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Richmond-area companies look to support workers

These days, when it can be a struggle to recruit and retain workers, employers look for new ways to support staff – and at Richmond retailer LaDiff, support looks like the high-end massage chair where employees enjoy their workday breaks.

Richmond-area business survey shows positive trend

“One of our vendors was discontinuing their massage chairs, so we bought one for staff use,” said Sarah Paxton, president and cofounder of the furniture store.

“We installed it in my now retired husband’s office,” she said. “While the warehouse team has enjoyed and used it the most, it has definitely become a popular space for quick break,” she said.

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Lisa Degenaars uses a massage chair purchased for employees of La Diff on August 30, 2023 in Richmond.

Last year, during a busy sales event, the store decided to close two days a week instead of the usual one-day break, so employees could have two days in a row off work, she said.

“It worked so well that we decided to keep that format in our new store,” Paxton said. Since most people’s weekends are busy times for retailers, LaDiff’s staff get Mondays and Tuesdays off, while customers can make appointments at the store if those days work better for them.

“It has definitely been a morale booster,” she said.


Sarah Paxton is the president and co-owner of La Diff. MARGO WAGNER/TIMES-DISPATCH

Flexibility in scheduling, “hands down,” is the benefit that employment lawyer Faith Alejandro, a board member of the Richmond chapter of the Society for Human Resource Management, hears about most often.

“There is a strong expectation post-pandemic that employees have more discretion in their daily schedules. … In response I see employers offering more flexibility in the form of additional leave benefits, remote work and flexible work schedules,” she said. Many are offering more paid time off, as well.

She said she’s also seeing employers offer leave benefits that go beyond what’s required by federal or state law – small firms, for instance, not subject to the federal Family Medical Leave Act, nevertheless are offering parental leave. Bigger companies often step in with help to offset child care costs or even to provide some form of child care, she said.

“Employers, particularly local businesses … have had to get creative on what they can offer as additional incentives – they do a lot to help celebrate birthdays, milestones, or impromptu rewards,” said Diana McMahon, vice president of InUnison, formerly known as the Retail Merchants Association.

InUnison members, all of which are locally owned businesses, say the most common things they’re doing to support workers are to offer flex scheduling – a choice of days to work per week or hours – as well as the option to work remotely and a relaxed dress code, McMahon said.

“Employers are looking to give more control to employees in terms of schedule, place, mode, continuity, and workload,” McMahon said.

Career development

Businesses also are investing in career development efforts, including training and mentoring programs, she said.

At Estes Express, the Richmond-based trucking firm that employs 22,000 people nationwide, including 1,500 in Richmond, flexible scheduling takes a different form.

“There’s been this perception that drivers are on the road a month at a time, never see their families, but most of our drivers get home every day,” said Greg Richardson, vice president for human resources.

It’s been that way for years, as has a career development program that, for instance, lets dock workers loading and unloading trailers know there’s a path upward – as it was for Richardson, when he started on an Estes dock 30 years ago.

“We spend a lot of time listening … when the executives meet in the board, most of our time is talking about how our people are doing,” Richardson said. “We want people to feel there’s value in their job, that there’s a purpose to what they do.”

Benefit packages

Gelati Celesti Ice Cream revamped its entire benefit package, adding company-paid long term disability, short term disability coverage and increasing its 401K matching, said Abbey Pimentel, director, people & culture.

The company also added an employee assistance program, expanded paid time off and floating holidays.


Scott Callett, center, general manager, and Carson Fields, right, assistant manager of Gelati Celesti Ice Cream, serve customer, Danielle Waller and her son, Carson, 3, of Richmond, at the store in Richmond on Aug. 29, 2023.

“More paid time off was the biggest request from our team, in order to spend more quality time with family,” said Catherine Cary, owner of Bremo Pharmacy.

She responded with a more generous vacation benefit, and extended family medical leave to include fathers, increasing paid time off and the time period a new parent can stay home with a new baby.


Scott Callett, general manager, and Carson Fields, assistant manager of Gelati Celesti Ice Cream, serve customers at the store in Richmond, VA., on Aug. 29, 2023.

“We also added bereavement pay, and jury duty pay, so that our team would not have to use vacation time for these unexpected events,” Cary said.

“We implemented a goals game that team members play, with small tasks that will help us reach our goals moving the team closer to the prize,” Cary said.


Carson Fields, center, assistant manager, hands over an ice cream cone to customer Anne Yates of Richmond at Gelati Celesti Ice Cream in Richmond on Aug. 29, 2023.

“We have played goals bingo, and are currently playing a horse race game, where game pieces are moved each time an accomplishment is made. If all horses finish the race by the end of the quarter, we have a team outing to celebrate,” she said.

Bremo paid a one-time bonus to employees after getting through COVID vaccine season, Cary said.


Markel has continued offering the Headspace app that it introduced during the pandemic, to give employees tools and resources, including meditation, to decrease stress, said Sue Davies, chief human resources officer for the Glen Allen-based Fortune 500 insurance and financial giant.

“This has continued since COVID because it has proven very valuable for employees,” she said.

Markel has expanded wellbeing programs, including, a suite of family care benefits that includes referrals and access to many types of caregivers, and AccessHope, a resource for employees and their families who are dealing with cancer, Davies said.

The company also launched an employee-led network focused on Global Wellbeing, to promote financial, physical, mental and social wellness, and enhanced its parental leave benefit, with up to eight weeks of 100% paid parental leave to eligible employees after the birth or adoption of the employee’s child, in addition to the company’s short-term disability benefits.

In the United States, Markel employees have the option to work remotely two days a week and up to two weeks a year when they can work fully remotely.

“Given the challenges of recent years, offering wellbeing and mental health resources has and should remain top of mind for employers,” said Diane Cafritz, executive vice president human resources, general counsel and chief compliance officer at CarMax, the Fortune 500 used vehicle retailer.

In addition to the Headspace app, CarMax offers a mindfulness training program created by a technology employee that offers onsite and remote employees classes on various mindfulness techniques and topics, including using mindfulness to cope with post-pandemic stress. Some 350 CarMax employees have participated in the program, she said.

CarMax is increasing in-person time onsite to two days a week, she said, adding: “We want time onsite to be for meaningful interactions and are empowering each team to create their own schedule and determine how to best use in-person time.”

A new “Your Work, Your Way” page on the company intranet has tips for working efficiently from home and for coping when some employees are in the office and others are working remotely, while a “Share Your Stories” intranet feature offers employees’ personal stories as a way to build a sense of belonging, Cafritz said.

Efforts to boost morale and feelings of connection are a focus for businesses big and small: celebrations and incentives, stepped-up communications and supervisor check-ins with tools such as Slack or Teams, team-building exercises, personal notes from executives and shared online kudos are all becoming more common, said Alejandro, the Sands Anderson employment lawyer and human resources management group board member.

“We see many local businesses adopt a family culture where they have genuine care for the well-being of their employees and want to do everything in their power to create mutually beneficial opportunities for the employee and business,” InUnison’s McMahon said.

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