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Advice / Employers / Employer Resources

Employer Spotlight: Kforce’s Jessica Schwaller on Sustaining Team Culture and Employee Happiness During COVID-19

Courtesy of Kforce
Courtesy of Kforce

Here at The Muse, we know that there’s no better way to understand how to ace your own employer brand than by seeing some best practices in action.

Well, you’re in luck, because that’s exactly what our Employer Spotlight Series does. We feature all sorts of helpful advice and insights from companies that get employer branding right so that you can learn from their success.

This month, we chatted with Jessica Schwaller, Director of Associate Performance and Development at Kforce, about empowering employees to build successful careers, maintaining team culture and morale while operating remotely, and more.

Tell us a little bit about your career journey. How did you get to where you are today?

As is typical for a lot of folks early on in their careers, I tried my hand at different kinds of roles in different industries. Looking back, while it wasn’t intentional, all of the roles were in the realm of care and relationships. They were all also for small organizations with less than 20 employees. But then, a friend of mine learned about a role at Kforce and she thought it would be good for me to join a larger company. I was worried that a national firm would lack a warm environment—but I was wrong! Here I am 15 years later still reveling in the joy of my Kforce family.  

I started as an executive administrator and there’s no better way to intimately learn about a new organization than through the executive support team. I’ve had a wide range of roles since then, with the bulk of my time spent as the director of our internal recognition and engagement team. I was approached about my current role around three years ago. The HR opportunity felt like a harkening back to my sociology roots from college. I knew the learning curve would be steep, but I’m passionate about the experiences we all have in our work lives. I had to jump in with both feet.

What is one tool or piece of advice you wish you'd known about when you first started working in the staffing industry?

This isn’t necessarily specific to the staffing industry, but I think it’s really important to never be afraid to be wrong and to never let that fear limit you. We’ve all been in a meeting where we wanted to speak up but didn’t—and inevitably, someone else voices exactly what you wanted to say. You might not have the best idea out of the gate, but your willingness to share provides a foundation to build on. That’s innovation in practice. 

Innovation is especially important in staffing because the industry moves at breakneck speed. We’re always expected to be at the forefront of the industries we serve to make sure we’re providing the best talent and solutions for our clients’ needs. What we do impacts thousands of people every day. We can change lives by providing income, purpose, and long-term success to our consultants and clients, but it all starts with our internal teams.

You lead the human resources and organizational development teams at Kforce. What programs and initiatives do you have in place to ensure that associates have access to the tools, resources, and relationships they need to succeed?

It’s all about relationships. While that sounds cliché, we’ve worked really hard over the last two years to create relationships and an HR brand. Our intent was to remove the barrier that many associates see when they think of HR. We aren’t scary, we’re advocates. We’ve put our faces out there. We smile, we joke, and we truly care about individuals. By opening up conversations and creating strong relationships, we’re able to keep a pulse on business, performance, and engagement. That’s the best way we can ensure associates are truly enabled.

In addition, associates have access to the following resources for career success:

  • Human resource business partners (HRBPs) from desk-level to executives with dedicated office hours to discuss career strategy and growth
  • A dedicated organizational development team focused on the growth and advancement of associates
  • An interactive performance management process that encourages two-way communication between leaders and associates
  • Structured one-on-one meetings between leaders and associates, as well as skip-level meetings to support open communication and growth discussions
  • A robust online catalog of professional development courses and seminars
  • Our mentorship program allowing subject matter experts to share knowledge while gaining leadership skills for their own professional development
  • Our quarterly newsletter that provides tools, education, and important communications

How do you measure the success of your employee engagement and development efforts to assess what’s working (and what’s not)?

It’s so important that we listen to our people. Our team has integrated feedback systems so we can stay proactive when it comes to engagement in all areas of the firm. The anonymity of these platforms offers our associates the ability to be honest and transparent about their experiences and their suggestions. We’ve been able to make some big, impactful changes as a result of this data.

What’s the best way for HR and people team leaders to check in on workforce morale and well-being while everyone is remote?

Ask! You don’t know what you don’t ask about. Since mid-March, we’ve conducted two surveys. The first question was simple: How are you feeling? We have over 2,000 associates all over the country who are experiencing this time in very different ways. While no situation is the same, we’re all going through something and that builds a bit of connection. We’ve asked our associates to be specific in their input on what might make this experience a little easier. This feedback is shared with leaders to help break down any barriers that might be negatively impacting the morale and culture of our teams.

Our CEO, President, and COO have hosted several live broadcasts to share their own experiences and encourage the flexibility we know this environment requires. Empathy and connection have been key for our leaders—and it has created space for vulnerability. It’s been really humbling to witness this special culture where people feel safe sharing their personal feelings of fear, anxiety, and depression.

How is your team working to sustain company culture and employee happiness as everyone not only adjusts remote work but also tries to maintain a sense of normalcy?

Early on, we were extremely focused on flexibility. Everyone’s worlds were turned upside down overnight—childcare was taken away, people were adjusting to sharing workspaces in their homes with roommates and spouses, there was worry over the ability to secure basic necessities. The overall fear and uncertainty was stifling. Then our teams did what they do best: supported each other.

It’s been fun and inspiring to witness team subcultures shared across the organization. A firm-wide connection page was created to serve as a networking space. Resources, memes, get to know you questions, and working parent shout outs fill the page now. I love the stories, pictures, and videos of cooking challenges (and fails), one team member’s older children tutoring a fellow team member’s younger children, the virtual spirit days, and the barking dogs on calls. These moments have allowed us to connect on a more human level with one another.

Obviously, stress and mental health is a concern, so we continue to communicate about our employee assistance program. MySource connects employees to resources and counseling for their physical, mental, and financial well-being.

What are the most rewarding parts of your job?

What I find most fulfilling is walking with people through tough times and seeing them come out better on the other side. Sometimes we’re afraid to provide constructive feedback, but truth wrapped in compassion goes a very long way. I’ve had the privilege of working with leaders who provided this to me, so I know firsthand how powerful it is. I want everyone to have this benefit in their careers.

What's something you do outside of work that makes you a better employee?

I eat—you don’t want the hangry version of Jess! But all kidding aside, it’s spending time with my eight-year-old daughter and husband. While that might sound simple, I've really had to work at this (and still have work to do). It’s very easy to get caught up in feeling like you need to be all things to all people at all times.

I've always felt refreshed and renewed after a Saturday with my family, but the need for quality time has really come into focus during COVID-19. Working from home and having my daughter bring me a note of encouragement during a call, or asking me and my husband to join her for a 30-minute PE class between meetings has refueled me during the day in a way I didn’t realize I needed until now. There’s no doubt this is making me a better employee.

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