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Aron Ain is a face-to-face kind of leader.
The CEO of HR and workforce management software company UKG likes being in the same room with people, connecting in that way only handshakes and hugs can accomplish.
So COVID has been a challenge for him. Especially because 2020 turned out to be the year his former company, Kronos, merged with Ultimate Software to create UKG.
Using virtual meetings to integrate the two companies, with a combined 13,000 employees worldwide today, was not Ain’s preferred method. But he and his newly combined leadership team at UKG pulled it off anyway, unveiling the company’s new name and brand identity in August, hiring roughly 1,200 employees and exceeding revised revenue targets. UKG leaders relied heavily on the high-trust, caring cultures both Kronos and Ultimate had already established, as well as near-constant communication.
In that sense, COVID came with a silver lining for Ain and his team. By sending out “aron@work” videos shot by his wife on an iPhone roughly once a week, Ain revealed his humanity and vulnerability. And that in turn helped win over new employees even as it helped them cope with challenging times.
In a video published April 17, 2020, for example, Ain sat with his dog Sammy, admitted his own stress amid the pandemic, and urged employees to do what they needed to take care of themselves.
“I’m not having as much fun as I normally do. I feel a lot of anxiety at times. ... I’m not sure I’m really doing everything I can to look after my own needs, and my own care and my own self-care,” he said in the video. “I think it’s important that we take care of ourselves. I think it’s important that we have balance. So you have my permission in the middle of the day to go take a nap. You have my permission in the middle of the day to go play a video game. You have my permission in the middle of the day to go read a book … I trust you to get your work done. I want you to have balance in your life.”
Caring computes for the Best in Tech
Given Ain’s trust in and compassion for employees during a difficult year, it’s not surprising that UKG earned a place on the 2021 ranking of the Fortune Best Workplaces in Technology. Great Place to Work produced the list based on anonymous survey data representing nearly 122,000 employees working in the tech industry in the United States.
In the large-company category of the Best Workplaces in Technology, Cisco ranked first, followed by [hotlink]Salesforce[/hotlink] and UKG. In the small-and-medium company category, work management software firm Asana took the top spot, followed by security technology company Expel and information technology staffing firm Peterson Technology Partners.
The Best Workplaces in Technology stand out for taking care of their people amid the challenges of COVID, the related recession, the racial reckoning, and other crises the past 12 months.
Caring leaders at the Best Workplaces in Technology have been preparing their companies to thrive as the business world emerges from the COVID downturn. An analysis of employees’ experience during the pandemic by Great Place to Work revealed a strong tie between employee productivity and adaptability, on the one hand, and leadership that is honest and understanding, on the other.
The Best Workplaces in Technology also are demonstrating thoughtfulness as they imagine life after the pandemic. Industry leaders do not plan to return to offices in the same way they operated in 2019, nor do they expect to preserve a fully virtual work experience. Instead, the Best Workplaces in Technology are designing hybrid approaches, learning from the past year yet envisioning a better future for employees and business results.
The vow that went viral
A newcomer to the Best Workplaces in Technology this year is [hotlink]IBM[/hotlink]. The computing giant is famous for its sophisticated technology, artificial intelligence advances and savvy consulting services. But this past year, IBM stood out as much for its heart as for its brains. An incident involving an IBM employee in April, 2020, catalyzed a deep commitment to caring for IBMers throughout the pandemic.
Caroline Roche, a consultant in IBM’s technology design practice, experienced a scare as a mother. Her 10-month-old son rolled off a diaper changing table and fell to the floor. Roche’s son turned out to be fine. But Roche herself was still shaken when she appeared on a video conference call with her team later that day. When teammates asked if she was Ok, Roche shared the frightening episode.
That led Roche’s team to create a “Work From Home Pledge.” Among other things, everyone promised to be “family sensitive,” to have frequent check-ins and to be kind. They also agreed it is ok not to be “camera-ready”—audio participation in video calls is fine.
The pledge went viral within IBM.
Within a few days, IBM’s CEO, Arvind Krishna, had signed the pledge and promoted it on LinkedIn.
Nickle LaMoreaux, IBM’s chief human resources officer, says the WFH Pledge set a tone for the company—one where mental wellbeing would be prioritized and IBMers would take care of each other.
During the pandemic, IBM trained its approximately 30,000 managers to spot and address mental health issues and burnout, and asked managers to check in on how their team members are doing regularly.
“Work and life have completely blended,” LaMoreaux said. “There’s no more separation.”
In fact, she says, IBM plans to preserve its flexible, empathetic culture and focus on mental health as the COVID challenge comes to an end.
“How do you keep the empathy we all learned during the pandemic and keep it going after the crisis?” she said.
IBM and UKG imagine hybrid workplaces post-COVID
There is something that IBM plans to change in the months ahead as vaccines kick in around the world: where people work.
Before COVID, just 5 percent of IBMers worked remotely full-time. The remaining employees worked predominantly from client or IBM locations, taking advantage of IBM's flexible, broad-based work-from-home policy as needed.
When COVID hit, the vast majority of IBMers—roughly 95 percent of the company’s 350,000 employees worldwide—switched to full-time remote work for safety reasons. Now the figure is about 90 percent, LaMoreaux said.
When it is safe to return to the office, she said IBM will take a hybrid approach—blending the best of working remotely with the best of working in-person. When and how often an employee goes into the office will be determined by team-focused collaboration and work deliverables.
Bringing employees back to offices is in keeping with their wishes, LaMoreaux said. In a global brainstorm with IBMers—something the company calls a "Jam"—60 percent of employees indicated they wanted to work in IBM facilities one to three days a week. And 72 percent said they saw the office as having a vital role for employees to come together and collaborate on projects in the future.
It’s a similar story at UKG. Currently, the vast majority of UKG employees are working from home. But as the pandemic fades, Ain expects many employees to return to the company facilities, including UKG’s twin headquarters in Lowell, Mass. and Weston, Fla.
That’s partly because Ain believes that employees working in the same physical location collaborate and innovate more effectively. But it also reflects what employees are telling Ain—they are itching to return to the office at least some of the time.
“There’s a lot more people who want to get back than people appreciate,” he says.
In the meantime, Ain will continue communicating with his staff in virtual ways.
It isn’t easy for him. “The most difficult thing is not being able to be with each other,” he said. “I have 6,000 employees from Ultimate who don’t, like, know me.”
In months ahead, he’ll get to meet more and more of his people the way he likes best: face to face.
Get more information from Great Place to Work on how great workplace cultures are responding to the COVID-19 pandemic and related economic impacts.
Claire Hastwell is content marketing manager at Great Place to Work.
This story was originally featured on Fortune.com