Project disruption due to COVID-19 is a universal concern for design firms. Yet often overlooked is the pandemic’s impact on employees.

A company-wide survey at Ardurra (No. 190) revealed nearly 40% of the firm’s 500-plus staff battled anxious feelings about work and loneliness during the pandemic’s early stages. The firm also saw an uptick in the use of staff mental health services. Putting heads together on a plan to help employees, leadership introduced a free subscription to the Calm meditation app to encourage teams to put mental health first. More than 300 employees responded.

“It’s not just about engineering and work, it’s about feeling good where you are at,” explains CEO Ernesto Aguilar about the firm’s investments in employee mental health. “I think a lot of people saw it as a way the company is thinking about them during these weird times.”

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The Calm app guides users through meditation, reads soothing stories for sleep and includes instructional podcasts that focus on handling stress and resetting the mind. “It takes a while but it does work,” says Aguilar, who meditates every day. Since introducing the app, the firm reported a major increase in employee productivity, and already has plans to make the app available for another year. The firm also plans to make work from home a permanent option for all employees.

“One of the things that we are most proud of is that our turnover rate is extremely low,” says Aguilar. He believes small gestures have a big impact. “We send a signal to the employees that we care about their personal lives.”

Beyond mental health, Ardurra is also working to establish a greater connection among the firm’s more than 30 offices. Early last spring, the company celebrated its inaugural “Ardurra Day” with a virtual happy hour, and unveiled a top-down outreach program to foster “meaningful conversations” among staff.

Despite the pandemic, Ardurra acquired two Florida-based engineering firms specializing in water, wastewater and public works markets—Constantine Engineering Inc., and Pigeon-Roberts & Associates LLC.

“Last year was an incredible year for us,” says Aguilar. “Our backlog has grown tremendously. Profitability is probably the best year we had. So, it’s worked.”