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How one Philly small business connected its employees to city transit through SEPTA and Jawnt
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How one Philly small business connected its employees to city transit through SEPTA and Jawnt

By offering its employees an all access SEPTA pass with help from Jawnt, Econsult Solutions helped its 30+ employees come back into the office and participate in the city they love.

Leo Walsh
May 30, 2023

SEPTA riders wait for the bus outside of ESI’s office on 15th and Walnut.

The Return to the Office

Many businesses in the greater Philadelphia area have struggled to adapt to a post-COVID work landscape where costs are high and remote work is often preferred. The Philly we knew before COVID has changed, with still only 66% of non-city workers returning to the downtown (Center City District), and the companies that make this city what it is—both large and small—are tasked with navigating these murky waters with no compass.

Lee Huang, President and Principal of the Center City-based consulting company Econsult Solutions (ESI), saw how COVID had changed the way we move about our cities, and how these changes affected the city he knew and loved. 

“You have store closures, you have not as vibrant of a street scene in Center City,” said Huang. “All of this is related to the density that we have grown to love in a city like Philadelphia that kind of all unraveled due to the pandemic. And so then the question is, how do we get it back?”

Huang and ESI struggled to adapt to the changes in Center City and the new challenges they presented.

“To be candid, there was a lot of back and forth around some people not wanting to return to office, and some people saying that it was important to return to office.”

Lee Huang, ESI’s President and Principal, who spearheaded the company’s adoption of SEPTA’s Key Advantage program.

As the pandemic restrictions faded, Huang and the rest of ESI’s leadership knew that their best work was done together, which meant their team of 30 needed to return to the office for at least a few days per week. They decided on a hybrid work schedule, where Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday would be in-office days, while Monday and Friday would be remote work optional days.

How Do We Get Folks Back to the Office?

For Huang and the ESI team, the answer to getting folks back to the office was two-fold: invest in their employees, and invest in the city. As Huang said of their decision to return to the office three times per week:

“An important tiebreaker for me was: we are a firm that is located in Philadelphia. We're committed to Philadelphia. We say that we love Philadelphia, we love cities. Part of what makes cities cities is foot traffic. And so how can we say that we are that kind of firm and not contribute our foot traffic, and not contribute our spending power to the city?”

ESI’s offices are in The Drexel Building on 15th and Walnut, where SEPTA’s 9, 12, 21, and 42 buses stop every day.

ESI’s transportation consulting practice helped SEPTA with the development of their Key Advantage Program, which enables employers to offer all-access monthly passes to their employees at a ~90% reduced rate. When the program became available to employers of any size, Huang and ESI jumped at the opportunity to participate themselves.

“One of the things we decided to do was say we want to come back partly because this is how we work, we work in person, but partly because we want you in the city and we want you spending money in the city… So this is part of our identity as a firm, to be this kind of firm that is in the city, engaging the city, participating in the city, adding foot traffic and spending in the city.”

By investing in their employees, they were able to invest in the city, and vice versa.

“I'll never forget when we announced the Key Advantage Program. People were excited because you're basically giving them a $2,500 annual perk. And so, it encourages ridership, it encourages engagement with the city. And so if you're that type of employer, in terms of your interface with your location, your interface with employees, then, you have to do this.”

Good Transit, Made Easy

One of those excited staff members was Lucie Doran, a recent Drexel graduate who joined ESI full time as an Analyst seven months ago. Originally from Olympia, WA, Doran was pleasantly surprised to find that transit is actually pretty helpful when done well.

“Coming from somewhere really small I was like, ‘there’s a bus I can get that actually goes somewhere useful? That’s crazy!’”

When Doran found out that her employer was going to cover the cost of her transit pass each month, she was overjoyed.

“I was thrilled… because I don't have to think about paying for it.” 

With her SEPTA pass now paid for, Doran said she no longer has to consider how she’s going to get around the city. “I'm gonna SEPTA there. No question.”

Lucie Doran, who interned with ESI as an undergrad at Drexel and is now a full time employee enjoying Key Advantage.

While Doran was already an avid SEPTA rider, she said that Key Advantage has made her even more inclined to come into the office, even on the days where she’s not required to. 

“Mondays and Fridays are pretty peaceful here because most people aren't here. I can come in if I want to and I can work like a half day here and a half day home. It’s helpful to have that flexibility.”

Not Another Employee Benefit to Worry About

While the new transit benefit was exciting for most, one employee had reservations.

Wendy Gabriele, the Chief Administrative Officer for ESI who was tasked with implementing the benefit on the HR side, said she had her doubts as to how easy a program like this would be to roll out.

“I was kind of nervous when the principals first came to me,” Gabriele said of her first impression of the program, citing past experiences with intensive onboarding timelines and confusing enrollment workflows. “So I kind of got a little nervous (for) another enrollment, trying to get people trained, and training myself.”

But Gabriele was pleasantly surprised at how simple of a process the onboarding and enrollment was through Jawnt, a unified transit platform used by SEPTA to onboard businesses to the Key Advantage Program. Once she got her “ducks lined up,” things went well.

“It was a smooth process, especially with getting the employees on board—so easy. I mean, the step-by-step that was given to us and then was passed on to (the employees), I thought was phenomenal. It was very, very easy. I've had some in-depth types of onboarding, and this was a piece of cake.”

Wendy Gabriele, ESI’s Chief Administrative Officer who led the company’s onboarding of the Key Advantage program.

When asked how the employees have liked the program, Gabriele said her office’s proximity to the elevator has given her a unique insight into employee feedback.

“You see where I sit (pointing to the elevator just outside of her office door)… people get off the elevator and I hear everything. So I hear the chatter and, yeah, they seem to really like it.”

Doran and Huang concurred, expressing the ease of enrollment through Jawnt. 

“Frictionless,” said Huang.

“Very simple,” said Doran

An Invaluable Advantage

ESI believes that SEPTA’s Key Advantage program offers a crucial opportunity not just for their company, but for companies all across the city, and for Philadelphia as a whole. As Huang said:

“It encourages ridership, it encourages engagement with the city. And so if you're that type of employer, in terms of your interface with your location, your interface with employees, then you have to do this.”

Huang and ESI hope that SEPTA’s Key Advantage program will increase Philly’s foot traffic, thereby improving the city:

“I think this really becomes a model for… how do we create foot traffic in as frictionless a way as possible?… So let's get more people using the subway. It enhances the experience because there's safety in numbers. And so I think all of that (resonated) with how we approach cities.”

Leo Walsh

The Jawnt blog

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