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Enhancing the Employee Experience to Retain Talent

By offering new benefits, vacation incentives and other perks, employers are seeking to retain employees by making work less stressful.

A young woman playing table tennis at work.

If Jason Berry wants to continue to operate his 10 Washington, D.C.-area restaurants, he knows he needs to offer employees a better workplace experience.

When restaurants reopened after the COVID-19 lockdown, many workers didn't return. In fact, a number of former restaurant workers in the region are now making $16 an hour working 9-to-5 at a new Amazon warehouse, says Berry, co-founder of KNEAD Hospitality + Design, a restaurant group with 650 employees.

After tips, most servers and bartenders make more than $30 an hour, he says.

They make less money working at the warehouse, "but they're happier," Berry concedes. They don't work on weekends, and they don't have to deal with rude customers.

In August alone, 892,000 restaurant and hospitality workers nationwide called it quits, according to preliminary figures from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Luring employees back to a high-turnover industry or even attracting new ones is no easy feat.

"How do we design the employee experience in such a way that we don't lose people, but also get them to want to stay?" Berry asks.

He's betting that offering employees a four-day workweek with three consecutive days off will be a great recruitment tool. He also now offers his employees full medical benefits after 90 days instead of the usual one-year waiting period.

"KNEAD had been thinking about making some changes, but the pandemic definitely sped up the process," Berry admits.

Like Berry, many employers across various industries are paying more attention to the employee experience. The COVID-19 pandemic has amplified its importance.



of employers worldwide said the employee experience will be a priority over the next three years.

Source: 2021 Employee Experience Survey, Willis Towers Watson.


In a global survey, 9 in 10 employers (92 percent) said enhancing the employee experience will be an important priority at their organizations over the next three years, compared with just 52 percent that indicated it was important prior to the pandemic, according to a Willis Towers Watson survey of 1,550 employers around the world released in June 2021.

"That's a dramatic increase over the course of a 12-to-18-month period," says Andy Walker, head of talent for Willis Towers Watson's North America east region, who is based in Atlanta.

Tackling Stress: Strategies to Improve Employee Well-Being

The desire to boost retention also has prompted many employers to address the increased stress that changes caused by the pandemic have created for workers. The number of U.S. employees working remotely at least some of the time has increased to 61 percent from 12 percent in the past three years, the Willis Towers Watson survey found. In addition, 52 percent of employees reported high-to-moderate anxiety and 66 percent reported work distractions over the last 12 to 18 months.

Almost half (48 percent) of U.S. workers surveyed reported feeling mentally and physically exhausted at the end of the workday, according to Society for Human Resource Management research.

As a result, employees aren't just walking away from the restaurant industry. In August 2021, 4.3 million employees from all industries quit their jobs, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

That might be just the tip of the iceberg. More than half (55 percent) of those in the workforce are likely to search for a new job in the next 12 months, according to an August 2021 Bankrate survey. Here's what's most important to those who are currently employed and looking for work:

  • Work flexibility, either the hours they work or the ability to work remotely (cited by 56 percent of respondents).
  • Higher pay (53 percent).
  • Job security (47 percent).
  • More time off/vacation time (35 percent).
  • Better or more-inclusive work culture (24 percent).

In response, a growing number of employers are seeking ways to retain their workers. During the height of the pandemic, many organizations offered increased paid time off and child care or elder care benefits, as well as flexible work schedules. Many companies are continuing those benefits and adding other perks, including additional mental health and wellness benefits and more-intentional career development opportunities.

"The pandemic has lasted longer than anyone anticipated, and its consequences will be long term," says Mike Monahan, Grant Thornton's national managing principal of people and community in New York City. "The pandemic is giving employers an opportunity to reflect on what we're doing and how we can do it better."

Empowering Employees: The Impact of Flexibility and Choice

The pandemic has also given employees time to reflect on their work and how it impacts their personal lives.

"Individuals want to work where they feel a sense of inclusion and inspiration in what that business is seeking to do, and they want to have a voice in how work is shaped," Walker says.

In addition, remote work is providing employees the freedom to be more selective about where they work.

"With more companies offering remote work, an array of opportunities has opened up and multiplied for workers," says Lindsey Garito, SHRM-SCP, director of human capital management and total rewards at Westmed Medical Group in Rye Brook, N.Y. "Workers aren't just limited to what's available in their immediate local area." To help retain Westmed's 1,500 employees, the company decided to enhance its compensation and benefits package.


‘Individuals want to work where they feel a sense of inclusion and inspiration in what that business is seeking to do, and they want to have a voice in how work is shaped.’

Andy Walker


"With the pandemic, we saw health care benefits become more of a focus, especially if an employee or their family member became sick," Garito says.

Westmed reviewed its salaries to make sure they were competitive with the market and added 10 new benefits, including hospital indemnity, critical-illness and accident insurance; fertility coverage; a vision plan; legal insurance; and fitness reimbursement.

"We want to make sure we're providing employees with the best total rewards we can, because there are so many other opportunities," Garito says. "If an employee is offered a benefit you're not providing, they might consider moving on."

There was relatively little upfront cost to adding the benefits; the expense and the effect on employee retention will be assessed over time.

"Adding these benefits was a necessary investment to remain competitive and continue to expand how we meet the needs of our employees," Garito says.

Despite the financial cost, employers such as Westmed see these benefits as a necessary investment in keeping their employees happy and productive.

In fact, 70 percent of employees agreed that their feelings about day-to-day work experience—negative or positive—impact their productivity, and 69 percent said these feelings affected their ability to do meaningful work, according to a survey of more than 1,000 U.S. employees across industries by Eagle Hill Consulting in Arlington, Va. In addition, 64 percent of workers said the employee experience impacts their ability to serve customers. 

Berry has personally seen a direct correlation between the employee experience and the customer experience.

"Happy management means happy guests," he says. "If our employees enjoy their work, they will treat each other better and treat our guests better."

Similar principles can be applied to office workers serving clients.

"We see our employee experience and client experience as an infinity loop," says Kandi Gongora, chief transformation and people officer at Goodway Group, a digital marketing company based in New York City that employs 370 people. "If we invest in our employees, that will go into the client experience, and if clients are getting the best work from employees, then our employees will feel like they're having an impact. But it all starts with our employees."

Goodway is focusing on career development. Employees are interested in learning new skills, but it's difficult to find the time when they're in meetings all day, Gongora says. So, the company prohibits meetings on one day each month to give employees time to participate in online training, meet with a mentor, read a book or listen to a podcast.

Every employee has an individual development plan, Gongora says, so the activity they choose should help them achieve their development goals. Online courses are available through LinkedIn Learning, Franklin Covey All Access Pass and Goodway's internal learning platform. Employees also have an annual training budget that allows them to take courses outside these online platforms.

"The employees have the freedom to do what's best for their development on that day," Gongora says. "We trust they will make the best decision based on their development need."

Listening is the Key to Enhanced Employee Experience

There's no one-size-fits-all solution to improving an organization's employee experience. But experts agree it's important to talk directly with employees to find out their preferences and pain points.

"Be intentional about reaching out and really listening to what they are telling you they need, and see what you can do to meet that need," says Grant Thornton's Monahan. 

When the accounting giant surveyed its employee resource groups in 2020 to find out what its 8,300 employees needed the most help with during the pandemic, it discovered the two biggest challenges were taking care of family members and getting three meals a day on the table—either because of food deprivation or the time constraints of parents working at home while caring for their children, Monahan says.

The company set up free Grubhub accounts for every employee and provided each worker a $100 credit. Since then, he says, every worker's Grubhub account has been replenished twice with $100 each time.

"Easing an employee's anxiety, depression and social isolation can help retain them," Monahan says.

The audit, tax and advisory consultancy also took steps to help employees with their household responsibilities relating to child care, elder care, pet care and housekeeping. Grant Thornton already had an account with to provide backup child care, but it expanded that benefit to up to 60 days of free backup child care, Monahan says. It also negotiated reduced prices for employees who needed other services.

When seeking help for employees, avoid assuming you know what people need, advises Kim Jones, people experience and markets leader at PwC US in Dallas. "If you're going to go through the effort of creating policies, it's good to know what's important to your employees," she says.

Throughout the pandemic, PwC has focused on ways to support its employees and reward them for their hard work. In April, every PwC employee was given an extra week of pay to thank them for their work during an especially difficult year, Jones says.

To encourage employees to take a vacation, PwC is paying employees $250 when they take off 40 consecutive hours between April 2021 and June 2022. Employees can earn up to $1,000 for the year.

"We want employees to know how much we support them stepping away from work," Jones says. So far, more than 12,000 vacation awards have been claimed.

Over the summer, PwC encouraged employees not to schedule meetings or send any e-mails after noon on Fridays. This guidance came in response to employees expressing a need for time to work without interruptions, focus on career development or just take time for themselves, Jones says.

In September, PwC announced it will allow its 40,000 U.S. client services employees work remotely full time. Employees who choose to do so will be required to come into the office three times a month for meetings and client visits, according to news reports.

Employees have been clear that they deeply value nonmonetary benefits such as expanded flexibility, career growth, well-being and upskilling, Jones says, adding that companies wanting to provide the best experience for their employees should take a fresh look at what they're offering and survey employees to understand what they need.

If employers can't survey the entire staff, they should consider pulling together a cross section of employees representing every department and function and asking them what employees are struggling with, Gongora says. Then, choose one benefit or company policy to tweak, and see if it makes a difference to your employees.

"Listen and learn from employees to see how that lands," she says.

Lisa Rabasca Roepe is a freelance writer based in Arlington, Va.

Explore Further

SHRM provides advice and resources to help companies and employees confront the challenges of working parents business leaders understand and manage workplace issues related to employee engagement.

Measuring Employee Engagement During a Crisis
To maintain a motivated, productive workforce, employers need to find the best methods to gather and interpret employee feedback and make changes accordingly.

Creating an Optimal Employee Experience
See your workplace through the eyes of your most important customers.

Toolkit: Developing and Sustaining Employee Engagement
Employee engagement has emerged as a critical driver of business success in today's competitive marketplace. High levels of engagement promote talent retention, foster customer loyalty, and improve organizational performance and stakeholder value.

Toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements
Even in the absence of a pandemic, flexible work arrangements can improve recruitment and retention, augment organizational diversity, encourage ethical behavior, and help the organization's efforts to be socially responsible. But along with the benefits, there also are challenges.

Shaping Employees' Experience
Use technology to create a better, holistic employee experience.

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