 2330 N. Loop 1604 West
San Antonio, TX 78248
What animates the animators here is the accessibility of CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg, who welcomes new hires and sends a daily update to the staff. As one employee puts it, "He makes it feel like 200 people work here, not 2,000."
Headquarters: 1000 Flower Street
Glendale, CA 91201
The construction firm wins praise for its open culture: Employees are free to attend all quarterly meetings, and workers feel listened to. Says one: "If I have a good idea, I am empowered to move it forward."
Headquarters: 1450 Veterans Blvd.
Redwood City, CA 94063
Employees of the online mortgage lender take immense pride in its move from the suburbs to downtown Detroit: "We're taking [the city] from its lowest point and bringing it back to the spotlight it deserves."
Headquarters: 1050 Woodward Avenue
Detroit, MI 48226
The staffing agency routinely acts on suggestions made by employees. This year it revamped its drug plan, built a gym at its Fort Lauderdale office, and made Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a paid holiday.
Headquarters: 6440 South Millrock Drive, Suite 175
Salt Lake City, UT 84121
The adventure-gear retailer scaled new heights last year with its first Manhattan store. Outdoor-loving employees take advantage of sabbaticals, free equipment rentals, and hefty discounts on merchandise.
Headquarters: 6750 South 228th Street
Kent, WA 98032
With some 11,000 offices across the country, the investment firm escaped the recession with nary a layoff. Says managing partner Jim Weddle: "It's a great time not to be a bank -- or to be owned by one."
Headquarters: 12555 Manchester Road
St. Louis, MO 63131
Everything was up at Google last year -- revenue, profits, share price, paid search clicks, hiring -- and so, too, was employee love; the search giant climbed three slots in our ranking to reclaim the top spot. The reason? Employees rave about their mission, the culture, and the famous perks of the Plex: bocce courts, a bowling alley, eyebrow shaping (for a fee) in the New York office. Then there's the food: some 25 cafés companywide, all gratis. Wrote one Googler: "Employees are never more than 150 feet away from a well-stocked pantry."
Headquarters: 1600 Amphitheatre Parkway
Mountain View, CA 94043