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Fostering Collaboration in a Hybrid Environment: Collaboration Day 2022

Ayers Saint Gross team members are seen in front of the stairwell at Edward St. John Teaching and...

Every year, Ayers Saint Gross hosts a collaboration event where employees can get to know their peers, learn more about our work, and share ideas for the future. Prior to the pandemic, these events usually took place in person. People from all three offices would travel to meet up in person for a multi-day event consisting of learning sessions, happy hours, art exhibits, and more.  

Since the global changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, we have become more creative about the way we gather. In 2020, we broke the mold by hosting an entirely virtual, week-long celebration of our firm. In 2021, we held a similarly structured virtual Collaboration Day. This year, we wanted to try something new.  

For the past year, we have been adjusting to a hybrid workplace, in which employees spend time working both in the office and remotely. We wanted to bring that same flexible, creative energy to this year’s event. Though we knew it would be impossible to gather everyone in person, we took care to create in-person events wherever possible and convenient, bringing people out of their home offices and creating memorable experiences.  

Below, President Luanne Greene and I share our main takeaways from this year’s planning process. We hope what we learned can help others who are planning hybrid events of this kind.  

Know your purpose.  

Whether you’re planning a virtual, hybrid, or totally in-person event, it’s always so important to know exactly what you are trying to accomplish. That way, when things get complicated – and they will – you will always have an ultimate goal to look back on and see what you are working toward.  

For us, Collaboration Day ties very closely with our identity as a 110-year-old, employee-owned firm. We are always working to create longevity and success for our clients and for ourselves. Collaboration Day is one way we work toward this goal, by encouraging our employees to think about the best ways we are working and what we should do next.  

Another key aspect of Collaboration Day is celebrating our employees and recognizing their hard work. Collaboration Day is a chance for employees to take a break, enjoy meals or happy hours together, and celebrate their efforts. In addition to revealing our annual stock price, we also take time to recognize key members of our firm for their collaboration and leadership. 

Baltimore Lunch
DC Lunch Outing La Cosecha 3
Lunch Group 3 3
Lunch Limoncello 2
Pizzeria Stellina DC

Create an equitable experience 

Probably the most difficult aspect of planning for hybrid events is considering the people logistics: who is going to be where and when? And what kind of technology will they be using? Will people feel safe gathering in a group? Not only do you need to factor in how to reach everyone, but you also need to consider how to give everyone an equitable experience. In some cases that means asking, “Is this worth doing if it will only be enjoyable for one segment of our team?”  

For us, a big challenge was providing a worthwhile experience for those who were not going to be attending in person. While a good number of our team joined in person, we also knew we needed events that would be accessible for our employees in all three offices, as well as those who were working remotely from other parts of the country.  

Oftentimes, considering these people meant taking a lot of our events into the virtual space. For in-person events like happy hours or lunches, we arranged for those who could not attend in-person to be provided with DoorDash gift cards and opportunities to connect virtually. We also organized project tours in locations surrounding each of our offices, so interested attendees could learn about our work in-person without having to travel far.

Learn from past experiences 

A major component in helping us grow Collaboration Day year after year have been the surveys we send before and after each year’s event. We ask people what they want to do, what has really worked, and what has not. I think that openness about the planning and execution has played a big part in creating value.  

The surveys have also given us some great ideas! Prior to this year’s Collaboration Day, employees told us they were suffering Zoom fatigue. After years of virtual meetings, the last thing they wanted was to sit in more presentations from guest speakers. Thanks to that feedback, we planned this year’s schedule to include a series of Co-Labs, or interactive virtual discussions. Each Co-Lab was planned by a committee of passionate employees. They touched on a variety of topics including design innovation, employee ownership, and the AIA Framework for Design Excellence. Most importantly, these sessions were highly interactive, allowing attendees to take the lead and share their ideas.  

Ayers Saint Gross employees on a project tour of the Edward St. John Teaching and Learning Center...
Ayers Saint Gross employees on a project tour of the Edward St. John Teaching and Learning Center at the University of Maryland

Use this time for experimentation  

As a client-serving firm, most of our work is aimed at making clients happy and helping them to succeed. Inward-facing events like Collaboration Day are a great way to try out new technologies and methods of meeting in a low-risk way.  

For us, it seems like every Collaboration Day provides opportunities to think outside the box and try something new. This year, one of our big successes was the Behind the Design Live. As part of that event, we sent designer Tim Shook to walk around the construction site for the Missouri Botanical Garden Jack C. Taylor Visitor Center. Employees loved getting to see the construction site in real time and we’ve already had lots of other people volunteering to lead virtual tours of their own.  

Remain flexible 

One sure thing we learned through this year’s planning was that things can and will change, no matter what. Thanks to rising COVID cases leading up to our event, the format of many of our sessions changed from in-person to virtual. And even on the day of, technical difficulties forced us to gradually adjust some of our schedule.  

Thankfully, we’ve been organizing this event for a few years in several iterations. Because we knew to expect the unexpected, we were able to move forward from these small challenges to create something great: a one-of-a-kind, memorable experience our employees can remember fondly.  

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