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.
On-Rampers participate in team meeting virtually.
In conversation with On-Ramps: Building culture virtually

“In conversation with On-Ramps” is a series that captures some of the internal discussions our team has as we sort through issues facing today’s social sector hiring managers. Isabella Cassell, Imani Doyle, and Madeline Scheffler lead On-Ramps’ culture-building initiatives.


 

Madeline: In the early days of the pandemic, when we first moved to an entirely remote workforce, I remember thinking, “What can we do for our team to keep them feeling connected to each other?” The three of us immediately started planning how to adjust elements of On-Ramps’ culture to fit a virtual setting.


Imani: We were especially focused on creating outlets to support folks’ mental health. The fact that everyone was living in relative isolation through a pandemic—and then a wave of social unrest—was physically and emotionally tiring. We wanted to provide initiatives that brought some joy, sanity, and space to reflect. 


Isabella: Many of our culture-building initiatives started off as additive. We scheduled virtual social events like happy hours and game nights. We added activities to the staff meetings to help people engage with each other. 


Madeline: That’s when the Wellness Weekly emails started, too. We’d write up a weekly message of tips for maintaining wellness, examples of what our team members were doing for their own self-care, and end with a game or activity to connect with one another. “Guess the work-from-home setup” was a fun game; folks would send in photos of their workspaces, and we’d all guess whose setup it was. The winner got to choose the theme for the next staff meeting.


Isabella: I think it actually helped that our clients temporarily stepped away to figure out their own work-from-home policies. Suddenly, we had all this paused work. That gave us time to think about how we could meaningfully fill this void in the early days of not seeing coworkers, not commuting, and not knowing what the rest of the year would look like.


Imani: By the time we started planning the summer party, I think we realized we didn’t need to add more things to the docket. People were “Zoomed out” at that point and didn't want to get on extra video calls anymore. Writing the Wellness Weekly emails was not providing as much value either, as we got more accustomed to working from home. So we shifted our focus to engagement and wellbeing overall, rather than a week-by-week basis.


Madeline: True. We recognized that it’d be more helpful to give our team members space to live their lives in the way they needed to independently—and our initiatives could instead become outlets for comfort, joy, or whatever it is they needed in the moment. 


Isabella: Along those lines, I’m particularly proud of the mental health resources document we created—which many people still use today. It outlines how to access mental health care, how to work with your insurance provider, how to find therapists and mental health professionals, and how to navigate finding providers that are culturally relevant or represent a certain identity that resonates with you. The process of looking for mental health care can be very overwhelming and time-consuming, so our hope was to create a living document that made it easier for people to find and access the support they needed.


Madeline: I really enjoyed brainstorming how to structure our summer and holiday parties so that all our team members could feel connected to others in their own authentic way. Our team grew a lot in the last year with the addition of new analysts and several research specialists, most of whom aren’t based in New York. So we wanted to plan activities that were as inclusive as possible despite this disconnect in location. We had this idea for the summer party of creating employee word clouds—where people anonymously submit descriptions, phrases, or words that come to mind for each of their colleagues—as a way to help people recognize and honor one another. We displayed them all during the party, and it was such a beautiful reminder of all the positive ways our colleagues contribute to our organization.


Imani: Almost everything we put together ultimately boiled down to figuring out different ways to honor all communication styles. Being completely virtual was new to all of us, so understanding how our team members each felt connected to one another and how people get their energy was essential. 


Isabella: Consistently connecting with the team to get that feedback was also key. Some events would be really well attended, while others had just a few people. We’d make a point of asking what felt enriching to people as opposed to draining. As time passed, we’d see that some things that initially didn’t feel draining now exhausted people and vice versa. The balance of on-screen and off-screen initiatives constantly shifted. 

Imani: Overall, this time just forced us to be more creative and intentional in our culture planning. That is something I hope we continue as we move through the year—and especially once we can finally “return to normal.”


Madeline: Agreed. I hope that we keep the understanding that there is always so much on our minds, that our colleagues are always going through so much in this world outside of work. So aside from just quickly checking in during a team huddle, I hope we continue to think about the ways that our work environment can support our teammates beyond their day-to-day work.