Balancing Acts: Reassessing the workplace for rewards, retention and resilience (Craig Cutler for The Washington Post)

How D.C.-area employers kept workers happy amid the Great Resignation

At Top Workplaces, the keys to retention are to offer more flexibility and address employees’ financial struggles

16 min

The Great Resignation — during which millions of employees left or switched jobs — posed huge challenges for companies across the United States.

Yet many Washington-area organizations managed to hold onto their employees and snag new ones even as openings soared to historic levels — 11.3 million across the country.

Expanding on the pandemic-era employee demand for flexibility, many local organizations opted to stem the mass migration of workers by supporting them in ways that went well beyond the standard benefits package. For instance, employers found ways to help workers struggling financially amid mounting inflation. They provided workers with clearer pathways for advancing their careers. And they offered employees more say on where they work, when they work and even how they’re compensated.

For example, Goodwin Living, a caregiving organization for seniors, recently gave its nearly 1,000 employees a gift card for gasoline purchases to help offset the rising cost of commuting. The organization also helps employees and a family member earn their U.S. citizenship. Giant Food, a supermarket chain with 164 stores, gives its roughly 20,000 employees discounts on groceries — a coveted perk as inflation jacks up food prices. In 2020, Great American Restaurants, a D.C.-area company with just under 2,000 employees in 17 locations, prepared free meals that employees could pick up and enjoy with their families. Employees could also pick up grocery staples.

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“That’s the leading edge in keeping employees happy — looking holistically at their day-to-day lives,” says Melissa Swift, who in her role at Mercer consultancy helps organizations transform work and the workplace. “And it’s not just that I’m going to support mental health and wellness on the side. It’s the day-to-day experience at work” that employers are re-evaluating.

We ask ourselves, ‘What’s happening in the world of our staff members? How can we take their concerns off their minds?’
— Lindsay Hutter, the chief strategy and marketing officer at Goodwin Living

Beyond a paycheck, employees today expect their bosses to be an active partner in their broader personal needs, according to Mercer’s Global Talent Trends 2022 report. Access to high-quality health care is important, and many workers also expect help in managing their debt and gaps in personal savings, child care or elder care and even basics like housing, food and transportation. Companies that create an environment where employees can thrive find that their workers are more productive and efficient, and more likely to drive innovation, Swift says.

A focus on holistic benefits and workplace culture helped put Goodwin Living, Giant Food and Great American Restaurants among The Washington Post’s Top Workplaces winners of 2022. The annual survey names 200 organizations with the highest ratings from their employees in companywide surveys conducted by Energage, a Philadelphia-based workplace intelligence company.

Supporting personal needs and career advancement

Maintenance worker Eric Frimpong installs and repairs items in the various buildings at Goodwin Living, a nonprofit, faith-based organization with nearly 1,000 employees who serve more than 2,500 clients in their homes, in facilities for older adults and in senior-living communities across Northern Virginia.

Standard benefits include health insurance, a 401(k) retirement plan and paid time off. Above-and-beyond benefits include emergency grants and zero-interest loans for employees facing hardships. Frimpong, a native of Ghana, took advantage of the organization’s novel U.S. citizenship program that paid the $725 application fee and paired him with a Goodwin Living Alexandria resident to help him study for the citizenship exam. (He officially became a U.S. citizen in March.)

To help him perform his duties, Goodwin Living also twice covered the costs of specialized training.

“Goodwin [Living] is a place that I recommend everybody to work,” says Frimpong, 49, who started at the Alexandria, Va., campus eight years ago. “I wish to work here until I retire.”

In helping staffers holistically, employers hope to reduce turnover rates — the percentage of the workers who leave in a given year — that are high in jobs that are mostly performed in person. Examples of front-line positions include those in health care, hospitality, retail sales, manufacturing and warehousing.

“We ask ourselves, ‘What’s happening in the world of our staff members? How can we take their concerns off their minds?’ ” says Lindsay Hutter, the chief strategy and marketing officer at Goodwin Living. “Did a family member lose their job and now have trouble paying rent? We have a foundation that can help with those problems.”

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In the United States, turnover rates of nurses who worked in nursing homes ranged from 76.7 percent to 135.3 percent, according to a March 2021 paper in the journal Health Affairs. By comparison, turnover of the nursing staff at Goodwin Living facilities last year was 23.8 percent, according to Fran Casey, the chief people officer.

Still, Goodwin Living is in the process of expanding its facilities, programs and home-health practice, and hiring has been a challenge. “Beginning in 2022, we have been dealing with resignations and a lower applicant pool as people rethink what they want to do,” Casey says.

To attract potential employees, Goodwin Living has proactively created paid internship programs in partnership with colleges, a culinary school and high schools, Casey says. The organization will also hire recent nursing-school graduates and help them prepare for their licensing exam.

Helping workers advance their careers is one of the keys to retaining employees. At Giant Food, the grocery retailer headquartered in Landover, Md., career development starts the day someone is hired. “I always ask, ‘Are you looking for a career or a job? If it’s a job, that’s fine. If it’s a career, you can grow here,’ ” says store manager Dionne Martin, who has been with Giant Food for 21 years. “I use myself as an example. I started out as a cashier and now I’m a manager.” (Just recently Martin was promoted to asset-protection manager, a job that focuses on theft detection and prevention.)

When she was overseeing the Fort Washington, Md., store, Martin says she interviewed a man who applied for a cashier position. But when he mentioned that he had gone to art school, Martin made him a baker’s assistant. “Now he does a great job decorating cakes.” Another employee, a woman in her 20s, helped an elderly customer shop for groceries, then she loaded the purchases in her car. The customer sent a glowing report to Giant Food’s corporate offices. Since then, the young woman has been cross-trained in the bakery and the flower shop in hopes that she can someday advance to full-time store manager and beyond.

“We hire all the time. We don’t stop,” Martin says of the Fort Washington store. “We’re interviewing a minimum of five people per week.”

I’ve been in this business for over 15 years and I had never seen a company [like this one] geared toward supporting employees and work-life balance.
— Nekia Freeman, test engineer at Northstrat

Roughly 70 percent of the employees at Giant Food stores work part time, earning an average $15.66 per hour, says Jodie Kans, a regional director of human resources. To bolster workers’ take-home pay, Giant Food has given out “millions of dollars” in recognition bonuses and lump-sum payments over the past two years, Kans says.

Bumping up employees’ pay has long been a strategy in attracting and retaining workers. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, overall wages for frontline workers have increased, but inflation — which has reached its highest level in nearly 40 years — is taking a large bite out of those raises, according to the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit public-policy research organization based in Washington.

Overall, turnover in the grocery industry averages 58 percent, according to a Food Retailing Industry report issued in September. Giant Food falls below the average at 56 percent, Kans says.

Individual Benefit Account

On the forefront of the flex movement is Northstrat, an information-technology firm with about 100 employees. The Sterling, Va.-based company calculates 25 percent of each employee’s salary and contributes that amount to an Individual Benefit Account (IBA) with options that include medical and prescription insurance coverage, a 401(k) retirement plan and tuition for education. Employees can decide which benefits they want; they can even forgo some or all of the benefits and apply the funds to their paychecks, with the money taxed as income.

Northstrat President Rick Boyd estimates that half of employees purchase medical insurance for themselves and their families through their IBAs. Roughly 5 percent to 10 percent contribute the cash benefit from their IBAs to their 401(k) plans.

“We had higher than normal turnover in 2021, which made growth difficult,” he says, declining to specify the firm’s turnover rate. “We’ve been able to maintain our level of revenue, but it has been difficult because people are looking for other opportunities — or [job offers] just come to them.”

Recruiting new employees is especially challenging at Northstrat, which primarily contracts with government agencies, he adds. In addition to tech skills, ideal job candidates possess a security clearance that allows them to handle classified information.

By touting its flexible benefits package, Northstrat was able to woo Nekia Freeman away from another D.C.-area information-technology firm last year. Freeman, 41, a test engineer, says she allocates most of the company’s IBA contribution toward her health-care plan — she pays $0 in monthly premiums — and directs 15 percent into her 401(k).

I am a single mom of two kids... If I need to leave, they say ‘go,’ no questions asked.
— Lizzie Quayle, a 47-year-old bartender at Patsy’s American

Another form of flexibility comes in the form of Lifestyle Spending Accounts, which are “still very new” in the United States, says Julie Stone, a managing director at business-consulting firm Willis Towers Watson. “Only a few companies are doing it.” The pandemic, however, has sparked rapid interest in these types of accounts, which are taxable, because employees like the flexibility to spend the money on more than just health-care and retirement, she adds.

“It sends an important cultural message to employees,” Stone says, when they realize “I can define it as home-gym equipment, financial coaching, solar panels to cut down energy use. I’ve got a lot of latitude.”

Nonetheless, when employees are asked what benefits matter most to them, health care and retirement come out on top, Stone says. “Those core things are really critical.” In its 2022 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey, Willis Towers Watson found that health and retirement benefits are critical to both employees who are deciding whether to work for a company, and to employees who are deciding whether to stay with a company. The survey took place between December 2021 and January 2022 and included more than 9,500 employees. The results were weighted to be representative of the U.S. workforce.

Flexible work arrangements came up frequently in the Willis Towers Watson survey. Half of the respondents said that more generous paid time off and sick leave would most improve their workplace flexibility, followed by the option to work remotely (47 percent) and the ability to select when to work (45 percent).

Northstrat enables Freeman to work remotely on some days. “In the IT world, the pandemic proved that people can work from home and still get work done,” she says. Equally important, Freeman says, is that she’s typically not asked to work outside her normal schedule.

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For now, allowing some employees to work remotely 100 percent of the time isn’t feasible, says Boyd. Working with classified information requires an environment where employees can securely handle data and materials. He says he hopes that other benefits — including stock options, performance-based financial incentives and a $10,000 10-year anniversary bonus — make up for that.

The company also touts opportunities for advancement, Boyd adds. In her current role, Freeman acts as a liaison between the client and the people who test the company’s IT applications. “I get to be technical, but not that technical in this position,” she says. Going forward, she says she would like to work more in the operational environment, writing computer code and scripts. Freeman says her managers are now getting her more training and experience in that field.

More than one-fourth of the respondents in the Willis Towers Watson survey ranked career development among the top-three issues they most want their employers to focus on. And once again, employees sought flexible options for their personal growth, citing job-based training, paid time off for education/training, opportunities to work in different jobs and mentoring programs.

Overall, 81 percent of employees who say they are satisfied with their benefits package intend to stay with the company at least two more years, compared with 51 percent of employees who are dissatisfied with their benefits, the Willis Towers Watson survey found. When respondents were asked to cite their top three benefits, retirement, flexible work and health care came out on top.

“I’ve been in this business for over 15 years and I had never seen a company [like this one] geared toward supporting employees and work-life balance,” Freeman says, something she shared with Boyd when she joined the staff. “I told him, 'You’re going to have to push me out of the company. I’m not going anywhere.”

Changing the workplace culture

“Working from home” are pandemic buzzwords, but remote work never was — and never will be — an option for front-line employees in certain industries, including food service, which is reflected in its high turnover rate.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 7.2 percent of this sector’s total workforce quit their jobs voluntarily in March, far exceeding the national average quit rate of 4.2 percent.

Jon Norton, chief executive of Fairfax, Va.-based Great American Restaurants, says one of the best ways to reduce employee turnover is to create a work environment that makes people want to stay. Restaurant work can be particularly grueling, yet the company ranked No. 1 among largest employers in The Post’s 2022 Top Workplaces competition.

Numerous employees who filled out the workplace survey said their managers and co-workers were like family to them. “I enjoy coming to work,” one respondent wrote. “Getting to see my coworkers makes me happy. And that is my absolute favorite part about my job. We are all a big family.”

Great American Restaurants has 17 locations, including Carlyle in Arlington, Va.; Sweetwater Tavern in Falls Church, Va.; and Patsy’s American in Vienna, Va. In March 2020, the company laid off 1,700 people, Norton says, but the following month they were given the opportunity to return. Some staffers declined — citing health risks or a preference to take unemployment benefits. But many came back to work.

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So far this year the company has hired 19.4 percent more people compared to pre-pandemic levels, according to a spokeswoman. Tipped employees earn $2.13 per hour, and the company makes sure they get at least minimum wage. The company declined to divulge its overall turnover rates, but it did note that turnover rates are 2 percent lower than they were before the pandemic started.

Norton says there’s no “secret sauce” to keeping employees at the various outlets happy. His strategy is to create a culture where people can succeed. For example, shortly after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, Great American Restaurants experienced a surge in customers who were craving to eat out again. To lessen the load on the wait staff and kitchen, the restaurants reduced their seating capacity “so you wouldn’t have four servers waiting on 64 tables,” Norton says. “Proper support and proper systems mean that [workers] win on a regular basis. That has been a learning experience. There were days we didn’t win.”

Norton says the restaurants were “crushed” with to-go orders on Mother’s Day 2020, making it hard for kitchen staff to keep up. The following year, to-go food ordering was deactivated on Mother’s Day. “We’d rather stop to-go ordering than have customers waiting two hours” for their food, he says. Since then, the company’s online ordering system has been tweaked to limit the number of orders it can accommodate in 15-minute increments.

Another challenge: When demand for in-dining service surged, the company had difficulty retaining hosts — the people who seat the customers, Norton says. “The host became the front-line police officer” when things like mask requirements and social distancing rules were in place. “We had a lot of conversations with our teams. If someone was berated, they were coached to walk away and bring someone else in” to defuse the incident, typically a manager. “Mainly we try to move [hosts] out of the situation,” Norton says, adding that “99.9 percent of our guests are phenomenal. We can’t let that 0.1 percent ruin our day.”

The company is also lauded for its emphasis on work-life balance. “I am a single mom of two kids,” says Lizzie Quayle, a 47-year-old bartender at Patsy’s American. “That in itself has brought many challenges over the years. But [managers] have always been so understanding. If I need to leave, they say ‘go,’ no questions asked.”

Great American Restaurants offers health benefits, paid time off and matching funds for employees’ 401(k)s. Some employees are also rewarded with performance bonuses. But what stands out to Quayle is how the company stuck by its employees when restaurants shut down at the beginning of the pandemic.

“One of the things that blows my mind is that they fed us,” Quayle says, recalling occasions when she and her kids picked up some meals — steak tips and rice was a family favorite — and ate them in the parking lot “just so we could get out of the house.”

Quayle has been working at Great American Restaurants for 26 years — her entire adult life, starting as a server. Since then she has had opportunities to go into management, she says, but chooses to stay behind the bar.

“This is my thing and I’m going to keep going," she says. "It keeps me young.”