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How To Be A Great Place To Work During A Pandemic

It’s one thing to be considered a good employer when things are normal. But what about when a pandemic hits?

Being a great place to work hasn’t typically meant having the fanciest amenities or perks, even in the best of times. Amid the mass work-from-home experiment, some lauded employers are discovering that robust communication, frequent employee surveys and acts of compassion are going a long way to keep workers happy and maintain corporate culture without in-person touch points.

“If we continually stay engaged with them and provide them a culture in which they can succeed, they will work very hard on our behalf, and that's just always kind of been our secret,” Transwestern Executive Vice President of Human Resources Colleen Dolan said.

How To Be A Great Place To Work During A Pandemic

Transwestern made Houston Business Journal’s Best Places to Work list for 2019, the most recent year available. The company has about 2,100 employees in more than 30 offices across the country.

Frequent videoconferences, resources provided via the company’s intranet, photo competitions, virtual happy hours and fun videos are some of the ways Transwestern’s senior executives are striving to keep employees engaged and enthused from afar.

The company also decided to do regular town hall conference calls between senior executives and members of the Transwestern Young Professionals Group, which is composed of employees 35 or younger. The goal is to keep younger members informed and reassured and explain how the company has weathered past events that caused major upheaval.

“We try to do everything we can to stay engaged with people, and what we're finding is, because not everybody is tied up in meetings and they're not tied up traveling, that we're able to connect much more so than we ever were before,” Dolan said.

Architecture design firm Gensler has also introduced efforts to maintain strong communication during the pandemic. The firm made Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work list for 2020 and has more than 50 offices around the world. Award winners are determined using feedback that employees have shared on Glassdoor over the prior year.

Gensler Houston co-Managing Directors Stephanie Burritt and Hunter Clayton told Bisnow that early on, they had a conference call with all the parents in their office to discuss working challenges with small children underfoot.

“We needed to learn from them,” Burritt said.

Parents were told that whatever special schedule or working arrangement were needed, the company would help. It was well-received, she said.

Gensler has also aimed to maintain as many routine things as possible. This includes regular firmwide and staff meetings, check-ins and team meetings.

“When things occur that are unknown or unforeseen, it creates high levels of anxiety, so we work really hard to establish some of that new normalcy,” Clayton said.

Burritt said transparency is also key, as it helps employees understand how the company is working to address issues and move forward during these unusual times.

“We've learned the more that we can share and help people understand why we're doing what we're doing, it helps them get on board with it,” she said.

Camden Senior Vice President of Human Resources Cindy Scharringhausen said that even though the company embraced remote operations, it is crucial to find ways to stay in touch with work teams.

“You have to keep the same feelings of connection going in multiple different ways,” Scharringhausen said.

This includes online lunches, virtual town hall meetings and Zoom calls.

Camden also made Glassdoor's Best Places to Work list for 2020. The company has 164 properties across eight states and employs 1,689 people.

Community managers, district managers and members of the leadership team conduct two calls a day, in the morning and afternoon, to provide the latest news on how the company is adapting.

Operations leadership also conducts town hall videoconference meetings with maintenance teams and front-line workers to identify new protocols to safely enter apartments and perform tasks.

How To Be A Great Place To Work During A Pandemic
Gensler Houston Co-Managing Directors Hunter Clayton and Stephanie Burritt

Many of these companies are attempting to support their employees in much more basic ways amid the pandemic.

Transwestern has a standing employee assistance program, which offers help and resources across a broad spectrum of areas, including financial, physical and mental difficulties. Those services are offered via third-party providers. Dolan said the company has seen an uptick in inquiries about those services.

“It's when you have crises like what we're experiencing right now where it really gets called upon,” Dolan said.

The company is also encouraging its employees to take online training courses.

“We're finding that a lot of commercial real estate training platforms are reducing the cost of training, and so we're trying to keep tabs on what those training vehicles are and give our employees exposure to that while they're home and if they've got downtime,” Dolan said.

Gensler has an intranet where employees can access a variety of different advisers who can provide services such as financial or mental health assistance. Burritt said that typically, employees were directed there to receive the best professional advice on those subjects.

The intranet also has the latest updates and guidance on what Gensler is doing in its offices during the pandemic, as well as the latest work-from-home tools.

“We actually have a guidebook we put together to teach us better about how we can be productive and work from our houses,” Clayton added.

Gensler has performed multiple employee surveys across multiple offices in Europe, and one is also being compiled for the West Coast. The company is taking a staggered approach to surveys across the company so adjustments can be made and new feedback can be incorporated into more surveys.

So far, survey results have allowed Gensler executives to receive feedback on a variety of best practices and opportunities, as well as concerns.

Clayton said many Gensler employees were enjoying high levels of productivity and communication while experiencing fewer distractions. However, there have also been concerns voiced about how long the pandemic will continue, and what kind of backlog of work could be waiting when things return to normal.

Another issue that has arisen is the question of boundaries. Higher-than-usual levels of communication led to employees becoming overwhelmed.

“As much as everybody loved it, they also said, time out, there's too much,” Burritt said.

Camden conducted a short poll of its employees in late March to see how the company was performing during the pandemic. The poll received a 50% response rate.

“We realized that we had communication gaps from that poll survey,” Scharringhausen said. “As a result of that, we went full-throttle on more communication.”

Camden will likely send out another poll in the next week or two, Scharringhausen added.

Transwestern is in the process of discussing an employee survey to send out within the next month to touch base and gather feedback on employee sentiment. Dolan said regular town hall videoconference calls have also served as a conduit for regular word-of-mouth feedback for executives and managers.

How To Be A Great Place To Work During A Pandemic

Transwestern, Camden and Gensler have all made moves to help keep their staff, even as other companies have been forced to cut back.

Transwestern has implemented salary reductions for all staff members that are not part of the Asset Services group — that is, approximately half of the company. This move is in line with what the company has done during other periods of difficulty, such as during the Great Recession. The reduction is based on income level, so lower wage earners have the lowest reduction in pay.

“Our primary interest is in the retention of jobs, because for commercial real estate, even though we're having this downturn in the economy and the market, our historical experiences have taught us that when we come out of this cycle, typically we come back stronger than we have in the past,” Dolan said.

Asset Services have retained their full salaries, as they are still physically going into buildings to keep them running and in good condition and are providing support to clients, Dolan said.

The wage reduction came into effect on April 1, and Transwestern is aiming to lift it within three months, depending on how events progress.

Camden made headlines earlier this month by launching its $5M resident relief fund to help struggling Camden tenants. The company also established a separate $1M employee relief fund, of which $750K was sourced from Camden, while the remaining $250K was funded by senior executives.

Though an employee relief fund already existed for natural disasters and other challenges, Camden created another fund specifically for those employees affected by the pandemic. Over the course of last week, Camden received over 100 employee applications to the fund, which are being processed quickly, Scharringhausen said.

If employee relief money begins to get low, Scharringhausen may raise a call to action for executives to donate further to the fund.

“We watch it to make sure that we're going to meet the needs that have been anticipated, and we're open to funding more if it comes to that so that everybody gets the assistance they need,” she said.

Camden has also created an emergency pay plan for its own employees. The plan is intended for employees that are unable to work at the moment because they need to care for children or another family member or have another situation that prevents them from working.

How To Be A Great Place To Work During A Pandemic

These three companies are building on what has always made them a great place to work — not exciting bells and whistles but a culture of community and basic tools and support for employees.

“The culture at Camden is very much a family feeling and trust-based,” Scharringhausen said. “We are not the company that has all the fun things. We do a lot of fun events, celebrating our employees, we have our rituals that we do that bring us together and help foster that, but it's more a sense of pride.”

Likewise, Transwestern doesn’t have “anything fancy,” according to Dolan. That means no pinball machines, basketball courts or other high-level amenities you would find in the tech world.

“What we offer is a very strong benefits package, compensation package and we recognize that we value community, our team members, their families — we put our team members and their families first and foremost,” Dolan said.

“I think if you're not a people-centric organization, you will suffer,” Burritt said.

The pandemic is tough because it denied employees valuable in-person interaction. However, the way people communicate now has a certain kind of specialness to it.

“Working in this new environment, or remote working situation, has really dialed up our creative juices a little bit,” Burritt said.

That creativity has led to new innovation around ways to communicate, and even nonwork initiatives, such as a new Gensler coloring book for children.

“There's all of this extra energy that's there that I think this remote working piece has ignited in them, and it's fun, and it's pulling them together right now,” she added.