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Before the pandemic, a work team might have sat around a table in a conference room and discussed the weather, or the latest sports scores, before delving into work. You might have known that your colleagues had kids or were married, but chances are you would not have known the kids’ names or how the couple met.

Since large numbers of people began working remotely, though, we have learned far more about our colleagues and employees, from the reactions their dogs have to squirrels, to what their tired 2-year-old sounds like, and just how much someone’s partner likes mid-century modern. With so many people working from their homes, we got to know our colleagues as whole people, which comes with a whole host of benefits.

Will some of those benefits stick around in the post-pandemic era? During a recent From Day One webinar on “Recognizing Employees for Both Their Work and Life,” sponsored by the employee-recognition platform Achievers, a panel of HR leaders talked about the lessons learned for making the workplace more open and welcoming. Each of the five speakers highlighted a different method. Among the highlights of the conversation, moderated by Shana Lebowitz Gaynor, author and correspondent for Insider:

Engagement Through Volunteering

For Zebra Technologies, a mobile-computing company, volunteering is a passion, said Melissa Luff Loizides, VP of HR. The company has 120 offices in 54 countries and is always seeking ways to build ties between employees. “Volunteering has been a great opportunity to do that,” said Loizides. “We give employees 32 hours a year to volunteer someplace that is a personal or corporate passion for them.”

Although it is leadership-led, volunteering has grassroots strength. Zebra just completed its third annual Zebra Gives campaign and saw “exponential growth” in employee contributions. “I think that really speaks to the whole self of our employees,” said Loizides. A large group of U.S.-based employees completed the Great Cycle Challenge to raise funds for childhood cancer research and care. Together they brought in more than $100,000. “That’s hundreds of Zebras donating their time and getting others to join in the contributions.”

Personal Connections in a Hybrid World

Allison Lyons, VP of HR for Frontier Communications, a digital infrastructure company, is no stranger to remote working arrangements. She led dispersed, remote teams before the pandemic. Over the last ten years, she learned that when you can’t be physically present with employees on a daily basis, it becomes imperative to have regularly scheduled check-ins to gain insight into their personal journeys and struggles.

Speaking on recognition, top row from left: Mario Ellis of WellSpan Health and Allison Lyons of Frontier Communications. Middle row: Fahd Alvi of Oerlikon, Melissa Luff Loizides of Zebra Technologies, and moderator Shana Lebowitz Gaynor. Bottom row: Denise Malloy of Johnson Controls (Image by From Day One)

Lyons mentioned one former employee who wanted to be with her grandmother in the hospital at the end of her life. At a time when remote work wasn’t yet commonplace, Lyons allowed her employee work from her grandmother’s bedside for several months.

“She was able to be there, but also still participate as an employee and not feel stretched. At that time it felt different for someone to be able to do that.” Frontier carried that philosophy forward into the pandemic, and now it’s not such a strange occurrence for employees to have the flexibility to work from wherever they need to be.

Having a progressive attitude about the whole lives of workers has helped companies compete in the recent war for talent, said Denise Malloy, VP and global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) for Johnson Controls. But at world-class companies with best-in-class employment policies, the rate of attrition has not changed all that much.

“Culture is the way to win the war,” she said. “If you solidify your culture, if you take care of your people, if you provide opportunities, you will do a much better job of winning the war for talent than if you simply try to establish the brand and get people in the door. That can be easy. But can you keep them there?” The upshot: “Never allow work to trump our humanity,” Malloy said.

In Benefits and Rewards, Everyone’s Needs Are Different

Oerlikon, an engineering and technology innovation firm, initially looked to compensation as a method of improving retention, said Fahd Alvi, head of rewards and organizational effectiveness. Oerlikon took a living-wage approach and found gaps, especially among hourly workers. Once that was sorted, Alvi said they addressed other benefits.

For example, Alvi sent out a benefits survey in the heart of the pandemic. “It was an eye opener. Everyone’s priority is different, and everybody’s needs are different.” They had medical, dental, and vision (coverage), but there was a gap in behavioral health. Oerlikon investigated the active-lifestyle model that it promoted among employees and found they didn’t fund that stated goal. As a result, the company added free gym memberships for employees. Other additions included childcare and eldercare benefits. In all, a dozen new benefits, most of them company-paid, were added as a result of the feedback gained through that benefits survey.

Retention has improved, and employees feel that they are heard and that they have access to benefits their competitors do not offer. “They saw we were investing in them beyond just pay,” Alvi said.

WellSpan Health, a Pennsylvania-based integrated health system, developed a peer-to-peer recognition program for its employees to encourage affinity within the company. Mario Ellis, VP of total rewards at the company, said they created badges tied to company values that anyone can award to anyone else. The badge is delivered to both the person and their manager. There is also an internal page where those commendations are shared within the company. “That helps build engagement,” he said. Thousands have been awarded. During August, every day has different events tied to the badges that bring people together whether they work from home, on-site, or in a hybrid model.

Will the Changes Be Enduring?

Lyons said the pandemic has helped drive home for many people how employees lead whole other lives. “You see each other in a different way,” she said. “The prevailing wisdom has generally been that when you work remote, you’re less connected. But it’s not uncommon for people to ask about my husband and my two kids and ask questions in ways that they wouldn’t have ever asked if we were just in a conference room talking about the weather and moving on.”

The big events of your life, if supported at work, can stay with you for your whole career. Lyons recalled earlier in her career, when she worked for Mayo Clinic, her mother was dying. Because of her employer’s flexibility, she was able to bring her mother to her chemo appointments and work from the hospital. “There’s very little that’s positive about that experience. But one of the blessings is that it changed who I was, as a person made me a better human, a better parent, better manager. I very much understand when my when my team goes through things. These are short periods of an employee’s long life. Take care of your grandmother, work remotely, it’s fine. When we give people that grace, they work harder. And that’s a retention strategy.”

Lyons tries to ensure her team doesn’t have to ask for certain basic kinds of support. For example, she doesn’t schedule meetings first thing in the morning, when people might be getting their kids off to school, or right at the end of the day, when they may have other family responsibilities. “At the end of the day, if people don’t feel cared about, it doesn’t matter–you can give me the best pay and benefits, but if you tell me I can’t make my kid’s event, I’m out.”

Ellis agreed that when you have a team member who needs support, you should find a way to provide it, and you should provide methods for individuals’ humanity and personality to shine through. “At the end of meetings, I ask what’s going on in their lives. We go around the room and talk about what we’re going to do for the weekend or what’s going on with our child or what’s going on in a family. It brings a sense of humanity to the team.” People may not leave because of compensation or benefits, he said, but will consider it if they don’t have a good relationship internally with their peers or their manager.

Loizides has a child with special needs at home, and during the lockdown period of the Covid-19 pandemic, her son would ask her every day what she wanted to drink, often while she was on Zoom meetings. Loizides said she could have turned off her camera, but she didn’t. She would ask her son playfully for some bubbly, and he would bring her seltzer water. It was a moment of humor and humanity. “We came together and celebrated our children and our spouses and our crazy dogs and cats and all other sorts of things that were going on. As we’e moving back into the office environment, now we can appreciate that we’re all showing up to work in different ways.”

Lisa Jaffe is a freelance writer who lives in Seattle with her son and a very needy rescue dog named Ellie Bee. She enjoys reading, long walks on the beach, and trying to get better at ceramics.