The conversation on employer branding was led by journalist Lydia Dishman, lower left (Image by From Day One)

What do employees value most highly today in looking for a great place to work? At this moment of crisis, a lot of workers are probably feeling fortunate just to have a job. But at the same time, the culture and values of an employer are on display like never before.

Workers will be asking not only if a company is a great place to work, but if it is a safe place to work, both physically and psychologically. What are the right benefits to support them? How do employers maintain efforts to be inclusive and foster career growth, even in a crisis atmosphere?

In a From Day One webinar titled “Fresh Ways to boost Your Employee Value Proposition,” we gathered a panel of HR professionals to share ideas. Here are the highlights (and you can watch the video by registering here).

“I never thought we’d face something like this in the 21st century,” said Jim Sinocchi, head of disability inclusion at JPMorgan Chase. “What’s been fascinating to me is that you had to be prepared even before. How do you account for your people? What’s your deployment strategy? What does your technology look like?”

If business leaders didn’t ask themselves these questions before, they are certainly asking them now. Sinocchi says a company's ability to be prepared for anything not only sets you up for success when things do fall apart, but also gives your employees peace of mind that their leaders have their interests up front.

Redefining Your Values

“Work-life balance has a new meaning now,” said Karla Samdahl, global head of talent acquisition, people and Communities at Cisco Systems. “I have two sons, a 15-year-old freshman in high school and a 12-year-old sixth grader. Now I’m the teacher at home.”

As schools, gyms, and other activities move entirely online for the foreseeable future, employees are now juggling their daily work with home-schooling and caregiving for sick or elderly family members. Leaders who can actively shift and reprioritize their company values to meet these new needs will attract a more engaged and healthy workforce.

This includes taking a second look at benefits packages such as access to mental health professionals, support for working parents, tele-medicine, and extended PTO offerings.

Tracking Employee Engagement

With many employees working from home, and others under difficult frontline conditions, now is an important time to stay in touch with employee sentiment. Zendesk, a customer-service software company, runs employee-engagement surveys every six weeks. The results from their last survey surprised Fidelma Butler, VP of talent and organizational development. “Our data was through the roof,” she said. “Our employee engagement skyrocketed. Our effectiveness of our managers as rated by their employees was probably the most surprising, that went up significantly.”

Why so? Butler says this “crisis mode” has brought out inclusivity and empathy that drive employees and managers to naturally step up and take on the challenges before them. However, they need to be focused. Butler’s teams aim to establish what is and what is no longer a priority.

All panelists agreed that the baseline for engaging and attracting employees came down to culture. “Once you have a culture that everyone feels strongly about, you don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things, it’s sort of second nature,” said Sinocchi.

With the rise of technology, leaders can use unique solutions to find out who is thriving under new challenges and who may have additional stress and needs help during this pandemic.

Continuity of Inclusivity

Crisis or not, employees want to be heard and understood. Companies that effectively and seamlessly weave inclusivity into their culture will attract diverse talent. But keeping this inclusivity activated once employees are onboard is a different story.

Cisco provides a Talent Expo, a digital platform to discuss employee career trajectories, share their own journeys, and enhance their experience within the company. Samdahl said that it is these online learning opportunities that provide diverse employees a place to plan for the future and network with others.

Other ideas from Zendesk are wellness allowances and what Butler calls “Empathy Circles.” As the COVID-19 crisis has affected certain marginalized groups disproportionately, these online focus groups ask diverse employees how they are handling the current situation in their communities.

“Diversity is hard work,” says Sinocchi. “You just can’t say: ‘OK, we’ve got the right number of women, right number of black people, right number of disabled.’ It doesn’t stop there. Diversity is really about how do you treat people equitably and give them the foundation to become leaders in the business.”

Diversity is not only about hiring, and the numbers of people you bring into the organization, but how many of those diverse people you move into leadership positions. This includes incorporating technology to respond to their individual needs. “Technology is a great equalizer for people with disabilities,” added Sinocchi.

Repositioning Growth Opportunities

The most personal way to keep an employee invested is to provide solid mentorship. Whether they are fresh out of college or a mid-level employee looking to move up in the organization, having a trusted mentor goes a long way.

“We want our employees to know that they have a path and career within our company,” said Samdahl. “We’re creating dynamic teams to allow our employees to not only shadow but are giving them the opportunity to stretch and expand their learnings.”

But how can you ensure that these opportunities are being taken advantage of by employees? Sinocchi says this comes down to empowering employees and leaders to foster strong relationships with a foundation of trust.

“We find a lot in corporate that you have a laundry list of things, but do they work?” he said. When it comes to building a strong mentoring relationship, not only can employees step up, but leaders can provide their uninterrupted attention to those who put in the effort to seek mentorship. “Once you get to know people, that cultivates the richness in the business.”

Showing a Way Forward

If companies are in a hiring freeze, Butler suggests sending the message that prospective employees should continue to apply once the hiatus is over. Samdahl agreed, adding that communication with candidates, even those who don’t get chosen initially, is essential.

“Don’t leave them in a black hole,” she said. Cisco stays engaged with candidates with an internal talent network. “For those silver medalists that may have not gone forward, in a hiring pause we think about how we can keep them engaged and interested,” Samdahl said.

For company leadership, this includes staying active on social-media channels, communicating to employees and future job-seekers that you are still moving forward.

“Crisis is the mother of invention here,” noted Sinocchi. New programs including virtual internships and recruiting, stronger connectivity between teams, and more focus on culture and inclusion practices are certainly ahead. “It’s pretty exciting.”

Editor’s note: Thanks to those who joined this webinar live. Our next webinar, this Thursday, will focus on “How to Manage Employee Health and Well-Being During Stressful Times.” You can register here.

Mimi Hayes is a New York-based author, comedian, and assistant director of content at From Day One. You can read her work at mimihayes.com, check out her podcast "Mimi and The Brain," or find her first book, a comedic memoir about her traumatic brain injury on Amazon.