"I don't know about you, but this is my first pandemic."

Marcus Fischer, CEO of advertising agency Carmichael Lynch, has been using that line since he heard it from a client not long ago.

Embracing that notion, in the face of COVID-19, the Great Resignation and other forces that have upended the workplace, means that answers for what to do about it — how to keep employees and keep them happy — can come from anywhere.

"It allows for an incredible environment of innovation and experimentation," said Fischer, who sees agency culture as an investment. "Rather than large, sweeping policies, we've tried to implement small-scale tests-and-learns as much as we can."

That means keeping things that work, like a flexible "Work From Where You Need To" policy, where the agency tries to make the office feel like a campus. Employees come in for events, team or client meetings but otherwise choose where to work. Carmichael Lynch now has people working remotely in 17 states.

The agency and other Top Workplaces are focusing on medical and mental health benefits, development opportunities, in-person and virtual events, and diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) efforts to retain employees. Some are raising pay and giving home-office reimbursements.

With twice as many job openings as people qualified to fill them, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), keeping personnel has hardly been more urgent. According to Fischer, with stress spiking for many as work and home life collide, this is a time to model empathy.

"We have to show each other grace, our clients and even ourselves," Fisher said. "No one has gone through what we've gone through."

Expanded health

One test item that has stuck at Carmichael Lynch is giving employees a free premium membership to Care.com, which includes 10 free days of caregiving for children, seniors or pets, or tutoring or housekeeping services. Additional benefits include on-demand help for stress and anxiety from Sanvello, plus Talkspace, an online and mobile therapy company.

Solution Design Group (SDG), a digital product services and consulting firm, added free virtual online health services, including in-home visits, and prescriptions from Nice Healthcare. While SDG introduced that benefit before the pandemic, employees have particularly made use of it since, said Jana Bertheaume, SDG's chief people officer.

"We've had families that have children who have had broken bones, and they'll do X-rays in the garage," Bertheaume said. "They were able to do that without having to take their kids to an urgent care."

Ovative Group, a digital-first marketer, recently began offering a no-cost medical coverage option to employees and their families. "We did an analysis to see what would it take if we just pay for all of it," said Erin Aberg, vice president of talent services. "If we see something that will be a meaningful investment in our team, that will be meaningful for them, we're willing to lean in and make that happen."

Allianz Life Insurance Co. of North America, among new benefits, has removed co-pays for depression medication and for outpatient mental health or therapy visits, said Tracy Bruckschen, director of talent acquisition. Allianz also has created an on-site health care clinic with services from a nurse practitioner available at little to no cost.

Financial incentives

Top Workplaces also are sweetening financial incentives for employees to stay. Some 28% of employers nationally are adding new merit-pay programs, according to Regan Gross, human resources knowledge adviser at SHRM.

"Employers are increasing compensation as well, to remain competitive," Gross said in an e-mail interview. "Inflation has increased the need for employers to look at ways they can pivot in response to employee needs — things like transportation, fuel cost, child care — all offer areas that employers should look at and respond to needs of employees."

At Allianz, the 7.5% dollar-for-dollar company match within the company's 401(k) program, though not new, is a key retention tool, Bruckschen said. It's one of the highest such matches locally and possibly nationally.

Affinity Plus Federal Credit Union gave every employee a 4% raise in November, in addition to performance increases, and made the raise retroactive to January 2021, said Julie Cosgrove, chief talent officer.

Every employee who works directly with Affinity Plus members received a bonus, Cosgrove said. Those who work on Saturdays in branch locations now get time-and-a-half pay. All employees got a $500 stipend for their home offices.

"We recognize how the world has changed, how costs have increased, and we also have had a lot of successes in the organization," Cosgrove said.

Development and diversity

Employers also are enhancing internal career-development opportunities, said SHRM's Gross.

Affinity Plus partnered with Metro State University to create an MBA program, with the credit union paying 100% of tuition. Ovative covers the cost for remote team members to come to Minneapolis for an annual training day. New to Allianz are leadership opportunities for managers of hybrid teams as well as "skill uplift" opportunities for hybrid workers.

While many Top Workplaces stage in-person and online events to sustain their culture, those efforts also are more likely to include diversity, equity and inclusion efforts.

"Being in Minneapolis, in the center of racial and social justice reckoning, our entire philosophy around all of our work in DEIBA [diversity, equity, inclusivity, belonging and accessibility] has been 'Do More, Do Better,'" Carmichael Lynch's Fischer said. Employee-resource groups at the agency include a women's leadership group, one for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people and allies, and others for multicultural employees and those with disabilities and their allies and parents.

At Allianz, the newest employee resource groups are AllABLE (Allianz for Abilities Beyond Limitations and Expectations) and ASCENT (Asians Supporting, Collaborating, Educating and Networking Together).

"We continue to partner closely with our DEI organization to support and drive an inclusive environment where everyone brings their best self to work regardless of their role, background or work arrangement," Bruckschen said. "The key there is to foster connectedness throughout the organization."

Todd Nelson is a freelance writer in Lake Elmo. His e-mail is todd_nelson@mac.com.