The Ties That Bind
Celebrating exceptional employee engagement
If it takes a special company to be recognized as one of SIA’s Best Staffing Firms to Work For, it must take an extraordinary company to make the list year after year. ALKU, whose motto is “Have Fun Working Hard,” has managed that feat in one of the most challenging years in recent memory.
Employees at the Andover, Massachusetts-based staffing company thrive on being together to support one another, celebrate triumphs and plan for the future. Covid put a damper on their ability to be together physically during 2020 — but it couldn’t stop their collaborative spirit.
Founded in 2008, ALKU focuses on five niche staffing areas: life sciences, healthcare IT, government, information security and enterprise resource planning. Demand for healthcare and pharmaceutical staff has grown during Covid, and the need from governmental entities for workers with security clearances has remained steady. The company grew about 8% in 2020 — less than anticipated before Covid, but still impressive — and now has about 280 in-house employees at its seven offices across the US.
Developing the Leaders
Hanzla Sheikh, an account manager in the life sciences pharmaceutical division, has been with ALKU for four years. For half that time, he was a part-time intern with the company through ALKU’s Regional Training Center program located on the campus of the University of New Hampshire in Durham, New Hampshire. Sheikh, who majored in finance, didn’t have the staffing industry on his job radar until an ALKU recruiter reached out to him during his sophomore year.
“I worked all through high school and my freshman year in college, and then I promised myself that I would enjoy college and not work,” he says. “But ALKU said I could work part time. I didn’t intend to be in sales, but I ended up loving everything about it!” Sheikh, a self-described high achiever, found that he thrived on the fast-paced, competitive atmosphere. He was particularly drawn to the professional development opportunities.
“I had so much support from the day I started as an intern,” he says. “They wanted me to be successful from the start.” One encounter in particular stood out for Sheikh. ALKU founder and CEO Mark Eldridge visited the Regional Training Center in Durham two months into Sheikh’s tenure there. “I talked with him and mentioned that my mom was sick and I was helping out with my four younger brothers,” Sheikh recalls. Six months later, Eldridge returned and asked Sheikh about his family. “I’ve never heard of anyone being treated that way, especially by a CEO!”
Sheikh is now transitioning into management, and he is incorporating the way he was treated as a new employee into his own management style.
Nathan Rose, a 10-year ALKU employee, understands the joys of developing people and their careers. Rose, who is director of the company’s government division, started as a recruiter in the Andover office. Several years ago, he was asked to move to the recently established Herndon, Virginia, office. Like Sheikh, he recognized from his first contact with ALKU leadership that they were interested in his development.
“I knew they didn’t just care about me doing the job,” he says. “They cared about me as a person and wanted to develop me to be a business leader.”
Now he is developing others’ careers and leadership abilities. “I never really understood how rewarding it is until I started to do it,” he says. “Closing my own deals as a recruiter was great and exciting. Then when I first got into management, it was fun to watch the people I mentored close their deals. … “Seeing the smile on employees’ faces when they get to check off a goal — we get a high from it. I don’t know if ‘rewarding’ is a strong enough word.”
Restrictions resulting from Covid have been a big challenge for a team that thrives on being together. “One of the best parts of this company is the people and bonds that we form,” Sheikh says. “People work harder for things they care about and when they have something bigger to strive for. How do we do that in a remote environment? We are doing everything we can with the tools we have available.”
ALKU teams meet via Zoom for morning meetings, afternoon debriefs, quarterly updates, virtual happy hours, and entertainment and education programs. They receive gift cards for meals so they can eat lunch together virtually. Some co-workers even do all-day Zoom sessions, muting themselves while working silently together, and occasionally unmuting to ask a question, make an observation, or just to share a laugh.
Amid Covid restrictions, ALKU has given employees the tools and resources they need to work from home, including top-of-the-line technology and the same home equipment setup they had in the office. These procedures have set employees up for success. Some flexibility to work from home will likely remain after Covid restrictions are lifted, although the majority of employees can’t wait to be back into the office together.
“We’re not a remote company,” notes Marketing Coordinator Maddie Eldridge. “But developing a work-from-home policy has been a silver lining.” Meetings that were previously limited to branch offices can now be shared with the company across Zoom, enhancing communication.
Leah Bourdon is one employee who can’t wait to get back into the office. She began as a recruiter with ALKU 10 years ago and started the company’s regional training centers before becoming VP responsible for talent acquisition, the regional training centers, and training and development — including the internship program that gave Sheikh his start. ALKU has grown rapidly during her time there; when she joined, she was one of only four recruiters, and now the company has over 100 people in that role.
“It’s so lively and energizing. We do our best work when we’re together,” she says. “We sometimes ask, ‘Are we having fun because we’re successful, or are we successful because we’re having fun?’” Because the company is growing, new roles are created all the time, she notes. “Almost every job I’ve had at ALKU didn’t exist until I had it. Someone could have a role next year that doesn’t exist right now. If someone is successful, we trust them to try something new, and if we try something new, we want to put our best people in it.” Employee input and feedback is always important at ALKU. One novel employee program is called Mark Tank, named after company founder and CEO Mark Eldridge. Similar to the television show “Shark Tank,” Mark Tank gives employees an opportunity to present ideas to the executive team in front of the workforce. One suggestion resulted in an employee student-loan payback program.
Another employee-led initiative was the creation of the company’s Diversity and Inclusion Council and employee resource groups, such as one called State of Mind, which provides employees with resources and a safe space to share concerns. These employee resource groups have helped ALKU employees stay connected while working from home, though nothing can replace the sentiment of working side by side in the office.
“The way we excel is to put our energy and effort into our people,” Rose says. “I would describe our culture as a fun, hardworking, competitive environment. We get adrenaline from one another.”
Bourdon adds, “We talk about having a big party when Covid is over. No one will be able to stop smiling.”