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In a positive display of company culture, Ruppert Landscape of Laytonsville, MD, distributed bonus checks totaling $470,000 to 1,100 frontline field-level employees to thank them for their commitment and service during COVID-19. “We wanted to focus our efforts on our field managers and crew members who continued to report to work during a time of great crisis and uncertainty, while many of us were afforded the flexibility of working from the safety of our homes,” said Craig Ruppert, CEO. “To me, their efforts really underscore our company values of hard work, honoring commitments and supporting our community and I truly couldn’t be more proud of how they stepped up to the plate. In my mind, that deserves an extra thank you, which is what we wanted to do with these bonuses.”

For those wondering how you attract and retain top employees, here’s a big part of the answer. No, not the money (but as any employee will tell you, it does help), but the company culture! Having an established culture, hiring people who align with that culture, and reinforcing that corporate culture from the top down—even during a pandemic—can go a long way toward your company’s long term success. Not to mention your company’s ability to weather a crisis, such as a pandemic.

“We have been extremely fortunate so far,” acknowledged Ruppert. “But even with our ‘essential’ designation, the only way to keep things running is by having a dedicated team who believes in your company and trusts that you are doing your best to look out for their health and well-being. Our team is an amazing group who have put aside their fears, come to work, adapted to changing protocols, and enabled us to continue to honor our customer commitments.”

Culture During COVID?

Douglass Delano,  co-owner of MD-based Level Green Landscaping, recently blogged about the challenges of building a “virtual” culture during COVID at a company built around in-person interaction. “At Level Green Landscaping, celebrating our hard work is as much a part of life as the work. You’ll often find us together, talking and laughing around tables laden with a homemade Hispanic feast, marinated beef sizzling on the grill. Or lined up to share office manager Lynn Garris’ savory pulled pork…. These days, safe social distancing has nudged aside our big group celebratory feasts and team-building games. But not our close-knit culture. That’s too important to us. We’ve improvised.”

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The staff of Level Green Landscaping attend a virtual happy hour to stay connected.

Level Green co-founder and managing partner Bill Hardy hosted a virtual happy hour with Delano, division manager Paul Wisniewski, and the company’s branch managers. “We all went to our happy places…  It was an hour with no talk about work,” he says. “Just about our families and our challenges.” Individual Level Green branches have enjoyed similar virtual happy hours, a way to kick back and stay in touch.

But “while technology is great, it doesn’t replace a cheer from the boss,” wrote Delano. Hardy has driven out to job sites for “social distance” contact. “I’ll check in with them, tell them we’re still here for them,” says Hardy. “I may not talk to everybody, but there’ll be a lot of waving.”

“Doug and I are extremely proud of our team,” Hardy says. “Our guys are showing up, attendance is great. They’re working through the challenges of all the safety protocols we put in place.  As difficult as it is, our teams are doing a phenomenal job.” He’s planning ways to say thanks like providing boxed lunches or surprise breakfast burritos, handed out in small groups. Delano adds, “No matter what, we hold tight to our strong family atmosphere and fun workplace culture. It’s part of who we are, and what makes this a great place to work.”

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Zack Frick, an employee with Seasons Matter, Inc. in NJ, wears a facemask displaying the company logo.

Sometimes even simple gestures can make a big difference when employees are going the extra mile. In NJ, Seasons Matter, a landscaping company in Old Bridge, decided to make the most of important PPE requirements. Though the virus hit fast and furious in the state, making it a top hotspot, landscape crews continued to work. So Seasons Matter created one of a kind facemasks with their company name and logo.  It not only helped keep crews stay safe, it also providing a unifying moment and marketing opportunity.

Everyone Is Valued

Beebe Landscape Services, in East Windsor, CT, had an item about the importance of company culture in a blog post that also ran in a Massachusetts Association of Landscape Professionals newsletter. Written in 2016, the advice still rings true: “One of the most important messages where I work is: ‘We achieve the best results through the combined efforts of each individual.’ This statement holds each individual accountable while providing each person with the support of the whole team.  The team acts as one organism, and doesn’t shun one of its members when he or she falters, but helps them get back on their feet.”

The post continues, “a supportive company culture exemplifies a consistent level of caring from the top down.   The owners care about their employees, and, in turn, the employees care about the organization as a whole, and especially, its client base.  A real sense of consideration and concern for each individual reflects back on the rest of the organization and its clients. This can’t simply arrive in the form of lip service. If a company preaches such ideals, but does not deliver on them, the whole initiative is a wasted effort.”

“It’s the company culture, stupid.”

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Allen and the TGC staff at an industry training and dinner.

Monique Allen, owner of Medfield, MA-based The Garden Continuum and TGC Academy, a landscape business resource, says all managers should have the above phrase on their walls. She writes in her blog post, Finding And Retaining Talent in the Landscape Industry, “research has shown that workplace culture is a significant driver of employee happiness and often a deciding factor on whether to stay or go.” And a major part of a successful culture is “management’s ability to recognize employees’ talents and contributions in a purposeful manner.” According to the study A New Benchmark for Initiating Employee Engagement, Retention and Results, 79% of workers who leave their job attribute their reason for leaving to “lack of appreciation.”

Of course, employee recognition isn’t just about acknowledgement for work well done. It means recognizing and hearing employee’s voices. Karin Hurt and David Dye, coauthors of Courageous Cultures: How to Build Teams of Microinnovators, Problem Solvers, and Customer Advocates found in their research with the University of Northern Colorado’s Social Research Lab:

  • 67% of workers believe leaders don’t want new ideas
  • 56% of employees withhold ideas out of concern they won’t get credit.
  • 49% of employees say they’re not regularly asked for ideas.
  • 40% of employees don’t feel confident sharing ideas
  • 50% of workers feel their ideas won’t be taken seriously

Allen offers these tips for building a positive company culture through employee recognition:

  • Engage with EVERY team member to get the most out of each individual and optimize team performance. Favoritism hurts them and your business.
  • Meet one-on-one with employees three times a year to discuss their experiences working for your company — what works for them and what doesn’t. Learn what motivates them.
  • Build skills to help employees feel more confident and be more productive — it also benefits the company by minimizing work delays. Skill-building doesn’t have to be some monumental project; sometimes simply providing a little knowledge will go a long way toward improving performance.
  • Share aspirations by openly discussing goals with employees to help build support and boost chances for success. Sharing aspirations encourages participation by the entire team and builds motivation for all.
  • Now go ahead and do it — most of us did not get into the landscape business to manage people. However, when you sign up to be an owner and you hire people, you’re in the people management business, whether you like it or not. (For Allen’s full article, click here.)

Clearly, maintaining corporate culture isn’t just about offering perks in good times, it’s about showing recognition in trying times too. “Like many businesses, we have experienced contract cancelations, scope reductions, and various other pressures that have affected—and will continue to affect—our revenue,” said Phil Key, President of Ruppert Landscape. “When we first began discussing [the bonus], our primary concern was our obligation to ensure the company’s solid financial standing both now and into the future so that our employees can feed their families and meet their needs… But because of the hard work of our team over many years, we had funds available that we felt would not put our financial stability at risk and knew that investing in our team would pay dividends in our long-term success. Using that resource at this time just made sense.”

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