How culture investment can prepare HR ‘for any crisis’

In 2004, Mary Ruberry surprised her family and friends when she departed her HR manager job at Williams Labadie, a Chicago ad agency owned by Leo Burnett, to take an HR position at The Parking Spot–the nation’s largest provider of near-airport parking and transportation.

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“I remember folks were like, ‘Why are you leaving one of the best employers in Chicago to go to a parking lot?’ ” she recalls. “My brother was laughing, saying, ‘Do they have better blacktop, straighter lines?’ ”

But from the start, Ruberry says, she knew that the culture was a fit.

“It’s one of the best jobs I’ve ever had–and I’ve had a lot of jobs,” she laughs. “The entrepreneurial spirit just drives this culture and is so important; I knew I wanted to be an ambassador of that.”

Since she joined the organization–and climbed through the HR ranks from director of HR to chief people officer–she has seen that culture in action, especially over the last year, as The Parking Spot had to lay off more than half of its workforce at the peak of the pandemic. The Parking Spot’s approach to the challenges of the last few months, she says, has evinced its commitment to its guiding mantra: Team. People. Service.

Mary Ruberry

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Ruberry will highlight the organization’s HR work during a panel discussion at Spring HR Tech, a free, virtual event to be held March 16-19. Moderated by John Sumser, “HR Hot Spots: CHROs Answer Today’s Burning Questions” on March 18 will also feature Northwell Health Deputy CHRO Maxine Carrington.

Before the conference, Ruberry gave HRE a backlot tour of The Parking Spot.

HRE: What were you working on before the pandemic?

Ruberry: Back in March 2020, our top priority was to continue enhancing the guest experience for our travelers, with a focus on training and hospitality for all employees. And the focus changed quite dramatically to safety, cleanliness, sanitation, employee engagement, culture–and that’s where our focus has been since.

HRE: Your business obviously is linked to travel–when that plummeted with the pandemic, what kind of impact did that have on employee morale?

Ruberry: So, our culture is ultimately built on the entrepreneurial spirit: We do what it takes to get the job done. We were forced to lay off 1,600 employees in 14 days. And there was not a single step missed when we did that. Our employees rolled up their sleeves and did it in the most empathetic and eloquent way possible. That meant helping laid-off employees get new jobs, helping them with resumes, and salaried employees working as hourly for almost a year. There was a lot of emotion around it. Our employees watched as the business changed very rapidly–and not in a positive way. We have a lot of long-term, tenured employees and it was really emotional for them to watch cars leave our lots and know they weren’t coming back.

HRE: Has The Parking Spot added or changed any benefits programs in light of the pandemic?

Ruberry: We did enhance our campaign on our employee assistance program, and we made sure every employee had the information in their hands. We also took engagement to a whole new level by doing massive outreach to every single employee at the company, whether they were current or temporarily laid off. We called more than 2,000 employees and said, “How are you doing? Have you landed on your feet? How is your family? Can we provide you with PPE?” We treated employees the same, whether they were frontline, working day to day or laid off. We did little surprises throughout the year–TPS pins, little gifts that we sent to people; we just want to continue to be in front of employees and let them know we’re just a phone call away.

HRE: You mentioned temporary layoffs; have some employees resumed working?

Ruberry: Some have rejoined. Our demand is generated by airlines so every time there’s a holiday we see a spike and need to have our staff ready to go. We kept close in touch with long-term veterans [who were laid off] and called on them, maybe for two to three weeks or a month at a time, especially around Memorial Day, 4th of July, Labor Day, President’s Day. There are some diehard travelers who won’t not travel so we’ve had to be ready; Thanksgiving and Christmas were big travel times so we did call employees back then too. We’re slowly but surely adding to our staff to get ready for spring break travel, which I sure do believe is coming. We had 2,100 employees pre-pandemic and we’re hovering around 900 now.

HRE: How has The Parking Spot leaned on technology in recent months to weather the challenges you’ve faced?

Ruberry: We partner with UKG and have a very high-tech time clock, which we use for COVID messaging, acknowledgments, releases. We also use the Community Broadcast tool linked to the app, where people can sign up for benefits or look at their paycheck, and this is a messaging system; we’ve built a whole communication strategy around that.

We also had no intranet prior to COVID and have since launched that through Microsoft SharePoint. Adoption of that has been amazing. If there are any silver linings to the pandemic for us, that’s one of them.

We’ve also relied heavily on Zoom meetings and have guidelines around who needs to be on camera and when. Our business is a touchpoint business–we connect with families on vacation or people on business trips–so our employees are treated the same way. We want to see them and feel if they’re having a bad day or if they need something. Our salaried, corporate employees have been using Zoom for almost a year now.

See also: Why HR and IT need to get ‘much, much closer’

HRE: How do you think the last year has reshaped the HR role itself?

Ruberry: I couldn’t be more proud of our HR and payroll team; we served our employees this past year and that’s our goal. HR was thrown into the forefront of this pandemic. We had to make sure our employees were getting the resources they needed if they were struggling, we had to make sure benefits were covered, we had to make sure employees could reach managers if they were having a problem with Zoom, we had to help employees get equipment at home. We partnered with LinkedIn Learning to offer resources on everything from how to work at home with children to how to balance life and work. HR is part of the machine that makes a company run. And at The Parking Spot, because our culture was so strong pre-pandemic, I think we came through it a lot better than most people would and that goes to show that, when you invest in culture, you can be ready for any crisis. [HR] felt like we had a job to do and we stood forward and did it. Sometimes, HR is viewed as a behind-the-scenes department but HR stepped up this year to the forefront. I’m very proud to be a part of this field.

HRE: In what ways do you think HR needs to do better by their employees in 2021?

Ruberry: When you have hourly employees like us, we need to be focusing on finding ways to connect with them and provide as much assistance as we can to help them balance their home lives. Our salaried employees can do their work from the comfort of their own homes but our hourly employees cannot, and some of them are juggling multiple jobs, taking care of their children, doing online learning with them, picking kids up and dropping them off. So, we’re going to be trying to figure out ways to continue to make sure they know they’re appreciated; being compensated well is one thing, but employees want incentives and rewards and recognition for the work that they’re doing. (For) Employee Appreciation Week, everyone in the corporate office is being given 10-12 names of our hourly employees and we’re going to call them personally. The message will be that we may call you frontline or essential, but we also call you invaluable and thank you for holding the business together over the last year. Everyone from the CEO down to the front desk staff will have these calls to do and we’re super excited about it. We had Culture Week back in November and our senior team visited all of our lots except for three that we couldn’t because of the pandemic. We celebrated together, had lunch, rode the shuttles. Our general counsel was nervous to travel–she has small kids and wasn’t comfortable on a plane–so she rented an RV and drove to St. Louis and Kansas City to visit those lots. People went all out. We’re going to continue to make sure our employees get the recognition they need.

HRE: If you hadn’t gone into HR, what do you think you’d be doing?

Ruberry: So, I transitioned from legal to HR and the reason I did that was because I really like process and I liked [the legal] discipline in terms of the function but I liked people more. I was trying to figure out how to balance the two. I was at Beatrice Foods at the time working full-time as a paralegal and when I finished my degree I moved into HR at Beatrice. And I knew that I was really targeting my path. That helped me get to where I am today. While I loved the legal side, the people side won me over.

HRE: What’s your strategy for staying motivated through the challenges to come this year?

Ruberry: We need to continue to be flexible and adaptable because if we could predict what things would look like when the pandemic ends, we probably wouldn’t be in HR. We need to keep our heads up and our energy up because so many people are looking to us to make their lives better. That’s a big job but it’s what we signed up to do.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].