Thought Leadership

6 Things We Should Keep: On the Pandemic, Racial Justice, and Company Culture

April 2, 2021 Melissa DeShields

As there is more and more hope that we will be on the other side of the pandemic soon, I’ve read many articles about behavior and culture changes that are worth keeping (like wearing a mask to the doctor’s office, why weren’t we doing that anyway!?). These articles prompted me to reflect on the last year at Frontline Solutions, which happened to be only my second full year as CEO.

Frontline is a Black-owned national consulting firm that engages with institutions on the journey toward their boldest, most expansive, visions. Frontline is 16 years old this year and I think it’s fair to say that we’ve spent a lot of time building and investing in our culture, sometimes to the detriment of profit. In some respects, we’ve been our own organizational culture client. We believe that this sets us apart in a crowded space of management consultants. We can speak to clients about culture change from a place of having done the work ourselves.

We’ve developed a genome–an internal document mapping Frontline’s DNA, our core identity, the special sauce. The genome also includes our goals (what winning looks like), our strategies (our plan to win), and our tactics. And, we have a staff playbook, articulating not only our values but also what they look like in action, the specific behaviors and skills we care about most. And still, even with such deep investment in our culture and our people, this last year of global pandemic and racial justice uprisings invited us to show up for each other and our clients in new ways. There are many things about the last year to which I am happy to bid adieu, but here are 6 things we’ll keep:

1. Less travel – Pre-pandemic our team traveled about 60% of their time and accepted this grueling schedule as a necessary part of getting work done. But, the pandemic forced us all to stop. It made us take note of the wear and tear on our bodies, on and off planes, away from family, friends, and community.  Traveling for every single client meeting is costly in terms of health, efficiency, and productivity. Non-billable travel time literally costs us money. And, for clients, it’s time that could be better spent if we were actually working. Twelve months without business travel showed us that it’s possible to accomplish most of the activities we travel for– such as interviews, facilitation, and presentations–really well virtually. And we know that technology will only continue to improve.

2. Fully remote team – One of the big changes we made was moving to fully remote. This dramatically expanded our talent pool. While we’ve always had a work-from-wherever-you-want approach, we tended to hire folks who were in proximity to places where partners lived which is also where we had offices. We let all of that go! I’m happy that geography is no longer a barrier to joining our team, and we can be about the business of engaging with folks based on their experience and skills- regardless of where they live. Our team is now spread across the country–in New York, Maryland, Washington D.C., North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Minnesota, Los Angeles, and Washington State.

3. Retooling our systems to be even more people and relationship-centered. It turns out that there are a lot of shortcuts and liberties you can take when you have the luxury of being in-person with folks as much as you want or need. Not being in-person means we have to be more intentional and deliberate about connecting. That has meant rethinking and retooling our hiring process, team meetings, team retreats, and feedback to be even more relationship-centered. It has meant adding a 15-minute block of time after client meetings so that the team can reconvene and debrief like they might if they were in an Uber headed to the airport together. It has meant connecting outside of scheduled meetings via text or a quick phone call to simply ask, are you good or say you crushed that call. It has meant that, even with shifting our hiring process to be entirely virtual, we intentionally built in informal time during and after interviews to ensure that the relationship wasn’t one-sided and that candidates actually had some space to get to know us.

4. Care and Empathy – Care for folks and their humanity has always been at Frontline’s core. But this year hit different. With the pandemic surging, and black and brown folks literally fighting for our lives, we had to lean even more into our humanity. We made space for folks to show up as they were with all they were holding. Check-in questions were used to see one another and not as a perfunctory part of an agenda. We acknowledge the sadness, pain, and anger, and reschedule meetings when it is all just too much for folks to bear. I instituted liberation Fridays in the summer with the only ask being that folks use the time to take care of themselves and their people, and find joy.

5. Seeing people as whole beings – I know the folks on my team pretty well. And I absolutely loved getting to learn more about them over the last year. Folks were out here doing all of the things – gardening, building pergolas, making flower arrangements, caring for loved ones, parenting, homeschooling, cooking or some might say cheffing, buying houses, writing, podcasting. We contain multitudes and I am so grateful to have had the last year to SEE my people.

6. White supremacy doesn’t quit – It feels important to name that #4 is also an acknowledgment of how the trauma of white supremacy is present every day. That the violence, harm, injustice that black and non black people of color face is inescapable, even from the comfort of our own homes. There is no vaccine that immunizes us from it and its effects. We work every day to protect ourselves and our team.

7. And my most favorite – Zoom babies! I loved seeing all of the babies (big and small) on zoom. I know their grownups weren’t always thrilled every time they jumped on the call to ask for a snack or had a 15-minute break from zoom school and wanted to say hi…but I absolutely loved it. I hope it continues.

What are you hoping to hold onto?