What’s in a top workplace this year? Rebuilding loyalty and retention

In a work world divided by remote, hybrid and on-site office workers, how do employers carve out a top workplace culture?

The past year has seen a radical shift in business operations as companies navigated a host of challenges, ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation, to supply chain backups and employee attrition via the Great Resignation.

Like it not, a new normal evolved as companies scrambled to hang on to their employees and keep them engaged.

To highlight the best of the best, the Southern California News Group is kicking off the nomination period for its annual Top Workplaces awards program. The survey gives employees the chance to celebrate an inclusive workplace culture that empowers them to succeed.

This year marks the 15th program in Orange County and its ninth year in the Inland Empire. We asked last year’s winners to share how they’re adapting and succeeding in this new normal.

The Great Resignation has presented some challenges to David King, CEO of Optima Tax Relief in Santa Ana. “It was much easier to have employee engagement when we were all together, but our employees have proved they can perform at a top level working remotely,” he said.(Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

David King, CEO at Optima Tax Relief, and his Santa Ana-based company captured the No. 2 slot among large Orange County companies in last year’s Top Workplaces survey.

The company has 680 employees, including 100 at its Arizona office, and King said about 85% of them are currently working remotely and enjoying their newfound work/life flexibility.

“The Great Resignation definitely hit us,” he said. “It was much easier to have employee engagement when we were all together, but our employees have proved they can perform at a top level working remotely.”

King said Optima has worked to retain a bonding atmosphere among staff, despite the fact that most employees no longer come to the office every day.

“We are doing things in the community outside of work, as well as on-site charitable events and fun events,” he said. “That really connects them to each other. We’ve also revamped our training programs. They used to be fragmented, but we combined them into one training program that everyone goes through. We’ve been very purposeful about all of this.”

Paramount Residential Mortgage Group, the Inland Empire’s large company winner in last year’s Top Workplaces program, has also pivoted.

“We’ve been nimble and have adapted to change,” said Paul Lucido, chief marketing officer for the Corona-based company. “Almost 90% of my staff is now working from home, and probably 75% of our overall workforce are working remotely.”

Lucido said Paramount employees have embraced the work-from-home model.

“They’re saving money on gas, so theoretically they all got a raise,” he said. “Morale has been good, although there’s still something to be said about collaborating and working together at a moment’s notice. But I can still have an entire team up on the Zoom screen.”

Lucido said the company’s production volume increased by nearly 13% in 2021 rising to $16.9 billion in funded loan volume.

“We are a progressive-minded company,” he said. “We’ve really opened up our minds to not being so rigid. ‘Faith, family, health, work,’ that’s our mantra.”

Regardless of workplace culture, a recent survey shows many employees are re-evaluating their options.

Data collected from more than 2 million workers surveyed by Energage show many were asking, “Is this really what I want to be doing with my life?”

The results show employee engagement from January through March of 2022 was 61.6% compared with 62.9% for all of 2021 and 65.3% in 2020.

Company loyalty is also on a downslide. It peaked at 74.4% in April 2020 but hovered around 65% throughout the first quarter of 2022.

Southern California economist Robert Kleinhenz said the labor market is tight.

“People might say that the labor market is not a whole lot different than before the pandemic, but the dynamics behind the numbers tell me that we’re not seeing a whole lot of growth — particularly in the younger portion.”

Teamwork and a sense of family has kept workplace culture thrive at Tait & Associates in Santa Ana. Seen here are Trevor Tait, managing director, left, Rich Tait, president, center, and Tom Tait, CEO. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

The supply of Gen X and millennial-age workers has remained fairly stable, Kleinhenz said, but there aren’t nearly enough younger workers ages 18 to 24 to backfill openings that occur as employees leave their jobs or retire.

“The labor market is essentially at full employment, but there’s no new reservoir to tap into,” he said. “At the national level, the number of job openings is far higher than the number of unemployed.”

Tait & Associates, a Santa Ana civil engineering and environmental services firm that ranked eighth in Orange County’s midsize category in last year’s Top Workplaces results, has held its own.

“We’ve been doing really well in attracting talent,” said Trevor Tait, a managing partner with the company. “We have a culture of kindness and one that values creativity. We are flexible in where people work. We’ve put those pieces together and have seen lots of benefits.”

Tait said some employees have chosen to leave, but those slots have been filled.

“Many people are evaluating a lot of things in their life,” he said. “Some made career changes, and we support that because we’ve gotten a lot of new talent.”

Tait & Associates has 220 employees scattered throughout the western U.S., with 110 in Orange County and the rest in the Inland Empire, San Diego, Northern California, Denver, Dallas, Bosie and Atlanta.

Tait said the company has worked to retain a level of camaraderie among its Orange County workers.

“We have monthly parties at the office and other fun events that create a reason for our employees to see people in person,” he said.

How to participate

Top Workplace nominations are open to any organization with 35 or more employees who will rate their workplaces in a 24-question survey.

All nominations must be in by June 24, and the results will appear in December and January. Last year 23,645 Orange County employees and 14,895 Inland Empire workers participated in the survey.

Those participating in Top Workplaces nominations for Orange County can find the survey here, and Top Workplaces nominations for Inland Empire businesses can be found here.