In today’s competitive marketplace, companies spend a lot of time talking about creating exceptional customer experiences. But do they make the same amount of effort for their employees?
It’s a question that takes on increased urgency at a time of historically low unemployment, when attracting and retaining talent becomes more challenging.
Job hopping is losing its stigma, said Tom Alexander, CEO of Holistic, which uses data and analysis to help companies attract and retain employees.
“At Holistic, we always say that we’re living in the age of the employee and it’s just started,” he said. “In the past, you’d see that the employee worked for the company, but now, as much as the employee works for the company, the company works for the employee."
In other words, successful workplaces are responding to their employees and investing in their organizations to keep workers happy. Maybe it’s seeking their ideas and acting on them. Or offering a shorter workday on Fridays, and not just during the summer months. Or making an effort to keep road warriors connected with the home office.
One company, Plante Moran, a Southfield, Michigan-based professional services firm whose largest office is in Chicago, took a step toward fostering an inclusive environment by getting rid of a word in most companies’ vocabularies: employee. Instead, it uses the word “staff.”
“Employee tends to have more of a connotation around ‘I just work here,’” said Eshe Dotson, director of talent selection, development and inclusion. “We are trying to build an environment and continue to maintain an environment where individuals feel like they are part of the growth, they are a part of what we do and how we do it because you are seen as an integral piece of what we do and not just 'I work here.’ ”
Plante Moran also supportsworkers who may want to explore internal opportunities by offering a fellowship program. Developed as a three-year commitment, fellowships are offered in various areas of the firm — from core services such as management consulting, wealth management and private equity to operations like recruiting and technology. Nearly 150 staff members are participating in fellowships.
“Let’s say you’re in audit, and you have some interest in what the management consultant practice is like, and you just want to get an understanding of the work that they do,” said Regan Hall, inclusion and diversity leader. “You could actually get a fellowship in that other area to learn what they do, to learn the culture in that particular practice area, to learn the capabilities and what’s working in that industry and what that practice area is all about.”
Just as market research companies send out surveys to customers asking for feedback, workplaces that create a culture of honesty boost employee engagement, which can lead to better results for the organization.
Philippe Weiss, president of Seyfarth Shaw at Work, a legal compliance and consulting services company in Chicago, said his firm is observing how employers are seeking constructive and candid feedback that might be critical to their bottom lines.
“We’re in a unique time because companies are doing all that they can to be as creative as possible, tracking the wages and work-life balance and the perks that others are offering,” Weiss said. “But it may not be enough just to sort of offer as much as you can and dangle it in front of an employee, because a lot of other companies are doing the same thing.”
At Flexera, a global software asset management company based in Itasca, candor is one of the firm’s core values.
The company uses an internal chat forum called Candor Corner where employees can voice their opinions and ask leaders, including the CEO, candid questions. “We take it seriously,” said Elizabeth Lages, senior vice president of people and culture. “Employees can post on Candor Corner anonymously or they can share whoever they are, ask any questions, and we tackle that head-on.”
As a result of the feedback received, the company offers stand-up desks and it reduced the minimum amount an employee needs to put in the employee investment program.
Emily Graziano, who has worked as an employee engagement specialist at Flexera since June, said she was pleasantly surprised to hear about Candor Corner when she was hired. She follows the chat forum to see what’s on employees’ minds.
“I had never encountered anything like that before in any of the organizations I worked for,” she said. “I think it speaks a lot to the company’s values. ... It just affirmed that everything that I was told in my interview and in the research I had done on the company, everything they talk about with transparency and being honest and open was true.”
Similarly, Plante Moran’s Speak Up! program encourages employees to share ideas for improving the firm, especially those that generate cost savings, gain efficiencies or enhance client service. Each year, the company recognizes the person with the best suggestion and the employee who made several significant suggestions.
Jessica Wargo, a senior associate in the firm’s international tax services area, is a fan of Speak Up!
“It’s a great way to give staff a venue for speaking up on even little things that are a kind of thing that you would typically just say to a co-worker like, ‘Hey, I really don’t like this, I don’t think it works very well. I wish we did something different,’" she said. “And having people who are taking that seriously to the extent that we actually give an award at our firm conference for the most impactful suggestion of the year to come through that program, I think that’s really great.”
At Clarity Insights, a data and analytics firm, staying connected with employees takes extra work. About 70% of its consultants are road warriors traveling to client sites Monday through Thursday.
“Just like how we drive customer excellence and retention on the client side, we do the same for our employees,” said Lakshmi Parmeswaran, Clarity Insights’ chief talent officer.
“Most of the leadership team who are leading the consultants have been consultants in a prior life, so we’ve also experienced what it’s like to miss a flight, to be away from family,” Parmeswaran said. “We understand where they are coming from, so a lot of the decisions that we make are based on the input that we get from our employees directly.”
Company President Neil Huse and the executive team collaborate on a regular basis with consultants, frequently making on-site project visits to keep them feeling engaged and supported. Huse also takes employees out for dinner where they can ask questions in a group setting.
Caitlin Willich, an associate partner at Clarity Insights, has been on the receiving end of that approach.
“I’ve spent the better part of 3½ years out on the West Coast first, flying every week and being client-facing. And then the past three-plus years, I’ve spent out East," she said. “I’ve had projects where I’ve worked long hours, and the company has sent me and my husband a gift basket as a way of saying we appreciate you. It’s sort of a culture that started from day one, and we continue to pay it forward. We do the same thing for our team.”
When businesses support a work-life balance, they create a competitive advantage for themselves, experts say. Plante Moran’s WorkFlex Committee serves as a resource for employees with ideas related to improving that balance.
One example that came out of the committee: To ease family stress during tax season, Plante Moran offers free on-site child care on tax season Saturdays at many of its offices.
Successful workplaces also understand that just as a diverse customer base is valued, so too is an organization steeped in diversity.
Companies are seeing diversity and inclusion efforts pay off in terms of financial performance, but much more work is needed to drive diversification, according to research by McKinsey & Co., a strategy consulting firm.
At Chicago-based S&C Electric Co., a global provider of equipment and services for electric power systems, the case for diversity is strong. The company seeks out and embraces each employee’s unique contributions.
“Out of our 2,000 team members in Chicago, more than 60% of them are diverse, whether it’s gender or race background," said Aurelie Richard, chief human development and strategy officer. "We range from 19 years of age to 85 years of age, so we have to offer a very wide range of benefits, and we have to be very flexible in the way we think about what benefits make sense for what part of our population because we obviously want to be appealing to a very wide range of profiles.”
S&C operates several affinity groups that aim to support members’ personal and professional growth, including ones for new professions, for women and one with the acronym IDEA — for Inclusion, Diversity, Engagement, Awareness.
“These groups really are safe places for our people to go and to exchange and to discuss what needs they have, what celebration they want to organize in the company,” Richard said. “It’s proven to be pretty successful and powerful because this is not something that is led by the leadership. It’s something that’s actually led by our people.”
Paul Pabst, manager of engineering services in the Power Systems Solutions group at S&C Electric, is a member of the New Professionals Group, which has monthly activities such as attending sporting events, dining out after work or going into a community to help others. “It really gives me a chance to talk to other peers within the group and company on a nonwork basis,” he said.
Pabst, 35, has worked at the firm ever since he was a 19-year-old student at Purdue University and landed an internship at S&C Electric. After he graduated from college, he interviewed at several companies.
“S&C Electric Co. still stood out to me,” he said. “Since 2007, I’ve been a full-time employee in the group that I’m in right now and progressed my way from entry level all the way up to manager.”
Fostering such a sense of belonging and purpose in the workplace is essential, said Erin Thomas, managing director at Paradigm, a diversity, equity and inclusion consulting firm in Chicago. “Any company that is not thinking about this or actively working on cultivating both is going to be left behind in an increasingly competitive market for employers,” she said.
Brenda Richardson is a freelance writer.