In 2019, an estimated 41 million people voluntarily quit their jobs, up 8% from two years earlier, according to the Work Institute, a Franklin, Tenn.-based consulting firm. Another study from Office Team revealed that 66% of employees (76% for millennials) would quit if they didn’t feel appreciated by their employer or co-workers. These numbers were registered pre-pandemic, but it should give human resource managers and owners across the pest management industry pause.

As an essential business, pest management has carried on throughout the COVID-19 crisis, but has the additional stress of servicing customers’ homes and businesses during a pandemic taken a toll on employees? Will they seek other opportunities when things return to normal? How do you onboard new employees over Zoom? Leila Haas, director of people operations at Sprague Pest Solutions, Tacoma, Wash., addressed these topics during last year’s virtual PestWorld.

ONBOARDING IN A PANDEMIC. Pre-pandemic, Sprague held a new hire immersion event that brought new hires from across its multi-state service area to its Tacoma headquarters. The new hires were immersed in a week’s worth of corporate culture, safety and job-specific training that set the tone for who the organization is and prepared them for the start of their careers.

“Even before the pandemic we were taking a closer look at the onboarding process to see what changes could be made to enhance the process,” said Haas. “We realized we were getting stuck in our ways and needed to identify how to give new hires the most welcoming and engaging experience possible.”

Once the pandemic hit, Sprague pivoted to a virtual onboarding process that helped them create a process that was more comprehensive and more personal.

Haas said they engaged more Sprague team members to create a “warm” introduction process. This was accomplished by creating bios not only for the new hires, but for all the Sprague Pest Solutions team members with whom they would be working. Sharing information on family, hobbies and interests, and background provided instant connections even if they were done over Zoom or a phone call.

“One of the battles in the Zoom era is that new hires can feel like a number and it is important to put people first and pay attention to the details,” said Haas.

A member of Sprague’s HR team serves as a virtual host during the immmersion process, checking in with new hires as they go through the process and meet their new co-workers. The goal is to create a process where the information and process is tailored to them and the message that they are valued from day one is delivered loud and clear.

Haas advises those responsible for onboarding new hires to put aside the limiting factors (time, resources, etc.) and “allow yourself to think about things without constraints.”

“Look at the desired outcome without constraints,” said Haas. “Freeing your mind can open your eyes to new opportunities to improve your processes. You’ll be surprised at what you can accomplish even with limited resources.”

Haas sees several of the adjustments Sprague made over the last year becoming part of the onboarding process going forward.

“We were forced to think differently, and it yielded positive outcomes,” said Haas. “Blended learning formats and personalizing the experience are elements that are here to stay.”

HOME-GROWN LEADERSHIP. When an employee voluntarily leaves his or her job for another, one of the primary reasons they give in an exit interview is that they did not see a career path. As Sprague expanded its footprint from several locations in the Puget Sound region to servicing nine states across the Western U.S., it has been challenged to provide organic growth opportunities for its employees.

The company has taken an aggressive two-pronged approach to the issue through its (1) leadership development program; and (2) creating individual development plans (IDPs) for employees.

The origin of the leadership development program dates back to the late 1980s. Sprague realized it needed to grow its internal business talent to match the expansion it was experiencing and to take the company to the next level.

The original plan included the creation of a management training program to build bench strength in the ranks, but it evolved as the 21st century arrived to focus on developing leaders beyond the executive suite. Haas said the goal is to establish leaders at all levels and have it run through the company’s DNA.

The company initially worked with a local business college on content development, but as the program evolved and the need for a deeper, wider syllabus arose, Sprague decided to take it in-house and develop the content.

The program starts with a review of Sprague’s core beliefs and values, which sets the tone for the rest of the curriculum that emphasizes real-world application of skills, not just theory. It also underscores the importance of working through adversity and turning mistakes into learning opportunities for improvement.

Haas and Jeff Miller (recently retired COO and current company consultant) manage the program’s day-to-day processes, which transitioned to a virtual platform during the pandemic.

A unique aspect of the program is that leadership principles taught are not meant solely for use during the workday. It is expected employees participating in the program will apply these lessons in the community and in their lives outside of work.

The rationale is that highly engaged people at work, in the community and at home simply perform better. They are comfortable leading people and bring energy to work that raises the bar for everyone.

Haas said the leadership development program is a natural extension of Sprague’s philosophy of being a continuous lifelong learning organization. The program’s curriculum modules are continually refreshed to meet the firm’s changing dynamics.

Employees are encouraged to apply for acceptance into the year-long program. “Interest in the program has grown organically through word of mouth,” said Haas. “People are seeing the positive change it has made for others and they want to be part of it.”

The program is helping Sprague meet its corporate goal of building bench strength while at the same time allowing employees to fulfill their career aspirations.

WHY INDIVIDUAL ATTENTION? The IDP process was created to give employees a greater voice in their career by giving them space to determine where they want to go within the company and their career.

“It’s not just a review of strengths and weaknesses,“ said Haas. “It allows us to dive deeper into what drives employees and what they want to accomplish.”

Haas said the IDPs build on an employee’s skill set and only looks at limitations if they are impeding his or her advancement.

The company’s commitment to organic growth has provided Haas with multiple in-house success stories of career advancement that she can share. She said most of the company’s regional or branch managers started as technicians and that one of the company’s top salespeople started in an administration position.

Haas, a former educator who holds a master’s degree in industrial and organizational psychology, is an example of someone who came to Sprague in an entry- level position and advanced up the corporate ladder. Miller, similarly, worked his way up the ranks to become COO. Being able to share homegrown success stories resonates well with employees.

Setting proper expectations with employees is an important part of the IDP process. Haas said managers need to be clear with employees about their expectations and to provide “stretch” assignments that will tell you what employees can really accomplish, or if they have reached a ceiling.

What are the best shared traits of employees who have been successful in their IDP programs? Haas said employees with good communication skills, who are driven self-starters and willing to take initiative typically perform best.

“Employees who create the next steps in their career, rather than accept what is given usually thrive and advance in their IDP plans,” said Haas. “Leadership development is a shared responsibility between the company and the employee.”

The author is a partner with B communications.