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COVID Can’t Keep These Employers Down

Published Wednesday Dec 2, 2020

Author Matthew J. Mowry

Employees at Vapotherm. Courtesy photo.

With schools suddenly shutdown when the pandemic hit, many parents found themselves working from home while simultaneously helping their kids learn online. So Vapotherm set up an emergency child care relief fund for its employees.

The Exeter-based company, which makes medical equipment used to treat acute respiratory distress, is the essence of an essential business in this pandemic, and it needed all hands on deck to meet an increased demand for its products. To help ease the pressure on parents, Vapotherm paid $100 per week per child (under age 13) to help cover child care in April and May, paying out tens of thousands of dollars, says Lindsey Becker, vice president of human resources.

And as schools and families enter another unusual school year with some students back in school and others blending virtual and in-person classes, SkyTerra Technologies, an IT cloud advisor and development firm in Nashua, hired a tutor for the fall semester to help employees’ children navigate school work.

The tutor will help students understand their assignments, and even work with teachers to ensure assignments are completed, says Co-Founder Dan Bergeron. He says the tutor will help alleviate some of the stress parents felt this past spring and allow employees to be more focused.

SkyTerra employees participating in a virtual concert during the pandemic. Courtesy photo.

As companies strive to survive this pandemic, many are leaning into their corporate culture. They know if they take care of employees, their employees will take care of their customers.

The Best Companies to Work For winners are prime examples of how a healthy corporate culture is an asset in a crisis.

Our winners say supportive leadership is imperative right now. At a recent online COVID-19 update with employees, Eric Soederberg, president and CEO of Sunrise Labs in Bedford, asked employees to not only consider how to survive the crisis but also to ask what they want to come out of it. “What assumptions has this crisis brought into question for you? Have you found new clarity regarding what is most important to you? Have we discovered better or more efficient ways to communicate and coordinate? I’d love to hear your ideas,” he said.

Among other perks, employees at Sunrise Labs, seen here at the 2019 Best Companies to Work For Celebration, were given extra vacation days to decompress from the stress of the pandemic. Courtesy photo.

Flexibility and Time Off
With workers facing serious illness, caring for kids, elderly parents and other challenges, many companies are offering flex-time options. Geophysical Survey Systems Inc. (GSSI), a developer of ground penetrating radar equipment in Nashua, sent its workforce home to work, including employees whose jobs cannot be performed remotely, while still covering their pay.

A couple of remote workers asked if they could donate their vacation time to co-workers who couldn’t work from home. That became a company-wide conversation, resulting in GSSI receiving 1,700 hours of vacation time from employees who could work at home. “We were able to keep those 25 employees home for four weeks, with full pay, and they didn’t need to use any of their vacation or sick time,” says Robin Finnegan, HR manager.

Sunrise Labs gave every full-time employee three extra days to use over the summer for self-care and to decompress from all the stress. During a company meeting, Soederberg encouraged employees to take those days saying, “We have more flexibility now, please get in a habit of stopping work at a reasonable hour and do something fun.”

Lindt USA, the chocolatier in Stratham, sent office employees home to work while paying those in manufacturing who needed to stay home two-thirds of their pay for up to 10 weeks in line with the Families First Coronavirus Act. Lindt did so even though it was ineligible for tax credits because it was “the right thing to do,” says Joe Wentworth, a recruiter for Lindt.  

To implement increased safety measures, Lindt also accelerated its planned spring production shutdown to begin in late March and extended it from one week to two, providing employees with an extra week of paid time off at a cost of more than $400,000 to the company.

When COVID-19 reared, Bellwether Community Credit Union in Manchester issued new employees their full vacation and sick day allotment, waiving its usual 90-day wait. And CCA Global in Manchester added sick days for employees.

Supporting Families
When finding child care became particularly problematic, Novocure, a firm that develops cancer therapies in Portsmouth that is expecting to remain remote through January, helped parents find alternative child care. When the cost was more expensive, they reimbursed employees for the difference.

For employees who had to take COVID-related leave, Impax Asset Management, a socially responsible investment firm in Portsmouth, paid the difference between the federal coronavirus paid leave stipend and their normal salary.

Keeping Morale Up
For many employees, working from home was isolating and working during a pandemic was stressful. So many of the Best Companies sought to engage employees, keep spirits up and show appreciation.

As a way to say thank you, Vapotherm put together weekly care packages filled with hard-to-get essentials like toilet paper, paper towels, sanitizer and shelf-stable food for its 130 production employees who were working six days a week. “When we announced we were doing this, one person actually cried. It was very sweet,” Becker says.

Sunrise Labs leveraged their culture of gratitude by highlighting employees’ accomplishments on an electronic message board in the break room. Not wanting remote workers to miss out, the company posted messages on Slack under the subtitle Water Cooler. Fairly quickly, people started posting their own messages of support.

Calling All Cargo, a moving company in Dover, added a built-in tip for the movers who take on the additional risk of infection and COVID-related monthly bonuses. Says Manager Josh Leonard, “We want to make sure the movers feel like they are well taken care of and appreciated.”

Online Perks
Companies are also finding ways to offer perks virtually. Sunrise moved its onsite nutrition, yoga and meditation online.
Novocure offers mindfulness sessions both onsite and online. And Impax Asset Management held a mental health workshop online to help employees cope with stress.

Keeping Connected
One of the challenges of a largely remote workforce is how to keep those workers connected to each other and the company’s culture. Does culture translate over Zoom?

To that end, Brendan P. Keegan, CEO of Merchants Fleet in Hooksett, held weekly virtual hangouts to reduce employees’ anxiety and bring employees together virtually to have fun. These group Zoom sessions included Bring Your Pet to Work Day, Bring Your Kids to Work Day and a Show and Tell Day where employees showed off their hobbies, and even a talent show.

“We learned so much about everyone because they are in their home environment,” says Alicia Hart, vice president of human resources. “Our culture got stronger  as it allowed us to share more personally.”

Keegan was going into the office daily with his dog, Cricket, who became a mascot for employees. Once a week, Keegan would bring around a snack cart for employees, which was dubbed the “Cricket Cart.”

CCA Global’s HR Department and COVID-19 Crisis Management Committee held a series of Thinking of You communications to keep staff connected through positive messages while providing reminders of supports available. CCA also shared employee photos of their families and pets through emails dubbed “Home-Office Helpers.”

Through mid-July, Bill Condron, president and CEO of The Granite Group, a plumbing, heating and PVF wholesale distributor in Concord, sent daily emails to employees, usually a video, communicating the good and bad from short-term furloughs to rising sales.

House Calls
A department director at Sunrise Labs made a house-call to repair plumbing for an employee who was hesitant to let a plumber into his home. And at Bellwether, IT staff visited employees having trouble connecting.

Amid plans for taking temperatures, wearing masks, installing plexiglass dividers, reconfiguring spaces for social distancing, amping up HVAC systems and having many employees work remotely, these companies remembered connections, kindness and culture still matter.

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