Telecommuting options, green initiatives are growing trends among top companies.January 30, 2013 5:59 AM
by Gary Robertson
Photo by Mark Rhodes
Bringing pets to the office is one of the work/life balance perks for employees at WR Systems in Norfolk.It’s a warm Friday in July. The weekend beckons.
And at the accounting firm Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer PC in Norfolk the doors close early.
For 11 weeks every year — mostly during the summer — the Norfolk-based company shuts down at noon on Friday, and turns its employees loose.
The early closings are one of the company’s perks in an era when many companies ― especially the best ones in competitive industries ― are trying to distinguish themselves from the pack to recruit and retain stellar employees.
Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer ranks 22nd among small companies on this year’s list of the Best Places in Virginia to Work.
The firm’s employee practices touch on growing trends in the best-workplace practices: such as a liberal policy toward telecommuting in a population that’s becoming increasingly mobile and a nod to environmental stewardship, especially when it means good business.
This is the third year that Virginia Business has compiled the Best Places to Work in Virginia in cooperation with Best Companies Group, a Pennsylvania-based firm.
In 2012, 108 companies registered to become one of Virginia’s Best Places to Work, and 80 were selected in three size categories: small (15-99 U.S. employees); medium (100-249); and large, (250 or more).
The Best Companies Group made its selection based on surveys from the companies and their employees.
Employees benchmarked their companies on a list of core values: leadership and planning; corporate culture and communication; role satisfaction; work environment; relationship with supervisor; training and benefits; pay benefits and overall employee engagement.
Among small companies on the Best Places to Work list, 67 percent regard telecommuting as standard practice; among medium companies it’s 47 percent; and for large companies, it’s 65 percent.
Heather Sunderlin, director of employee services at Wall, Einhorn & Chernitzer, says that telecommuting practices are tied to the embrace of software scanning technology.
Compared with the old days in which accountants were swamped with documents, “We are essentially paperless,” Sunderlin says.
The result is that many employees do much of their work online and can operate from virtually anywhere with an Internet connection. This development, in turn, has led to an improved work/life balance, Sunderlin says.
“I believe our employees are happier,” she says, noting that they could look after a sick child or meet a repairman at home, knowing they could go online to keep in touch with the office or resume work on a project.
Best Places companies also show a heightened concern about the environment. Among companies asked if they promote sustainable or green practices, 97 percent of small companies said, yes; for medium companies, it was 93 percent; and for large companies, 92 percent.
One company that places a high priority on giving its employees every opportunity — and then some — to become friends of the environment is the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) in Arlington, ranked No. 7 among the best medium-sized companies.
CEA is a trade association with more than 2,000 company members. It offers its 134 employees a monthly $120 Metro subsidy, discounted parking for employees who carpool to work and a $25,000 loan toward the purchase of a house in Arlington to encourage a shorter commute to and from work. (According to residential real estate firm Long & Foster, the median sales price for an Arlington home in November was more than $500,000.)
If an employee applies for the loan and is approved, the company can forgive it — meaning the employee doesn’t have to repay it — after three years. Employees are eligible for the loan after one year of employment and must be in good standing.
In addition, the company has lockers and bike racks and an on-site gym to encourage workers to walk or bike to work.
Krista Silano, CEA’s communications coordinator, says that “going green” is a rising trend in the consumer electronics industry. “Since CEA promotes the industry, we want our office to reflect what is important to the industry,” Silano says.
An emphasis on flex time and a work/life balance is one of the reasons that WR Systems Ltd. in Norfolk, a systems engineering firm with 300-plus employees, was named Psychologically Healthy Workplace Award winner in 2009 by the American Psychological Association.
It’s kept up the good work, ranking No. 2 among large companies in the Best Companies competition.
For example, when new employees report to their desk for the first time, there’s a chocolate bar waiting for them along with a hand-written note from their manager welcoming them to the team.
Job-sharing means that at least two people are trained to do each job, enabling employees to take time off — for an illness or other reasons — without delaying a project.
Employees also can bring their children to the office when there is no child care available — and their dogs, if they want to do that. The dogs usually show up on Fridays.
All told, the company has a culture of its own, and Debbie Odell, its director of culture, works to make sure that it remains intact. “A lot of us have read that when you go above the 250 [employee] mark, you can lose that culture unless you pay attention. I’m here to pay attention,” Odell says.
The most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that nearly 47 percent of the total work force is female, and people 55 and over represent 19 percent.
But when 85 percent of your work force is female and 25 percent is 50 or older and you want to hold on to their experience, then an employer has to create a culture that speaks to those employee groups.
That’s what Bon Secours Virginia, a health-care system, has strived to do. Bon Secours ranks 23rd among large companies on the list of Best Places in Virginia to work.
To accommodate its predominantly female work force, Bon Secours has worked to become family friendly, with onsite subsidized child-care centers at three locations in the Richmond area that take care of employees’ children and grandchildren. The costs to employees vary depending on the age of the children, whether the employee is full or part-time and other factors.
“We take care of 450 children a day. We open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m.,” says Dawn Trivette, administrative director for work and family services.
Bon Secours Virginia also helps parents with sick children through the company’s Rainbow Station Get Well Place. Employees pay $9 daily, and the company picks up the rest of the cost.
Trivette says Bon Secours also has been working to determine why experienced health-care workers leave before typical retirement age.
Among other reasons, the company found that nurses at all levels frequently are required to do heavy lifting, and this becomes harder as they age. It also can cause injuries.
To help, Bon Secours established Patient Mobility Teams — employees who assist nurses in moving and repositioning patients — sometimes with the aid of special equipment.
Today, Trivette says Bon Secours has employees in their 80s who still are working. “I think our oldest employee is 87,” she says.
In fact, many of Virginia’s Best Places to Work have instituted practices to recruit and retain an aging work force.
Among small companies, 64 percent report such practices; 87 percent of medium companies do; and, 81 percent of large companies.
There seems to be general agreement among employees at the Best Places to Work that they are being fairly paid.
Small company employees have the highest percentage of agreement — 87 percent on that question — with 82 percent of employees at medium-sized companies saying yes, and 83 percent of employees working at large companies agreeing.
Large companies are in the lead among companies that offer employees paid time off for community-service activities and volunteer work.
It breaks down this way: large companies, 73 percent; medium-sized companies, 47 percent; small companies, 56 percent.
Mixing good business with good works, many companies have remarkable and varied community service projects.
These are just a few:
- Arc Aspicio of Arlington, a Homeland Security and intelligence firm ranking 32nd on the list of small companies, actively supports the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation;
- Endurance IT Services of Virginia Beach, ranking fourth among small companies, helps support a therapeutic horse riding program for children with special needs;
- Valkyrie Enterprises, LLC of Virginia Beach, a defense contracting firm ranking third on the list of midsized companies, donates a personalized, hand-stitched American flag to a family that has lost a loved-one in service to the country, each time it hires a new employee.
All in all, Virginia companies are finding new ways to be the best places to work. From telecommuting to opportunities for community service and bringing their dogs to work, employees feel valued.
Employer Survey Results
Virginia Business Best Places to Work 2013
Top Small Employer: Knight Point Systems LLC
List of small employers
Top Midsize Employer: NES Associates
List of midsize employers
Top Large Employer: Accounting Principals - Richmond
List of large employers
Related story: Unusual perks
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