Jennifer Bahan, NCIDQ, IIDA
Vice President, Director of Healthcare Design
One thing we can agree on is that culture means different things to different people. As we navigate the awkward transition back to working in the office, we’re quickly discovering how important culture is. When looking at culture through the lens of the workplace – a place where we spend most of our time – we realize it is invaluable.
The only thing more important than our workplace culture is our people. If you genuinely like and care about those you work with, anything is possible. But you have to know who is in the boat with you before you can trust that they’re rowing in the same direction. It’s our physical workplace that provides shared experiences and authentic opportunities to learn about, understand, and build trust in one another. To me, this is the heart of culture.
Teams and their respective spirit are at the heart of culture at Hoefer Welker. Culture can’t be forced, fake, or boring. It has to be authentic, continually evolving, and inclusive. Commitment to culture requires an all-in investment that starts at the top and grows organically. We have a group called Culture Club (yes, we really do!). Their charter is to fill our calendars with fun, social, and philanthropic events. What’s most remarkable about Culture Club events, aside from the creative and engaging themes, is the attendance these events draw. You’ll find virtually everyone in attendance, including the Partners! While many companies host employee events, I’d bet you won’t see many executives joining the fun.
When interviewing prospective employees, we talk about culture as much as we talk about our work. We view our culture as a differentiator – we know from experience that not many firms take the time to breathe, laugh, play a round of putt-putt golf in the office, or tackle United Way Week quite as competitively as we do.
2020 has thrown everyone a curveball, making us realize how much we took for granted. We enjoyed our monthly gatherings – called Verandezvous because we host them in our veranda – highlighting our studios’ work while chatting, eating, drinking, and joking with coworkers. Sure, sometimes deadlines or travel got in the way, or we lost track of time and found ourselves thinking, “Geez, it seems like we just had a Verandezvous. I’ll catch the next one.” And then, poof! Everything stopped.
That intangible “thing” that stitched us together vanished with the COVID-19 work-from-home orders. We tried to sustain the culture by scheduling company-wide Zoom events as well as individual studio Zoom happy hours, but it wasn’t the same. Not even close. What we accomplished and produced while working from home was incredible. We took a highly collaborative profession and locked it into individual homes for months. We proved the impossible was possible. In reflection, it was our culture – our relationships and trust in one another – that gave us the power to pull each other along through an unforgettable moment.
As we transitioned back to the office, we naively believed we could pick up where we left off – it felt normal. And then reality set in. Although we returned to our physical workplace, there was nothing “normal” about it. We were navigating new COVID-19 safety protocols. While we’re continuing to adapt and producing quality work, so much has changed. Our vendors are faces on a screen. Our conference rooms are sanitized between meetings. Our candy dishes and bottomless treat bowls are gone. Our monthly bacon-filled breakfast briefings are canceled, and our Verandezvous are a distant memory. Although trivial in the big picture, when added together, these changes pulled at our psyche. As much as people tried to hide it, you could see the grumpiness creeping in. The interaction that feeds the soul was missing. I’ve had people ask, “Is it just me, or are you feeling a little low too?”
Culture Club put their heads together to think of ways to get us together in a relaxing and safe way, but reluctant “no’s” seemed to be the answer – understandably so. We were heading into month number five of zero social interaction, and the void was hitting critical mass. Everyone began to look around and quickly realized that our CULTURE IS INVALUABLE. Admittedly, we took it for granted, but we want it back.
We recently had our first social gathering since February. Culture Club hosted a food truck rodeo, safely staged in the office parking lot with plenty of wide-open space. You could feel the buzz in the air that day with people anticipating the event. It felt a bit like a scene from a movie where people are seen filing out of their storm shelter, squinting at the beautiful sunny blue skies they haven’t seen for weeks. I lost count of how many people asked how my family was, or how many times we gasped at each other’s crazy news or recent adventures. People lingered a little longer than usual. They didn’t rush off right at 5:00 – they stayed as long as possible before they really had to head home to relieve the babysitter. This event clarified what I had been feeling for a while now, but wasn’t quite sure what to attribute it to. It was all about our culture – or rather the absence of it. Our culture is uniquely ours, and we never want to let it go again.
Jennifer’s award-winning portfolio in healthcare design spans virtually every medical specialty and clinical facility type. These facilities provide essential healthcare to children, Veterans, and active-duty military, among many others across the U.S. Although her specialized clinical and technical knowledge are impressive, what distinguishes Jennifer is her compassion and empathy, which are reflected in her design. She views each facility through a 360-degree lens, enabling her to consider the experience from the perspective of the administrator, the clinician, and the patient.