Columbus firms embrace new approach to stave off the Great Resignation
Revenue at Crystal and GeneHughey’s commercial cleaning business has remained stagnant for three years, but it’s not because of a lack of opportunity. Their company, Corporate CleaningInc., can’t grow its staff quickly enough to take on new clients as it tries to compete for workers in a tight and quickly shifting labor market. The Hugheys raised their starting wage to $15 per hour and added health benefits and extra paid time off, but that didn’t seem to help much. So they started asking new hires what they could do to keep them around and turned totheir existing employees for insight on retention.
“We asked our core crew: ‘What’s keeping you here?’” CrystalHughey said. To the Hugheys’ surprise, the wage bump, which had also benefited longtime employees, didn’t come up as a key motivator. Instead, it was other perks. The company’s retention strategy involves doing almost anything within budget and reason to take care of their nearly 20 employees’ needs, from home to the office.
“Our existing crew said more than anything, they know we’d take care of them, look out for them and keep them safe,” Hughey said. There’s extra PTO available to help employees with sick family members, for example. Company vehicles are around to help employees with car trouble. “If you have kids, they work around your schedule,” said long-time employee Bertha Prater, who has worked for the Hugheys for about seven years. “They’re always willing to move the schedule around for you. It’s the love; it’s not about the money. It’s the people, and how they’re running their company.” The Hugheys also partner with a local bank to offer homebuying and vacation-saving seminars. For employees with money trouble, the business offers short-term, zero-interest loans.
In response to rising gas prices, the Hugheys started rerouting workers to reduce the commute time between employees’ homes and cleaning jobs. They’ve even floated cash to employees for gas or grocery money to get them through the week. David Givens, who has been with the company for five years, said simply, “They care deeply.” “Sometimes they put the employees before themselves,” Givens said. “You might be going through some problems, and they might pull you aside and say, ‘Is there any way I can help you? Do you need a cash advance or your car fixed?’ They figure out a way.” Crystal Hughey said their system, “Can be complex, but for us, it's worth it.” “We’d rather help them and keep them for the long run than have them leave because of something we could fix,” she said. “We're not trying to be babysitters or unnecessarily be in someone's business, but a lot of times, we can help and get them to a resource.” Even so, they still can’t find enough new workers – something companies nationwide are facing during this fallout of the GreatResignation.
A record 48 million Americans quit their jobs in 2021, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and high resignation rates have so far continued into 2022.
The Great Resignation has caused business leaders to focus inward on retention: A survey of C-suite executives in early 2022 from PwCfound that 77% of leaders say the ability to hire and retain talent is the most critical driver in achieving growth. Another national survey found that 61% employers are having difficulty retaining employees and believe the problem will linger through the year, according to Willis Towers Watson.
So what can employers do? Gone are the days of expecting one-off perks, fancy offices or Band-Aid strategies to take care of the issue, said Andrea Applegate, president of Columbus HR consulting agency Applegate Talent Strategies. “Just a few years ago, the big thing was to do beer kegs or bringing pong tables in or have meals catered,” Applegate said. “All of that is very nice, but those things are superficial. They’re not things that employees really need. “Sometimes employers want to do the easy things and not to do the hard things that will really make a difference.” Instead, retention strategies that focus on the humanity of workers are what will win loyalty in 2022 and beyond, Applegate said.
“Any boss who believes that employees will continue to sacrifice themselves or their families for work will find themselves on the losing end,” she said. Employers need to realize that things are not going to return to pre-pandemic days, Applegate said. “It really is a transaction: I give you something of value for something you’ve done for me,” she said. “What has shifted recently because of the tight labor market is that employers are no longer in the position of power in that transaction like they’ve been for almost all of history. “Employees now are in the position of power. Employees set the terms.”
At Kimball Midwest, which provides maintenance repair products ranging from fasteners to chemicals, paint and cleaning tools, corporate recruiting manager Brooke Schneider said the past year has been “almost a blur” in trying to keep up with staffing challenges among a local workforce of more than 500. There’s always been a higher turnover rate with the Columbus-based company’s hourly distribution center workers, but new-hire retention has increasingly been a struggle, too, as competitors boost wages and entice workers with bonuses and other perks.
“You can’t drive anywhere without seeing signs for a sign-on bonus,” Schneider said. “There’s almost an incentive to start a new job. I don’t know how sustainable that is for an organization in terms of retention, but it can attract people and get them in the door.” Kimball Midwest decided to bump up pay for all shifts, including existing associates. “That was a huge thing to help with retention,” Schneider said. “We really wanted to make sure our current associates that have been here a year or two were in alignment with the new starting rate. We didn’t want to cause that issue where new people coming in were making more. That’s something to be sensitive to.” Applegate said it can’t stop there.
A good example is Columbus-based ODW Logistics, which noticed it was having a hard time retaining hourly workers. That’s when the company decided to survey its workforce of about 1,000 people to see how it could become an employer of choice. The word respect came up again and again, said Abby Zimmerman, the company’s director of talent management. “How do we communicate that, live that and ensure our associates know our value proposition each and every day?” Zimmerman said.
One way is how the company works with employees dealing with family or life issues. “This isn’t something that you can tally up, but the types of circumstances that we have been flexible on have really increased,” she said. “It’s not about, ‘Hey, you have this need; go to talk to HR.’It’s allowing our leaders to have that personal connection with each and every associate because we’ve all been affected by things that are outside of our control.” The company also raised wages by about $2 an hour, Zimmerman said, and is considering adding other benefits based on survey responses. “Employees’ expectations have been changing rapidly over the last two years,” she said. “A lot of things are on the table, whether that additional paid time off, paternal and maternal leave. Last year, we introduced a few floating holidays that we knew that associates wanted.”
Focus on flexibility
Bryan Lenzo, vice president for talent and culture for Columbus-based affordable apartment developer Wallick Communities, said his firm has found success by accommodating employees’ needs. For some of Wallick’s nearly 400 full-time local employees, that means working from home. For others, it’s about the benefits that suit their lives. “Maybe part of the solution is being flexible in your flexibility,” Lenzo said. “When things have been a certain way for a long time, the momentum behind that can be hard to break. But what we've seen is that the path since Covid is littered with a lot of companies that couldn’t make adjustments.”
He said it’s important to realize that “people aren’t monolithic –they’re coming in with all different lifestyles, situations, at all stages in their careers and different expectations.” For example, Wallick recently overhauled its benefits packages, reducing the time it takes to become eligible. Then it offered health plans catering to the different priorities of its workers. The company also launched an eight-week paid leave program for all new parents. “You have folks who may be more along in their careers that have certain expectations, and then have folks coming right into the workplace who just would rather have more money in their paycheck and don’t want a Cadillac benefits package,” he said.“Now there’s an opportunity for choice.”
Helping employees navigate childcare issues is another important task, Applegate said. “Employers should be more understanding of the challenges that people who work and who have families face,” she said.
Retention issues are not going away anytime soon, Applegate said. “There are more jobs available than there are people to work those jobs,” she said.
In February, there were 11.27 million job openings nationwide, but the total level of unemployed people was 6.27 million, creating a record 5 million more openings than available workers, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Covid-19 also sped up the retirements of baby boomers, creating even more of a crunch.
“It’s not just because of the economy,” Applegate said. “It’s not because of supply chains. It’s not because of inflation. This is because of demographic shifts, retirements, the high-cost of childcare, and all of those big things. A pizza party or spa day –that’s not going to fix it.” Lenzo, of Wallick Communities, said that’s something the company has come to grips with. “For us, it’s about creating a long-term strategy on how to be successful in this space,” he said. “It’s about treating people well at all levels and paying attention to how the systems at work impact employees’ experiences,” she said.
Columbus Business First