By: Judith Miller on October 6th, 2020

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Break Out & Thrive as an Employer of Choice in 2021: Recap + Takeaways

Total Rewards | Diversity & Inclusion | COVID-19 | Human Capital Impact Forum

On Friday, September 25th, 2020, Helios HR hosted its first Virtual Human Capital Impact Forum with about 200 participants in attendance. Moderated by Helios’ CEO, Kathy Albarado, our panel of high-profile thought leaders in the People & Culture arena discussed how to Break Out and THRIVE as Employer of Choice in 2021”.

For those of you who couldn't join us, we've included the webinar recording or you can read the full recap below!


Let's dive right in...

Serving as Strategic Business Partners

The discussion was launched first with Greg O’Brien, Chief Executive Officer of the Americas at JLL, a publicly traded, global real estate services company with 93,000 employees in total with 35,000 based in the Americas. Greg shared insights on the valued partnership he has with his HR leaders to execute on strategic people initiatives. As a service organization, assisting their clients with complex people processes and technologies, there is a clear understanding putting their own people first is mission critical. He explained JLL’s executive committee is comprised of C-suite members of the respective business units as well as the functional leaders, such as Human Resources and Finance. This setup enables them to lean on each other’s subject matter expertise and gain a broader perspective on how to differentiate, innovate and advance.

"In order to effectively support company mission and vision, Human Resources needs to be a true business partner and be able to view People Operations through the business lens." - Greg O'Brien, CEO, Americas at JLL

Raymond Hall, Head of Human Resources at JLL, Americas, advised other HR leaders to tie alignment around the core values of the business as it sets the tone for decision-making processes and how to have tough, but transparent and fair conversations with their C-suite.

At this point, Kathy remarked the obvious high-trust relationship between Greg and Ray and that she, too, is a firm believer of what we at Helios call, “Feed-Forward”: encouraging open, honest and regular dialogue about improvement and growth opportunities, and lessons learned.

Today’s climate is unlike anything we have ever experienced:

  • We are in the middle of a global pandemic;
  • Working parents are also juggling virtual learning;
  • There's a national movement against systemic racism; and
  • We are experiencing one of the potentially most divisive presidential elections in US history.
  • Some even say we're experiencing a national mental health crisis.
Which led us to the question, "How can we best help our employees cope?"

Prioritizing Your Workforce's Well-Being

Erin Bakst, SVP of People & Culture at Vox Media with around 1,200 employees shared some of the company’s approaches to help support the well-being of their workforce. Vox Media invested in a mobile app, Ginger, giving their employees and dependents direct access to behavioral coaches and mental healthcare providers.

Additionally, Vox Media partnered with HealHaus, a Black-owned wellness center providing virtual healing workshops and yoga with an intentional focus on their Black employee base who are experiencing this crisis on a deeper and more intense level. This provides a safe space for their employees, while fostering belonging within the company to heal together.

Sheila Darius, Founder and CEO of Grit & Culture, LLC offered client insights which also centered around exercise programs and access to mobile applications. She stressed the importance of mental health days and encouraged managers to empower their team members to take time off for self-care. This can be particularly impactful when offered by the immediate supervisor, recognizing the value of slowing down and taking a pause to refocus. Sheila further encouraged getting involved with Employee Resource Groups to provide a safe space for their employees to share authentic experiences and recharge.

Ray agreed providing access to tools and resources centered around mental health and well-being have been well-received by JLL’s employee population. He emphasized soliciting input from employees as the first step to the decision- making progress of any people-focused initiative to ensure it will be meaningful and have high utilization. Focus has been placed on the team leaders and managers who are exploring entirely new territory: keeping their teams engaged and productive while assisting them through the anxieties of the pandemic, new work-from-home environments, and being faced with those same challenges personally. JLL has been offering professional support and development opportunities on how to lead with empathy and resiliency.

Not Losing Sight of Culture During a Crisis

Greg further stated how the magnitude of this current environment will put company cultures to the battle-test and illuminate which companies have the agility and right intention to properly respond and succeed.

Meaningful, conscientious communication and outreach is imperative. Kathy shared how our team at Helios HR firmly believes that decisions employers make today in how they are responding to the current crises will define their culture for a long time to come.

Initiating Impactful DE&I Programs

Addressing Erin again, Kathy commended the strong Diversity and Inclusion practice at Vox Media and asked her to share some specifically impactful initiatives with the attendees

Erin led with stating Vox Media has always been striving to make Diversity, Equity and Inclusion a priority with deliberate efforts to inspect all people initiatives with DE&I in mind. She also acknowledged there was still a lot of room for growth and learning, for not only the organization but our society as a whole. To dig deeper and identify the biggest areas of opportunity in their Diversity, Equity and Inclusion practice, Vox Media enlisted the help of a consulting firm to survey representatives of all employee groups and divisions. Erin mentioned the experience has been one of the most enlightening in her professional career thus far, and had tremendous impact on Vox Media’s three-year strategy: Representation, Access and Career Development. 

To shift perspective, Sheila commented on how to seek out an inclusive employer. The efforts of identifying a best-in-class employer already starts before the actual interview. She recommends job seekers consider the company website, specifically the composition of senior leadership and even board of directors. Additionally, research if the company promotes their established Employee Resource Groups and Affinity Networks and openly shares their diversity statistics.

During the interview phase, be mindful of the diversity of the interview panel and inquire the opportunity to speak to leaders and chairs of the different resource groups. Sheila pointed out the impact of Affinity Bias, a natural human response affirming to the candidate somebody similar to them is leading the organization which means there is opportunity for them to develop and advance their career there as well. Finally, she urged to consider the company’s response to racial injustice and, in 2020 specifically, the Black Lives Matter movement. "What concrete steps did the company take to help uncover and eliminate systemic racism internally and externally?"

Onboarding New Hires During a Pandemic

Erin stressed the importance of a robust onboarding program, remarking it expands far beyond new hire orientation on day one. Making the lead time to the first day exciting, the emphasis still lies in partnering with the new hire’s manager and assisting them with developing a strong onboarding process:

  • Inclusion: To successfully assimilate the new hire in the company; be intentional about introductions to specific members and let them in on the “ins and outs” to loop them in to the team dynamics.
  • Engagement: Engage the new hire and make them feel excited about the company will foster a sense of belonging and a quicker ramp-up time for productivity.
  • Education: Learn about the new hire’s aspirations and in turn educate them on the company’s strategic objectives and tie in the new hire’s individual impact on achieving those goals.

Additionally, Vox Media provides their people managers with a detailed playbook to guide them through the first 30-60-90 days of onboarding and beyond.

JLL’s approach moves beyond the traditional onboarding as well, mentioned Ray. In order to get new team members integrated and connected to the company mission and purpose faster, the company invested in communication tools such as Microsoft Teams, so employees can stay connected and get accustomed to the new ways of working.

Staying Connected & Engaged Remotely

Kathy shared how people are craving human interaction and are getting more and more creative to be together in a safe manner. "Even though we have challenges, we’ve seen collaboration really thrive in this environment. People are inviting us into their homes, we have more intimate conversations – we are meeting pets, family members, our team member’s home lives," she said.

Sheila acknowledged that as managers, we are being invited into an employee's personal space. These direct conversations aid in getting to know their team members on a deeper, more personal level and allows for a stronger human connection which is invaluable for high-performing teams, in particular, remote work environments. It's our responsibility to set the tone and be flexible and understanding to their individual circumstances.

A great leadership approach is the affirmation that, “we are in this together.” - Sheila Darius, Founder of Grit & Culture, LLC

As CEO at JLL, Greg has been sending weekly updates to the Americas employee base. Ray called this approach, “leading from the front." Leaders are setting examples of transparent and consistent communication. In the updates, specific topics are being addressed and reiterated, and interest areas are being identified via employee surveys and click-throughs. Pulse surveys provide opportunities for gap analysis to determine which areas employees may feel disconnected. Ray also pointed out that the company’s Business Resource Groups have been instrumental in keeping people connected through engagement activities such as happy hours, lunch & learns, etc. 

Rolling Out New Employee Benefits 

Helios HR polled our network on LinkedIn and found that 66% of the participants have implemented more flexibility or new leave programs since the beginning of COVID-19 . We're also seeing clients give additional paid leave for mental health days or election day to their benefit offerings.

Vox Media already had an unlimited leave policy, Erin shared, while regular approval processes are in place, time off does not have to be accrued and is available on discretionary basis. It was communicated early on in the pandemic that leave used to care for dependents will be approved, no questioned asked, without fear of adverse impact on their employment. The company also announced they are not going to return to the office until September 2021 at the earliest. While some offices may open and be accessible with safety measures in place to collaborate before then, giving employees that flexibility and certainty that it is not required, allows them to plan and prepare with peace of mind. 

Utilization rates of mental health benefits have exponentially increased over the last six months, Greg said.  Tracking this data helps their team navigate the right resources to provide employees going forward and support them at the right level.

Looking Forward: Future Workforce Predictions as a Result of 2020

Kathy next asked, "How do you see the workplace changing as a result of what we’ve experienced this year?"

Organizations are beginning to truly understand the need to build and strengthen their DE&I efforts, Sheila replied. She has seen an uptick in newly created roles for Diversity and Inclusion practitioners.

Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging should have always been a business imperative, Kathy shared. 2020 has opened our eyes and made companies create space for representation and learning allyship. HR leaders need to ask themselves and their senior leadership team, "How can we step up, what is our call to action?"

HR has the great opportunity to drive change around inclusion and belonging.

"I'm predicting we will see a shift in behavior with employees holding employers accountable in a meaningful manner," Erin added. She believes employees care deeply about one another and are realizing the gravity of the situation we are finding ourselves in. She also anticipates a dispersion of the workforce, as employees may migrate to a different state to live and work remote if permissible. She cautioned in a lot of instances this setup can work, however, it does require clear policy and education to let employees know about approval processes enabling the company to review any security concerns and tax implication have been taken into consideration.

If not already done so, companies should get prepared and strategize their safe, return-to-work plan now. Greg underlined that the war for talent will not stop. The economy may be slow at the moment, but it will take off again. That moment will define which companies have taken initiative to reinvent and deploy new opportunities.

Audience Q&A

Next, Robin Simmons, Principal Consultant at Helios HR facilitated questions from the audience for the panel. 

1) Greg & Ray: What training do you provide to your executives that teaches how to deal with employee stress?

Ray: JLL provides an entire suite of trainings across broad topic areas that have been determined as a result of the aforementioned survey. LinkedIn Learning has been a valuable tool as well as the Business Resource Group focused on Caregiver Needs, which provides insights and feedback on the types of tools employees and managers need for a holistic approach.

Greg: Peer-to-peer and reverse-mentoring has helped executive leaders understand the experience of a caregiver, such as a young parent, during these times. This feedback resulted in a change of the makeup of the executive committee to ensure we have those voices in the room consistently, which has changed the conversation and has provided insightful new perspectives.

2) During the conversation, we have heard a lot about Diversity and Inclusion. Erin, what specific initiatives has your organization deployed to support equity? How does DE&I differ from D&I?

Erin: When people think of diversity, they typically think of the make-up of the population. When they think of inclusion their thought goes to, “how can we make employees feel included?” Equity, however, brings the important thought of representation and access, there should be no differences in pay or opportunity across the company.

Erin shared Vox Media has been conducting pay equity studies to examine pay structures across the organization and within division and departments to correct any potential pay inequities attributable to gender or ethnicity. The company has become more mindful about representation of voices in leadership. She acknowledged the executive leadership is not yet as diverse as they envision and, with that, they are working diligently on creating on equitable opportunities for decision-making across the company.

Sheila: In my opinion, strong indicators of a best-practice equity approaches are Equal Pay for Equal Work, clear stances and actions regarding the issue of systemic racism, and providing access to programs, sponsorships and networks.

3) Our business has been hit so drastically that we are not able to add benefits at an additional cost. What resources can we provide to employees at a low or no cost without the benefit losing the intended impact?

Erin: With mental health as the focus, leverage your existing benefits providers and brokers. Inquire about any free or newly added benefits or enhancements that would improve the employee experience with no to minimal financial impact to the company. Another suggestion she shared that may come at the cost of productivity, could be to offer mental health days to avoid burnouts. While this strategy may be associated with a cost, the long-term results may yield a great return-on-investment.

4) What are the critical components in building a diverse leadership team?

Sheila:  Consider and develop in-house talent first. Examine where in the organization they are set up, are they assuming leadership roles yet, or are there opportunities to put them forward for promotions? If not yet in place, invest in upskilling of your existing labor force and strategically fill gaps with external talent.

Ray: If your organization has a strong foundation based on inclusion and belonging, the ROI will be shown plentiful in innovation and solutions for clients. Organizations focus their attention a lot on the D(iversity) which often equals to bringing diverse talent in, but lose sight on creating a conducive environment for them to operate in.

Greg: It starts at the topa diverse and inclusive executive board enriches the dialogue and helps shift the perspective. JLL’s regularly published business statistics prove more diverse teams have a higher winning rate opposed to less-diverse teams. He noted how half of the Fortune 500 companies from the year 2000 do not exist anymore today, 20 years later. He is convinced the diversity aspect is a big driver in how to differentiate, attract and retain top talent, and be able to innovate and win.

5) How are annual performance reviews done in the remote setting?

Greg: Traditional finance metrics are challenged in this new reality. While we’re coming out on the other side, we’re discussing creative new approaches and strategies with focus on our people. It’s going to be a very different year, and are discussing now what 2021 could look like.

Erin: At Vox Media, we don’t do annual performance reviews, we have quarterly discussions. Managers have been receiving guidance on how be empathetic to their team members' individual circumstances.

6) What's one final key takeaway you can leave the audience with to help them "Break Out and Thrive for 2021?" 

Sheila: Really encourage organizations to decide if they want to be a part of a moment or a movement. What is the strategy to continue the dialogue and plan around racial and social injustice in the workplace and ultimately increasing diversity, inclusion and representation? How does this play out in our business objectives regarding talent, employee engagement and employee development?

Ray: Employees are dealing with a lot of different anxieties, so it is important to be transparent with your communications. Organizations also need to act with a sense of urgency and decisiveness. One thing the current crisis has shown is that businesses can work a lot faster and better than anticipated in such setting. Focus on creating a sustainable competitive advantage.

Greg: Don’t waste this crisis! Think of all the possible business models that embrace people and can make you more competitive, help to differentiate, and win. We have to take it from “it’s the right thing to do” to “if I don’t do it, I can’t compete”.

Erin: Ask yourself: what does it mean to be flexible in a meaningful way? Consider working hours, where people are located, how teams work together and challenge yourself to see if it impacts the business in a positive way.

In Closing

To become and remain an employer of choice in 2021 and beyond:

  • Listen, be flexible, and open-minded with your employees and managers.
  • Take an honest look at your Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging practices and define a clear strategy and plan to build them into your core capabilities.
  • Foster a culture of innovation to reinvent and consider new business opportunities.
  • Spell out a Safe-Return-to-Work plan to allow your workforce to resume their tasks in a safe and healthy manner and define if you could leverage the new work arrangements instead.
  • Be willing to make adjustments along the way.
  • Lead with empathy and don’t lose focus of your most valuable asset: your people!