Creativity is at the heart of this company’s remote work culture

The coronavirus pandemic has shuttered and slowed businesses around the world–but one business and tech consulting firm has worked to keep operations steaming ahead with a continued investment in culture.

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West Monroe, with headquarters in Chicago and six other locations in the U.S., transitioned its 1,300 employees to remote work by mid-March. It welcomed nearly 100 interns in a virtual program this summer and also onboarded 70 new hires remotely in August. The company is considering reopening some offices starting in October, depending on safety guidelines, but has told employees no one is required back in the office this year.

While the company has forged forward through these unprecedented challenges, says Susan Stelter, chief people officer at West Monroe, employees have felt the burden of the loosening of the separation between work and life, Zoom fatigue and isolation. That’s prompted the organization to focus on maintaining its highly connected culture, from virtual 5ks to volunteer opportunities and the continuation of its popular “chief officers” program–in which employees demonstrate their creative skills in team-building activities.

“We as an organization feel that the opportunity to come together still has great value in building community as well as collaboration,” she says.

HRE: How has the “chiefs” program transitioned to an online setting?

Stelter: Our “chiefs” program was an idea of our CEO, Kevin McCarty, many years ago. The idea is that anyone at any level can be a leader of something they are passionate about — whether the “Chief Hot Sauce Officer,” “Chief Adventure Officer” or “Chief Green Officer.” It is a great way to hone your leadership skills and project management skills, as well as to get to know people who are passionate about the same thing.

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All of our chiefs have been very creative in finding ways to engage during our remote working environment. The Chief Cultural Arts Officer hosted Craig Carothers in a live acoustic Zoom performance specially for the company. Our Chief Charity Officers quickly pivoted our National Day of Service in June to be an all-virtual event. And, the Chief Running & Fitness Officers arranged a virtual West Monroe 5k run/walk on June 20–people could send in pictures of themselves running.

Related: 3 ways HR can support culture through the ‘new normal’

HRE: West Monroe always participates in the National Day of Service; what was the conversation this year around how to continue the program?  

Stelter: Initially, we talked about whether we should conduct the session at all, but we all felt that the nonprofit community needed us now more than ever. Every nonprofit was faced with challenges with being able to get volunteers as well as with fundraising. We knew our employees would participate, as this is one of our favorite days of the year–it is fun and one of our most fulfilling! While we were all disappointed that we could not spend it “together” on site, we were able to do it virtually and many of our people invited their families to join in. We had opportunities to record a reading of children’s books, make cards for sick children and transcribe historical data for the Smithsonian Institution.

The feedback was very positive by both our people and the nonprofits. Our people really enjoyed the opportunity to participate and were grateful we maintained our commitment to service.

HRE: How does the new summer-leave program compare to previous PTO allowances?

Stelter: Our 2020 summer leave program allows employees to take three to 14 weeks of consecutive time off. It is similar to an unpaid leave although the firm was continuing to provide and pay for their benefits during this time. We recognized that, for many of our employees, this had been a very stressful time–many of our employees who are parents were facing a summer where most of the summer camp programs and childcare options were largely unavailable, putting added stress on them. We also had many people who had not been able to see their family and wanted some time with them or simply to take time off to disconnect. This was an option to help them do what they needed without worrying about losing or having to pay out of pocket for important health benefits.

Although we have flexible PTO and a formal leave program, we felt it was important to offer this and encourage people to take time off as they needed it–even if that meant for an extended period of time.  We recognize that the past few months have been stressful and we wanted our people to feel free to be able to do what they needed to do for themselves and their families.

As for moving forward, West Monroe has other standard leave policies in place, such as parental leave, but we will assess needs for future leaves like this as they arise.

HRE: If you could identify just one lesson learned so far about working with a newly virtual workforce, what would it be?

Stelter: I think there will be many lessons that come of this time; some are obvious (I hope), in terms of ensuring people will have the flexibility to take time off when they are sick, and also providing a greater opportunity to work more flexibly in the future. There are a few others lessons I hope result, as well: Work and life are truly integrated. Over the past few years, we have spent a lot of time talking about work/life “balance.” The reality is the concept of “balance” is a myth. Every day, we have to work through the prioritization of what we need to do at work, as well as outside of work. The pandemic has forced us to navigate those challenges together with one another–creating space for us to talk about our challenges beyond just the “work.” I hope that kind of transparency and communication continues, so we all feel we can share how our lives integrate.

Also, we need to focus on our mental health. The pandemic has made us all very aware of the impact of our mental health on work as well as our personal life. I hope one of the lasting impacts is both a greater awareness and commitment to provide access to mental health resources as well as to remove the stigma around discussing mental health.

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Jen Colletta
Jen Colletta is managing editor at HRE. She earned bachelor's and master's degrees in writing from La Salle University in Philadelphia and spent 10 years as a newspaper reporter and editor before joining HRE. She can be reached at [email protected].