Healthcare
6 minute read

How Roche Diagnostics Improved Employee Retention During the Pandemic

Team members at Roche Diagnostics Indianapolis aren’t just working through a pandemic—they’re fighting it. We spoke with Bridget Boyle, the company’s Head of People and Culture, to learn how they increased employee retention despite 2020's challenges.

Kerry Hannon
An expert on entrepreneurship, personal finance, and retirement, Hannon has written more than a dozen books, including Great Pajama Jobs.

When your company develops, produces, and distributes diagnostic tests that can mitigate a deadly virus’s spread, all while providing life-saving diabetes care products, losing top talent isn’t an option. So, Roche Diagnostics Indianapolis, the North American headquarters of global biotech giant Roche Group, stepped up retention efforts for its 4,500 employees. The result: They surpassed their 2019 90% retention rate, reaching 93% in 2020.

Increasing retention during a pandemic is no easy feat. COVID-19 has created a new layer of factors triggering departures, such as anxiety, stress, burnout, and caregiving responsibilities. In fact, starting in February 2020, about 1.8 million men and a staggering 2.3 million women exited the US workforce, according to the National Women’s Law Center’s analysis of the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ January 2021 jobs report.

“Worker expectations have also shifted,” says Dan Schawbel, Managing Partner of Workplace Intelligence and author of Back to Human. “Workers expect much more from their employer than before the pandemic. Employers have to prioritize safety, flexibility, and transparency when trying to maintain their workforce.”

To increase employee retention, Roche Diagnostics Indy, as they call themselves, took a multipronged approach centered around the question: “How do we take care of these humans who are going above and beyond for us?” says Bridget Boyle, People and Culture Business Partner, Enterprise Diagnostics North America.

In addition to protecting pay and providing paid leave for those with pre-existing conditions, here are six high-impact ways Roche engendered loyalty when the company most needed it.

1. They Increased Communication

Pre-pandemic, Roche Diagnostics Indy conducted quarterly town hall meetings. Last spring, as the world shut down, the frequency of the town halls, held virtually via Zoom, jumped to every other week. (In 2021, they switched to monthly.)

The meetings let employees know what was happening within the company and allowed them to ask questions. “And we dialed down the formality,” Boyle says. “You don’t need a dog and pony show or fancy PowerPoint presentations. All you need is real talk about how the business is doing, our impact in the world by taking care of patients, and how our people are doing.”

Roche leaders also increased the regularity of one-on-one check-ins. “The support from my manager has been phenomenal,” says Ribal Alassafin, a field engineering specialist who travels regularly to service the company’s molecular diagnostic equipment for hospitals and labs. “They always check up on me. They understand the amount of stress we’re dealing with.”

2. They Emphasized the Company Mission

Those who truly love their work feel connected to how their employer’s products or services make a positive difference in the world. Roche recognized this and had always shared patient stories with their workforce, but in 2020, they did it more frequently during those town hall meetings.

“Feeling like you’re part of something bigger than ‘just a job’ goes a long way in motivating workers and increasing employee retention,” says Boyle. During the pandemic, Roche employees “rallied,” says Boyle. “People saw we were making one of the most significant COVID-19 tests, and they began saying, ‘Tell me what you need me to do. I don’t care what it is. I’ll do it.’”

That connection to the larger goal extended to all functions within the company, reports Boyle. For instance: “A cafeteria worker making prepackaged lunches knows, ‘I’m taking care of the people who are picking and packing the test to go out around the country,” says Boyle. “It was a huge unifier for us and a huge engagement builder.”

Alassafin agrees. “Right now, honestly, wearing the Roche badge gives me a lot of pride because of what we’re doing.”

3. They Gave Out Incentives

At the beginning of the pandemic, Boyle’s conversations with other HR and business leaders concentrated on essential workers, those who had to report to the office or be out in the field. So, the company arranged for on-site workers to receive free meals. Roche even upgraded field workers, who travel to customers and service molecular instruments, to business class so they could fly safely and more comfortably.

Plus, Roche expanded its Applause employee recognition program, which allows colleagues and managers to award points that translate to prepaid Visa cards and other gifts.

“There are groups of essential employees who are walking into the eye of the storm every day,” Boyle says. The company deposited one-time lump sums or weekly Applause points into those employees’ accounts. “It’s to say, ‘We haven’t forgotten about the price that you’re paying.’”

Another group paying a pandemic price: parents and caregivers. According to the US Census Bureau, women ages 25 to 44 are almost three times more likely than men to have left their job because of childcare during the pandemic. “The impact of the pandemic on mothers in the workplace is undeniable,” says Boyle. Their company survey responses stressed that. “Many employees with families told us: ‘I have toddlers running around. I don’t know how I’m supposed to do my job.’”

So, in addition to $500 reimbursements for home office equipment, Roche Diagnostics Indy offered caregiving stipends to its employees for the first time. In 2020, all employees caring for children or elders could be reimbursed for $100 a day toward daycare for 20 days. For essential staff, the company reimbursed for 35 days. “It wasn’t meant to cover every single day,” Boyle says. “But when you’re in a pinch and you need support, we wanted to make sure that was available.” The program allowed employees to pay family members, friends, or neighbors for care.

4. They Sought More Feedback

Roche normally conducts a global employee opinion survey every two years. In April 2020, however, Roche sent a pulse survey to its nearly 98,000 employees worldwide to find out how they were navigating the pandemic’s onset. In August, a separate survey was sent to Indianapolis-based employees.

“We wanted to know if people were getting burned out,” Boyle says. “What’s the state of mental health among our employees? How are they juggling family and work? How are they doing physically?”

More than 90% of the employees surveyed felt they were being taken care of and were safe, according to Boyle. But feedback indicated that people were struggling with balancing family and work demands. There was stress and anxiety. Fitness regimes had been jettisoned. That information shaped new wellness programs.

5. They Focused on Their Workforce’s Wellness

The company arranged free access to wellness apps and services, including:

  • MeQuilibrium, which builds users’ resilience and combats stress
  • Sleepio, which gives personalized advice to help people get better rest
  • Lyra Health, which offers a range of mental health benefits, including live counseling

Roche has a full-time fitness team that offers live virtual workout and personal training sessions, and a registered staff dietitian creates custom eating plans for employees and their families.

Roche encouraged its team members to use vacation time, too. “When you’re in the middle of the pandemic, there’s this fear that ‘I can’t take a single day off, a single minute off,’ and that is not sustainable,” Boyle says. “We sent a companywide email to our employees that no matter what your role is, you need to take time off.” The guideline: Take off a minimum of five days in the first half of the year. Because not all essential employees could do that, Roche changed its policy to allow vacation days to accrue, rather than expire, at the end of each year.

Roche even added extra company holidays, right before the Fourth of July weekend. “The majority of the organization took the same two days off,” Boyle says. “Text messages, phone calls, and emails were to a minimum. Everyone just took a deep breath.” Those who couldn’t take those days got two paid days off added to their banks.

“We reinforce the importance of taking time off in team meetings and in town halls,” adds Boyle. Senior leaders shared in the town halls their own mini timeouts. “They would say: ‘I’m going to not book any meetings this Friday afternoon because I want to take a walk with my family and decompress,’” Boyle says. “That sent the message that it’s OK; do what you need to take care of yourself.”

6. They Eased the Review Process

In the past, managers and employees would write detailed assessments. For 2020, though, “we said to leaders and employees, focus on the conversation, have the connection.” Leaders asked employees about their 2020 experience, what they were most proud of, and what challenged them the most, but there was less documentation. “That lighter touch might impact what we do going forward,” says Boyle. Still, there was a 6% increase in promotions in 2020 over 2019.

Being able to see yourself advance within a caring, mission-based company sustains loyalty. “It’s amazing; the level of engagement, dedication, accountability, and camaraderie created around a powerful mission,” says Boyle.

“The best workplaces with the highest retention rates are the ones where workers feel like they’re part of a family,” says Schawbel. “You can rely on your co-workers during the good and bad times, and you are set up for success financially, emotionally, and mentally through various benefit programs and the support of leadership.”

For Roche Diagnostics Indy, that was the North Star.