Creating Community Culture: A Conversation with Alexia Koelling and Megan Hayes

animated man going from work to being remote

After two years of working from home, our Lipman Hearne team is opting for a hybrid work environment in a new, flexible workspace tailored for the post-pandemic world. On March 4, Alexia Koelling, executive vice president, consulting and account management, and Megan Hayes, manager, human resources, discussed their approach to community culture in a hybrid work environment and the overall impact it has on employees and organizational goals.

Companies can create community culture in so many ways. What do you think are the most important factors?

ALEXIA: Finding ways for people to bring their full selves. We need to remember our co-workers are complete people with full lives and ask “how are you,” really caring about an answer beyond “fine.” Recreate the hallway/water cooler conversation at the start or end of a Zoom meeting. It’s OK to then change up what you had planned if someone’s overwhelmed.

MEGAN: A goal I have is to laugh—if you aren’t laughing throughout the day at some point, something is not working. We have to love what we do and be happy. That goes back to communication, which is key, but it’s got to be limited. It’s important to set boundaries. We get really sucked into Slacking or emailing and having our co-workers respond right away, but sometimes they can’t. And we need to be empathetic and supportive of one another.

What are some of the tactics you’re employing to maintain an engaging community culture?

ALEXIA: Our Friday morning coffee started in person for the first 30 minutes of the day—it was a chance to just “be” and connect. We decided to try a standing Zoom as a nice way to finish out the week. Another piece is the virtual “5×5”—a fun, safe space for five people to “get up” and speak about something they’re passionate about to the friendliest audience. It’s a great reminder that whether you’re in person or virtual, you’re talking to a human.

MEGAN: We had a magic show holiday party over Zoom. A local magician did an interactive show, which was a fun experience for everyone to participate in. We also hired a company from Chicago to do scavenger hunts via Zoom.

ALEXIA: It’s important to remember that it’s not always top down. There’s what a company can do and there’s what employees can do. One day, our team was stressed, so we decided to have a decompression session. We got snacks, played Telephone Pictionary—as Megan said, so we could laugh and leave the room thinking “it’s OK.” Having those chances to stop and feel really positive emotions, helps everyone reset.

What are some of the challenges?

ALEXIA: We’re walking a fine line. People want human connection, and we want to make sure it’s well-rounded and not just work. In the same breath, people are tired of being on Zoom and connecting over emails and Slack. How do you create the right level where people aren’t thinking there’s not enough or there’s so many that they don’t want to participate? Where can we add value and positive elements with these interactions? It could be that everyone just needs to take a breather and go outside.

MEGAN: We’ve discussed ways we can limit Zoom—it’s hard to implement but worth asking employees how they feel. We want to prevent burnout and ensure people are healthy and taking the appropriate time off. The work is always going to be there, and we’re always going to have deadlines, but we still need to take time for ourselves.

ALEXIA: In exiting the pandemic, the challenge remains discussing what we want and how we can make it work for the most people. Pre-pandemic, if people weren’t in the office for our brainstorm meetings, I would cancel the meeting. Then, we bumped along and figured out how to do it. People work differently in person and think differently. In our new office space, the top floor has a garden wall with beautiful daylight and some people may want to work up there. Others will want to do huddles in larger areas. One year from now, I hope I can say we’ve figured out how to work together in ways that are totally different from what we’ve done before.

Any last advice?

ALEXIA: As managers, when somebody comes to you with a problem, we want to solve it immediately, but for this to work it’s really about trying to hear what the concerns are—let them fully express what that piece is and know that you’re in it to make it better. Allowing for the time and space to have those conversations is important in creating a community where your employees feel welcome and heard.

MEGAN: We need to be constantly learning and take it one day at a time. I love using the word evolve—it’s really important in culture and engagement to understand that change isn’t scary. It just needs to be addressed with positivity. If there are problems, have a round table with your employees and work together to fix the issues. You can only go so long without talking about the elephant in the room.

ALEXIA: That’s true. You might not be able to solve the systemic problems, but focus on what you can control with team coffee breaks and decompression sessions. If you can do those for your team, it will at least buy time to have those bigger conversations.

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