July 27, 2021

Skate Where the Puck Is Going—Workforce Strategy Tips from American Eagle Outfitters

As COVID-19 spread throughout the country, employers had to quickly figure out how to best support their populations—from keeping them safe and healthy, to helping nonessential workers transition to remote work, to providing financial security, and more.

In addition, the past 15-plus months have shone the spotlight on some major issues, and many employers are realizing we can’t completely return to the way things were pre-pandemic.

In a special webcast by The Conference Board, Tammy Fennessy, director of benefits at American Eagle Outfitters (AEO), Erik Sossa, president of E. A. Sossa Consulting, and Tamar Rudnick, senior vice president of Marketing at Castlight, discussed what employers have learned from the past year and how to approach workforce strategy going forward.

How American Eagle Outfitters Responded to the Pandemic

Almost immediately, AEO implemented onsite care. “Within days,” Fennessy says, “we had nurses onsite at our distribution centers to take care of our associates.” Today, there are permanent nurses at each center, and AEO also provides health coaches and has established a healthcare center at its largest corporate office in Pittsburgh.

AEO also made significant enhancements to its benefits offerings, focusing strongly on mental and financial health. Fennessy and her team tried every mental health pilot they knew of—a one-size-fits-all solution simply wouldn’t suffice—and improved their caregiving benefits. And while AEO unfortunately had to furlough part of its workforce, the company made a commitment to continue paying for everyone’s health insurance. “I think that alone made such a big difference in the lives of our associates,” Fennessy says, “knowing that we weren’t going to take away their safety net.”

Ultimately, Fennessy says AEO made it a priority to elevate the conversation from operational safety and compliance to investing in holistic health.

Moving Forward

In a poll during the session, 94% of employers said they believe health and wellbeing investments will remain an integral part of employer workforce strategy. However, a more proactive approach is warranted. “For so many years—decades, if not forever—benefits have been like a blanket,” Fennessy says. “We put out all the benefits and then tell our populations, ‘Here’s your package, good luck!’ And that’s not good enough. It just isn’t.”

Sossa agrees, noting that the concept, “If we build it, they will come” just doesn’t work. “You’ve got to bring employees in. You’ve got to find that vehicle that will connect the right people with the right programs at the right times,” he says.

As you examine your workforce strategy, here are three tips to keep in mind:

  • Put yourself in your employees’ shoes. Think about the employee experience from the lens of various different types of people in your organization. How can you help everyone—full-time staff, part-time associates, and those who are healthy, sick, or managing a condition—really take advantage of all the great programs and services you provide? Personalizing the experience and making sure they know the best way to navigate their unique health journey will go a long way.
  • Rethink your speed. Oftentimes, the rhythm of the business or the rhythm of the world is faster than your benefits implementation timeline. Your benefits calendar may need to be accelerated or even completely overhauled in times you need to respond, innovate, and implement quickly. Lean on your partners to help integrate new services and/or provide one central communication hub to help you reach your associates.
  • Skate where the puck is going. Consider where we are today and where things are headed. Sossa advises planning three to five years in advance—because by the time a huge health risk actually manifests itself, it’ll be very hard to change things. How can we make sure we have the appropriate components in place for the next set of trends? This is where a flexible, innovative navigation platform that enables you to react quickly can be incredibly advantageous.

While Sossa is optimistic about the future, he reminds us that, as HR leaders, we must continue to remind leadership across the organization of the importance of health benefits investments as part of a broader workforce strategy.

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