From chocolate-covered strawberries to book clubs: How PeoplesBank thinks outside the box to engage employees

NEW ORLEANS — Simple, outside-the-box ideas — think a welcome gift for new hires and smoothie parties for employees — is how one employer took its employee engagement strategy to the next level in its push to become a great place to work.

For PeoplesBank, a Massachusetts-based 19-branch financial institution with about 300 employees, engagement begins even before new hires start their first day of work, Janice Mazzallo, the company’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, said this week at the Benefits Forum & Expo.

The bank sends new workers a basket of chocolate-covered strawberries, which Mazzallo said sends a message not only to the new employee, but to their family at home. “A lot of the work events they’re going to participate in involve family and friends,” she said Tuesday at the conference, hosted by Employee Benefit News and Employee Benefit Adviser. “We want to say, ‘Not only have you joined this great organization,’ but we want the people at home to know that too.”

The company wants to engage new hires the moment they start, said Mazzallo, adding that Gallup data reveals that just 31% of an employer’s workforce is happily engaged at work. After the chocolate strawberries, Mazzallo has a plan in place so employees feel involved throughout their first year.

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In addition, the bank also assigns new employees a peer buddy, she said, comparing the first day of work to the first day at school.

“Who isn’t nervous coming into a new organization?” she said. “We really take time to match personality types, and we ask that person to call the new hire before they even start. This immediately helps alleviate some of the worry on that first day and takes stress down a notch.”

The third month, Mazzallo says, is when employees begin meeting with senior management teams and becoming involved in strategy discussions. “They’re indoctrinated with what’s going on in the organization from a strategic point of view,” she added.

After the first year, the company’s strategy becomes more about making sure employees want to stay with the PeoplesBank. It does so by encouraging employees to join different communities — from environmental committees to book clubs to wellness groups. Those groups also spawned several other engagement initiatives, Mazzallo said.
For example, in the company’s annual survey, 18 outside branches said they felt isolated from events going on at headquarters. So Mazzallo tasked the wellness committee to come up with a creative idea to engage the outside branches.

That resulted in the purchase of a Vitamix blender and the creation of the “smoothie patrol,” which takes healthy fruits, vegetables and recipes and pays surprise visits to the outside branches.

“This had become an amazing way to connect with people,” she said. “It promoted wellness, which we wanted to do as an organization, but it [also] did something that came out of the survey. It reconnected the branches in a way that they wanted, and it promoted camaraderie in a way we hadn’t anticipated.”

While there are a number of drivers Mazallo can credit for the success of her engagement programs, she highlighted four key takeaways.

The first is getting leadership on board, she said. “Leadership is paramount. I think if you do not have your CEO and senior leaders supporting you and believing that engagement and profitability come hand in hand, it’s going to be very difficult to win at this game.”

Second, she said, HR leaders need to link engagement to profitability. “It’s our job to make a business case for how engagement is an important part of the bottom line,” she said.

Third, communication of the plan is key.

Her last tip? Reward and recognize. “The important lesson in that is understanding all your associates,” she said. “Know the people that work for you and what’s important to them. A gift card might be nice for one person and for someone else, it can be a handwritten note.”

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