Jim Twombly, City Manager of Aurora, Colorado, shares how he leveraged communication, compassion, and genuine connection to lead city staff through not only adapting to but embracing changing work environments.
AFI: Let’s dive right into how you handled your workforce during the pandemic and looking at how you've implemented some changes within your organization. What shifts have you made that you're willing to maintain? What has been a positive outcome of this and the way that you do operate?
Jim: We were looking at spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on reconfigurations in City Hall because space was getting tight. For example, we were planning to reconfigure cubicles to fit more employees into specific areas. At this point, that's in the rear-view mirror because now we have a workspace consultant onboard helping us design the future workplace, which will mean employees will be teleworking and maybe coming into the office one day a week for team meetings. We will have a computer set up for them, or they could bring in their laptops.
We've deployed around 1,000 laptops to enable people to work from home and be able to carry their work between the office and home, the City Hall and home, or whatever facility they may be working from. Regardless of the vaccine and pandemic situation, we will be carrying this kind of mobile working into the future.
AFI: Many of us spent last Spring just reacting to the crisis. I'm sure your team came through, and they were able to be there to serve not only the organization but also serve the community. But there's a certain point that I think all of us have experienced where we start to break. We start the tear at the seams. When that happened, what did you do?
Jim: We surveyed employees several times. For example, we asked them about their job satisfaction levels working from home, what obstacles they were facing, and how they felt about their productivity. The responses were very positive. People loved working from home. They felt like they were probably even more productive. They had fewer interruptions like running into people in the hallway, starting off the day with 20 or 30-minute conversations about the football game from over the weekend or these sorts of things. They just felt there were just fewer distractions.
However, with so many schools going remote, there were some issues with some people facing interruptions during the workday to help kids with homework and the latest math problem. They also didn’t always stick to a ridged 8 am-5 pm schedule and some work after dinner. Overall, it was very positive. I credit our employees for transitioning from thinking working from home would not be a good thing to loving it and being productive.
Supervisors felt that they weren't losing productivity from their employees. As we are starting to come back, we are talking about the importance of empathy and compassion. We really haven't talked about the social unrest in George Floyd. And, of course, we have our own tragic incident with Elijah McClain. The importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion, which is an effort that we've hit on hard and heavy this year, and the importance of empathy and compassion with our co-workers and with the community.
We to show our staff from the very beginning that we care about them. They are important to us, and that played into our communications. We've had town halls. We've had weekly outreach to employees about what's going on, new policies, decisions being made, those sorts of things, and we've made a conscious effort to reach out and understand our employee's feelings about what's going on with them and about their wellbeing, getting their input.
It's not just about how many widgets did you produce, but how is it working from home? How is this going for our water and water treatment plant operators who might have kids in school that now are at home, and how are they managing to balance work and home responsibilities? That's been important to us. I think it was important before, but I think now we’re making a conscious effort to talk about self-care, to talk about employee wellbeing, and to talk about how they engage and feel about not only their jobs but what's going on at home as well.
AFI: It's hard to stop and think about we are still in the middle of the crisis, yet people are suffering. It's refreshing to hear that your organization has reached out through surveys, and through other instances and tactics, you've been able to get their feedback and see what their needs are.
If we were to summarize our discussion today, it would be around shifting from an organizational or community standpoint and communicating with your team, your community consistently throughout all this with the hopes that we're not going to fall apart. We're going to make it through this, and we're going to be stronger when this is all over.