On Our Minds

Working with so many organizations across multiple issue areas gives us a unique view into what’s happening in the social sector. This is where we share our insights and ruminations.
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Going Remote: Code for America shares its learnings and best practices

by Zeryn Sarpangal 

“Going Remote” is a series of articles highlighting talent professionals from the On-Ramps community, as they discuss the adjustments they have made to their talent practices—and the subsequent outcomes—since shifting to a remote workforce during the coronavirus pandemic. We are thrilled to facilitate this knowledge share in the hopes that it will help organizations across the social sector during these challenging times. You can read the first article in this series here.

Zeryn Sarpangal is the chief financial and people officer at Code for America, a nonprofit that uses the principles and practices of the digital age to improve how government serves the American public—and how the public improves government. 

At Code for America, one of our core values is “empathy is our operating system.” This particular value has really amplified since all 80 members of our organization moved to an entirely remote work environment. Many of us feel an even deeper sense of empathy for our team members who were already working remotely. Before the pandemic hit, we always tried to be more remote-friendly  and create a sense of inclusion with our remote colleagues. But I think it was hard to understand until the rest of us were really in that moment—not just one day of the week, but every day of the week. I think we are all learning how to embody that now through our processes and day-to-day interactions, which has been grounding for me. 

Something we’re doing temporarily: 

Shifting performance management to a strengths-based mindset

We already had a monthly meeting with all of our managers to connect, provide general coaching and training, and share updates on relevant organizational topics. Now, we are using these meetings much more deliberately for on-the-spot training and coaching that focuses on remote management and supporting employees during this pandemic. First, we talk through a process or article. Then we break into groups to share current experiences, role play, or get input from others. It gives managers a chance to really think about how they can show up for team members with a deep sense of empathy and openness—especially when it comes to  team member’s development during these times. 

We normally do performance reviews two times a year: a mid-year review and an end-of-year review. We understand that performance reviews can be a source of anxiety, even unintentionally, and we do not want to create any additional anxiety for team members right now. Therefore, we're experimenting with changing the performance review for this cycle to remove manager ratings and instead be a formal check-in that is strengths-based in focus. We want performance management to prioritize the strengths we see an employee really highlighting right now, as well as the areas where people feel they need support from their managers or teams. If there are any skills or career development opportunities that employees want to discuss with their managers, they also have a chance to bring that up. 

We’re making this change right now because we feel that we need to uplift each other, not “grade” each other. We understand that individual performance is varying given the current circumstances. If you have two kids at home that you're trying to manage, that’s fine. Show up and do the best you can. I'm curious to see what comes from this change, and I don't know yet whether we will continue with it once the pandemic subsides. But generally, my philosophy around talent development is that it’s our job to help people discover their strengths and put them in environments where you can bring out those skills and strengths. The important thing is that, at the end of the day, we’ve created something that is supportive. 

Changes that we think will last: 

Incorporating more wellness practices into our benefits

Before the pandemic, we were already thinking about including a new wellness package to our benefits offerings. We rolled it out soon after we started working remotely. The new package offers access to several mobile apps—including Ginger, which connects you with a coach or therapist; Aaptiv, which provides workouts for home; Headspace, for guided meditation; and Physera, which connects you to a physical therapist.

We’ve also been really intentional in continuing to tell people that this is a marathon, not a sprint. For example, we already had flexible paid time off (PTO), but over the last couple of months we’ve been encouraging everybody on staff to take a flexible day off each month. Some teams have even built that into their OKRs. We’re also actively trying to schedule all of our meetings between 10:00 a.m. and 3:00 p.m and keep them to 25 or 50 minutes. They way, people have a 5 to 10-minute “passing period” in between meetings to quickly take care of something they need. It doesn’t always work, but it’s been setting more of a precedent.

By incorporating these types of changes, I think we’re even more inclined to show up as humans with each other. We were already good at that, but work is just more intense at the moment for some teams. Our projects are hard in general because we are working with more vulnerable communities, and right now that is exacerbated by the pandemic. So, promoting self care is really important, and it will continue to be important once this passes.

Emphasizing cultural connections while hiring and onboarding 

Code for America is one of the organizations that's fortunate enough to be able to continue hiring during the pandemic. As a result of our new remote environments, we’ve been thinking through our hiring processes much more deeply. First, it was the question of how to hold onsite interviews, which was a pretty doable shift to Zoom meetings. Then came the question of onboarding new hires—especially more senior roles. Just recently, we hired our CEO who started May 1st. How were we going to onboard them effectively?

Ultimately, we decided to be very deliberate about developing and maintaining our cultural connections during these processes. Office culture can easily be lost right now in a remote environment, and that can feel really isolating for newer members. So, we did the following: 

  • We’ve really leaned in to creating a time to connect. For example, our CTO and I met with our CEO over dinner and drinks on Zoom during the interview process. 
  • We're expanding our “buddy system”—where we pair off employees so they have someone to turn to besides their manager—to larger groups, so that people may feel they have more outlets to check in with each other. 
  • We’re continuing our “Weekly Wins,” which has always been our Friday get-together as a community where we celebrate each other’s work and share relevant updates. 
  • We’ve encouraged employees to experiment with other ways to connect informally. Some team members are hosting dance parties on Zoom, where the kids who are home can join as well. 

We are also working to codify what our organization norms are. Sometimes, these norms just feel implicit and people figure it out, but the pandemic doesn’t grant us that in-person luxury anymore. It’s making us write down our norms, which I think will help us in the long run. 

The Takeaway

Although we’re by no means out of the woods, as I reflect on our transition I’m surprised by the relative ease with which all of this was able to happen. We had a fair amount of flexibility with our remote work staff before, but this experience is teaching us that we can adapt and amplify our flexibility moving forward. It has given us permission to experiment with how we connect and do things as an organization, which I think is quite freeing. Most importantly, we generally still feel connected as a team and an organization, though we need to keep working at it. These are valuable insights as we think about amplifying remote recruiting and expanding our workforce, and I think it's just going to help us attract a wider pool of diverse talent—which is what we need to achieve our goal of making the American government work for the people it should.