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COVID-19 Makes Maintaining Workplace Culture More Important Than Ever: Here’s How We’ve Adjusted

JC Grubbs Founder & Chief Executive Officer

I’ve said it before: keeping a great culture intact is incredibly challenging.

Of course, when I originally made that statement last summer, it was impossible to predict the full scale of the challenges our company, community, and world would face this year.

Over the last three months, transitioning from an office-based to a remote working style–while everyone is dealing with exponentially increased stress outside of work–has reinforced my belief in the importance of a strong, resilient company culture.

Culture is a fundamental enabler of our mission. Here’s how we’ve maintained it during an unprecedented time of change.

Set the groundwork early.

If you hire the right people and earn a baseline of mutual trust before a crisis hits, it will make that crisis a lot easier to weather.

Using the ERIK model for hiring (empathy, resilience, improvisation, kindness) has resulted in a Tandem team that is adaptable, compassionate, and collaborative. Employees trust each other to do great work that we can be proud of as a team, and they trust leadership to make thoughtful decisions that are rooted in our shared values.

With so much changing in the way we do our work as well as the world around us, our shared trust in each other has been crucial to our continued well-being. It’s a lot harder to develop trust during times of uncertainty. But a crisis can serve as an opportunity to strengthen trust when it already exists.

At Tandem, we’ve increased our all-hands Town Hall Meeting cadence to meet the need for more frequent communication as external conditions shift. As a leader, I want to comfort the team, so it’s tempting to act like I have it all figured out. But in a situation where even the country’s top leaders don’t know what the future holds, it would be out-of-touch and insincere for me to make absolute statements or share half-baked plans.

Instead I’ve leaned in to transparency and vulnerability, sharing the facts, my assumptions, what I know, and what I don’t. I’m not always able to answer the team’s most pressing questions–when will we return to the office? How will COVID-19 affect our clients?–but by refusing to bluff my way through the answers, I’ve maintained the trust that our leadership team has worked so hard to establish. And conversely, since we’ve invested in building trust, the team has the security of knowing that I will always be honest with them and prioritize their well-being.

Now more than ever, adaptability is crucial.

Our internal communication framework, our benefits offerings, our pairing philosophy–these are all parts of the Tandem culture that we developed thoughtfully and intentionally, over time. Comparatively, COVID-19 has changed the context of our day-to-day very quickly. Rather than clinging tightly to the comforting ‘normal’ way of doing things, we recognized the imperative to adapt to changing circumstances so the goals of these initiatives stayed intact, even as the mode of achieving them needed to shift.

For example, we offer a generous PTO policy designed to encourage Tandemites to take time off, decompress, and avoid burnout. Typically we ask team members to take advantage of this policy and not to save their PTO days indefinitely–we believe we can do better quality work when everyone has adequate time to periodically re-set. But in the face of travel restrictions and safety considerations, nobody is able to travel for the vacations they may have planned.

To adjust to this new context, we’ve adapted our policy to allow for more vacation time roll-over: our employees shouldn’t lose this part of their benefits package just because the pandemic has made travel inadvisable. Simultaneously, we’re encouraging team members to still take that decompression time with company-wide mental health days that are not taken from their PTO banks. This is important to our people as they adjust to the new stressors of remote work, family responsibilities, and all the other challenges created by COVID-19. It provides value for our clients too: these mental-health days enhance our team’s ability to do top-quality, timely work.

Environment contributes to culture, so invest in your team’s home environment.

Tandem is not usually a remote-first culture. At our offices in Chicago and San Francisco, we enjoy the hands-on collaboration and fellowship of spending time together. No Tandemite signed up to be a remote employee, but this is the reality we’re faced with.

Our office is designed with thoughtful touches that are both practical and fun: big monitors and pairing-friendly workspaces, a jungle of oxygen-generating plants, our much-loved LaCroix fridge–you can’t send 30+ employees home with just their laptops and expect that the culture benefits of that environment will somehow continue.

To support Tandemites in their new working environments, we’ve given them free reign to borrow monitors, keyboards, chairs, standing desks, and other equipment from the office so they can be effective and comfortable at home.

We’ve also invested in headphones, microphones, and webcams for employees who need them, and we’ve shared best practices on how to communicate on camera. With most of our interaction happening on Slack and Google Meet, it’s more important than ever that our audio and video quality is clear. If people recede into the background–metaphorically or literally–your culture will start to break down. By investing in the right tools, we’re maintaining our connection.

Another hard-to-replicate aspect of our office environment is the regular meals we share as a team. Pre-COVID-19, we provided catered breakfast or lunch for team members several days each week. As so many restaurants have had to adjust to a new business model, we’ve repurposed our catering budget to both treat our employees and support local businesses. We’ve issued each Tandem employee a ‘catering card’ to use for food and grocery-related purchases. It’s up to them whether these cards are best used on everyday groceries, a special treat, or even helping a friend or neighbor who needs a meal. What we’ve found is that many Tandemites have used their catering card to order from the local restaurants we enjoy so much when we’re together.

Images of takeout food from local restaurants
Over Tandem’s close-to-ten-year history, our team has enjoyed special relationships with the restaurants, bars, and coffee shops near our offices. A few of the local restaurants our team members have recently patronized, clockwise from top left: Due Lire, Glaze Teriyaki, Cafe Tola, Au Cheval, Smoque BBQ, Wheat’s End.


That’s how we’ve adjusted to this ‘new normal.’ Over the next few months, and probably into the next year or longer, we’re going to have to keep a flexible attitude toward our processes, tools, and routines. But with the strong culture we’ve developed, I feel confident that we can succeed in facing the challenges to come.

Let’s do something great together

We do our best work in close collaboration with our clients. Let’s find some time for you to chat with a member of our team.

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