How the World’s Best Workplaces have led the way in a year unlike any other
The story of 2020 is one of historic challenges.
The novel coronavirus arose. Economic shutdowns aiming to “flatten the curve” triggered a recession on the scale of the Great Depression. And in the midst of these challenges, the brutal murder of George Floyd ignited a racial reckoning that began in the U.S., and sparked sympathetic protests across the globe.
These historical challenges touched nearly every part of the world this year. The two viruses of COVID-19 and racism combined to sow immense fear, chaos, and pain in countries and companies alike.
But 2020 also is a story of deeply human responses by the Fortune World’s Best Workplaces.
In a year unlike any other, the World’s Best Workplaces made it an opportunity to become better—to get creative in how they care for people, to deepen their commitment to community, to courageously connect in new ways.
Collectively, the World’s Best Workplaces have accelerated the movement toward a better future, in which all organizations become great places to work For All. Their story this year, ultimately, is one of hope.
The Fortune World’s Best Workplaces 2020 list is the product of surveys representing 10.2 million employees. These employees work at some 10,000 organizations that work with Great Place to Work across the globe. From 2019 through mid-2020, employees responded to more than 60 questions on our Trust Index survey. Based on this data set, companies were recognized on Great Place to Work national Best Workplaces lists in the United States, Canada, and countries in Latin America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Oceania.
Great Place to Work’s team selected the best of the best to create the Fortune World’s Best Workplaces 2020. These 25 organizations stand out for creating globally great cultures and employ roughly 2.1 million people worldwide in industries ranging from manufacturing to technology to transportation.
Technology giant Cisco ranked first on the list for the second straight year. Transportation and logistics provider DHL ranked second on the 2020 list, and hotel giant Hilton placed third.
These companies have met the historic challenges of 2020 in human, inspiring ways.
Let’s consider Cisco’s story.
Cisco is perhaps best known as the company that connects people and data. It got its start more than 20 years ago by helping to build the foundation of the Internet.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, though, the company’s dedication to linking up systems and customers was tested as never before. Demand for Cisco’s Webex video collaboration tool soared, requiring resolve on the part of frontline Cisconians and executives alike.
The company also had to demonstrate courage as it confronted the racial reckoning.
In connecting with people in new ways, Cisco leaders were challenged to blend bravery with humility.
As the COVID-19 pandemic prompted businesses across the globe to close offices and send workers home, demand for Cisco’s technology and applications spiked. All of a sudden, millions of employees who used to meet in person were now meeting online. Many more people throughout the world began firing up Cisco’s Webex collaboration software to get critical work done.
So much so that Volumes on the Webex platform tripled in April.
That put great pressure on Cisco’s workforce to deliver. And they did, said Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s CEO.
“The teams that were building out our infrastructure for this platform, they worked seven by 24 for probably a month solid just to deal with the increased volumes,” Robbins said. “Because these platforms were never designed for the entire world to be working from home.”
How were Cisco employees willing and able to work so hard, for so long, in a stressful time? It had much to do with the culture of trust and psychological safety Cisco had built prior to the pandemic, and how Cisco deepened its internal bonds amid the COVID crisis.
Fully 87% of Cisco staffers globally called the company a psychologically and emotionally healthy workplace heading into the pandemic. That’s one of the highest global marks in Great Place to Work’s research, fully 6 points better than the average among the World’s Best Workplaces.
Once the pandemic hit, Chuck and his leadership began weekly “check-ins” of 75 minutes to listen to employees and address questions.
Cisco also listened to its employees by surveying them about their workplace experience—itself a sign of concern and a willingness to learn about how employees were doing. Employees responded that they appreciated how the executive leadership team handled the COVID crisis.
One U.S. Cisco employee told us: “We feel connected mentally even though we are confined home. During COVID, I sometimes drove by [the] offices just to see the Cisco logos and campus. I am longing to get back to Cisco office again after COVID, because Cisco is part of my identity.”
Even though customers around the globe desperately needed Cisco’s technology and support to keep operating amid the pandemic, many of these clients were struggling.
The economic downturn prompted by COVID-related shutdowns meant that customers faced cash shortages.
Cisco responded by enabling many customers to finance their purchases. In effect, Chuck and his team dared to trust that these clients would make good later on. And rather than focus on short-term payments, Cisco leaned into the bigger purpose of keeping the world working.
“We didn’t say, ‘Well, send us a purchase order and we’ll get over there and help you out,’” Robbins said. “We just went and just got the technology out there and said, ‘We’ll figure it out later.’”
It takes courage to confront racism head-on. These can be difficult conversations. Especially when they come as a surprise. Indeed, the racial reckoning touched off by George Floyd’s death blindsided many organizations.
Not Cisco. The company’s leaders already had taken a hard look in the mirror around issues of racial equity. Back in the fall of 2019, Chuck had read White Fragility. And that book helped prompt Chuck, who is white, to learn more about racial disparities at the company.
In January, Chuck arranged for his executive team to have a listening session with 18 Black leaders from across Cisco. It was an emotional moment, as the senior executives came to terms with a culture that wasn’t as inclusive as they’d thought.
Chuck says 90 percent of his team “had tears in their eyes” as they reflected on what they’d heard from Black colleagues.
But the tears didn’t hijack progress, as they have in other organizations. Instead, Cisco launched a 100-day “sprint” to tackle areas of racial inequity within the company. And those efforts helped prepare Cisco for the society-wide focus on racism sparked by George Floyd’s murder.
The weekend after Floyd’s murder, Chuck invited racial equity experts to speak with the entire Cisco staff. Things got heated—and boundaries were crossed.
“There were a few comments in the chat that we consider inappropriate,” recalls Fran Katsoudas, Cisco’s Chief People Officer. “And what we decided to do in the follow-up meeting was to bring this workplace color spectrum that we have to the discussion.”
That color spectrum involves defining what kinds of comments are “green” and which are “yellow,” “orange” and “red.” Green comments are respectful, productive and inviting—even if they dispute a viewpoint. Fran and her team provided examples of each kind of comment, to help employees know how to keep the conversation constructive.
With the help of the color spectrum guidelines, the conversations have continued and grown more constructive. As one employee puts it, “I am very impressed with our executive team who have been not just willing, but aggressively driving thought leadership and hard, emotional conversations about our community impact, racism and how we, both internally as a culture, but also globally, need to improve our approach. All levels of the organization are actively and enthusiastically connecting.”
Judging by employees’ overwhelmingly positive reaction to the conversations about equity, Cisco’s courage to connect is advancing the cause of racial justice—even as it motivates employees to bring their best to work.
As Cisco’s story suggests, in the worst of times, the World’s Best have shown the way to a better world. They have given us hope for the future.
To read more about the 2020 World’s Best, click to view our report.
Click here to see the full list of the 2020 Fortune World’s Best Workplaces.
Ed Frauenheim is the senior director of content at Great Place to Work. He is co-author of A Great Place to Work For All.