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3 ways the Best Companies to Work For helped employees endure an unprecedented year

April 12, 2021, 9:30 AM UTC

“It can be easy to be a great company when times are perfect,” one employee wrote this year. “But they have shown they are a great company when times are more uncertain.” No business was immune to the ravages of COVID-19, but those noted here were real about the challenges. They adjusted. They took care of their workers. This year more than ever, our 100 Best Companies to Work For list highlights the companies that put people over profits—and are poised to thrive again because of it.

131,565

Jobs open now at the 100 Best Companies to Work For

Caring about the caregivers

The burdens When school closes but work doesn’t, who has to leave their career behind?

Some companies—like Target, No. 14 on this list—took steps to prevent their workers from joining the 5 million women who lost jobs over the past year. The $94 billion retailer introduced an unlimited backup care benefit, providing company-paid in-home or day-care coverage and even tutoring help for virtual school when employees’ families needed it most. “Our team is super thankful for it,” says Amal Mohamud, an executive team leader overseeing human resources for about 200 employees at a Minnesota Target location.

At No. 1 Cisco, meanwhile, employees began to take advantage of a digital care coordination platform called Wellthy; a dedicated care coordinator helped workers manage the logistics—finances, legal needs, housing, and even mental health—of everything from supporting elderly parents to caring for a child with special needs. During a year when care responsibilities skyrocketed—and those responsibilities largely landed on women’s shoulders—employees appreciated the extra support. “I’ve been through something similar with my parents, and I sure could have used this benefit,” reflects Ted Kezios, Cisco’s global benefits leader. 

20%

Amount Target’s revenue rose in 2020

$10

Amount Capital One boosted hourly pay for some frontline employees during the pandemic

0

Number of layoffs American Express vowed to initiate during the pandemic

Making WFH really work

A year-plus into full-time work from home for many deskbound workers, the novelty is long gone. Some businesses, though, took action to prevent the line between work and home life from blurring beyond repair—and to support employees’ physical wellbeing. 

In the first months of the pandemic, Rocket Companies, the parent of Rocket Mortgage, noticed its employees had stopped taking their paid time off. Executives understood why: With nowhere to go, who wanted to waste their precious vacation days stuck at home? But they worried that without a break, employees would burn out. “We needed to tell people it was okay to step away and take time for self-care,” says Mike Malloy, whose title at Rocket is “chief amazement officer.” Rocket came up with an innovative solution: assign everyone a day off that wouldn’t count against their PTO accrual. With days off allocated by birth month, employees were able to take a break. Terrell Yelder, a South Carolina team leader for facilities with the professional services business Rock Central, by a stroke of luck witnessed his daughter’s first steps on his February-birthday-assigned day off. “Seeing that with my own eyes, I just felt so much better,” he recalls. Rocket’s day-off initiative was part of a broader “Rest and Relaxation” program, also encouraging breaks throughout the day all year long. 

Companies found other kinds of flexibility this year—like Zillow, which embraced remote work and broadened its workforce even farther beyond the Pacific Northwest. The real estate platform started the year with employees in 26 states and ended it with workers in all 50. To make sure its staff across U.S. time zones weren’t burdened by Zoom sessions from early morning Eastern through evening Pacific time, the company introduced “core collaborative hours,” limiting internal group meetings to a four-hour block of the day. “It recognizes that we all have such different schedules and life outside of work,” says Meghan Reibstein, Zillow’s VP of organizational operations. 

24

years in a row cisco has been named a best company

6

number of weeks salesforce gave parents in extra paid time off

33%

Increase in Rocket Companies’ Stock price since IPO. All 24,000 employees got shares

Protecting employees

The stress of worrying about losing one’s job seeped into every corner of the economy during the pandemic. But companies on our list tended to do an impressive job communicating about risk and insulating their troops. Though Kimpton had to shutter its locations when the pandemic hit, the company moved quickly to help furloughed Kimptonites find temporary jobs at companies that were scaling up, such as Amazon and grocery chains. (In many cases, the applicants didn’t have to interview but got hired on recommendations alone.) At CarMax—where 99% of furloughed employees have since been brought back—one employee wrote that they “appreciated that executives took a pay cut and that the board of trustees did not receive any compensation.”

Wegmans, the 105-year-old New York–based grocery chain, rose to the top of the pack when it came to protecting and supporting essential workers. The company rolled out paid COVID sick and quarantine leave as well as job-protected unpaid leave for those who felt unsafe. In its century-long history, Wegmans has never conducted a layoff. So as some functions (cafés, for example) shut down, it retrained workers for new tasks. “They’re baking bread, they’re cutting seafood, they’re doing Instacart—or they’re on the front end because they love hospitality,” says Bob Farr, SVP of store operations. “We’ve immensely enjoyed watching people take on new assignments and grow their careers in different directions.” 

Christina Griffin started at Wegmans as a part-time worker at 15 years old; today, the 27-year-old is a divisional recruiter in the Rochester area. For three months, she stopped her recruiting efforts to work as a “runner” for curbside pickup, getting the unprecedented number of online orders into cars. For a single mother of a 3-year-old who has cerebral palsy, it was a lot to ask. But Griffin says she trusted Wegmans. “When I made the decision to go into the stores,” she says, “I did it because I’m with a company whose priorities are its people.”

A version of this article appears in the April/May issue of Fortune with the headline, “The worst of times. The best in business.”