Jul 28, 2020 10 min read

Keeping Our Team Connected in the Time of Coronavirus

How Highland's People First value prepared us to tackle quarantine

  • Culture

On March 16, after Illinois’ Governor Pritzker announced that bars and restaurants would be closing for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19, Highland made the decision to close our office as well. We haven’t been back as a whole company since. It’s a similar story for businesses all over the country, and the switch to completely remote work can be a jarring adjustment.

“People First” is one of Highland’s core values. Our company prides itself on putting clients’ needs first, creating a really positive, customer-centric experience with each project. We don’t feel a project is successful if the client didn’t describe a good experience with our team, regardless of the results. This doesn’t just apply to how we work with clients—it also applies to how the company treats its employees. 

Highland's four Core Values: People first, Be curious, Be transparent, and Give a damn.

B.C.: Before COVID-19

Highland is a small company, comprised of a tight-knit group of people, who would consider themselves not just coworkers, but friends.

In an effort to be People First, we’ve always created opportunities for team members to connect. Pre-COVID, every Thursday we made a point to all sit down in the kitchen for a company-wide lunch. Thursdays were also our Happy Hour days, fondly known as “Beer:30.” At about 4:30, those who were interested would congregate in the kitchen and catch up over a beer, a glass of wine, or can of La Croix. In the mornings it was not uncommon to find a cluster of people chatting around the coffee pot. 

Left to right: Highlanders hanging out at a Beer:30, a completed Wrigley Field puzzle, and teammates collaborating on the floor.

We always kept a giant puzzle in progress on an empty table where Highlanders would meet, making small talk while fitting pieces into their perfect places. Mondays included our company-wide stand-ups. We’d all stand together and share our personal and professional bests from the previous week, as a way to get us energized for the days to come. Our office has several small conference rooms where project teams could congregate, brainstorming by lining the walls with brightly-colored sticky notes full of ideas. It also wasn’t unusual to see two or three people spread out on the floor in one of the more open areas, free from the confines of their desks.

Read more about company culture and team connectedness at Highland: 

What are the essential ingredients of a remarkable company culture?
A list of 11 company culture must-haves from some of Chicago’s best places to workjournal.highlandsolutions.com

A.C.: After COVID-19

After the Governor’s announcement and Chicago’s Mayor Lightfoot’s call to close down bars and restaurants, many companies, including Highland, decided to also close their offices. Suddenly, people used to a 9–5 grind and weekly routine were thrust into a whole new norm: working from home. 

A man in a suit and tie speaks to a live audience via a video cam while his kids playfully interrupt in the background.

For many, it’s been a difficult transition—it’s unrealistic for companies to continue operating like business as usual. This has been an extremely challenging period for most people, especially for those that are isolated due to living situations or health reasons. It’s important right now for companies to prioritize interpersonal relationships, because, for a lot of people, coworkers are a main source of socialization.

I believe that it’s because of Highland’s People First mentality that we’ve handled the company’s transition to a completely remote office so well. Because of our authentic connection to this core value, the adjustment to remote work was relatively smooth. 

A few weeks after we went remote, Highland’s President, Jon Berbaum, shared his thoughts on “How to Be People First in a Pandemic.” He asked, how do organizations like ours, aspire to be people first in a global emergency? How do we actually live that out? He recognized that many of us are either in crisis or anticipating a crisis. And in order to move through this, that anxiety must be addressed. 

“I found that I can’t lead anyone anywhere productive if I don’t tend to my own anxiety. Just the act of acknowledging that I’m uncertain, that I’m anxious, that I’m afraid — and choosing not to let that govern me, either consciously or subconsciously [helps me] to make steps that are really centered into what I value, and the people that I care for. […] To be People First is not just to tend to the technicalities of working remotely, but to tend to the people that we’re with during this time.

Jon encouraged us to check in with each other, not to get anything done, but to see how people are doing. Below are some of the ways Highlanders have managed to keep in touch — and keep it real—while acknowledging the anxiety of a global pandemic.

Utilizing Zoom, Slack, and Donut tools

Highland employees are no strangers to Zoom or Slack. Even before the pandemic, Zoom was used to include remote employees in meetings, as well as to host “in-person” conversations with clients based in other states or countries. Now, in the midst of working from home, we have upped our use of Zoom significantly. Instead of canceling what used to be in-person stand-ups or project planning sessions, we’ve simply moved them to Zoom. 

Gif of a young person standing on the edge of a highway saying 'ZOOM ZOOM'

As a company, we rely less on email and instead prefer to use the Slack chat program. Chatting on Slack allows for instant communication that doesn’t require a phone (although Slack does also have a video call function). Slack also lets you invite outside guests to specific channels. Most of our projects have their own channels, which means clients can be actively involved in conversations at all times. Fortunately, this was already a well-established tool we used. 

For more insight, check out this article about how we created a “help” channel in Slack which was a total game-changer for us. Now that we aren’t working in the same space, it’s become more important than ever.

A #Help Slack channel screenshot where Ana asks for time tracking help, and Katie-Sue swiftly replies.

We had used and then abandoned Slack app Donut for a while B.C., but picked it up again in the A.C. times. The Slack add-on randomly assigns two people each week and asks them to schedule 15–30 minutes to have a virtual coffee meet-up and get to know one another. You can opt-in or opt-out at any time, it sends you reminders to schedule your meet-up, and it provides company-wide stats on the success rate of meetings. As someone who was still new to Highland when the work-from-home order came about, the app has been invaluable in helping me get to know people despite not being in the office with them.

We had 6 groups successfully meet through donut, putting us at a success rate of 100%

Virtual happy hours, company lunches, and kitchen chats

Once again, Zoom and Slack save the day! We have a recurring Zoom meeting set up for our Beer:30 Happy Hour, as well as our virtual Wednesday group lunches. We also added a “kitchen” channel to our Slack, that’s tied to a free-standing Zoom meeting, that allows people to “bump into” each other during a work break.

Creating spaces to be supportive of each other, but also have fun

This has been one of the most challenging periods most of us have lived through. Recognizing that, Highland added a #mental-health channel to Slack, where people can go and share how they are dealing with (or not dealing with) the “new normal” of life in a pandemic. Coworkers have shared artwork and music, tips on how to sleep better, and other ways of coping.

On a lighter note, we’ve also added a #wfh-wisdom channel to share advice and methods used to try and make the transition to working from home a little easier for those who weren’t used to it. There’s also now an #everyday-life-pics channel, where you’ll often find fun pictures of our pets, garden plots, and sunset views from home offices.

From left to right: Desmond, one of Theresa’s adorable cats, makes for a good coworker; Curtis’s home-office view is pretty great; Daniel shows off his green thumb with a couple of prized eggplants. (Images used with permission)

Encouraging connection beyond work projects

We are so very fortunate to have tech tools, and all they have to offer, during this time. There are so many free online game platforms at our disposal such as Steam, Roll20, and D&D Beyond. I’ve attended several virtual game nights including trivia, D&D campaigns (Dungeons & Dragons for the noobs), and a pretty hilarious game of Pictionary using Scribbl.io. We even turned one of our virtual happy hours into a talent show with the help of Zoom; Highlanders got creative and shared art, writing, and music.

Virtual Meetp Up Zoom screen with 12 faces on a grid, each holding up a different item including plants, pets, and Clorox.

Working remotely has its challenges:

Zoom-bombing, kids, pets, roommates, spouses ‘sharing’ home offices, and seeing people before they’ve had their coffee. But this time has given us the opportunity to get a more intimate look at each other’s personal lives. I’ve met coworker’s kids and partners; they’ve seen dirty dishes in my sink and my cat’s butt in the camera. We’ve all become a little more human in each other’s eyes and it’s brought us closer together — which is really what being a People First company is all about. Though we are all separated, we aren’t alone.

Further thoughts on virtual collaboration

Highland has been writing about our experience with remote work since the start of the pandemic. Below are tips on how to lead all-remote research sessions, Design Sprints, eat whole bags of cookies, and why it’s okay to be distracted.

Collaborating in an Empty Room
Best Practices for Leading All-Remote Research Sessions, Synthesis Workshops, and Design Sprints

How to Have a Great Remote Discovery
Working apart doesn’t have to hinder your ability to connect with clients

A Step-by-Step Recipe for a Virtual Business Model Canvas
How a mix of free tools and open minds can help businesses make smart pivots

Hardly Working or Working Hard: A Little Distraction Might be In Your Best Interest
Now is the perfect time to embrace alternative work setups

The Beautiful Normalcy of Oreos
Anyone can publish on Medium per our Policies, but we don’t fact-check every story. For more info about the…