The COVID-19 pandemic has dealt devastating blows to many Washtenaw County business owners, but it's also led many of them to reshape their workplace culture in positive ways that seem likely to stick for the long term.
Emily Heintz is the founder of EntryPoint, an Ann Arbor-based entrepreneurial nonprofit research organization. She says she's increasingly heard stories of local business leaders finding creative and effective ways to engage and support their staff during COVID-19.
EntryPoint founder Emily Heintz.
"The employers that are being flexible and really listening to the needs of their employees are the ones that are able to address issues in real time," she says. "They continue to build their business, are able to serve customers, and are pulling their staff together rather than pulling them apart."
Heintz finds examples in the way her own nonprofit's work culture has evolved since March. She and her staff have prioritized open communication and a very flexible work schedule, including taking every Friday off.
"We're noticing positive changes and increased productivity," she says. "During a time like this, I feel an employer has the opportunity to show they really care about their people. Rising to the challenges of the pandemic has brought our team closer and made us stronger."
Implementing "extreme flexibility"
After closing her company's office in March, Dawn Verbrigghe, founder of Ann Arbor web design company Jottful, took a close look at how to keep her company moving in the right direction.
Jottful founder Dawn Verbrigghe.
"I started thinking about how I can make the work experience as pleasurable as possible for my employees," she says. "I wanted to figure out how to optimize this situation that we're in."
Like many workers across Washtenaw County, caring for children, homeschooling, being caregivers to parents, and navigating mental health and wellness are just some of the common challenges vying for Jottful employees' focus and energy.
Verbrigghe says her company was "really hitting a good stride" pre-pandemic. Knowing that her staff is the foundation of her company's success, Verbrigghe was determined to find ways to build and maintain a positive work culture.
One key change for Jottful is what Verbrigghe calls "extreme flexibility." When it comes to work schedules, she recognizes that allowances must be made for the unique situations each employee is dealing with at home. For instance, one staff member has to take time off work every day before dinner, but resumes work in the evening. Verbrigghe herself is in charge of a pod school on Tuesdays and can't work on that day.
"So far, it's working out really well. We're learning to make things easier for each other," she says. "When it's safe to do so, we'll maintain this extreme flexibility and blend it with the social interaction benefits of an actual office."
Monthly socially-distanced get-togethers have also served to keep Jottful staff on the same page.
"We went kayaking once, we went to the drive-in movies, and we went hiking with cider," Verbrigghe says. "Next, we're watching 'Wonder Woman' together. I'm sending everyone care packages with popcorn and other things to make their experience wonderful."
"These times have pulled our team closer"
Christina York, founder of Ann Arbor-based augmented reality software company SpellBound, never thought her company would be one in which "you can work on your own schedule, so long as you are getting your work done." But adopting that approach and emphasizing productivity over a fixed schedule is increasing productivity, supporting employees' well-being, and nurturing a sense of positive collaboration.
SpellBound founder Christina York.
"We've upped our game. Since March, who we were, who we thought we were going to be, and what the reality is has shifted," York says. "Some things we haven't changed. We're just changing the way we're doing those things and today people are actually more empowered and uplifted."
Spellbound's staff game nights were a popular fixture before the pandemic, especially given that the company focuses on creating AR games to entertain and distract children in a hospital setting. Those game nights are now held remotely.
"Play is a central tenet in our community," York explains. "If we want to make things that are fun and engaging and immersive enough to make a cancer patient forget their cancer for a few minutes, we need to live aligned in that way."
Lastly, staff now have health care coverage. The addition was a result of open communication, something that York continuously fosters.
"We've always thought of ourselves as open and collaborative. That didn't change, but we're now at level 11 in terms of cooperation," she says. "These times have pulled our team closer and opened a line of communication where people feel very comfortable. That's what will stay past the pandemic."
"We're being pushed to be better"
A company culture where employees feel safe and comfortable has also been paramount to David "DC" Corcoran, CEO of Ann Arbor-based cybersecurity firm Censys. In September, he "went on a little roadshow," driving to visit all of his employees east of the Mississippi. He met with close to 40 people on their front porches, at parks, outdoor coffee shops, and beer gardens.
Censys CEO David Corcoran.
"I knew that there were things that people couldn't or wouldn't ask over a Zoom meeting. Talking with them in person allowed us to be more open and vulnerable with each other," he explains. "We're like a family with a common mission."
Censys employees also received help with home office setup and stipends to cover the cost of internet services. They were also allowed to take any of their office equipment home with them and enjoy flexible work hours.
Corcoran says virtual workshops and lunch-and-learns have also been helpful to keep employees connected. Corcoran, who usually doesn't like to tell people that he's a "prepper," has himself led Zoom meetings teaching blacksmithing and food preservation.
"Unprecedented times have forced us to try different things as we strive for change, and to adapt to whatever comes toward us," he says. "We, like many others, are still figuring some things out. We're being pushed to be better and it’s making us stronger."
For more Concentrate coverage of our community's response to the COVID-19 crisis, click here.
Jaishree Drepaul-Bruder is a freelance writer and editor currently based in Ann Arbor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
All photos by Doug Coombe.