Office Culture without the Office


Amanda McMillon
Associate, Operations
March 16, 2021

I joined the Pencils of Promise (PoP) Team a little over a year ago as the External Affairs Intern in the New York City office. To be precise, I spent a total of four days in our office before we shut our doors as part of the COVID-19 lockdown. 

The first few days, weeks and months of a new job can be overwhelming. Aside from learning the technical aspects of the role, you’re also learning the cultural aspects. Does everyone bring their lunch, or do they usually go out? Do folks use their headphones, or will that make me seem rude? Can I wear blue jeans on days other than Friday? The quick transition from office life during lockdown added an extra layer of questions and uncertainty. 

Photo description: PoP’s Country Directors (from left: Jorge Bolom, Lanoy Keosuvan, Freeman Gobah and Ya Laoxayda) visit the NYC office in 2016.

A year later, as a newly hired full-time member of the NYC Operations team, those questions are nearly irrelevant. In the past year, PoP has developed innovative programming and operations to continue supporting students, teachers and communities in a socially-distant world. PoP’s internal response has been no different. On Wednesday, March 11th of 2020, employees in NYC underwent a mandatory work from home policy; virtual Zoom backgrounds were activated and dress codes went out the window. Water cooler talk moved from the break room to the virtual chat room. Hour-long commutes changed to 30-second steps from the bedroom to the living room. Lunch breaks with colleagues transitioned to virtual happy hours. 

While offices in Ghana, Guatemala and Laos are open and operating within each country’s health and safety protocols, New York remains closed. Throughout each office’s closures, the pivots have resulted in pros and cons for each individual. 

“To reduce the risk of infection in the office, only three people were allowed to eat in the kitchen at a time. This robbed us of those beautiful team bonding moments where staff come together to share, chat and laugh over lunch.”

PoP Staff, Ghana

“Typically we greet each other with a hug and a kiss, but now we can only wave.”

PoP Staff, Guatemala

“I like that my work day is more flexible. I can workout in the middle of the day and then get back to work.”

PoP Staff, New York

“While we were closed, staff would ask, ‘When are we coming to the office? We don’t want to stay home.”

PoP Staff, Laos

Although we are uncertain when “normal” office life will resume, the PoP staff has readily embraced change, tapping into the innovative spirit of the organization. Not only did PoP adjust its daily work culture, but we tapped into our creativity and adaptability to develop remote programming, create virtual impact trips and launch our inaugural global gala. We relied on our core values of transparency, learning, audacity and community to have earnest conversations with staff about mental health, work-life balance and ways to cope with the pandemic.

One of my favorite attributes of PoP is that we’re not afraid of change; protocol is not decided because it’s what has always been done, but rather is chosen because it will best move the organization forward. Cultural adaptability has proven essential in employee satisfaction and retention. We’re now asking ourselves to evaluate what aspects of working remotely and which aspects of working in-person are those that ultimately benefit the efficiency, accessibility and ultimate wellbeing of the PoP team. The timeline of normalcy may be unknown, but we continue to work to create the best path forward for PoP staff and communities around the globe. 

Photo description: Chalk writing on a black board reads ‘Welcome PoP Family’