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Member Spotlight: WithersRavenel Prioritizing Wellness to Attract and Retain Talent


WithersRavenel is a multidisciplinary firm, delivering engineering, planning, and surveying services. Based in North Carolina, the company is 100 percent employee-owned. It has a four-decade track record of designing places and supporting infrastructure to enhance people’s health, happiness, and well-being.

Until 2019, WithersRavenel was just “dabbling” in well-being by providing individual programs, according to Jess Vollmer the company’s Chief People Officer. That all changed, and just in time.

“We made well-being a strategic priority the year before COVID-19 hit,” she explained. “Our Thrive Well-Being Program was already part of our culture when the pandemic arrived, so it was easy for us to shift and pivot based on our employees’ changing needs, versus having to start from scratch. We were in a position where we just had to listen to our employees and adapt. Obviously, needs for mental health support increased in urgency during that time, and we were able to respond.”

The timely elevation of well-being for the firm was driven by a desire to improve the overall employee experience.

“Employees want much more than just a paycheck,” Vollmer said. “They want an experience. They want to feel supported. Well-being was very important for us to reach our goal of being a destination employer.”

As an employee-owned organization, WithersRavenel was already geared to listen closely to the needs of the workforce. It deployed that skill in the development of the company’s Thrive Well-Being Program. The program is driven by their Thrive Wellbeing Committee. The group, comprised of representatives from each department, evaluates employee participation and interest in current wellness activities while also generating ideas for new or expanded services.

“We looked to our employees to build a well-being culture,” Vollmer said.

Based on the nature of its business, WithersRavenel had to be creative when designing a well-being program.

“We have a wide variety of work responsibilities, including employees who are in the field, others who are at desks,” Vollmer said. “We have a multi-generational workforce. And we are a billable organization, so client deliverables dictate the day. We had a lot to balance to make well-being available, accessible, and appropriate for where different employees were in their jobs and their journeys.”

A key component of the firm’s well-being efforts is the use of micro trainings.

“Everyone is busy, and engaging in a traditional 30 minute or hour educational seminar is just not always possible,” said Ferebee Plyler, an HR Generalist who oversees the Thrive Well-Being Program. “We began offering 15-minute micro trainings that could be accessed early in the morning or during lunch. It’s been a very effective way for us to engage our population.“

In addition to rethinking the duration of trainings and learning sessions, the firm also discovered an expanded value proposition for these offerings.

“It’s not just about attending a training or session,” Plyler said. “There is an element of social interaction, people learning from each other and making connections. That’s just as important as the content being covered or the lessons being learned.”

The theme of connectivity runs deep.

“We are hyper-focused on connectivity, especially since we are in a hybrid working environment now,” Plyler said. “We are trying to make sure we have a high-touch approach and that people feel heard, appreciated, and seen. We’re helping employees uncover their natural talents. We’re seeking feedback and leveraging that at the team level to improve. The process has been meaningful for us.”

WithersRavenel employs roughly 350 people. The company’s size raises the stakes for well-being, especially given the firm’s focus on retaining talent.

“For a Fortune 500 employer, an average amount of turnover is no big deal, but for us, every person actually matters,” Vollmer said. “When you lose talented people on smaller teams, it has a significant impact.”

Being a smaller employer also means less budget and bandwidth to leverage when building a well-being program. That doesn’t have to be an obstacle though, according to Vollmer.

“Instead of a $10,000 speaker, find someone on your team or in your community who has something valuable to say,” she suggested. “Instead of overspending on high-end apps or platforms that offer more functionality than you need anyway, manage contests and activities manually if you have to. Look toward partnerships within your existing benefits to expand programs. A few examples include 401k providers and medical benefit partners. Finally, get more boots on the ground. We have been lucky to find people who are passionate about well-being to help us promote Thrive to our various departments and physical locations. They beat the drum for us.”

Committed and Aligned Leadership

The WithersRavenel team recognizes their focus on WELCOA Benchmark 1: Committed and Aligned Leadership as a strength of their program, pointing to executives and managers who truly invest in, and care about, their people.

“Many companies are struggling to attract and retain talent,” Vollmer said. “You need to have a genuine culture that values your people. It’s not throwing money at it. You can quickly tell if leaders care about employees and their well-being. It’s about actions, not words. Our leaders care about the individuals who work here, and about their success. It’s not all about business results. The personal results matter.”

Sharing advice for other wellness professionals, she cautions that you can’t force leadership support.

“Your leaders have to genuinely care about this, and that’s just the reality of it,” Vollmer said. “It starts with honest conversations, starting a dialogue. Influence takes time. You have to build a foundation. It’s not an overnight success story or a light switch. It’s working with them, understanding they are human just like everyone else and finding ways to help them embrace it.”

The firm continues to invest in training and development for leaders, both in terms of being advocates for well-being and generally making sure they are prepared to be strong leaders overall.

“We are really focusing on managers and team leaders,” Vollmer said. “Research shows that the quality of managers is the single biggest factor in long-term success, including retention. People leave managers, not companies. We are focusing on the acumen and expertise of our managers. Many of our employees are technical people, engineers, surveyors, environmental scientists, who didn’t go to school to manage people. Fantastic performers don’t necessarily make great team leaders, so we are committed to shoring up our managerial philosophy and ensure our people are trained well and supported as they advance into management positions.”

Flexibility and Diversity

WithersRavenel’s approach to wellness is based on a dual commitment to flexibility and diversity. The company creates broad themes for the year and then plans on a quarterly basis so that it can respond to change.

“We’re still in uncertain times,” Plyler said. “Being able to quickly pivot is critical, so we’ve maintained flexibility.”

The company also ensures diversity in offerings, focusing on the needs of various “micro populations” and refusing to deliver a “one size fits all” program.

“We’re not taking an approach here of saying, well we covered that topic so let’s check another box,” Plyler said. “We are consistently looking at diversity metrics to gauge whether we are reaching various populations. We are making sure we’re providing what employees want, not what we want or what we think they want. In some cases, that means offering programming by age group or life stage, such as cooking for a toddler versus grocery shopping as a single person. In some cases, it’s different delivery methods. We can’t expect our field teams to watch videos, as an example. It’s not how they engage.”

She continued.

“We recognized early on that trying to design a program that fits everyone is not a scalable strategy. Instead, we started thinking about how we could create targeted offerings by looking at them through the lens of our employees. Instead of a blanket approach that tries to appeal to everyone, we created a lot more impact by targeting our efforts.”

A great example of how the firm approached targeting is through its financial wellness curriculum. The organization targeted engagement by stage of career, understanding that employees with young families had different needs than those approaching retirement.

In general, the company has found great value from WELCOA’s 7 Benchmarks, the Well Workplace Checklist, and the Well Workplace Awards process to inform their program design.

“We love benchmarking,” Vollmer said. “It’s been incredibly helpful to know what the gold standard is and to be able to compare what we’re doing, and what we’re planning, to a set of best practices.”

The hard work toward deep culture change that the team at WithersRavenel put in earned them a WELCOA Well Workplace Awards in 2021.

Keep it fresh, and plant it deep.

To be successful, Plyler said you have to keep it fresh.

“You can’t just do the same thing each year and expect people to engage,” she cautioned. “Keep looking for unique experiences and opportunities to surprise and delight your employees.”

Another key is not limiting your thinking when it comes to well-being.

“We’re looking at it holistically,” she said. “It isn’t a separate program. Those approaches will struggle. When you embed it deeply in the culture, you succeed.”

But is the company’s commitment to wellness helping them become an employer of choice?

“Our current retention is better than industry benchmarks,” Vollmer said. “We want to reduce turnover even further. We have aggressive performance targets, but we think we can get there. Overall, we know that recruiting and retaining talent isn’t just an HR problem. We are holding a talent summit in the coming months with key stakeholders from across the company, where we will brainstorm what we’re doing well, and what our opportunities for improvement might be. I think that will really help with future ideation. That being said, our efforts in well-being have absolutely had a positive impact on our culture and on employee experience and loyalty.”

Want to learn more about how your organization can lean on well-being strategies to improve employee experience and overall retention?