These companies had the edge when the pandemic hit.
As companies scrambled to convert their workforces to successfully -telecommute this past spring, issues quickly arose over technology, scheduling, manager oversight and, most important, staffers’ ability to integrate childcare, homeschooling and other family needs with work demands.
Employees at the Working Mother 100 Best Companies are the real winners here. Because these organizations already were highly attuned to the concerns of working families, including parents, their young children and even their college-age kids, they moved quickly to help.
“The global pandemic has hit our reset button. Being agile and adaptive in innovative and inclusive ways made a difference. Organizations with strong, established benefits and flex programs were able to swiftly reorganize and catapult ahead to support employees from disproportionate setbacks,” says Deborah Munster, vice president of Working Mother’s Diversity Best Practices subsidiary.
Other organizations, on the other hand, “needed to start from scratch,” says Amber Clayton, director, Knowledge Center, the Society for Human Resources Management. “They had to determine if telecommuting or flexible work days were even an option. If so, they not only had to develop policies, but they also had to determine which positions could successfully work from home and what would happen to those employees who could not do so.”
Here’s how these six 100 Best Companies used existing benefits and hiring commitments to quickly address the new workforce needs.
Expanding Virtual Resources
Right after the pandemic hit, the professional-services firm also hosted an all-hands webcast for the more than 50,000 people in the Americas region. “Firm leadership called on partners to have the courage to lead, serve our clients and take care of our teams,” says Carolyn Slaski, EY Americas Vice Chair–Talent. The webcasts continued, now being held on a weekly basis, with features, tools and resources available to help employees.
One of the key resources: the EY Assist program, which connects EY people with consultants or licensed professionals. Recognizing how COVID-19 impacted staffers’ families, the firm added virtual medical visits and increased resources to support emotional health, discounted tutoring, and drop-in calls and group counseling sessions focused on mindfulness, caregiving and related topics. The firm also went from 12 to 24 paid days for caregiving for children or dependent adults, which must be used by the end of the year.
Senior associate Asha N. Sullivan, says: “Working for an employer that schedules mindfulness sessions daily during the crisis to break up the workday has proved to be absolutely invaluable. It allows me to reset and ups my productivity level.”
Creating Safer Workspaces
The manufacturer of laser printers and imaging products must have some workers on-site, both for production and research and development. Before COVID-19, only about 10 percent of the 2,000 US workers telecommuted, compared with about 70 percent now.
Starting in March, business leaders from all units met weekly to address issues, including the safest ways to keep workers on-site. Employees who ask to work at home (and whose jobs allow it) are given permission. Those who must be on-site are asked what accommodations make them comfortable, says Nikki Robson, HR business partner. “We have placed priority on safety,” she says, adding that most accommodation requests have focused on flexibility. For working parents, that means changing hours so they can start their day earlier and end later but have time midday to help and support their children.
Key factors in creating a comfortable work environment for those on-site are:
- Installation of plexiglass shields in the lobby at corporate headquarters and cafeterias.
- Signage in restrooms only allowing use of every other sink.
- Conference rooms with posted limits of how many people can be there.
- Creation of many quiet private rooms for employees.
The childcare facility at the Lexington, Kentucky, corporate headquarters, operated by the YMCA, had 83 children enrolled before COVID-19. It reopened on June 22 for 48 children, with staggered hours, temperature checks for workers, parents and children, and insistence on frequent handwashing for all.
“They quickly rearranged classroom assignments, cleaning procedures, food service, drop-off/pickup procedures and much more to ensure that our children were in the safest possible environment,” says Tanya Welsch, HR business partner. “It was not an easy decision, but knowing how much the team at the center cares about the kids and their attention to all the details gave us peace of mind to send our 5-year-old son back.”
Training Leaders to Manage Remotely
When the virus hit, only 5 percent of the insurance company’s employees were regularly working from home. By March 17, only 5 percent were not.
The company used self-directed articles and videos to help employees adapt to technology and learn to manage people from home. But their biggest edge in moving so quickly was “the strong and trusted voice from the top leadership, which relieved a lot of anxiety,” says Adam Schair, VP of corporate communications.
Leadership took an empathetic tone that “helped employees see they genuinely cared about their health and safety,” Schair says. For example, the company was scheduled for a series of celebrations around its 175th anniversary that had to be canceled. CEO and chairman Ted Mathas sent out this note:
“While not a time to celebrate, this is a time to embrace who we are and what matters most. What matters most is our health and safety and the health and safety of those we love. What matters most is continuing to be there for each other and for our clients who rely on us, especially in a time of need,” he wrote.
The company also had a page on its internal website for the latest COVID-19 news and resources on self-care, mental health and flexibility. Senior leadership served as visible role models by creating clear boundaries between their own work and personal lives.
Within 45 days of the move to remote working, training on this topic increased by more than 150 percent compared with the previous 45 days. Employees completed more than 25,000 related online or virtual learning courses.
Transforming Its Summer Internship Program
While companies everywhere canceled internships, the insurance company decided to move forward, hiring all 419 summer interns who had been promised paid positions, of the 12,000 who applied. The organization’s goal: to honor a promise to college students and their families. The juniors and seniors were expecting to work in the Atlanta, Bloomington, Illinois, Dallas and Phoenix offices for 10 weeks. But State Farm had moved its entire workforce (about 100,000) to virtual within 10 days of the pandemic hitting in March. Previously, only 10 percent of employees telecommuted.
“There was discussion and consideration about canceling. We wondered if they would have a fulfilling internship working remotely, but we were very committed to this,” says Rasheed Merritt, assistant VP, HR.
To keep the interns engaged before they started, the company set up a LinkedIn page in the spring so interns knew what was going on with their positions and the organization as a whole.
The interns, who mostly work in IT, claims and underwriting, were each given a department mentor to help them feel connected and understand their work.
Generally, between 25 and 30 percent of interns are offered full-time jobs after graduating. The acceptance rate in 2019 was 78 percent. As of this writing, it’s too early to know how many will find full-time jobs at the company, but State Farm officials are optimistic. The company has a history of helping families by developing young talent so parents can be assured college students have secure jobs when they graduate.
Intern response this summer has been positive. For example, intern Lakeesha Patterson, who was going to work out of the Atlanta office, says: “Despite the fact that we were 100 percent virtual, I was determined to get the most out of my internship. The intern coordinators and onboarding team have done a fantastic job ensuring that we had a great internship experience, even though we are the first virtual group. Being virtual can be challenging at times, but you get out of it what you put in.”
Adds Peyton Kelley, an intern in Bloomington: “I loved it. My favorite part was the freedom and creativity that my supervisors gave me to work on projects.”
Switching to Agile Product Management
Early in 2019, the HR team at the financial-services company adapted Agile, a system of using small, focused teams working on quick solutions to problems instead of putting ideas through normal, much-lengthier HR processes.
The new way of operating allowed the company to set up a series of employee listening sessions and pulse surveys during the pandemic, including one in China in February, assessing the issues for the 246 employees there. “This system lets us quickly mobilize to implement change,” says Missy Grizzard, head of
people agility and project management office manager.
A pulse survey of nearly 20,000 global employees showed staffers wanted more time to care for sick children, ability to carry over vacation time, and more Teladoc resources. Each employee received a $200 tech allowance. More pulse surveys have followed, focusing on safety and well-being support and reentry strategies.
The company quickly expanded paid sick child/dependent care leave from two to 10 days, increased paid sick leave from five consecutive days to 10 days minimum, and addressed related issues, including expanded wellness program and benefits, an allowance for IT needs, and expanding vacation rollovers.
In addition, eligible reimbursable expenses were enhanced to include ergonomic home-office equipment, face masks, disinfectants and child-oriented activities, such as virtual tutoring.
Optimizing Backup Childcare
Before COVID-19, the animal-health company offered employees whose childcare fell through 10 days a year to send their children to a backup facility run by Bright Horizons. Employees paid $15 a day for one child or $25 daily for two or more kids. Employees who used in-home backup childcare paid $6 an hour, with the rest subsidized by the company, but they had to use a caregiver in the Bright Horizons network.
“We knew right away that our colleagues were being thrown into situations working from home that made it difficult to balance childcare. We were deemed an essential business, so some people had to go into the workplace,” says Roxanne Lagano, executive VP and chief HR officer, global operations.
The company changed its -childcare offerings and told -employees to use whomever they wanted to watch their child–family members, friends, neighbors–and they could submit for reimbursement of $100 a day for 40 days. Since the policy went into effect in March, 183 have used it, says Tammy Bakos, VP of colleague experience.
As of July 1, the company also added Sittercity, an online referral service provided at no cost to employee-caregivers.
“We learned that childcare is fundamental to operating our business. Unless we are able to support childcare, our colleagues won’t be able to operate productively,” Lagano says.
Employees agree. “Having the backup care was very helpful for me in the beginning to set up our new ‘normal’ at home. It acted like a transition period for my boys and me to build a schedule. Although I still get the ‘Mom, I’m hungry’ or ‘I have to go potty’ during conference calls, at least I had a support system in place that didn’t put me out financially,” says Adrienne McAleer, manager, equine marketing innovation.
“My son is 10 years old and developmentally delayed, so he is in special-needs class at school and needs more help than typical kids his age,” says Taru Jain, senior director, IT program management office. “This benefit has been a lifesaver because we were able to employ a sitter to help my son with logging on for school classes, following teachers’ instructions, being able to focus, and eat his lunch.”
These companies had the edge when the pandemic hit.
Employers with empathetic benefits fared the best through COVID-19.