Caring about employees as people and being flexible to their needs has been key for companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list as they adapt to a new work culture thanks to the pandemic.
Leaders from four of the companies who made this year’s list were joined by Michael Bush, chief executive officer at the Great Place to Work Institute, and Fortune CEO Alan Murray for a call to discuss best practices that helped them retain employees through the Great Resignation and other challenges.
“For some reason, the post-pandemic world has prompted all sorts of people to rethink their jobs, their careers, and rethink them again,” Murray says.
Making the top 100 list
Published each year, the 100 Best Companies to Work For list highlights companies who have stepped up to support their employees. And it’s all based on employee surveys.
“Sixty questions are asked of every employee who gets surveyed, and we score that, and that’s how you make the list,” Bush says.
But in a business world still feeling the effects of the pandemic, something that stood out among those on the list were their attrition rates in a time when employees are quitting in pursuit of better opportunities with higher pay and more flexibility.
“The attrition rate for those companies is half the industry average,” Bush says.
In fact, attrition rates at Hilton, second on this year’s list, are not just lower than average, they’re lower than ever for the company itself, says Chris Nassetta, president and CEO of Hilton Worldwide Holdings.
Yet even as workers across industries are leaving in droves, Bush points out that many of those surveyed regret their choice. Forty percent of people who left their jobs said they were better off in their prior job, and 20% have returned.
“About 38% say they missed their peers and the security of where they work, but they don’t say they missed their leader,” Bush adds. “Nineteen percent miss their pay, and 20% took pay cuts to leave.”
So why are they leaving?
“They don’t feel they’re growing,” Bush says, adding that employees say there are not enough career development opportunities at the companies that they left.
Growth is not the only pain point for employees. Pay also matters. To address those concerns, Target, 12th on the list, raised its starting pay for hourly workers this year to range from $15 to $24 to retain talent.
Caring about employees
Early on in the pandemic, business decisions around the virus were made to protect workers and customers. But companies that went above and beyond in the early days say it made the difference for employee retention.
Target, for example, never closed its stores, but it did increase its curbside pickup option for shoppers and installed plexiglass shields at registers. The company increased signage around the stores encouraging social distancing as well.
Those efforts protected employees in the stores as much as customers, but Brian Cornell, chairman and CEO, said the company also offered backup childcare options for workers who shifted to remote work and offered employees with preexisting conditions four weeks of paid leave.
“We made a commitment to be the safest place to shop, which meant we’re going to invest in creating a safe in-store environment,” Cornell says. All told, the company spent a billion dollars more on the safety and wellness of its teams in 2020.
Accenture, sixth on the list, made similar offerings to its employees who were concerned about the virus itself.
“When COVID hit in India, we knew that our people would be very concerned about their families, and they lived with extended families who weren’t part of medical coverage,” says Julie Sweet, chair and CEO of Accenture. “So we extended that coverage because it was about caring for those people.”
These decisions reflect a common sentiment among top 100 companies, which is that employees are more than just resources for a business.
“Employees don’t want to be employees,” says Chuck Robbins, chair and CEO of Cisco, which took the top spot on the list this year. “They don’t want to work for managers, and they don’t want to work for executives. They want to be human beings who work for human beings who work for human beings.”
Target employees who were able to work remotely as a result of the pandemic began new habits and routines when they found themselves at home the majority of the day. Now many corporate workers are back to working in physical offices together, but expectations have shifted.
“It’s great to be back connecting in person,” says Cornell, “but I’ve heard loud and clear in our listening sessions ‘You know Brian, I’m looking forward to coming into the office for a physical meeting, but can you please start at nine o’clock and not 7:30 because I still want to take my son and daughter to the school bus, and I don’t want to miss that routine.’”
The decision to offer flexible options for working remotely or in the office is something best handled by supervisors and their direct reports, says Robbins. And that’s a balancing act Cisco is still working to master. Robbins believes firmly in the value of a hybrid model, which offers rookie employees especially the foundational interactions that build their skills for higher positions later on.
“I tell our team we moved from the Great Resignation to the Great Experiment,” he says. “I don’t think we know the answers right now, and I think that [Cornell] was exactly right: It’s about listening to your employees and moving and being agile and adapting to how you think about it.”
Being flexible with staff’s needs is as important as adapting constantly as a company, especially as the pandemic has upended workplace norms.
“At the end of the day, being a great place to work—and we’ve touched on a lot of different things—requires constant and significant change and doing things that are going to be often uncomfortable,” Sweet says.
Accenture has not had a physical headquarters for the past 30 years, so the shift to remote work during COVID wasn’t as difficult. That’s a growing pain the company mastered years prior, but the pandemic still presented challenges so Accenture created its own Metaverse to onboard new employees.
“We said we needed to create a new way to have an experience together to learn together, that was not simply on screens like this, and that was when the One Accenture Park was born,” Sweet says.
In the hotel industry, you can’t change bedsheets or check guests into their rooms remotely. So instead, Nassetta says, Hilton had to be flexible in other ways for its employees.
“Probably the biggest takeaway in the field for us is just being much more innovative and flexible on scheduling,” he says. “Our industry’s been around a long, long time. And as it relates to how we think about people’s work in the hotel itself, it really hasn’t changed a lot but people’s lives have changed.”
Purpose and connection
Finally, it’s important that employees feel they can connect to a company’s mission in some way, even if the mission is different from some of the extracurricular community work the company undertakes.
At Cisco, for example, Robbins says the company made ending homelessness a priority in 2018 when it committed to a $50 million donation over five years to resources in Santa Clara County, where the headquarters is based.
“It’s not rhetoric; we live it and we believe it. We really believe it and the teams really believe it,” he says.
In this year’s surveys for companies on the list, four out of five employees said they found meaning in their jobs as well.
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