Vol. 45, No. 5

Positive staff culture: Important in good times—and in these times

By Marilyn Cavicchia

Theresa Hurley, executive director of the Contra Costa County (Calif.) Bar Association, can point to at least one concrete way that having a positive staff culture has put the bar in much better position to deal with COVID-19 and its business interruptions: The bar had a new disaster plan in place because Hurley had recently given this project to a staff member who happened to have a passion for it.

In good times and in bad, Hurley says, she tries to give the bar’s five other employees as much “leeway” as possible to do their jobs, and a chance to shine—regardless of what their job duties are on paper.

“I never knew how much joy I would find in logging on with a few dozen colleagues just to check in and see how everyone is doing" - Russell Rawlings

“I never knew how much joy I would find in logging on with a few dozen colleagues just to check in and see how everyone is doing" - Russell Rawlings

Westend61 via Getty Images

Being flexible with assignments, and looking for ways to help employees play to their strengths, makes a big difference, Hurley believes, because “people feel like they can come up with ideas, and a lot of times they can be implemented.”

In this case, she says, an opportunity came about when the bar decided to shed a fee arbitration program that was taking an inordinate amount of staff time. The staff member who had been managing this program dug into her new assignment, attending seminars and making sure everything was set up for remote work, and that the rest of the staff understood how to access what they needed in case of emergency. Between that, a recently purchased phone system that allows remote work via an app, and a chance to test things out when one staff member was advised to stay home because a family member had underlying health conditions, the bar was in good shape when the state of California made its official order to shelter in place.

Hire for the mission, not just the job description

Thinking beyond rigid roles and hierarchy, and helping employees find ways to apply a wide range of skills and interests at work, is a topic that Holly Priestner and Leslie Vander Gheynst addressed in the keynote plenary for the National Association of Bar Executives at the group’s 2020 Midyear Meeting in Austin, Texas. Vander Gheynst is vice president of people at Keller Williams International, and Priestner is director of talent acquisition and engagement at Keller Williams Xperience—and formerly communications director at the State Bar of Texas. (Priestner’s comments below are from a subsequent interview with Bar Leader; see “The world has changed. Your approach to talent must change, too,” also in this issue, for her insights on talent development during the pandemic.)

In a rapidly changing marketplace, Priestner says, it no longer makes sense to hire based primarily on job descriptions that may need to change, and to box people into those roles. Instead, she recommends, make sure to hire someone who fits with the mission of the bar—and then help them find opportunities to apply whatever “superpowers” they have to challenges facing the organization.

That’s an environment Priestner enjoyed at the State Bar of Texas, where most of her promotions occurred not because there was a specific opening that she applied for, but because she stepped up to tackle a project or solve a challenge and was rewarded for her initiative. Other bars that may have more rigid organizational charts and limited routes for employees to advance should rethink that approach, Priestner believes.

“Right now,” she says, “we're all in this time that we've never seen before, and it’s important to understand how critical it is for your workforce to be flexible. That's how you are able to survive in uncertain market conditions or industry conditions.”

Connection, unity, and fun

Related to that sense of flexibility and lack of rigidity, many bars in recent years have worked on building a sense that the staff is one team, made up of people who enjoy each other’s company—and they are now working to maintain that feeling during a time when the staff is physically scattered and working remotely.

That’s been a major focus for Joycelyn Stevenson as she settled into her job as executive director of the Tennessee Bar Association. The staff has frequent get-togethers to socialize and also to celebrate each other’s milestones—including, this past December, an outing to a restaurant and game arcade, to celebrate Stevenson’s first year with the bar.

“Working with people you enjoy being around makes work a lot better,” Stevenson says. “There’s going to be hard days, bad days, stressful days. But I think if you have a good relationship, you can get through those.”

These days, she adds, the staff is getting together via “virtual happy hour”—an optional weekly meetup to discuss anything not related to work. Children and pets are welcome, too, Stevenson notes.

An unusual—but well-known—collaboration in Minnesota provides a case study in unifying people across very different teams, using a bit of humor as an important tool.

In January 2019, in a move that garnered a lot of attention from the rest of the bar world, the staffs of the Minnesota State Bar Association, Hennepin County Bar Association, and Ramsey County Bar Association were officially combined, though the organizations remain separate in all other ways, including membership rosters, governance structures, and missions.

For the MSBA and HCBA, this involved a dramatic physical moment as well: The two bars were already under one roof, so a wall between them was knocked down, and their two different styles of signs, furniture, and other design elements were made more uniform. (The RCBA, meanwhile, remains in a separate building about 15 miles away in St. Paul, so it can continue to serve its members most effectively.)

Even though the combining of staffs meant reorganizing rather than layoffs, anxiety was still high as everyone adjusted to their new roles and new ways of doing things, recalls Jennifer Wallace, art director. But very soon, she began to notice a deliberate culture in which the human resources director and other members of the leadership team were invested in how the staff felt—that “someone has our back, and wants to make sure we’re having fun.”

Both Wallace and Nick Hansen, communications manager, credit Office Manager Sarah Mayer as key to the positive atmosphere—and Mayer, in turn, notes that many great team-building ideas came from the staff of the HCBA and were folded into the routines of the new combined staff.

For example, Hansen has long been a fan of themed food contests and special events, and has been encouraged to continue those with the new, larger staff. Another of his ideas that has continued is to ask a fun question each Friday via all-staff email. Asking people to taste and rate new potato chip flavors or to tell everyone about their favorite movie might sound purely frivolous, but Hansen says there’s serious benefit.

“It gives you something you can chat about with a staff member you probably don’t interact with on a daily basis,” he says. “It’s an easy way to get the staff connecting with each other.”

Wallace, Hansen, and Mayer all note that even if certain ideas bubble up from the staff, it’s important that the leadership team be actively invested in team-building. For one thing, Hansen says, if you see your manager participating in something lighthearted, it gives you permission to enjoy it, too. Before the reorganization, Wallace saw what happened when staff members themselves were expected to organize any special events they wanted to have: Get-togethers were infrequent, and the staff felt burdened.

“It’s important that the leadership take ownership of these events and making sure staff feels cared for,” Mayer says. “It has to come from the top; otherwise, it’s not going to feel real or appreciated.”

Mayer notes that though the RCBA has maintained its separate office, care is taken to ensure that the staff members working there don’t feel left out. If the rest of the staff gets a special treat, she says, the leadership team makes sure that there are also treats in the RCBA office.

And it’s not all fun and games, she adds: When an ergonomics expert came to assess and improve workstations in the Minneapolis office, the combined management team made sure that he also visited the office in St. Paul—something that the RCBA had not previously had the resources to do, as a smaller bar.

As fun as it’s been for the staff to come together and learn more about each other, Wallace appreciates that the management and leadership team knows that this is also important work—and that it takes time.

“Your first year [after combining staff], you’re not going to accomplish a lot of new tasks,” she says. “Our executive director told us that in the first year, we were just going to be ourselves and do our jobs, but not push ourselves to do too many new things yet.”

Now that the staff is working remotely, new tools are helping to maintain the feeling of connection and lightheartedness. “We added a ‘Watercooler Chat’ channel to Microsoft Teams,” Hansen says. “It's a chance to get back some of the daily chatter that's lost due to working from home.”

Hansen also started a Friday "Show and Tell," where there’s a certain prompt and everyone responds with things in their house. Some of the recent prompts: random pop culture items, music-related stuff, and best Craigslist/thrift store finds.

Staying together, even while apart

The Minnesota bars are not the only ones trying new ways to maintain their positive staff culture under extraordinary circumstances. Here are a few other ideas, courtesy of several members of the National Association of Bar Executives Communications Section who responded to a Bar Leader query:

  • The Virginia Bar Association has found an innovative, safe way to continue its tradition of celebrating staff birthdays, says Director of Marketing and Communications Marilyn Shaw, who notes that out of a staff of nine, two people have had birthdays during this working-from-home period. Shaw discovered an online tool called kudoboard as a way to send a group virtual "card" (one staff member attached a video of herself playing "Happy Birthday" on the violin, Shaw says). “We found delivery companies to drop off a sweet at the home of the celebrant,” she adds, “so we can maintain the staff celebration [with a Zoom conference and staff serenade of ‘Happy Birthday’] and also help the hurting retail establishment.”
  • Along with all the ways North Carolina Bar Association staff members are staying connected in order to continue their work, Director of External Affairs and Communication Russell Rawlings says the bar’s human resources manager, Dan Blyskal, is “working hard to offset feelings of isolation.” Thus far, these efforts have included virtual lunches, virtual employee socials, and a 20-minute guided meditation program. “I never knew how much joy I would find in logging on with a few dozen colleagues just to check in and see how everyone is doing, what they're wearing, and how they're holding up,” Rawlings says.
  • “Working remotely, for many on my highly collaborative team, has been tough,” says Lisa Deane, chief member services officer at the State Bar of Arizona. Her 25-person department stays engaged via text and video chats throughout the day on Microsoft Teams. Recently, she notes, her staff used Teams for a virtual coffee break, with 18 people showing up for a video chat and a game. The latest development: “One of my teammates created the Member Services Break Room, our own Higher Logic online community to share pictures, videos, book suggestions, recipes, etc.,” Deane says. “It, too, has been a hit.”
  • The Dallas Bar Association has instituted a system of “buddy checks,” says Jessica Smith, the bar’s communications/media director and Headnotes editor. “We’ve each paired up with another coworker to contact them daily to check in on how they are doing,” she explains, noting that this check can by done by a variety of means, including email, text, a phone call, or a funny message. The bar has also had a virtual staff meeting/happy hour wearing funny hats and “sharing” a favorite beverage and/or snack, she adds. In April, Smith says, the bar gave its ongoing fitness challenge the theme “Quaran-Bingo.” Each staff member completed items off a bingo board, such as “Have a virtual coffee break with a coworker,” “Go on a virtual walk with a coworker—talk on the phone while you walk ‘together,’” or “Send a coworker an uplifting message.”
  • Nothing brings down the mood and interferes with positive staff culture quite like basic systems that don’t work—and that’s one area where Dominick Alcid, director of membership and chapters at the Federal Bar Association, credits Executive Director Stacy King. Before COVID-19 required remote work, he says, King had recently implemented “a sweeping technology update” to improve operational efficiencies by moving things to the cloud. “Being ‘ready for telework prime-time’ during this pandemic was an unforeseen winning lottery ticket that greatly reduced any staff learning curve and eliminated the IT scramble at a time when technology vendors were way too busy,” says Alcid, who is also chair of the NABE Communications Section.

Helping members understand the staff’s work

In both normal and highly unusual times, another approach that can contribute to a positive atmosphere at the bar is making sure the members and leaders have a sense of what the staff does—and that it involves hard work, even if there is some fun mixed in.

One factor that helps Stevenson in this role is that she herself is a past president of the Nashville Bar Association, which gave her some perspective on the work of the bar staff—but not as complete a picture as she has now, she notes.

“I strongly encourage our team to directly communicate with members if they have an issue or concern,” Stevenson says. “I think it’s important to know who you’re working with, and who is doing work for you.”

Stevenson also sends an announcement, with a photo, when someone new is hired, includes staff accomplishments in her reports to the board, and encourages staff members to speak at board meetings regarding the specific programs and projects they work on.

At the CCCBA, Hurley has found a novel way to ensure that all board members understand what it takes for the staff to maintain one of the bar’s main sources of nondues revenue, the lawyer referral service: Each new board member spends half a day answering these phone calls. It’s gratifying for the staff, she says, because inevitably, the board member ends the day by asking if the phones always ring that often, and if the calls are always that intense.

“For the board member,” she adds, “it puts faces to names because oftentimes, they'll only see me or one other staff member on a regular basis, but this way they get to meet everybody.”

If not during the pandemic, then perhaps once everyone’s back to the office, Hurley plans to extend this idea further. “I'm trying to find other ways that committee chairs and other leaders can have more of those direct connections with the staff,” she says, “because I think that really helps everybody stay focused on why we're here.”

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