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The way we work has been changed forever by the coronavirus pandemic.

Jeff Miller, Ph.D., ORAU senior vice president, says that while his perspective has been influenced by evaluating organizational culture as it relates to safety and security in the nuclear industry, things like telework policies, building occupancy and hiring practices have changed forever. 

“As a society, I don’t ever see us going back to the way we were on those things,” he said, adding that organizational values are also evolving in relation to where and how we work as well as work-life balance issues.

Meghan Millwood, vice president for Human Resources at ORAU, agrees with Miller’s assessment. Fact is, ORAU’s organizational values have advanced as the company has successfully adapted to new ways of doing business.

While the pandemic forced the majority of employees to work from home, senior leadership is preparing for a future hybrid work environment. Employees will engage with their managers to come up with working arrangements that balance employee preferences around work from home with the needs of the organization.

The value of employee surveys

ORAU conducts employee surveys every two years to gauge the effectiveness of leadership and management across the organization. In addition, in early 2021, employees received a special survey to gather information about their remote work experiences and preferences.

“We’ve surveyed employees and managers and had super positive results about the work-from-home experience, how productive and effective people are, and we’re not walking back from that,” Millwood said.

While survey results have been very positive, everyone has had to make some serious adjustments, said Dr. Mae Mosley, ORAU director of Human Resources.

“Employees have learned how to manage work and their personal lives in a different way because they are at home. There are still concerns about workplace relationships, relationships with managers in getting their job done and so forth,” Mosley said.

While some managers have always supervised employees who work remotely, the concept was completely new to other managers who have had to learn and adapt.

Communicating intentionally

“We’re finding that the key to managing employees working remotely is intentional communication, whether that’s weekly update meetings or reaching out for an impromptu conversation or a team meeting,” Millwood said.

Intentional communication has helped senior leadership stay connected to employees and managers. Two of the most successful communication tools at ORAU have been monthly employee briefings and a weekly “Take 3” call.

The monthly briefings, which were weekly in the early days of the pandemic, are 90-minute webinars that update employees on topics such as vaccination requirements for federal contractors, the state of the coronavirus in our areas of operation, and business development and community outreach activities. The weekly Take 3 call is similar, but speakers are given three minutes to share their information, and calls generally last about 30 minutes.

Intentional communication helped employees through one of the most difficult periods in ORAU’s history. In September 2020, some employees were separated from ORAU in a reduction in force because of pandemic-related revenue shortfalls. Communication among managers and leadership about staffing and the need to secure specific capabilities also saved the jobs of about 15 employees who were transitioned to work on the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health project. 

Now, as new business opportunities such as the NASA Postdoctoral Program are taking root and new hires are being added, remote work allows ORAU hiring managers to cast a wider net.

“Now that we can do things virtually, we have a much broader scope of people that we can potentially attract,” Millwood said. “We have an opportunity to increase the diversity of our organization by hiring people to work from all across the United States, which is going to help the company culturally long term.”

Being transparent

Transparency is key to both the monthly briefings and Take 3 calls, Miller said.

“Transparency in the company has improved, which is a tricky thing because you have to be careful of business sensitive information. What we’ve done is increase the frequency of when we talk about business development topics. There isn’t a week that goes by that someone is not talking about business development activities,” he said.

Millwood said sharing new business information is important for sustaining feelings of stability. She adds that ORAU leadership shares both good news and bad news.

“The communication that we’re doing right now distinguishes us from many companies out there, and if you talk to some of your friends, and you read the literature, many companies are falling down on communication, and it’s going to really hurt them in the long run,” Millwood said.

ORAU deployed Microsoft Teams in 2020, which greatly helped the organization find these new ways to collaborate, communicate and connect with employees.

Keeping employees connected

Helping employees feel connected also involves shared experiences that resonate with a mostly remote workforce. ORAU’s Diversity Council creatively moved its premiere events—Black History Month, Veterans Appreciation Day and Heritage Day—from in-person events to the virtual space.

“All of the events were informative and educational,” Mosley said. She particularly loved the Black History Month event in February 2021, which brought a distant culture into our personal spaces.

“I don’t think any of us would have been able to bring a person from the Gullah tribe to Oak Ridge,” she said. Gullah people live in the low country of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. They speak their own version of Creole dialect and enjoy a culture flavored by African influences.

Brenda Lee-Longmire, CAP, OM, senior administrative support specialist for ORAU and member of the Diversity Council, prepared several Gullah dishes in her home kitchen. Her cooking was captured on video and shared with the audience who tuned in to the virtual event.

Keeping employees connected is not a one-time event. Rather, it’s about exploring new and creative ways to share the interpersonal experiences that employees miss when they are working remotely. For example, the Employees Club regularly hosts holiday-themed virtual trivia events and gift card drawings.

“Some of the games played are ways of bringing people together so that they’re engaged in fun, in a more sociable kind of way,” Mosley said.

After all, bringing people together and keeping them engaged is what a strong corporate culture is all about.