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A Business’s Greatest Asset: The Team

Equity initiatives intensify for employees and city residents during and after the pandemic.

Newark has been described as a “city on the rise,” and a big part of that trajectory is due to its burgeoning business community. The state’s most populous city continues to attract companies with affordable rents, proximity to Manhattan and ample air travel and commuter rail facilities. Additionally, many Newark corporations tend to be trailblazers when it comes to treating employees with fairness and empathy, promoting equity in the ranks, and giving back to the community through outreach programs and philanthropic efforts.

The focus on all of these practices has been intensified during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many of Newark’s major corporations taking an “employee first” attitude, and putting programs in place to promote physical and emotional health and well-being for staff and Newark residents alike.

“From the day we closed and sent everyone home on March 10 of last year to today, we have been staying close to the pulse of how our employees are feeling, not only with productivity at work, but also with their families and own personal mental health,” says Anne Erni, chief people officer at Audible. “People went through a major transition in working from home, and many of our employees felt a sense of isolation, so we’ve provided employee assistance programs and gone deeper on a much more personal level with psychotherapy services for anyone who has needed them.”

As employees begin to return to the office, Audible has given them an unlimited budget to take Ubers and Lyfts to and from work in August and September, while also reimbursing them for private parking. In addition, the company has worked to improve the employee experience with programs like Meeting-Free Thursday afternoons for “heads-down” work; virtual presentations by management on subjects like managing stress, burnout and beating the winter blues; and virtual meditations for people to relax their minds and improve their physical and mental well-being. “You might think a corporation setting aside 30 or 40 minutes after lunch to do a meditation is a little touchy feely, but these types of efforts have become a real drumbeat for our organization,” Erni says.

Prudential Financial, established in Newark in 1875, has also catered to employees during the pandemic by offering consultations with on-staff nurses, covering co-pay and co-insurance costs for COVID-19 testing, temporarily suspending layoffs to eliminate worry over job security, and offering an additional day off to eligible employees to reinforce the importance of well-being.

“Fortunately, we had a robust employee health and wellness program in place before the crisis that we were able to tap into to address specific needs as challenges have evolved over the past 18 months,” says Lucien Alziari, Prudential’s chief human resources officer (CHRO).

At the same time, Public Service Enterprise Group (PSEG) expanded childcare benefits and tutoring resources, and instituted temporary paid time off for those sick with COVID-19, caring for a sick family member, or getting the vaccines. Meanwhile, Horizon Blue Cross Blue Shield of New Jersey (Horizon) offered employees a variety of free services during the pandemic, including virtual fitness classes through its Journey to Health Program; access to subsidized/reduced cost childcare through its partnership with KinderCare; webinars for working parents trying to navigate childcare issues; and support with emotional health and well-being through its Employee Assistance Program, including 24/7 phone or online support.

WORK/LIFE BALANCE BOLSTERED BY FLEX SCHEDULES

With offices at Newark’s Gateway Center, the law firm of McCarter & English hosts regular Town Hall meetings (virtual, during the pandemic) to discuss “work/life balance,” a defining part of the company culture. In addition to a longstanding Employee Assistance Program, the firm last year launched an Enhanced Wellness Initiative, which offers regular wellness programming, personal coaching sessions, and confidential therapy sessions to lawyers, staff and their families – all fully covered by the firm.

Flex or hybrid schedules, already popular at some of Newark’s more progressive companies before 2020, have become something of a standard with the social distancing constraints of the COVID-19 era.

“We truly believe balance is essential for high performance, and we are proud to be an employer that supports practical work/life balance that goes beyond the traditional 9-to-5 expectations,” says Megan Myungwon Lee, chairwoman and chief executive officer of Panasonic Corporation of North America.

“We work with our leaders and managers to drive a culture of empathy and understanding, focusing more on performance/output and less on when and where employees are logging on and logging off.”

And for PSEG, the pandemic has been an opportunity to reimagine the workplace, with flexibility being at the core, according to Stephanie Olexson, vice president for total rewards and employee services. “Flexibility is not a benefit; it’s the new way of working,” she says.

ACCESS TO CRITICAL RESOURCES

While flex-time schedules were for lawyers only before the pandemic, McCarter & English now has “work from home” policies in place for all employees, even as they continue to return to their offices. “Our lawyers and staff have continued to shine by working as teams to coordinate schedules so that they work for individuals while also ensuring that we cover all client needs at all times,” says Chief Human Resources Officer Christine Lydon. “We believe a key to success will be constant communication and regular check-ins to implement any tweaks that may be needed as time goes on.”

During the pandemic, Audible held several global meetings where everyone from front-line workers to senior management came together to discuss losing family members, feelings of isolation, struggles with childcare, and last year’s social unrest and upheaval. Following the murder of George Floyd in May of last year, Audible’s Black Employee Network (BEN) hosted a meeting called, “It’s Okay Not to Feel Okay,” inviting all employees to participate. “Senior leaders got on the call and some of our Black colleagues were able to express their anger, anguish and fear,” Erni says. “In the 30-plus years I’ve been working, it was one of the most special moments. This is where we’re helping employees manage the blurred lines between work and life.”

HELPING THE PEOPLE OF NEWARK

Prudential has a long history of supporting its home city, committing more than $1.2 billion over the last decade toward “spreading economic and social opportunity across the city in order to close the financial divide.” More recently, the company contributed $10 million to COVID-19 relief and recovery efforts, including more than $1 million to support Newark residents and small businesses, while also working with Newark Mayor Ras Baraka to help the city safely restart its economy and lay the groundwork for an equitable long-term recovery and growth strategy.

McCarter & English supports the community through pro bono and community service, philanthropy, and promoting diversity, equality, inclusion and social justice. On the pro bono front, the firm represents residents in landlord/tenant court and assists with housing issues. “We decided to dedicate our efforts to housing issues because nothing affects families more than the displacement that comes from evictions and habitability concerns,” says Managing Partner Robert Mintz. “McCarter has also pioneered our expungement program for individuals transitioning out of incarceration back into the community by assisting them to expunge their criminal records to help them get a fresh start.”

Horizon, which has called Newark home since its founding in 1932, is active in many facets of corporate citizenship through The Horizon Foundation for New Jersey. Founded in 2004, the foundation has invested $18.8 million in Newark and Essex County-based non-profit organizations, including the Newark Summer Youth Employment Program, Newark Boys Chorus, acquisition of medical supplies and COVID-19 testing kits, and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center’s support of community-based programs that leverage the arts to improve mental and physical wellbeing, among others.

Audible moved its headquarters to Newark in 2007 with the stated goal of “accelerating the comeback of a great American city and creating opportunities for city residents.” Along these lines, the company has worked on initiatives like a pop-up installation in Washington Park to foster community togetherness, while also collaborating with the city to hire locally. And this past June, Newark Working Kitchens (NWK) – created and led by Audible in partnership with Prudential Financial and other corporate partners to ensure 10,000 senior, low-income and disabled residents and people without homes would have access to healthy food during the pandemic, while sustaining hundreds of jobs across 30 local restaurants – announced it had served its one millionth meal.

“The duality of keeping the neighborhoods alive that we’d invested so much in and helping the local citizens/residents was the foundation for NWK,” Erni says.

There’s also the Panasonic Foundation, whose social impact mission is to advance equity in education and help improve the academic and social success of all students, particularly through key STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, Math) initiatives. One example is the company’s partnership with the Newark Museum of Art, where its Explorers program encourages high school students to reimagine and reshape the future technology workforce. Panasonic also works with the Newark YMCA, providing scholarships to Newark youth and helping bring “Y on Wheels” programming to all Newark Public Library locations.

“It’s important to know that we do have an Employee Volunteer Program in place that provides paid time off for employees who would like to participate in volunteer activities,” Lee says. “This is another way we support our employees in achieving balance while delivering on our commitment to the community.”

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