In 2016, we developed a system of committees that would extend leadership opportunities to all Azaveans and enable our colleagues to have more ownership over how we do things. In Part 1 of this series, I outlined what led to this decision and how we got started. In this second part, I’d like to outline a bit more about each committee and hear from some Azaveans about the value they derive from being involved in committees.
As Azavea grew, my wife, Rachel, and I tried to organize social events in order to provide opportunities to socialize and build relationships outside work hours. We planned trips to the theater, happy hours, and other events that we thought our colleagues would enjoy. Occasionally these events were a hit, but often they did not work as well as we’d hoped and were not well attended. I came to believe that this was because we were using a top-down approach; people were more likely to attend an event organized by their colleagues, rather than their boss.
One of our colleagues, Mike Tedeschi, stepped forward in 2012 to create a “Happy Hour Club” (aka list-beer). When Mike left Azavea to found his own company in 2015, a group of people volunteered to take over. This self-organized group of people became the first committee. Originally the “Beer Committee”, now the more inclusive “Fun Committee”, the group was recognized with some sense of formality, but operated on its own. This group became a model and inspiration a few years later for how we could organize colleagues to improve company morale and expand leadership opportunities. When we officially set out to create committees, the Fun Committee remained self-organized. When I solicited volunteers, they were initially miffed with me that I was horning in on their territory — this went against their founding principles and structure. But I still wanted this group to be officially recognized within this new Committee system. I backed off on inviting new members, and I rewrote that charter to make it clear that this is a self-organized group that decides its own membership.
This self-organized structure has allowed for new people and new ideas. The Fun Committee has organized annual Azaveas-giving potlucks, a Pi Day Pi(e)-Off, a banana bread baking competition, a fall picnic, The Azaving Race™, quizzo, recurring happy hours, and much more.
The Enterprise Committee follows the European model and provides a group of employees with funding to use at their discretion for “the good of all employees.” The committee solicits funding requests from employees through a survey that is available in our shared drive. They meet regularly to review the requests, update the budget, and plan events/treats/surprises for our colleagues throughout the year. The Enterprise Committee has funded employee requests such as a chef’s knife, pitchers, and new bowls for our shared kitchen, a tea subscription, a basketball for pickup games, “fiddles” for our conference rooms, team dinners, and group outings/events such as Sixers games, Halloween parties, yoga classes, and art workshops.
They have also used a discretionary section of the budget to fund company-wide treats, such as last winter’s hot chocolate bar, bagels at the monthly company update meeting, and the occasional afternoon Pretzel Factory spread. The only thing the Enterprise Committee has yet to figure out how to fund is sparkling water. As one committee member put it, “Seltzer is the white whale of the enterprise committee.” Everyone wants it, but we cannot figure out how to do it affordably and with low maintenance. (If anyone out there has ideas about how to do this, please drop us a line.) Seltzer shortage aside, the Enterprise Committee has made a huge impact by making colleagues feel heard and boosting morale by funding individual requests that benefit everyone at the company and the occasional treat.
The Art Committee was originally organized to help put art on the walls of our new office. Rachel and I had bought some art over the years and hung it in our old office as we expanded. However, the new space we occupied in 2016 made it look anemic. Everyone wanted more color on the walls and the Art Committee set out to make it happen. They established a rotation of art exhibits from area artists. They installed a framed theme photo area in our kitchen that showcases staff photo contributions of the Philadelphia area, world travels, and, of course, staff pets. Finally, they commissioned a mural for one of four walls we had reserved for the purpose, and we hope to add additional ones in the future.
The Plants Committee came about…uh…organically (sorry) as more people wanted to have plants at their desks and around the office. In 2017, we made the committee official. As the charter suggests, this committee is made up of “a shifting cast of characters” who meet irregularly (typically once or twice a year) to adopt, propagate, and repot plants. Anyone who is interested in taking care of a plant around the office can join and responsibilities are limited to caring for plants and joining the repotting party.
As we get larger, we may need to hire someone to care for our growing plant collection, but for now, this structure is sufficient and allows for colleagues to be intimately involved in the process.
After moving into our new office, we noted a lack of street trees. Led by Deb Boyer, the Product Manager for our OpenTreeMap service, Azavea became the first corporate sponsor of the Philadelphia Horticultural Society’s (PHS) tree planting program. We committed to planting and tending to trees along the Spring Garden side of our new building. The committee was always meant to be temporary, as the planting and tending were time-bound. The first year in the life of a tree is very critical. Young trees should be watered regularly. After a year, they should be strong enough to survive on their own. We formed a committee of volunteers that planted and then regularly watered the trees. After a year, the committee dissolved.
When I was considering the committees, I was concerned that if I allocated a budget, there would be a risk that people would feel like they needed to spend down the budget every year; I’d seen this type of behavior when I worked in municipal government. But in the 3 years of our new committee structure, I have learned that my concern was unfounded; people have been incredibly responsible — every year each committee has been under budget. The colleagues serving on the committees have also been more creative than we could have imagined. They think really hard about how to make Azaveans’ lives better.
In the process of putting this blog together, members of several committees shared their thoughts about what participating in this unique company structure means to them.
Esther, former Project Manager, has always been a plant enthusiast. She eagerly brought her love of plants to our “industrial chic” office space by joining the Plants Committee, in an effort to soften the environment a little bit and make it a more attractive place to spend time.
Being on the Plants Committee mostly means taking care of your own plants, which can be a relaxing part of an otherwise stressful workday. Once a year folks will meet up for a big repotting and plant adoption party, which is Esther’s favorite part. “People are really invested in living things. We get to bond over something fun and encourage a healthy environment.”
Jeff, a UX Designer when not serving on the Enterprise or Fun committees, always enjoyed organizing fun events for folks at the office but figuring out the finances was tough. “Before the committees, if you wanted to get a small thing for the office you would have to ask Robert. He’s so busy and does important work, and it didn’t feel okay to take up his time to ask for $20 to stock the conference rooms with fiddles.” (Author’s note: it’s totally okay, but Jeff confirms our suspicion that there were blockers before.)
Now he enthusiastically serves on the Enterprise Committee and enjoys empowering others to dream up and plan fun things for their coworkers. He also enjoys the opportunity to work with colleagues in a different capacity. “It’s a different way to interact with colleagues that breaks down some of the roles that we usually play.”
Ross, the project manager for the Data Analytics team, joined the art committee “as soon as [he] learned it was a possibility.” He has enjoyed the opportunity to support local artists, encourage other colleagues’ artistic sensibilities, and using a different part of his brain during the workday. He believes in the idea of an art committee. “It’s a low time investment but adds a lot to the office. I would recommend this to any company.”
Committees have been a great way for Azaveans to develop leadership skills and participate in opportunities for professional growth. Participants get experience managing budgets and improving the lives of their colleagues. They get to step out of their usual roles and interact with one another in other ways. Contributing to a committee is also a way colleagues can express one of the company’s core values of ownership. Our committees have done outstanding work in livening up our office space and facilitating meaningful and fun experiences for all of our colleagues. As we continue to grow as a company, I look forward to watching our committees expand to incorporate new ideas and develop more leaders.