Maintaining culture during a pandemic

Mar 07, 2021

Being apart from one another tested the strength of our relationships, and we had to think creatively to meet the new challenges we were encountering.

It would be a gross understatement to say that the COVID-19 pandemic has stretched our firm’s resources and creativity. And we are certainly not alone. Compared to many other industries, AEC firms have generally fared well since our workforce can do their jobs remotely, but it hasn’t been easy.

After the initial adrenalin rush of transferring our staff to working from home, we prepared corporate guidelines to keep our office-essential staff and survey field crews safe. During this time, we began to wonder what impact a separated workforce would have on our company culture. Being apart from one another was going to test the strength of our relationships, and we knew we would need to think creatively to meet the new challenges we were encountering. We were also working under a cloud of great anxiety, which was stressing our resilience as an organization.

At Sain Associates, we’ve been working to build a strong corporate culture for years, one that could withstand the pressures of a year like 2020. Culture is a combination of big and little things. For us the big things are social events organized by our Funtime Committee, group lunch and learns with meals provided by the company, gatherings for special events in our staff members’ lives, an annual client fish fry, and community service outings. The events are the easy part. The small things are where the real strength of our culture is developed and ingrained; it’s in the way we treat our associates, the depth of our caring in times of crisis, and the community we build when we spend time together. The common denominator in all these cultural elements is presence with one another. It was a legitimate concern for us to be worried about losing part of what we love about Sain Associates with most of our staff working remotely. Video conferencing is an inadequate substitute for physical presence!

Our initial response to the challenge of maintaining Sain’s culture in a remote environment focused on converting as many social and learning gatherings to a virtual format. We organized trivia contests through Zoom, an April Activity Challenge to encourage physical activity, and we coached team leaders in best practices for leading remote workers. We brought our staff back to the office in a phased program that took most of the summer and still has most staff working remotely for two or three days per week. As the pandemic extended into the fall and winter, we hosted virtual Halloween costume and ugly Christmas sweater contests, encouraged drop off donations for a local homeless shelter, and re-directed funds typically used for a client event to charitable contributions for local non-profits. Re-thinking activities has required some creativity, but it’s been the easy part.

The greater challenge to our organization has been monitoring and supporting the mental health of our staff. In September, I was given a copy of an article from McKinsey Quarterly entitled “The Hidden Perils of Unresolved Grief.” Authors Charles Dhanaraj and George Kohlrieser describe the cost to productivity and good leadership that stem from lingering grief over the loss of one or more deep-seated human needs, such as attachment, structure, identity, control, and meaning. The recommended steps to resolving grief’s impact include awareness, acceptance of reality, and creating personal meaning from the loss. Organizations can help by setting a tone of openness and warmth, acknowledging the presence of situations that cause grief, and observing traditions or rituals that provide encouragement and support. Our firm has had an unusual number of catastrophic grief situations over the past two decades that have taught us ways to support hurting individuals, but the pandemic brought a general haze of loss and anxiety across our entire staff at the same time. It has been a different type of grief situation that is more subtle and less visible.

Ultimately what we have found is that Sain Associates’ culture is stronger and more resilient than we originally thought. Our staff have enthusiastically supported our modified traditions, and through the course of 2020, we added a few new things to our repertoire of activities. Most importantly though, we experienced strengthened relationships from intentionally checking on one another and staying attuned to emotional health and family challenges that might require extra support. Our investment in great culture has paid dividends that we never anticipated.

Becky White, PTP is the chief operating officer at Sain Associates. Founded in 1972, Sain Associates is a full-service consulting engineering firm that specializes in civil engineering, transportation planning and engineering, surveying, construction engineering and inspection, and geographic information systems. Sain Associates is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with additional branch offices in Pulaski, Tennessee, and Huntsville, Alabama. Becky can be contacted via LinkedIn or at

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