In the spring of 2009 when we were starting in on the six-month-long process of choosing last year's Best Places to Work, the Dow Jones industrial average had fallen to 6,547.05 and a sense of panic was in the air.

Some may recall at the time we joked, darkly, that we would have to rename the program "Places to Work."

Just 18 months later, the Dow has risen nearly 60 percent from that March 9, 2009 low. And while the economy is nowhere close to where it should be and the recovery has been unnecessarily slow, the air of panic is pretty much gone. Worry has been replaced by a grudging acceptance of reality and a rising acknowledgement – and in some cases, unfortunately, frustration – that we need a change of course.

Even in housing, which has taken the brunt of this downturn, opinion is slowly coming around to something akin to what economist Christopher Thornberg has maintained: The housing recovery everyone anticipates has already occurred. That is, prices have come back into something approaching reality.

Through this economic and social crucible, the 2010 Best Places to Work have demonstrated excellence, flexibility and resilience.

Many companies have increased communications efforts around both financial performance and their customers and business model.

Nearly all have focused intensely on their internal operations and customer service. It's impossible to miss in reading more than 4,800 employee survey responses that people from the CEO on down are working harder than ever.

One winner noted that it has focused specifically on building employee morale and retention through what everyone knows is a difficult time.

Taken together, the practices of the 55 winners of the 2010 Best Places to Work provide a roadmap to positioning a company for the next phase of the economy and business cycle.

Staffing agencies across the North Bay are unanimous in one thing: Temporary hiring has picked up, something that occurs consistently in the early stages of a labor market recovery.

And it is no time for companies to be complacent about their work force. A recent survey by the Philadelphia-based human resources company Right Management found that 60 percent of employees said they would leave their current job when the market stabilized.

Smart companies are positioning their workplaces for the next phase of opportunity. And when that opportunity presents itself, having talented, informed, motivated and happy employees and a workplace attractive to prospective workers will be key to seizing the day.

And that's what Best Places to Work is about.

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Brad Bollinger is Business Journal editor in chief and associate publisher. He can be reached at 707-521-4251 or bbollinger@busjrnl.com.