Today’s young professionals know that where you live is where your life happens. Work life, personal life, and community life are all wrapped up in place. And place is determined not only by geography, but also by the culture created by the people who share that space with you.
We hear a lot about the importance of work-life balance. In Grand Rapids, it’s much more than just talk.
Grand Rapids’ business culture includes ensuring that employees get a life. That’s true in the workplace, for sure, where CEOs regularly walk through offices and across plant floors, and where companies offer creative opportunities, professional development and career growth. Many wrap it all up in a corporate mission that naturally engenders comradery and teamwork.
But business leaders also know that’s only part of the equation – employees need to go home to a place they love and interact in a community that embraces them.
Hello, and welcome!
Grand Rapids corporate leaders got down to business on sustaining and enhancing that culture more than a decade ago, when the genesis for the nonprofit, member-led talent-attraction organization Hello West Michigan took root. Their mission was simple but challenging: Build a community where professionals want to live and work – for the long haul. Today more than 80 corporate members belong, including major employers such as Steelcase, Meijer, Spectrum Health and Haworth.
A strong work-life balance is the reason many people are choosing to move to West Michigan.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids
Hello West Michigan is the first employer-driven organization in the country dedicated 365 days a year to talent attraction and retention. Other communities run short-term campaigns, but Hello West Michigan works every day to help talented professionals looking at our community understand what it really feels like to live here – and once they get here, to make sure they can easily plug into everything they’re looking for.
Hello West Michigan puts that focus front and center on its website, with more than 1,000 links to area assets and resources.
There’s evidence their efforts are paying off, as Grand Rapids is garnering national acclaim for supporting a healthy separation between life and work. In the past few years, it’s been ranked No. 1 among the 50 largest U.S. metro areas for work /life balance and the No. 6 Best US City overall for work/life balance.
In ranking Grand Rapids No. 1, MagnifyMoney.com noted that metropolitan areas like Grand Rapids and others in their Top 10 speak directly to what young professionals want: “It’s not just how much we earn, it’s what we have to do to earn it, what we get in exchange for it and whether we have the time and health to enjoy our friends and family – in other words, a balanced life.”
Home to boomerangs and trailing significant others
A big part of the focus is on potential “boomerangs,” people with Michigan ties who have left but may be interested in returning.
Many of us grow up saying, “There’s no way I’m coming back to my hometown,” but Hello West Michigan discovered that family and community retain a strong pull for those who grew up here and moved away. (It’s no coincidence that Grand Rapids was recently named the Best Place to Raise a Family in the U.S.) Local companies leverage this appeal in their recruiting efforts.
Hello West Michigan also helps new residents and their “trailing significant others” find their fit in West Michigan, highlighting the area’s lifestyle benefits – including the beauty of four distinct seasons, the proximity of Lake Michigan, the richness of our food and craft beverage scenes, and the ability to live and work downtown. Our vibrant economy provides plenty of employment/entrepreneurial possibilities for significant others, if they so choose. It all adds up to an extraordinary opportunity to have both a good job and a fun and fulfilling life.
That was the case for Mark Holzbach, who came to Grand Rapids from Austin, Texas, in 2011, when his husband, Dana Friis-Hansen, was named director and CEO of the Grand Rapids Art Museum. Prior to Austin, one of the fastest growing cities in the country, the couple had lived in the cosmopolitan cities of Boston and Tokyo. Their friends weren’t sure about their move to Grand Rapids.
Annual events like ArtPrize adds to Grand Rapids' vitality.
Photo by Experience Grand Rapids
“But we were so confident about Grand Rapids, we convinced them,” Holzbach said. “We could see similar ingredients here that we saw come together in Austin – a sense of energy and opportunity.” This was around the time the “Grand Rapids Lip Dub”– a YouTube sensation garnering more than 1.6 million views – was made, so the two had plenty of evidence of the city’s vitality. As they invited friends from around the world to visit them in Grand Rapids, for events like ArtPrize, they often heard, “Yes, I can see what you see in this place.”
Holzbach harnessed the city’s energy and started two companies that he ran out of his home, Tiny World Tours, a boutique tour company, and The Plant at Kyle, a vacation and event property he manages in Austin.
That’s when he wasn't busy hosting fund raisers for nonprofits at the couple’s home in River House, a downtown condominium development, or volunteering on various local boards. Those include the Grand Rapids SmartZone (Local District Financial Authority) Board, which helps spur the growth of technology- or research-related businesses.
Friis-Hansen stepped down from his post at the Grand Rapids Art Museum on January 1, 2023, and he and Holzbach have become “semi-nomadic world travelers” based in Austin. But they retain fond memories of the city they called home for more than a decade.
“This region is very unique – the things that are wonderful include the authenticity of the people, who are thoughtful, respectful and curious,” Holzbach said.
Tech talent trades the hamster wheel for a sense of community
More and more employees in the tech industry are also finding a place in West Michigan, including happy relief from the hamster-wheel mentality of companies in other parts of the country.
The culture here is very different than in Silicon Valley, where it’s “dog eat dog,” hopping from company to company, with little loyalty given or taken. Tech workers can put down roots and be part of something in West Michigan. They can work for some of the best companies in the country and make an immediate difference in their community.
Workers at Open Systems Technologies working on a problem.
Photo by Open Systems Technologies (OST)
There’s definitely something beyond training programs and solid benefits packages that attracts and retains talented people at West Michigan’s tech firms. It comes down to a culture that respects and values employees, on and off the job. The National Association of Business Resources has named a number of local technology-forward companies to its lists of Best and Brightest Companies to Work For in the Nation over the years – including InsITe Business Solutions, OST, Service Express, Steelcase, TGW, Twisthink and Worksighted.
The difference a supportive work culture can make is evident: the tech talent turnover rate nationwide is about 25 percent; industry leaders put the Grand Rapids area turnover rate in the 3-7 percent range.
Group meeting at Open System Technologies
Photo by Open Systems Technologies (OST)
Job-and-life satisfaction is a key element of an effort to add 20,000 tech jobs over the next decade and transform the region into a major Midwestern tech hub. We’re off to a great start – Grand Rapids was recognized in 2022 as one the 4 Best U.S. Cities to Start a Tech Career.
Whatever the sector, whatever the job, Grand Rapids employers are working to facilitate their employees’ ability to build both a successful career and a fulfilling personal life
Grand Rapids is Michigan’s fastest growing metro area and one of the nation’s strongest economies, fueled by a creative, collaborative spirit that generates global, national and entrepreneurial investments. Experience Grand Rapids highlights leading sectors of the local economy to underscore the city’s suitability for innovation-focused meetings.