All illustrations by Alex Schloer

Maintaining workplace culture, continuity, and connection during a pandemic takes many forms, and several South Sound businesses and organizations — including those in professional services, restaurants, manufacturing, co-working, and public parks — have managed to do it in creative ways.

Whether their employees work from home, still are in the workplace, or their business is providing workspace, employers have adapted in meaningful ways to keep employees connected and safe while business moves forward in trying times. Following are some examples shared in mid-December, when coronavirus infections were soaring and the state remained under restrictions that included no indoor dining, no large gatherings, and more.

Burgers and Breakfast Burritos; ‘Communication and Vulnerability’

Tacoma Comedy Club CEO Adam Norwest had to pivot to keep his business going and his employees working after his venue closed. Food service that once complemented the comedy shows had to take center stage, with Norwest opening Tacoma Burger Co. and Grit City Breakfast to utilize the kitchen and keep many of his employees working. He plans to continue those eateries when the comedy club reopens.

“One of the things I’m most excited about is the fact that we’ve been in comedy for 10 years, and we’ve never utilized the space or the building until 6 p.m. each night. And so now we’re finding a way to use the other times,” said Norwest, CEO of Bark Entertainment. The company includes his wife and parents and operates three other clubs in Spokane, which made a similar dining pivot; Oklahoma; and Wisconsin.

How has he managed to keep employees positive and rowing in the same direction during the challenges and changes wrought by the pandemic? “Communication and vulnerability,” he said.

“We’ve just done our best to keep everyone informed with what’s happening and let them know they’re not alone in this, and we’re going to do whatever we can to support them,” Norwest said. “Trying to reassure them that comedy will come back and things will be OK helps, but also letting them know that they’re not struggling while I’m sitting on a yacht somewhere … I’m in the same boat as everybody else, just trying to get through this and hoping for the best on the other side.”

Norwest has tried to run the business like a family, caring for employees beyond their shifts, including through fundraising efforts, to help with miscellaneous needs they may have.

A lesson he’s learned about keeping employees engaged during difficult times is listening to them and their ideas, including asking for feedback on his ideas. Forcing something to happen that people aren’t on board with won’t help morale, he said.

Also don’t be afraid to pitch in and help on the front lines if necessary, “and show them that you’re there with them and supporting them (in) every way you can.”

Being Intentional in Connecting with Teams

The main thing Tacoma digital agency Site Crafting Inc. has done to keep its culture positive during the pandemic revolves around supporting each other, said founder Brian Forth.

That includes being intentional at the leadership level by doing more listening than talking, and doing more modeling of positive behavior, including things like midday runs between meetings, and being intentional about connecting with staff.

Brian Forth, photographed October 2020. Photo by Brian Mittge/AWB.

SiteCrafting set up an “excursions” channel on Slack, where employees can post a walk they plan to take, for example, and invite others to join as a safe way to connect. Forth said the company is “certainly not forcing people to do those sorts of things, but finding ways to allow some of that humanity back in. The other thing we found is that little wins mean a lot,” like celebrating health milestones.

SiteCrafting set up a “wall of wins” to post goals that have been achieved and celebrated as a team. Those include work-related achievements, too, creating sort of a “yearbook” of successes that can be remembered, he said.

SiteCrafting also has three 30-minute all-hands Zoom meetings with quick department reports featuring the week’s marketing efforts and more. On Fridays, a weekly win internal newsletter is distributed. Forth on Friday also provides an update that closes out the week and prepares staff for the next week.

SiteCrafting also has moved its quarterly in-person “happy hours” for meeting with clients and staff to virtual happy hours at home that include buying clients’ products (think beer, coffee, swag) and delivering them to homes instead. “That’s the idea of rewarding our clients and our team, and reminding each other of these local businesses that need their support as well,” Forth said.

Workspace Provider Adjusts Space, Connects Community, Members

Flexible workspace provider TractionSpace, which opened in Tacoma just before the pandemic, has responded to the COVID challenge by increasing its number of private offices from about half its space to about 75 percent, installed a new high-circulation air-handling system, and launched dozens of educational Zoom sessions for members and the broader South Sound business community.

“That’s been very important to maintain that consistency of presence, not only in the value it provides to the greater community outside of our space, but also for our employees to have a sense of purpose, to be able to be working on something larger than themselves,” Don Morrison, CEO and partner at Traction- Space, said of the online presentations.

Don Morrison, CEO and partner at TractionSpace.

Speakers have included Ali Modarres, director of urban studies at the University of Washington-Tacoma, talking about how cities will look after COVID-19; a session on how to do basic competitive analysis for smaller businesses; and a PricewaterhouseCoopers presentation on Opportunity Zones economic development tools.

“We want to establish that connection with the community,” Morrison said. “We also want to build our brand as being value-added. We’re not just a physical space; we provide additional services.”

That physical space, though, is important, and TractionSpace’s adjustment to more private offices responds to the new environment.

“We don’t see dense co-working coming back anytime in the near future, and that’s not the way we believe, as advocates of public health, that we would want to present our space, anyway,” Morrison said.

TractionSpace asks members not in their offices or behind plexiglass partitions to wear masks, takes the temperature of everyone entering the building, asks questions about exposure to others with COVID, and promotes social distancing and other behavior policies to protect members and employees, Morrison said.

“We’ve had a couple situations where we’ve had to send out reminders of the policy to people, but everyone has understood and realizes that we operate in a community and that we’re only as strong as our weakest link,” he said.

Morrison believes TractionSpace’s moves position it well for an emerging trend of hybrid work, where employees mix time at the office, and workplace collaboration, with the flexibility of working from home.

“That kind of has been borne out by Gensler,” he said, referring to Gensler’s summer/fall 2020 workplace survey.

Responding to the suggestion that the pandemic ultimately could be good for businesses like TractionSpace, Morrison said, “You know, this is the art of survival — and if you survive, I think it is going to be a very robust market.”

Creating a Positive Impact Internally, Externally

Jon Isaacson, vice president of operations for All American Restoration Services in Tacoma, which repairs homes and businesses after fire or water damage, said he and fellow employees are fortunate to work in an essential business and take pride helping people recover in the safest way possible. They’re dedicated to that mission, and that’s rewarding. They’ve also tried to be involved in positive community efforts, including a sock drive in September to help people in the community who are less fortunate. The business reached out to companies it works with, plus some competitors, to see who could collect the most new socks, part of a drive called “Socktember.” Collectively, the teams — including The Contents Specialists, Merit Construction, 3 Kings Environmental, and Home with Kelsey Isaacson — collected more than 5,500 pairs, he said.

Socks were delivered to the Tacoma Rescue Mission and other organizations, and recipients’ gratitude was rewarding for teams who collaborated, he said. “

We did something good, and it made an impact, a very positive impact,” Isaacson said. More broadly, he noted Pierce County’s community efforts to unite during hard times and noted hashtags like #supportlocal and #lovelocal to support local businesses and keep people working. Isaacson tries to promote that through his The DYOJO podcast at Socktember represented the idea that, “It only takes a small spark to get a fire going,” Isaacson said.

Similarly, Isaacson has a podcast called South Sound Connection to highlight local entrepreneurs, businesses, and community efforts, and serves as a sounding board for other positive efforts in the community that people can rally around.

“We want Tacoma to thrive; if Tacoma does well, I think all of our businesses will do well, collectively, and as we continue to support local companies,” he said.

‘Appreciation Bonuses,’ Virtual Team-Building

Tacoma-based Milgard Windows & Doors, which has 820 employees in Pierce County in office and manufacturing environments, has most of its office employees working remotely. Manufacturing workers, though, have showed up daily to deliver windows and doors for customers, with the business deemed essential.

Safety is always a high priority at Milgard, but additional protocols were implemented to ensure team members felt safe coming to work, and were able to work in an environment that kept each other safe and productive, according to an email from Tolena Thorburn, senior marketing communications manager.

Milgard also gave hourly employees an “appreciation bonus” of 2.5 percent annual earnings in 2020.

Milgard hosted an employee appreciation week in October, when gift cards were raffled off, and managers gave employee recognition shout-outs, Thorburn said.

Teams working remotely have conducted virtual holiday parties and other virtual team-building events in order to promote camaraderie and bolster team spirit.

“We’ve had to get creative with how we approach employee engagement right now, “ Vince Prunty, director of human resources for Milgard, said in the email. “We want to deliver safe and fun experiences to our team members to express appreciation and promote teamwork.”

Aside from the virtual team-building events, that creativity included an ugly Christmas sweater contest, where participants submitted photos of their attire rather than wearing it to an event, as in past years.

Metro Parks Tacoma: ‘Real Human Beings’

The organization that runs Tacoma parks, community centers, and other facilities fell to 22 percent of pre-COVID staffing levels between March and late May, after all part-time staff were laid off, and almost half of career staff were furloughed.

Those were traumatic times, said Nancy Johnson, senior communications administrator. The organization had returned to about 50 percent of total pre-COVID staffing in late-October, with the brunt of the reductions among part-time positions, which typically decline in fall.

“It’s been a transition, for sure,” Johnson said, but staff have responded.

Nancy Johnson, senior communications administrator at Metro Parks Tacoma

“It’s actually probably knit us closer together in that when we join for meetings, there are a few moments that are taken to be real human beings and to find out what has happened in people’s lives and to stay on top of those things,” she said. “… Those of us who remain here, have come to really understand how interconnected roles that may seem disparate at times really are, and how we really need to step forward for one another.”

Staff have learned new ways of operating and made technological advances that will help the organization going forward, she said. But that doesn’t mean life after the pandemic won’t include face-to-face connections.

“There will always be a need, especially in parks and recreation, for the people who connect people in parks to stay connected themselves,” she said.

For the public, parks and open spaces have proved valuable places for physical and mental stimulation. Their use has soared while numbers of employees who maintain those facilities have dropped.

“I know from talking to some of (the maintenance staff ), it’s been a really tough and draining experience,” Johnson said, but they’re providing space that is the entertainment for many people in the community, places for people to reset, she said. “I know they have a great deal of pride in that.”

Even during a pandemic, the parks office found ways to connect in person, including honoring various longtime employees who retired with an event at a large outdoor space that allowed significant social distancing.