West Michigan Business Leaders Offer Best Practices to Face ‘New Reality’

Therese Smith (right), director of education and programs for the Best and Brightest, moderated a panel discussion featuring (from left) Shaquandra Gordon, senior vice president of Human Resources at EQI, Ltd., Becky Ploeg, vice president of people and culture at Comfort Research and Karen Baldwin, executive vice president and director of Human Resources at Greenleaf Trust.

Businesses have faced a number of challenges in the last few years, with Covid shutdowns, supply chain issues and a stubborn economy.

Those challenges have caused companies to make a slew of changes, some of which remain in place now.

Some of the most prominent business leaders in West Michigan gathered for the presentation of the “Best of the Best” awards at the recent 2023 West Michigan Best and Brightest Companies to Work For celebration.

Held at The Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville, the 21st annual ceremony recognized organizations that display a commitment to excellence in their human resource practices and employee enrichment.

And while they were there, leaders offered their expertise in a series of panel discussions designed to showcase some of the best practices companies have implemented in the wake of the pandemic.

Panel talks
One such panel discussions centered on Energizing Culture in a Hybrid and In-Person Work Environment. Led by Therese Smith, director of Education and Programs for Best and Brightest, the panel featured:

  • Karen Baldwin, executive vice president and director of Human Resources at Greenleaf Trust;
  • Shaquandra Gordon, senior vice president of Human Resources at EQI, Ltd.; and
  • Becky Ploeg, vice president of People and Culture at Comfort Research.

The discussion centered around employee engagement, reinforcing company culture, fostering team bonding for hybrid and remote staffers, negative vs. positive factors in the changing work environment, and effective formulas for setting up a positive work culture.

A big part of the talk centered on hybrid work, in many cases the “new normal” since the beginning of the pandemic. Panelists acknowledged the pandemic forced their hand in that regard.

“It was difficult for a lot of individuals because we’re spread out all across Michigan and we also have offices in Florida and Delaware,” said Baldwin, the HR director for Greenleaf Trust, a wealth management company. “We did not have any kind of technology to really support or facilitate that connectiveness prior to Covid.

“It’s kind of ironic that about three weeks before everybody went home (due to Covid shutdowns) we got video conferencing, which nobody wanted to try or use,” she added. “So after Covid hit it was one of the most widely adopted technologies that we’ve ever had at Greenleaf.”

Shifting work models
When Michigan shut down in Michigan in spring 2020 Greenleaf, like most businesses, sent everybody home to work. The company went from 100% in-person to 100% virtual.

After 18 months or so, Greenleaf began bringing people back.

Greeenleaf Trust is a wealth management company and sent everybody home, and went from being 100% in person to 100% virtual. The company did that for about a year-and-a-half.

When people started to come back to the office in other businesses, Greenleaf had staffers who wanted to make their way back to work, too, and started coming back in.

While Greenleaf has people who still work remotely half the time, Baldwin said an interesting dynamic had developed.

“We have a lot of people who, because of the pandemic, have found this renewed zest for life and know there’s more than just coming into the office every day,” she said. “It’s been fascinating to see how many people across all the different areas of Michigan and the different states, how connected they actually feel since videoconferencing has come around.”

That new sense of connection has allowed Greenleaf staffers to continue getting the job done, Baldwin said, enough so that leaders haven’t felt the need to put together an actual policy on hybrid work.

“We’re just being flexible working with everyone making sure they’re able to meet all their needs at home and still meet the needs in the workplace,” she said.

Forcing the shift
Gordon, the vice president of Human Tesources at EQI, Ltd., a global foundry company that supplies metal castings to OEM’s in the Heavy Equipment, Industrial, and Commercial markets, agreed Covid forced a shift in how things were done.

EQI has largely brought everyone back to the office, but staffers are allowed to work three days in the office, and two days – of their own choosing – from home.

“One of the things that has allowed this to work is having a company calendar where we’re putting who’s in the office and who’s out, so we’re not constantly going to a person’s desk and asking, ‘where are they?’” Gordon said. “You can easily go to the calendar and see so-and-so is home today so I can contact them through Teams rather than waiting for them to pop back up at their desk.”

Becky Ploeg, vice president of People and Culture at Grand Rapids-based Comfort Research, a product design and manufacturing company, said her company, like so many others, had to make “quick adjustments on the fly” as the pandemic changed things.

Comfort Research had another issue. Being a multi-state entity, they had to make sure they were following the shutdown requirements of each state, which differed considerably.

Weathering the storm
In Grand Rapids, for instance, where the company is headquartered, staffers were sent home. However, Comfort Research weathered the inconvenience better than some because they had already adopted the use of Microsoft Teams.

“If I called someone I could see them, so we were always very connected visually,” Ploeg said. “It’s just what our culture is, it’s who we were. We wanted to be that connected.

Some staffers, during Covid, chose to be in the office the entire time, and when the company made the decision to bring everyone back, the first thing leaders did was reach out.

That was in the summer, when parents still had kids at home and other barriers. So the decision was made to delay implementation until September.

“In mid-September we celebrated everyone coming back,” Ploeg said. “We decided we wanted three key days we want people in the office (Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday); (employees) could work what works for them on Monday and Friday.

“We were seeing people using Mondays to set themselves up for the week, the office is vibrant Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, and Friday is used for people to follow up on anything they needed for the next week,” she said.

Smith, the discussion’s moderator, pointed out that the top complaint MichBusiness hears from CEOs is that they want people back to in-person work, the “way it was.”

Leadership styles
Panelists agreed.

“I know our CEO would love to have everybody back in the office and have it be the way it was,” Greenleaf’s Baldwin said. “We have a work force … able to make sure they stay focused on the client. We’re about 63% women and a lot of those women have children. The day care issues and those types of things … because everything was not planned and so sporadic we really have just decided that people have made good choices, they’re doing what they need to do, we are not mandating coming back.

“Does that change our culture? Maybe a little bit,” she said. “But we have the benefit of technology, we have video conferencing, we have cell phones … I think about what this could have been like if this was 15-20 years ago and how different that would have felt for people. But we have the ability to stay connected through so many different ways that I don’t know if it’s necessary for people to be in every day.”

EQI’s Gordon agrees that’s what CEOs want, but said she wonders why?

“What do you feel you’re missing by people not being in the office? When it comes down to it, most of the time they’re not missing anything other than, ‘I just don’t feel like I have control,’” Gordon said. “The workplace is changing, the workforce is changing, technology is changing. But the one thing that is not changing is our leadership styles.

“The way we lead today is the same way we led decades ago,” she added, drawing an outburst of laughter “We have to get flexible.”

A second panel discussion was led by Jennifer Kluge, the Best and Brightest Programs CEO, and featured:

  • Dave Smith from The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit human resources support group;
  • Kellie Norton, director of Administration with Blue Cross Blue Shield of Michigan; and
  • Tricia Huizinga, director of Human Resources for Baudville Brands.

In-person vs hybrid
The panel talked about obstacles business leaders have been confronted by over the last few years, such as inflation, supply-chain issues and the development of business culture between in-person and hybrid work environments.

Much of the discussion centered around the biggest challenges facing businesses over the last year and how those obstacles were overcome.

Dave Smith from The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit human resources support group, helped the human resources groups within companies.

He thinks the biggest issue leaders have faced is finding and retaining qualified people.

“I emphasize the ‘qualified,’ because in West Michigan we tend to be impatient and we don’t want to train,” Smith said. “We want someone who can step into the job and do it now. We often make the mistake of hiring someone who can do the job that’s needed now and not the job they could go into.”

One of the biggest attributes leaders look for, according to Smith, is what he called “cultural fit,” or the way someone fits into the organization and where they could go, based on what they’ve done, rather than what could they do based on what they’ve done.

“When companies start to make that change, it’s a long road, not a short road,” Smith said. “But we’ve seen a lot of success with members often retaining people, and quite often attaining people.

“If they do have someone who leaves, (we tell them) don’t burn the bridge,” he added. “If you really have good culture, they’re probably going to come back, and it usually isn’t all that long. The grass is not always greener on that side.”

Shifting staffers
Norton, the director of Administration for Blue Cross Blue Shield Michigan, said her organization had “a lot of folks leave” just before the pandemic hit.

The departures allowed BCBSM to promote people, but it also gave the organization with a lot of opportunities to backfill position and train people.

“That’s where our challenge came, getting folks into those open positions, and now we have a lot of new folks who need continued training,” Norton said. “From that, our call center itself is in continued need of backfill.

“That’s really where our challenge is,” she added. “They’re great jobs, but there’s training involved. It’s complicated, great work, but you have to learn how to navigate that.”

Smith had one piece of advice.

“Be intentional in your hiring process and act quickly,” he said. “Don’t try to find 10 candidates. If you find someone who’s the third candidate and he or she is good, hire them.”

Kluge pointed out statistics that show there’s a “high demand for talent in some areas” but a decrease in hiring, or even layoffs, in others.

Sometimes, she said, employers can’t “hire them fast enough,” but the danger is hiring too quickly and not getting it right.

“If you hire them too fast, it messes things up,” Kluge said. “They say it’s a 10-to-1 ratio. For everybody you hire you multiply their salary by 10. If you train them and they don’t work out, that’s the cost to the company.”