A shot in the arm
Best practices help winning companies fight pandemic
Virginia’s Best Places to Work were hit by the consequences of COVID-19 just like every other business this year. But characteristics that won them the “best places” title — including flexibility, great benefits and distinctive cultures — are sustaining them through the lengthy pandemic.
Since 2011, Virginia Business and Pennsylvania-based Best Companies Group have collaborated to identify the commonwealth’s best workplaces. One hundred companies were chosen for the 2021 Best Places to Work list in three categories: small, midsize and large businesses.
One of those best companies — ThunderCat Technology LLC — has always embraced the motto “work hard, play hard,” says co-founder and CEO Tom Deierlein. Before the pandemic hit, the Reston-based federal IT contractor hosted family picnics, arranged trips to sporting events and even sponsored a sky diving outing.
During the pandemic, the company is maintaining its emphasis on “performance, community, family and fun,” Deierlein says, by hosting virtual events such as a “funny hat happy hour” and a T-shirt design contest for employees’ children. ThunderCat has continued its community involvement by providing meals to local health care professionals and donating to food pantries.
ThunderCat’s nearly 100 employees made what Deierlein describes as a seamless move to teleworking when the coronavirus hit because employees had experience working from home and because “we have always had a results-only work environment where people are expected to get their job done without regard to ‘time in the office.’ … We have never really been a 9-to-5 company.”
Total Quality Logistics, a Cincinnati-based freight brokerage firm that works with more than 85,000 carriers, is known for an open office environment full of “high energy team members,” says Corey Drushal, its marketing and culture manager.
The company’s approximately 5,000 employees, including about 70 workers in Virginia, had not worked from home before the pandemic, so making the switch to teleworking was a big challenge.
“It was all hands on deck. We had to think quickly and change course,” Drushal says. “What allowed us to do that is our culture. Our philosophy is that employees come first, so the question was, how can we make sure they are taken care of?” As a result of the company’s philosophy, “the level of transparency has been really high. So has the level of trust.”
Total Quality Logistics is particularly proud of its commitment to volunteerism and to giving back to the community, she adds. When employees couldn’t volunteer in person due to pandemic restrictions, the company concentrated on its Moves That Matter program, which coordinates the transportation of donated goods to nonprofit and community organizations.
When a load of food, water or safety equipment is donated, “we coordinate and cover the cost to move it. This has been going on for six years, but with the pandemic, the need has increased. We just made a million-dollar commitment to the program,” she says.
Moves That Matter benefits employees as well as charitable organizations. “They are donating their expertise to help communities. It reminds our employees of what we’re all about.”
Like many other companies, Total Quality Logistics hosts virtual social events to keep employees connected during their time away from the office. One weekly trivia night had an unusual twist, according to Drushal: “It ended with one of the employees proposing to another employee. He asked her would she marry him” — in trivia question form.
Employer of choice
Another Best Places to Work business in Virginia is Community Housing Partners (CHP) in Christiansburg.
One of CHP’s main goals has been to be an employer of choice, says Laura Croft, vice president of human capital. When COVID-19 hit, she says, the organization was determined to maintain that reputation.
“Our executives have made decisions in the best interest of employees and communicated that well. And it shows. Every decision has been very employee-focused. It has shown when people have gotten sick or at high risk [of contracting the coronavirus],” Croft says.
About 350 people work for the nonprofit organization, which coordinates with private and public partners to develop and preserve homes and neighborhoods. Some employees have been able to telework, but many are in property management positions that require interaction with residents.
CHP set up strict protocols to protect residents and employees, she notes, and “we’ve supplied PPE [personal protective equipment]. The challenge is we have over a hundred locations to ship to. It’s not so much our size but that we’re spread out so much.”
Last fall, the organization expanded its flexible working hours to help employees cope with school-related disruptions.
When the pandemic hit in March 2020, working from home wasn’t an option for most of Chesapeake-based Chesbay Distributing Co. Inc.’s 170 employees.
The company sells and distributes imported and domestic beers throughout Southeastern Virginia. “We drive around in 18-wheelers,” says President and General Manager Patrick Collins. “We’re in the service industry.”
Concern for the safety of both employees and members of the community has always been a key part of the company’s culture, according to Collins. When the pandemic hit, “one of the things we did was build on that foundation from a safety standpoint. We made sure we had PPE. We provide that free of charge” to employees who meet with customers.
Before the pandemic, Chesbay Distributing held cookouts, turkey fries and open houses that “looked like an amusement park. There were bands and DJs,” he says. And, of course, “there was always beer.”
Now, instead of in-person gatherings, the company has held online happy hours, sent home prepared meals for employees’ families and provided board games, Collins says. “My wife and I chose Scrabble.”
Chesbay’s annual awards banquet, which is being held in February, will also be held virtually, he says.
Shaping the culture
Pre-pandemic, Richmond-based digital marketing firm Workshop Digital had what co-founder Brian Forrester calls “a fun, collaborative environment,” with outdoor activities for employees and community service opportunities such as volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.
Workshop Digital also had what Forrester terms a great benefits package with unlimited vacation. But “increasingly that’s not enough to separate you from other companies,” he says. What’s required to stand out and to make it through a crisis is having a strong culture and “giving the people the ability to help and shape that culture.”
Workshop Digital employees had to make an adjustment to the physical changes, according to Forrester. “We had no work from home option” for the firm’s approximately 30 employees. The company temporarily opened its office “and people came in one at a time. We said, ‘Anything that helps, take it, so you can do your best work — anything that’s not bolted down.’”
Teleworking also necessitated mental and emotional adjustments. “You’re opening this window into your personal life. There’s the understanding that people have pets and children that will be visible in Zoom meetings. There are all those human elements.”
To support those human elements, “the two words we dialed up when COVID hit were ‘empathy’ and ‘transparency,’” Forrester says.
Empathy matters, he says, because “we know that everyone is handling and processing this differently.”
Transparency, Forrester explains, is critical because “as soon as COVID hit, there was a lot of fear of layoffs. We started doing weekly company updates. We’ve talked about our clients. We’ve talked about our sales pipeline. We’re giving them updates. We didn’t lay off anyone,” he says.
Deierlein of ThunderCat also stresses the importance of having a culture that recognizes and supports the human element because some of his employees are feeling isolated, some are homeschooling their children and others are taking care of elderly parents while teleworking.
“It’s the entire spectrum here, as it is with many places,” Deierlein says. “It’s important to remind people they were not alone and that others are struggling or dealing with similar issues and that they can get through it. In many ways we all became more human, more vulnerable and more transparent, more forgiving of delays and missteps.”
ThunderCat leaders are asked to make sure they touch base with each of their team members — preferably by video conference, but at least by phone — once a week, he says. The company also provides numbers to call and websites to visit to get help if needed.
“We send out encouraging emails periodically reminding people that we are there to support them 100% if financial or health or mental health issues come up. We have reminded folks it is OK not to be OK, and to raise their hand. We give them reminders that we’ve got their back.”
ThunderCat is now taking steps to introduce new people to its culture, which is based on “performance, community, family and fun,” Deierlein says. “Our VP of HR is planning a new round of company Zooms since we have actually done some hiring during the pandemic.”
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