On the surface, office culture might seem to be vanishing. Visits to the local bar have dissolved into Zoom happy hours; elevator chats about The Handmaid’s Tale now whistle across the ether via Slack. But even for workers physically isolated in their homes, some have seen connections with co-workers grow stronger than ever, as they help their communities, and each other, in unexpected ways.
Employees banded together to sew face masks and make sandwiches for children who normally get free lunches at school. Companies donated their technological expertise to provide medical professionals with critical information about ventilators and hospital capacity. People delivered meals to colleagues living with front-line health care workers.
The Boston-based commercial real estate brokerage Colliers International understands better than most about business tenants struggling to pay rent, and saw a way it could help restaurants. Assistant vice president Dan Driscoll helmed an initiative to deliver chef-made meals to nearby hospital workers as part of the national campaign Fuel the Fight.
The drive was personal. Driscoll chose restaurants where his Boston-based colleagues loved to gather in normal times, such as Capo and Lincoln Tavern and Restaurant in South Boston. He and his team would collaborate daily to plot orders and decide which hospitals to contact. Many colleagues knew nurses at local facilities, he said, and helped make introductions. Driscoll’s team reached out to operations coordinators at local hospitals to find the best times for their schedules and how many meals might be needed. Then they would contact the restaurants to ask questions such as ‘Can you accommodate 100 meals at 5 p.m. at Mass. General?’ " Driscoll says. “We tried to divide and conquer,” he adds, with people splitting up calls.
It’s a far cry from real estate, but the result was a win-win: Restaurants got extra business, and health care workers enjoyed nourishing meals. “You could see the smiles coming from underneath their masks,” Driscoll says. “One meal can change their day.”
To date, Colliers has raised more than $60,000 from its employees and friends and provided frontline health workers with more than 4,000 meals from two dozen neighborhood restaurants. The effort went on hiatus over the summer, but may resume as the virus picks up steam again.
At Hollister Staffing, a Boston recruiting company, the philanthropy committee’s next project became clear when members heard about nursing home residents suffering from loneliness after visitors were barred, says Katie Buchta, the committee’s chair and Hollister’s director of recruiting. She rounded up employees to send cards to residents of South Boston’s Compass on the Bay, where a colleague had a connection. Those with housebound kids put them to work writing notes. (One child created 3-D caterpillars.) Adults used it as a creative outlet, designing letterheads with messages such as “Keep your head up!” and “Sending sunshine and smiles!”
“A lot of us had been feeling very isolated in our own little bubbles but [were] able to still communicate with each other,” Buchta says. "Taking a step back and . . . seeing how some seniors just hadn’t been able to see or talk to anyone, it was good awareness for everyone to just say, ‘OK, maybe my situation isn’t so bad — let’s see how we can spread some good thoughts and cheer to people who are really struggling and don’t have that connection.’ "
Residents responded with thank-you photos. “They seemed so excited,” Buchta says. “Seeing the pictures really showed how little things we do can go such a long way.”
Many of the things employees did weren’t little at all — such as granting a couple’s last wish. Haile Hernandez frequently handles complex cases as an acute care manager at Commonwealth Care Alliance, a Boston-based insurer and care provider for marginalized populations. But one story haunted him: A homeless client longed to see his wife of 30 years just one more time before she died. Already weakened by cancer, she had moved from a shelter into a hospital after contracting COVID — and she begged caregivers for a chance to say goodbye. But pandemic rules were rules.
With no time to lose, Hernandez consulted his supervisor, vice president of innovation Lauren Easton, to strategize. They called the hospital and got lucky: A nurse practitioner was also moved by the couple’s story and agreed to talk to her supervisor. “It was the right time and the right person,” Easton says. An exception was made.
Within 24 hours, Easton and Hernandez arranged for their client to don full personal protective equipment and be escorted to see his wife. The pair sat together in her hospital room for four hours. She died the next day.
Hernandez touched base with his client after the visit. He expressed profound loss — but a sense of newfound dignity, too. “He told us that, given his experience in life, he’d never felt this level of respect from a team,” Hernandez says. “He said his heart was broken by the passing of his wife but how grateful he was for everything we did for him — that a health professional cared.”
Caring is at the heart of the response to the virus by many workers. When employees in the Boston office of the consulting firm Slalom realized the pandemic was going to last a while, they did what they do best: jump into “problem-solving mode,” says consultant Anna Kamenetsky. The result? The Slalom Blue Pages, a shared internal spreadsheet of Yellow Pages-style resources that could come in handy during a pandemic. Among them were a list of favorite small businesses to support; ongoing volunteer initiatives at places like The Greater Boston Food Bank; even recommendations for shows to binge-watch during quarantine.
Most notably, the resource offers ways for colleagues to help each other — whether it’s going on grocery runs, looking after children, or providing fun distractions. Employees launched kid-focused Zoom dance lessons and show-and-tell sessions, shifting their schedules to accommodate squirmy children who needed a distraction — and parents who needed a break. “We want to support the good, bad, ugly, and uncertain,” Kamenetsky says. “We love being in the office together, and when it was abruptly halted, we still maintained our communication.”
The teachers at the Lexington Montessori School also kept in close contact. The school is a tight-knit place known for its collaborative, non-hierarchical environment — a warm community upended by remote learning. Being apart was tough on kids and on educators. To cope with the isolation, administrators organized breakout support groups for colleagues who would log in weekly to swap stories and support. “It’s a hard time to be a teacher,” says Maria-Veronica Barnes, the school’s director of diversity and an antibias supervisor. “We would just talk: ‘Where have you found joy this week? What’s dragging you down? Here’s what’s worked to lift me up.’ It started with those simple conversations and got into more depth.”
If staffers noticed colleagues who seemed to need an extra dose of cheer, they organized pop-up car parades with signs, music, and balloons. Over the course of two days in April, a caravan of about 30 vehicles driven by teachers, administrative staff, and specialists visited colleagues in Billerica, Concord, Gardner, and Mattapan. “It was a total surprise,” Barnes says. “People who are usually very tough, who hold things together, just cried. One teacher said that she never thought her co-workers would go all the way to her house. . . . So much of the culture of our school is the way we reacted when the pandemic struck. We all leaned in to work.”