We sat down with Bob O’Gara, CEO, Gordon Christiansen, COO, and June Schmidt, VP Client Relations, to discuss how culture played a key role in navigating pandemic life for Highlands employees and their clients. Bob: There has been a great deal of talk about the challenges around creating a culture for businesses in an era of remote work. Most of the discussion seems focused on the idea that remote work will result in a loss of a common culture. Our experience at Highlands argues the opposite. Most of the team worked remote before the pandemic. As a result, we already had established methods of communicating on a consistent basis. Conference calls with discrete teams were common as were regular “Town Halls.” Additionally, over the past five years or so one of the first questions we ask ourselves during the interview process is does this candidate fit Highlands’ culture? After all, culture comes from shared values so each new employee that passes this test makes the overall company culture stronger. Our core values are entrepreneurial, collaborative, accountable, and navigators. These values not only got us through COVID but enabled us to thrive. The Highlands experience taught us that having a strong culture going into a crisis is fundamental to surviving that crisis. Gordon: For some years we’ve worked diligently to develop a defined ‘Highlands’ culture. While these center around our values, ultimately, we’re trying to build a business around like-minded people who have a sense of purpose, and pride in the achievements of each other and the whole Highlands business. Plus, while we are not a family business, we want to feel like a family business. What I mean by that is a sense of compassion, caring and consideration for our team, our clients, and all the organizations we serve – almost paternal or maternal, if you wish. These sensibilities have, for the most part, built great loyalty and made us a ‘tough’ business to leave. This is the upside. Is there an argument that we have become soft, that we’ve been too tolerant of individuals’ needs and not focused on the good of the whole business? The commercial realities will get back to, at least, the 2019 situation and we remember how challenging and fast-paced that could be. So, things won’t be tougher, they’ll just get back to where they were. Will our culture survive these new challenges, coming out of a pandemic with tough business dynamics? If the cultural foundation is sound, then I would hope we can. June: Company culture is one of the top reasons people work at Highlands. Even prior to the pandemic, our culture set a positive tone for employees beginning with their hiring and onboarding. Our culture extends beyond the norm as we treat our employees like family members. The pandemic elevated the importance of culture as companies struggled to quickly redefine how their employees work, how to keep employees productive, and how to modify their customer engagement. Being aware early on that employee welfare was of critical importance, Highlands focused on the delivery of clear communication from leadership on a regular basis. Our family of employees stayed closely connected with each other through consistent collaboration. With social interaction at a stand-still, they took short breaks from the workday via virtual social chats with each other. We found new ways to reach our customers through creative messaging. Virtual sales calls and presentations with customers proved to be very effective. Highlands keys to success:
- Added preparation in terms of content
- Preparing (literally practicing) to communicate successfully “on screen”
- Adhering to our company’s virtual best practices
A strong company culture was the foundation that helped our company to not only remain relevant but prosper during the pandemic.