Reflections on Joining Barr in an All-Remote Context
Associate Director of Communications
Staff members share their experiences and takeaways.
Seven colleagues have joined the Barr Foundation since March 2020 when Barr’s offices closed and shifted to remote status due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They onboarded via Zoom, built working relationships through Barr’s online chat channels, and integrated into an organizational culture without ever leaving their homes.
What was this unique experience like for our group of colleagues? “Weird would be an obvious word to describe it,” said Dylan Everett who joined the Education Team in the fall of 2020. “On top of learning how to do my job, I was learning how to work remotely.”
Other colleagues had worked remotely before but were navigating virtual relationship-building, a new field of philanthropy, not to mention the uncertainty and stress inherent in the last two years. “One of the biggest challenges has been grappling with a tremendous amount of uncertainty both in work and personal life,” said Rory Neuner, who joined Barr as learning officer in the fall of 2020. Lynn Harwell, vice president for administration, recalled, “I started part time in May 2020 and planned to fully onboard when the office reopened. Jim and I joke about that because we thought the transition was only a few weeks away. June 2020 became July, then September, January, and now it’s March 2022.”
After two years of working fully remote, Barr has begun the process of reopening its physical office in order for us to collectively build what a hybrid work model looks like for the organization. We aim to start a new chapter in the organization’s history, reimagining how we work together and decisively not going back to the way things were (as Barr’s president, Jim Canales, has stated in previous blog posts).
As we enter this new chapter, we want to share what we are learning, and via this blog post, to capture the voices and experiences of our colleagues who joined the organization in an all-remote context. The group recently came together via Zoom to share their experiences and takeaways with one another in a conversation facilitated by Jim. Below are some themes and excerpts from the virtual discussion.
Culture Is Built and Shaped by People
Without having stepped foot in the office, colleagues reflected on how they were still able to experience and recognize Barr’s culture. It showed up through interactions with other staff, through the onboarding process, and how all of those experiences made them feel.
“What I've learned from having worked at a company with an office and for a fully remote organization is that being in person or remote is not the arbiter of whether or not you have a good culture,” said Kathryn Wright, senior program officer for clean energy, who joined Barr in January 2022.
“Barr’s culture was able to, in some ways translate very well in terms of being remote because of the intentionality in the onboarding process, relationship-building, and policy design. There's definitely an emphasis and a focus on remembering that we're humans too,” said Lynn.
“At Barr, there's more support than I've ever experienced in a workplace,” said Najah Casimir, program officer for Mobility, who joined Barr in the fall of 2021. “Yes, some of that comes with our financial resources, but it's more so part of the culture of support for each other as people.”
During the conversation, the group recognized that they collectively represent a significant portion of the Barr staff. “If the people on this Zoom screen do something different, Barr will be different. I'm very curious and excited about what that means and how Barr will look going forward—how we will honor the history and tradition and also bring new things to bear on the work,” said Rory.
Intentional Onboarding Was Key
Another theme from the conversation was appreciation for the thought and time that went into designing colleagues’ first few weeks at the organization. The Barr onboarding process, led by Barr’s operations manager, Jaime Lopez, in partnership with individual managers, includes a series of learning sessions and time to connect with colleagues.
“I felt like the onboarding process at Barr was intentional about making sure personal connections were happening, so I really appreciated that,” said Kathryn.
“Barr has really done a great job of what Kathryn was saying about the onboarding process. It's been wonderful having those connections established right away and feeling supported,” added Jules Faña, who joined Barr in the fall of 2021 as communications coordinator. “That support has been great in feeling like the job is a little bit less overwhelming to take on and learn.”
“I agree,” added Julie Rosen, senior accountant, who joined Barr in the summer of 2021. “Having virtual lunches and meet and greets with staff helped build rapport with people, so that when I eventually met them in person, I felt more connected and familiar with all the teams.”
Self-Discovery and Self Care
Many Barr colleagues reflected on what they learned about themselves through this experience, including how to prioritize and ask for what they need.
“I've gotten better at asking for help, which is not something I really did in the past. I would sort of brute force my way through a problem if I ran into one,” said Dylan.
“This experience reinforced my strengths and showed that I am pretty comfortable with ambiguity and the need to be flexible,” added Lynn. “I also realized that those things may not be easy for everyone and it’s important to have empathy and be able to really look and understand someone else's perspective and point of view.”
“We've gotten to see a little window into people's lives. I think that has given us a lot more ability to speak up and say, ‘this works better for me.’ I’m able to do my work being seen fully as who I am,” said Rory.
“It’s not just the COVID pandemic, there have been a lot of things happening in our society since I joined Barr. There was a day when the news was especially overwhelming and I found it hard to function. I went into ADP and logged my health leave for the rest of the afternoon. That was a really big deal as a person who has never used sick leave in my entire life” said Najah.
Building Relationships Was Challenging But Happened in Different Ways
A main topic of discussion centered on building relationships, both internally as new staff wanted to get to know colleagues, and externally especially for those staff who engage with grantees and other partners.
“I feel like at times it has been a challenge for me to build more personal relationships and allow colleagues to get to know me beyond the realm of accounting,” said Julie. “Most of the time, my communication is limited to bothering people about budgets or expenses, so I love the opportunities that Barr offers for us to interact outside of that. Whether it is through events planned by the Fun Committee, chatting on Teams, or participating in team challenges like WalkBoston’s Beat the Bay State, it is nice to catch a glimpse into people’s lives outside of work.”
“It's been an interesting and different way to make connections,” commented Dylan. “At one point I had only met four Barr colleagues in person, and none of them were members of my team. But, I still felt like I knew my teammates. We find time on Teams to just talk back and forth and everyone's making the most of what they can with the situation.”
“I'd say building relationships with grantees in the virtual environment is a challenge. I’ve been thinking a lot about how to, in a virtual setting, build strong relationships that are rooted in trust,” said Najah.
“There is a learning curve for figuring out different ways to show up on digital platforms and ways to really connect with people in a virtual sense,” said Jules.
“I’ve gotten used to engaging and meeting many people virtually this past year and a half, so that when I finally meet them in person, it’s a normal experience (not awkward). It actually feels the same because I have given trust and been vulnerable and shared things," said Lynn. “I've had to feel comfortable doing that as a black woman coming into an organization. I have no choice but to try to trust all of you. So that's what I'm working on. And I think that's allowed me to make connections.”
Advice for Hybrid Work
In the spirit of collectively figuring out what hybrid work looks like at Barr, the conversation closed with Jim asking colleagues for advice. “What should we be thinking about as Barr transitions to a hybrid of office, field, and remote work?”
“There are going to be times when we are in the office and times when we're not. So, we really have to try to treat people who are working from home on a given day, at the same level. And, give it the intentionality, space, and the time needed for it to be a good experience no matter where you're working,” reflected Kathryn.
“I think Zoom is beautiful for accessibility. As somebody who facilitates meetings, I’ve found it's so hard to do hybrid. We have to think about how we balance the tension between accessibility and connectedness,” said Rory.
Lynn offered a final reflection, “I think we have to work through the hardest pieces and then learn as we go through it. We have to be open and honest about what’s working for us as we experience it.”
I have great appreciation for my colleagues for being open and honest during this conversation. Their insights and experiences are important to center as the organization explores how to connect and collaborate in new ways.
(as seen from left to right)
Jim Canales (he/him), President & Trustee
Mary Chalifour (she/her), Acting Director of Communications
Lynn Harwell (she/her), Vice President for Administration, joined in the spring of 2020 to align organizational resources that build and support an inclusive culture aligned with Barr’s values, and support staff from diverse backgrounds to be their best selves at work and find what sparks joy in their professional lives
Rory Neuner (she/her), Learning Officer, joined in fall 2020 with excitement to apply her skills as a facilitator and evaluator to a foundation with a strong commitment to racial equity
Najah Casimir (they/them), Program Officer, Mobility, joined in the fall of 2021 because they were excited about the opportunity to support communities in realizing transportation justice
Julie Rosen (she/her), Senior Accountant, joined Barr in the summer of 2021 because she was looking to apply her accounting skill sets to an organization that was making a positive impact on the world
Dylan Everett (he/his), Program Associate, Education, joined in December of 2020 because he sought an opportunity to join a socially impactful organization committed to improving school quality and putting success within reach for more students
Kathryn Wright (she/her), Senior Program Officer, Clean Energy, joined in January 2022 because she was excited to support the climate movement in New England
Jules Faña (she/they), Communications Coordinator, joined in the fall of 2021 because she was excited to create positive impact through intentional graphic design work centered in story telling at Barr
Associate Director of Communications