Dissecting Fortune’s Newest 100 Best Companies to Work For List 

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Apr 20, 2021
This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.

It’s out! The 2021 Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For list has been released, giving the curious (like me) some fresh insights into what it might mean to be a great workplace during a year from hell. 

Though the 100 Best list has been around for decades, this year is different. Not the list itself, as it turns out — it includes a good number of companies that have made it before, although an impressive 20% are newcomers. But the requirements for getting on the list changed rather dramatically this year, and for that reason I was eager to see how companies responded. 

As I described in my last post, the process for applying to be recognized as a 100 Best Company usually starts during the spring of the previous year. Which means that the process for getting onto this year’s list would normally have begun in spring 2020 — not the most auspicious time to be wrapped up in describing your programs, policies, and culture, or for surveying your employees for their opinions on the matter. 

Great Place to Work, which administrators this list, dealt with the problem in four ways. 

  1. First, they moved back the deadline, so companies could delay getting started until fall. 
  2. Second, they reduced the usual array of open-ended essay questions on topics such as communications, values, diversity, etc., to one simple question: Tell us about the bold acts of leadership your organization has taken in response to the Covid-19 crisis to create a great workplace for all your people, in your community, or in the world.
  3. Third, although all entrants were required to conduct the confidential employee survey that is always a key component of the recognition, those who had entered previously were permitted to use results from the previous year, if those results turned out to be better. (A concession that does cast a bit of a pall on the final list.) 
  4. And, finally, they gave the employee survey a wee bit less weight — instead of representing 75% of a company’s final score, it represented just 60%. This change in weighting meant that 40% of an employer’s score was based on the one question — basically, how did you treat your employees, and the world at large, last year? 

I was curious to see what the answers would be. 

I should point out that it’s not like I actually got to see most companies’ responses. Employers who complete this application enjoy near-complete confidentiality; Fortune chooses what to highlight from the parts the companies are willing to share. That said, here is what I have gleaned some of the best employers did for their employees during our plague year: 

  • They announced (and stuck to) no lay-off policies, or, if their industry made that impossible, found ways to let employees go as humanely as possible. Some helped workers find other jobs. Some furloughed workers with at least partial pay and full benefits, and brought them back as soon as possible. 
  • They extended and expanded existing benefits, adding sick days and often copious amounts of PTO; enhancing health care coverage, mental health, and wellness services; and introducing or loosening the rules for job-guaranteed leave programs. They gave paid leave to employees caring for sick relatives.
  • They were particularly supportive of parents and other caregivers, as well as vulnerable workers. They gave caregivers extra time off, extra pay, or both, and offered programs for children ranging from tutoring to “virtual summer camp.” They allowed for more flexibility in working hours. One company, HP, even made a policy of starting Zoom meetings five or 10 minutes after the hour, so parents would have a chance to check up on their kids. Another, Target, gave fully paid leave to employees who were pregnant or over age 65.
  • They communicated, communicated, communicated! Leadership communications were vastly expanded; online platforms were created or enhanced and kept constantly updated. CEOs dropped in on meetings they wouldn’t normally be involved in, just to show support. The consulting firm Slalom opted to openly share financials with employees for the sake of greater trust and transparency. Another company, Marriott, held regular calls with furloughed employees to keep them up-to-date.
  • They did the maximum to keep onsite employees safe and gave vulnerable workers opt-out options. They purchased PPE, instituted stringent worksite safety rules, reassigned high-risk workers to safer jobs, or gave them job-guaranteed paid or unpaid leave. AbbVie set up a childcare relief fund for parents who had to come into work, providing grants up to $1500.
  • Companies that closed their worksites provided work-at-home employees with upgraded equipment, ergonomic furniture, or stipends to purchase both — or they simply let them help themselves to whatever they needed from their own offices. Meanwhile they kept their culture alive with virtual social events, fitness classes, and mental health breaks. And they did right by those who couldn’t do their jobs from home. American Express continued paying such workers. Several companies continued paying even their contract staff, such as maintenance and cafeteria workers. 
  • They provided financial support in myriad ways. They raised hourly wages for onsite workers, gave out one-time bonuses, and established employee relief funds or PTO-sharing banks. Target and Bank of America took this moment to permanently raise their minimum wage (to $15 and $20, respectively). At least one company supplemented the pay of staff who normally work on commission. To enable this and other sorts of generosity, many leaders and board members took pay cuts or, as in the case of Robert Half’s CEO, no salary at all.
  • They responded to last summer’s outcry for social justice by making tangible commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion, both within their companies and in the larger community. They held discussion groups, examined their own cultures and pay structures, and gave employees extra paid time off to reflect, recover, or get involved. They gave generously to HCBUs, the National Urban League, and other local and national groups supporting Black Lives Matter. At least one company, Twilio, made Juneteenth a permanent holiday.
  • They gave — a lot — to their local communities. They donated respirators and hotel rooms to hospital workers, supported local schools and virtual schooling with equipment, space, and funding, and donated food and money to community organizations. Manufacturing companies churned out PPE and hand sanitizer, and at least once company, Dow, made its face shield designs available to the public. 

Of course, any company can pay lip service to these sorts of “bold acts of leadership.” But it turns out that 71% of the companies on this year’s list saw an uptick in their employee survey scores in 2020. In other words, people at most of the “100 Best” companies felt better about their employer during one of the worst years of our collective lives, than they did in the relatively normal year that preceded it. How incredible is that?

This article is part of a series called COVID-19 Coverage.
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