by Nori Gale
With the great resignation comes an opportunity to reassess your employee engagement strategy
The pandemic has brought much change in how we live and work. Families have been juggling kids in the home during the work day, large swaths of workers have been put in vulnerable positions of exposure to the virus, and working from home has become the norm for many people whose work is amenable to virtual labor. This transformation has occurred alongside a new heightened cultural awareness of life’s brevity as over five million people have died internationally from Coronavirus. As a result, many people have begun to question the role work plays in their lives. What does it mean to be a productive member of society and who does that productivity benefit? How high should we set our bars for job satisfaction, pay, working conditions, and flexibility? These are the questions workers are asking themselves.
According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, “The number of job openings increased to 11 million on the last business day of October.” These vacancies have been caused by what is now termed the “Great Resignation.” People working in the United States quit their jobs at an all-time-high rate in September with 4.4 million people walking away, followed in October by another 4.16 million.
What can your company do to avoid falling prey to this phenomenon? How can you keep employees engaged and not heading for the exits? We provide you with three strategies to help shore up your employee loyalty and keep your employees engaged and happy.
Tip#1: Listen to your employees
The key for organizations to really know how best to engage employees is to build relationships within the company and focus on listening. If employers pay attention to what is really going on for employees the response will be meaningful to them. WEX’s Sara McKersie, Director, Talent Management heads a team on the front lines of this: “The exhaustion our employees were experiencing was just something everybody was talking about, and our Human Resources Business Partners listened and heard it. People are exhausted, people’s mental health is in a challenging state in ways we have never talked about before. People had new words to explain how they were feeling like ‘languishing.’” To ensure WEX employees have a platform to share their voice, McKersie says, “We will be launching our Annual Employee Survey on February 14th as another way for employees to share their voices.”
Tip#2: Develop programs based on what you hear from employees
Claire Clonan, VP Global Operations and Business Transformation, has advocated for a flexible work culture since before the pandemic began, and has been an instrumental player in building that shift in thinking for WEX: “When we introduced flexible work, we stopped giving dates to return to office. What I heard from others in the industry was that when you give those dates, that’s often when people start looking. They want to work in a flexible environment and if they are going to have to return to going into the office every day, they’d rather work for a company that wasn’t going to force that. Those dates were triggering resignations. If they had to go back to the office they’d go somewhere else. Because we pivoted to a flexible work culture due to COVID, we weren’t facing that response from employees.”
WEX made decisions throughout the experience of working through a pandemic with employee well-being at the forefront. As a result, WEX has weathered the Great Resignation better than most. “There really wasn’t a one-size-fits-all for people. There were people who were very worried when faced with the idea of coming back into the office, and then there were people who really wanted to get to the office. That’s where we doubled down on this idea of flexibility,” shared McKersie.
Tip#3: Leverage employee insights to expand benefits
Nurturing an engaging, team-oriented work environment is instrumental to a company’s success in this competitive new world. According to the State of the Global Workplace: 2020 Report by Gallup, “Lack of engagement costs the global economy $8.1 trillion, nearly 10% of GCP, in lost productivity each year.”
Gallup explored today’s workforce challenges to consider the implications of running a business during the pandemic. The report examines mental health factors like worker resiliency and wellbeing, and attempts to understand the differences in company culture between those with stressed employees and those with energized and inspired employees.
Where does an inspired, energetic work culture come from? And how does a company develop a commitment to putting resources toward bettering employee experiences? This focus on culture and the employee experience has always been a part of WEX. McKersie shares a little bit about WEX’s journey: “In 2020 we did not conduct an employee engagement survey because of the pandemic. There was too much going on. But we did conduct interviews and focus-groups and learned a lot about what our culture meant to people around the globe. We talked to our CEO, Melissa Smith, about WEX culture and one of the things she said was an important part of our culture was our focus on having fun.” WEX had traditionally leveraged in person events and gatherings to generate fun. “When the pandemic happened we had to pivot. WEX has always been a people-first organization. In this new world and this new environment, and with us being a global company, we had to think about our approach differently. Being people-first is authentic to who we are at our core.” This is when WEX’s HR and Communications team came up with the idea of “WEXtra,” a 2022, year-long celebration of WEX’s employees, which we’ll discuss in greater detail later in this article.
Develop an employee-first culture
Roughly 24 million people in the U.S. left their jobs between May and October of 2021. Issues like personal safety in the workplace, a lack of childcare, and lack of flexibility by employers are some of the reasons for these workers’ departures. Some are looking for the chance to work remotely, while others are choosing to have one parent leave the workforce while kids’ school schedules remain unpredictable. Many workers are looking for better pay and benefits with companies that are improving their offerings to fill openings. McKersie describes WEX’s response: “While we have not dodged the Great Resignation completely, we have not experienced it in the same ways that some organizations have. We believe that all the ways we reacted to COVID as an organization with listening, thoughtful action, and flexibility have allowed us to maintain a lower rate of attrition than some of our peers.”
Reacting to pain points during COVID with increased benefits in elderly care, child care, and pet care
One example of how WEX reacted to employee stressors during COVID was to offer increased care support which for child care came in the way of a back-up day care program. This offering was an enhanced benefit for WEX employees during COVID - a tool employees could turn to to find a local care-provider as a back-up when their primary care resource was compromised. WEX worked with a company called Bright Horizons to facilitate this new benefit. WEX’s Kate Levesque, Senior Manager, Benefits, explains, “WEX offered employees access to Bright Horizons for back up child care and elder care. For the back-up child care there is in-home or in-location support, and employees were also offered virtual tutoring, home schooling support, parent pods, and pandemic solutions for working with childcare. We also offered employees resources for daily living support including pet sitting, pet walking, and cleaning services.” When a company takes action in response to the needs of their employee base, such as this one, there is a huge impact on people struggling to juggle crucial aspects of their lives. When it comes to the well-being of elderly family members, children and pets, which many people value above all else, for an employer to show concern and take steps to address that concern makes workers feel supported and cared for. This kind of concrete action is what builds loyalty and trust in an employee base.
Develop new programs to show employees you hear them and want to support them
Last month, a team of WEXers launched a new program called “WEXtra,” with a mission of celebrating WEX employees in 2022. WEXtra was kicked off in December with WEX Week Off, when WEX told their staff of approximately 6,000 employees that the company would be closed for the final week of the year to give everyone a little extra PTO to be able to rest and relax with family and friends. “There will be a campaign throughout 2022 where we will surprise and delight our employees.” says McKersie. There is a new cross-functional team rolling out a new global peer-to-peer employee recognition program called "Inspire and Celebrate," using a web-based platform called Workhuman. “It’s all about how we recognize and appreciate all of the work that people do that may not be so visible. We’re looking at how we’re doing that with a more consistent approach across the entire global organization. Workhuman allowed us to do this in a way we’ve never done before. This tool allows us to provide a consistent, digital, and innovative experience for all of our employees.” Clonan shared that “It also gives us visibility into our recognition efforts to ensure we are truly making a difference, and helps us plan for future initiatives.”
What is "WEX Week Off," and how was it developed?
As McKersie shared, “WEX Week Off” came about because employees had experienced a long two years. “People had worked really hard. We could just feel, from leaders, you could feel it yourself, that people were tired. One of the pieces of feedback that we get fairly regularly is that even when people are on PTO they don’t truly disconnect. We also saw that many employees weren’t really taking the time off that they had earned.” Since travel was inconsistent, and gathering with others was discouraged, many were not even bothering to take the vacations they might normally choose to take. “We were concerned people were burned out. We were concerned that unless the company shut down, people would still feel they needed to connect. We heard from management that even if you gave people the week off they were going to check in on work, attend a meeting, do one small task, and suddenly what happens is they’ve worked half the week and didn’t actually take time off.”
When the HR team began to socialize the idea the question arose of how WEX would continue to service its customers’ needs if it were to shut down for a week. “Our company is a complex company, and we’re a customer-first company. The first question that was asked was ‘What about our customers? They’re not taking time off. We have to be there to support them.’” WEX’s management team talked about a lot of different potential versions of WEX Week Off. What WEX landed on was the idea that in order to service WEX customers, while also ensuring a week of rest for employees, those essential to the business worked that week and were given paid holiday time in addition to their regular pay. Ultimately the company shut down with the exception of employees essential to the business.
How do you best brainstorm and be creative and come up with how to create those experiences of team unity and fun during a global pandemic?
McKersie shared that WEX looked both externally and internally for inspiration on how to maintain WEX’s culture, even during a pandemic. “We reached out to our external networks to learn more about what other companies were doing to generate engagement and loyalty.” McKersie also noted the importance of asking employees themselves what they were doing to stay connected: “One of the questions we asked employees in 2020 allowed us to understand how people were staying connected and embracing our culture. We learned about all these different things that people were doing and different ideas about how to connect in meaningful ways while working remotely and then we shared those ideas with our employees through our Thrive newsletter.”
“There were all sorts of really cool, creative things that people did, and they continued to innovate as the pandemic continued to stay with us. At first, when we all went remote and it very quickly became apparent that video fatigue - being on video all the time - was challenging.” To address this issue, managers came up with creative solutions, like walking meetings, “no meeting Wednesdays” or reminding people that it is okay to call into meetings, rather than always be on video. Managers at WEX were creative about adjusting to employees’ needs, and anticipating burnout.
Through flexibility, a focus on listening, creating fun in the workday, and developing an employee-first culture, this difficult period in talent acquisition can be weathered by your company with minimal disruption.
McKinsey Global Report
U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics
World Economic Forum
McKinsey & Company’s Women in the Workplace
State of the Workplace, Gallup