How an Ann Arbor company has maintained office culture while working remotely during pandemic

Employees at Oxford Companies pose for a photo at an investor party in 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic.
Employees at Oxford Companies pose for a photo at an investor party in 2019 prior to the coronavirus pandemic. (Oxford Companies)

ANN ARBOROxford Companies has a long history of prioritizing its employee culture and fostering a connected, collaborative work environment that enriches its CREW’s lives.

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, many of its employees shifted to working from their homes, which has proven to show both benefits and downsides for the organization. To help Oxford understand how working from home has affected company culture, productivity, and morale, it checked in with HR Business Partner Sara Slusarski for her thoughts and insights.

Slusarski joined the CREW in 2018, and prior to then she worked in various Human Resources roles in higher education and health care for over ten years. Slusarski sees her role in HR as one of an employee advocate and creator of an environment that produces an emotional connection to the organization (and its goals).

Her main areas of expertise are in training, strategic planning, leadership development and safety. She recently facilitated Oxford’s nomination and eventual win for the Best and Brightest, a national award given for companies with great culture, training, and retention.

Oxford Companies' HR Business Partner Sara Slusarski. (Oxford Companies)

See Oxford’s Q&A with Slusarski below:

Sara, how would you describe the Oxford culture pre-COVID? What is Oxford’s historical view on employee culture and engagement?

An engaging culture has always been a high priority for Oxford. I’d say our culture is really rich in engagement – although that’s been harder to maintain since the pandemic began in the spring. We measure engagement by annual surveys and we often ask the CREW what kinds of engagement events and projects they’d like to participate in.

Until COVID, we provided monthly after-work activities in our Ann Arbor office like Paint & Pour, happy hours, and athletic teams and events. We also had amenities like career path counseling, free personal training, and on-site yoga instruction and a fitness center.

We found that these, and our focus on our values, helped employees to engage with one another and build relationships throughout their work day – in the kitchen over lunch, at the shared printer, or in meetings. We’re still actively working on maintaining engagement, although it does look differently now that we’re avoiding in-person activities.

What changes have you seen in the Oxford culture since many team members started working from home? Have you been able to maintain engagement, or has it become harder for the staff to stay connected?

In March when about half of the team started working from home, we assumed we’d be back in the office quickly, so we put a lot of engagement initiatives on hold until it was safe to reoccupy our office. I wish we hadn’t waited – a few months after we closed the office, we did a survey and found that the CREW felt more disconnected from each other and from the organization.

So, we created a new committee to focus on reconnecting with each other and have invested in new programming. Our CEO, Jeff Hauptman, also took the time to call each and every member of our 100+ CREW to check in with them during this time, which made a big difference in morale and engagement. Given the “Zoom fatigue” that many people are experiencing now (9 months into the pandemic!), we’re working to stay consistent and original with our engagement efforts and keep evaluating what’s working and what’s not during these unprecedented times.

It’s also helpful to remember that the pandemic has caused all kinds of stressors for our CREW and our society as a whole, so some of our staff is just simply in survival mode. We’re doing our best to continually and transparently communicate stability, security, and connectivity, which we hope has kept some of the emotional stressors at bay for our team.

What do you think that the CREW as a whole misses most about being together in the office? What do you personally miss the most?

I think all of us just really miss being together in our office in Ann Arbor’s Southside. I hear from our CREW all the time that what they love most about working for Oxford is their coworkers. Working at home can feel like you’re working alone. I personally really miss the quick, personal conversations with team members that I don’t normally work with directly – hearing about their families, their weekends, etc.

I also think that having our office folks together every day helped us to maintain a shared connection with our field CREW. The staff members that are out in the field maintaining buildings, working on HVAC systems, and taking care of our tenants are a vital part of our team – and having the office folks working from home makes it harder for all of us to connect.

What relationship do you see between company culture & engagement and productivity? Do you think that a great culture means a more productive staff?

I think the bigger correlation is with culture and loyalty. We’ve worked really hard for many years to build an engaged workforce that feels a sense of value and belonging in our organization, and that’s helped us retain staff during this pandemic and it will keep our CREW strong in the future. For companies that haven’t prioritized culture and engagement in the past – I think having their staff working remotely will be more detrimental than they may even realize. I’d expect them to see implications on training, teamwork and turnover.

Do you have any tips for keeping employees engaged when some are working from home and others are not?

Communicate, communicate, communicate. We’re still working on this, of course, but I’ve definitely learned this year that engaging with each CREW member in meetings and carving out time to reach out to folks individually will make a huge difference.

Creating committees has been helpful for us as well – this year we added a Diversity & Inclusion Council and a CREW Connection Committee, bringing various staff members together from throughout the organization to solve problems and discuss issues. It’s been a great way to stay connected and work toward common goals.

Is there anything else you’d like to share about employee engagement and office life and culture?

At Oxford, we’re proud to be an organization that truly values our CREW and works actively to keep them engaged. It’s certainly gotten more complex in 2020 with many staff members working from home, but we’re still striving to improve and exceed our CREW’s expectations.

Getting back to the office next year will certainly make some aspects of this much easier. 2020 has been a learning experience and I really do think that we’re coming out stronger as a result.