Little things go a long way with these fintechs’ employees | #vacation | #seniors | #elderly
The dense, single-spaced, 20-odd-page company report that is sent to IntraFi employees each month may not be as satisfying as the office breakfast spreads or as soothing as the weekly yoga sessions. But the feeling of trust it evokes may be one of the biggest differentiators in what landed the Arlington, Va., company at the top of American Banker’s ranking of the best places to work in fintech in 2021.
“Every department lists exactly what they are doing, whether they are on schedule or behind and why, and where we stand relative to their budget for the year,” said Mark Jacobsen, co-founder and CEO of IntraFi, previously known as Promontory Interfinancial Network.
Even if some employees only read the executive summary, he said, “sometimes just knowing you are in the loop is comforting enough.”
The differences between a good place to work and a great place to work (or a bad place to work, for that matter) can seem intangible, but they make all the difference. And in the financial technology industry, the competition for top-notch talent can be fierce, so those differences can have a big impact.
Transparency is one of those differences. At IntraFi — best known for crafting a reciprocal system where depositors can hold large sums with their primary institution without losing Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. coverage — the average tenure is eight and a half years. A number of high-level executives have been with the company since its founding 19 years ago. (Two of American Banker’s former editors-in-chief, Rob Blackwell and Barb Rehm, work at IntraFi.)
The best workplaces also foster an environment where interpersonal connections can flourish and where employees feel valued as people, not just employees. A trusting culture — where team members feel that they can be themselves — is a crucial component of a workplace where people with choices will choose to stay.
Creating a great place to work — from home
The nuances between good and great places to work have become even starker during the pandemic, as employees have been forced into remote work settings they didn’t necessarily want, or felt increasingly stressed by their personal and professional lives overlapping.
“This is not remote work,” said Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, a management consulting firm in Granby, Conn., that specializes in telework. “This is an international contingency plan for a global catastrophe.”
Since the pandemic started, a clear commitment to employees’ physical health and mental well-being counts more than ever, whether that means impromptu days off, surprise care packages or no-questions-asked stipends so employees can splurge on ergonomic office furniture.
Less important? Trivia nights, free food or outings that draw people in on the surface but are not backed up by the aforementioned qualities — although these activities are still key to nurturing camaraderie when it already exists.
Adaptability to fast-changing situations is one area where fintechs may have a leg up on traditional banks. The companies near the top of our list, including IntraFi, Vestwell (No. 3 in our rankings) and Alloy (No. 5), have found ways to generously accommodate their workforce and maintain strong ties throughout the past year — for example, replicating in-person food and office supply perks with stipends, maintaining a steady stream of social events even when attendance falters, and allowing total flexibility to care for family matters during work hours, such as transporting parents to a COVID-19 vaccine appointment.
“There are plenty of the more conventional banks that thought by putting a Ping-Pong table or having a Tuesday afternoon happy hour, they would get cool, but that doesn’t work,” said Rob Dicks, a North American lead in the financial services talent and organization practice at Accenture. “When companies try to dictate how, when and where employees should work and then sugarcoat it with a free lunch, you don’t see employees’ buy-in.”
In some workplaces, the sudden move to remote work last March uncovered fissures in communication that had previously existed below the surface.
“Managers have felt like they were unified because they were in the office together all day, every day,” said Farrer. “But proximity is not a substitute for unity.”
That makes transparency even more important, because it’s harder to tell when people feel disconnected from company news.
IntraFi solves that with its monthly reports. At Vestwell, a fintech that provides a digital record-keeping platform for workplace retirement plans, statistics detailing progress toward company goals (say, the number of plans Vestwell aims to have on its platform) were visible to all on a large screen in the office before the pandemic; these indicators live in a Slack messaging channel now that the company is remote.
“That level of transparency was something very new to me,” said Allison Brecher, general counsel at Vestwell. Like others on the management team, she comes from a more traditional financial services company, where “you had no idea how you were making a difference,” she said. “At Vestwell, there is a direct line of sight into exactly what the company’s priorities are.”
Team members also respond well when they feel cared for as a whole person, rather than only for their professional contributions.
When an IntraFi employee based in Houston was hit hard by the February snowstorm, “every management meeting would start with, What’s the latest on Chris?” said Jacobsen. “He was constantly pinged with: What do you need? Can we send you water, more plumbing materials?”
This kind of concern is not just reserved for those in the thick of a natural disaster. “We do that for everyone who gets sick or has a death in the family,” said Jacobsen.
When colleagues suffer severe personal setbacks, the company makes it clear they can return to work whenever they’re ready.
The times I show up to meetings literally in my kitchen cooking? They ask what’s for lunch and move on.
Katie Waynick, a marketing manager at IntraFi
“I think there is an element of gratitude that’s felt more by folks who weren’t affected than the ones who were,” said Jacobsen. “They see we stick by people.”
Katie Waynick, a marketing manager who began as a part-time receptionist at IntraFi nearly 10 years ago, articulated the value of the whole-person approach to company culture in a Facebook post in early February.
“My team assures me they love seeing my daughter in meetings,” she wrote. “That time I showed up to a corporate meeting with a major partner basically in sweats?… No one batted an eye. The times I show up to meetings literally in my kitchen cooking? They ask what’s for lunch and move on.”
Treats, trivia and trips
Before the pandemic, IntraFi laid out complimentary breakfast spreads in the office cafe on Mondays, bagels and toppings on Wednesdays, and handpicked bakery goodies for Sweet Fridays.
“It’s about community,” said Jacobsen. “You want people to have an excuse to get together.”
Like many companies, IntraFi has transitioned to virtual social activities, including bake-offs, cartoon-caption contests and a book club.
Alloy, a New York company that helps financial services firms safely onboard customers digitally, replaced Color Factory tours and Poconos retreats with virtual events that go beyond typical happy hours, “which we learned quickly doesn’t work on Zoom,” said Tommy Nicholas, Alloy’s CEO. Instead, the company has hired drag queens to teach employees how to make sangria and organized tours of farms and a beekeeping site.
Energizing snacks and quirky classes are not enough to forge a collegial atmosphere. But at a company that already has a collegial atmosphere, they can deepen social ties by drawing employees together and strengthening professional connections.
“If you can’t talk about puppies, you can’t talk about profit margins,” said Farrer.
At IntraFi, participation in virtual activities typically ranges from a handful of attendees to 50, but the company continues to offer events so employees always have an opportunity to bond with colleagues.
Nicholas says holding these events is important because “it’s hard to be engaged in your work if you’re not doing it with people you have a relationship with. Having fun is one of the baseline ways to know each other as people.”
It may seem counterintuitive, but Farrer says it’s essential for fintechs to forge their own professional atmosphere rather than adopting the trappings and style of tech companies or startups that might seem like a logical peer. Social activities need to fit the personality of the workplace, she said.
If you can’t talk about puppies, you can’t talk about profit margins.
Laurel Farrer, CEO of Distribute Consulting, a management consulting firm in Granby, Conn.
“We’re doing a big disservice by looking to tech companies in Silicon Valley as the icon of cool culture,” said Farrer.
Dicks recalls an exercise he went through with his own team, where he realized that his employees were largely introverts and responded better to one-on-one coffee chats than massive video calls. Or, says Farrer, employees may prefer their leaders invest in continuing education rather than parties.
At Vestwell, the well-being committee — which is in charge of social events and wellness initiatives, as well as suggesting changes to employment policies — is intentionally made up of employees across all levels of the company, including lower-level employees.
“There is no sense of hierarchy, in the sense that junior employees are not being valued for their input or opinions,” said Brecher.
Company activities don’t have to be limited to traditionally defined “fun,” either. Vestwell’s well-being committee has organized community service events, such as writing cards to seniors during quarantine, and planned virtual game nights and museum tours.
Healthy = happy
Vestwell will also periodically deliver care packages to employees; last summer, they received a Vestwell water bottle, gummy vitamins and more as a wellness-themed treat. Such care packages are one of many ways companies can make it clear that they value their employees’ well-being at a particularly trying time in people’s lives.
“It’s a nice way to remind our employees that we are all part of a team and we care about them,” she said.
Many companies on our list hold virtual exercise or meditation classes. IntraFi organizes wellness competitions that encourage employees to get more steps or drink more water. Alloy offers an exercise Slack group with reminders to meet daily push-up goals and a $100 wellness credit for employees to spend on gym membership or classes.
During the pandemic, the company also provided mental health benefits for their employees, allowing four free therapy sessions apiece through Samata Health, a digital platform that connects employees with therapists. Kim Nguyen, director of people operations at Alloy, says Samata Health data shows that the average utilization for this type of benefit across the board is 2% to 3% , but Alloy’s participation rates hovered around 20% in January and February.
“We have a high engagement rate because we work to normalize the need to recharge mentally, emotionally and physically for all of our team members,” said Nguyen.
Health and wellness benefits “are a great indicator of a great place to work because it signifies that the leadership recognizes people are their professional and personal selves at the same place and the same time right now,” said Farrer.
That also means leading by example.
“I have a client who has two no-meeting times during the day,” said Dicks. “I have clients that have their leaders take meetings walking outside to communicate that is fine.”
When Jacobsen sends emails on Friday afternoons, he intentionally delays delivery so his recipient won’t see the email until Monday.
At Alloy, Nicholas notes that managers regularly check in with employees to ensure they’ve taken vacation time. Or on particularly stressful days, such as Jan. 6, when insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol, managers make it clear that employees can leave early or cancel meetings.
“We’ve taken full days off multiple times throughout COVID,” he said.
Small perks that employees have been particularly grateful for include $120 per month in Seamless food delivery credits, a $500 stipend to furnish their home offices and $200 matches for charitable donations — something that nourishes the soul if not the body.
The idea that perks should extend beyond the office space was echoed by a number of companies on our list.
“We kept a lot of benefits in place that were in the office because we’re not seeing COVID as a moneymaking opportunity,” said Nicholas. “We don’t want to dry up the resources, because life is getting harder.”