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Culture & Community in the time of COVID-19

Introduction

At Pepper Foster, a consulting firm with under 40 employees, we recognize the importance of culture and community and strive for continuous improvement in these areas within our organization. We chose to evaluate their impact through three lenses: 1) the changing role of leadership, 2) communication within the company, and 3) the varied opportunities for connection with coworkers. 

When stay-at-home orders due to COVID-19 started, our company had to pivot to enable new methods of engagement between employees. As a result, the internal culture of our company has been altered in unfamiliar ways. To assess the impact that working from home has had on our culture and community, we have had multiple touchpoints with our employees, through surveys and 1:1 meetings, to gather feedback.

1) The Changing Role of Leadership

Past

Every quarter, we hosted a “State of the Office” meeting on a Thursday evening where leadership would take the assembled audience through financial updates, our sales pipeline, and company news. After the 2+ hour meeting concluded, coworkers gathered nearby at a local restaurant to connect with each other in an informal setting.

Full transparency from our founder, quarterly touchpoints with leadership, opportunities for socialization among peers -- all of these brought so much to our organization and were valued by the team. However, being present for these evening sessions was not easy for everyone. It was more feasible to attend these meetings if you didn’t have to travel in rush hour traffic, fulfill child/ pet obligations, or attend other external commitments.

Present

“Our leadership was already open with us, but they’ve consciously increased the level of transparency.” 

With the advent of COVID-19, it brought with it a need to expand not just the frequency of our company touch-points, but also the topics discussed during these meetings. What started as a quarterly, in-person, all-evening meeting transformed into a weekly, one-hour, over lunch, virtual meeting. The response from the organization was one of appreciation; for more frequent touch points, for avoiding the hassle of rush hour traffic, and for allowing employees greater flexibility in prioritizing client work and personal commitments. These sentiments were reflected in higher attendance and engagement. 

Future

Weekly video calls will likely stay; updates on COVID-19 will likely drop off. Additionally, updates on special interest groups will regularly rotate during the weekly call allowing for more sharing of information throughout the organization. For example, time is set aside for educational pieces on environmental justice, systemic racism, sustainability, and personal interests. Our goal is to maintain regular touchpoints that are shorter and higher-value. Learning how to communicate with employees in the moment is crucial toward fostering an engaged team. This kind of effective communication in response to societal change can be challenging, but the positive impact it can have on culture and community is undeniable.

2) Efficacy of Communication

Past

Prior to COVID-19, we heavily relied on communicating through email. Anyone had (and still has) the liberty and backing of leadership to email the entire organization’s listserv. This worked fine in the beginning when we had less than 15 employees, but as we’ve grown, email-for-everything is not a scalable solution. Many of us have separate Pepper Foster, client, and personal email accounts to track. 

We tried using Slack, however, we struggled to gain enough user adoption of this tool. We needed to find a better way to stay engaged without feeling like we’re maxing out our employees.

Present

“[I] didn’t feel like I lost any time working from home, especially due to the way our system is set up. Really appreciated the time to just chat. It helps me mentally.”

In April, we rolled out a new internal communication plan that leveraged Google Suite functionality. We found that Google Chat has worked best for direct messages and Google Meet works best for hosting video calls. Discussion rooms within Google Chat to track threads of named topics have proven popular (e.g. the “Reading Room” where employees can share their thoughts on the DEI book of the month).

Future

With our relatively small size, Google Suite is still suitable at our scale. Adoption of Google Chat and Google Meet has been swift and easy. Discussion groups continue to be created, with the newest room sharing highlights of the weekly call.

3) Opportunities for Connection

Past

Before COVID-19, in-person connection came easily with employees spending the 2nd Friday of each month working from the Pepper Foster office.  These “Second Fridays” were hallmarked by lunch and camaraderie. Additionally, we held special evening celebrations for Guy Fawkes Day (our English founder swears it’s a real thing), ping pong tournaments, and game nights. Much like the rest of the world, opportunities for connection were focused on crowds, restaurants, and indoor establishments. None of which are readily available now.

Present

“I feel closer to my coworkers now than before the working-from-home era.”

What started as in-person socialization in the office transformed into 30-minute virtual hangouts on Fridays where multitasking like cooking on mute is totally acceptable. Mini work-from-home care packages arrived at our doorsteps including a deck of cards, a slinky, chocolate and hand sanitizer. We transitioned from doing in-person activities like bowling to virtual ones, like an online Battleship tournament. We introduced Monday fun surveys that asked employees to answer 2-5 short questions about non-work related activities. No surprise, the ask to share a photo of your pet garnered the highest response rate.

Future

It’s unanimous that Battleship and the fun surveys will return as a way to stay connected. The internal Culture & Community team will continue to brainstorm new ways to bring employees together in fun and innovative ways. While our focus has been on internal culture, we recognize that we need to engage more with our community in these difficult times. We are taking small steps to educate ourselves while, in parallel, our firm has come together to reevaluate and strategize on actionable ways we want to show up in our community. We are looking forward to what these new strategies bring.

Closing Remarks

It goes without saying that our people miss the human connection that can only come from  face-to-face contact. Yet, the feedback we received revealed that regular and varied virtual interactions allowed us to grow closer together in ways that would have been hard to fathom before COVID-19. We will continue to look for ways to find areas of socialization during this pandemic; outdoor social-distanced picnics, follow-the-leader hikes, field games with walkie-talkies, who knows what new ways to connect could come next.

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