Discover insights on employee recognition and engagement, workplace culture, performance management, people analytics, and more.
Company Name: Cultural Vistas
Industry: Non-profit Organisation
Head Office: Washington, D.C. & Berlin
Kudos® Champion: Laura Gross, Director of Administration, People + Culture
The American nonprofit organization Cultural Vistas believes that "understanding our evolving world is the first step toward changing it." This philosophy is the driving force behind Cultural Vistas' work. They facilitate internships, professional exchange programs, and services for visitors coming to the U.S. and for American students and professionals seeking experiential learning opportunities abroad. Founded in 1963, Cultural Vistas offers over 30 unique exchange programs and partnerships with more than 130 countries. They believe that international professional experiences create more informed, skilled, and engaged citizens by equipping the next generation of global leaders to solve complex challenges by connecting lives to exchange knowledge, values, and perspectives.
This challenging but rewarding vision requires a lean team of passionate and hardworking employees to get the job done. Before the 2020 pandemic, Cultural Vistas had offices in Washington, D.C., New York City, and Berlin, with board members and stakeholders worldwide.
In an interview with Laura Gross, Director of Administration, People + Culture at Cultural Vistas, she explained, "Generally, a lot of people on our staff have lived abroad or grew up abroad, speak other languages, and are very curious about the world. They understand the value of interacting with different people's perspectives and ways of life and have a broader understanding of how to connect with other people."
Unsurprisingly, when the pandemic hit in 2020, all exchange programs were frozen due to international travel bans leading to a halt on global movement. Like many organizations worldwide, all Cultural Vistas’ employees transitioned to working from home. Laura and her team were faced with the challenge of maintaining employee engagement within their fully remote workforce.
The challenge to maintain culture and engagement remotely was especially critical for nonprofits. Laura explained, "As a nonprofit, we don't have the highest, most competitive salaries; we need to find other ways to add value for our employees." And this is a common trend - Cultural Vistas is not alone in the struggle. Salaries at nonprofits are often not competitive with those offered by private-sector corporations.
The stakes for maintaining the passion and drive that brought employees to Cultural Vistas in the first place are much higher given today's competitive job market. Fostering a culture that celebrates the mission and vision that attracted employees to their roles is imperative now more than ever. Recognizing the impacts of employees' individual and collective efforts is also critical to keep employees happy in their nonprofit roles.
With culture and employee engagement top of mind, the team at Cultural Vistas focused on fostering a virtual environment just as enriching as their previous office life to keep employees happy and passionate about the cause.
The social committees from the different offices quickly merged into one powerhouse committee, made up of employees from all departments and levels, holding weekly meetings that anyone could hop into and share ideas. This resulted in a variety of virtual events ranging from art classes to trivia nights to pet-show-and-tells.
But of course, beyond social cohesion is another critical aspect of engagement – employee recognition.
That’s where the platform Kudos® came in.
Kudos® is an employee engagement, culture, and analytics platform that fosters peer-to-peer recognition, values reinforcement, and open communication to help organizations boost employee engagement, reduce turnover, improve culture, and drive productivity and performance.
Cultural Vistas decided to implement monthly awards using data from Kudos® to help their employees see the impact of their contributions. Each month, three people are awarded:
The last award is perhaps the most powerful and something unique to the Kudos® platform. Every time someone sends a recognition message to a colleague on Kudos®, they also select which qualities the person they’re recognizing has displayed. These qualities are directly tied to the organization’s values – something essential for nonprofits that often have unique and distinct values and missions.
And, of course, the rewards offered within Kudos® don’t hurt.
Laura explained that because of the challenge of competing with the private sector for talent, the casual financial incentive of Kudos® points helps. In Kudos®, employees earn points that they can redeem for gift cards or other custom rewards chosen by the organization. A typical employee will earn hundreds of dollars a year in rewards through Kudos®.
It’s a program that they are proud of.
“We’ve added the Kudos® platform into our official benefits offerings,” says Laura. “It’s promoted and discussed in offer conversations as both a cultural and financial inventive.”
A recognition message within the Kudos® platform, where users select specific qualities to recognize.
"In a surprising twist, a global pandemic that jeopardizes the future of our entire field has also boosted staff morale," shares Laura. "Before the pandemic, there were three distinct office cultures, based on geography. Now that we're all working remotely, it's equalized the experience of being an employee at Cultural Vistas - we all have collaborated so much more organically and naturally than before."
Recent Pulse surveys indicate that the number one thing the employees like about working at Cultural Vistas is the team – a great sign that the effort is working. Simply put, "a happy community of people is good for business," says Laura.
"Our staff is a passionate, dedicated, really hardworking group. They care a lot about their participants’ experiences abroad, but they also care a lot about their coworkers’ experiences, and they work together as a team. There's a lot of shared drive and passion. It's a really great group of people to work with."
So, while the competition to attract and retain top talent will likely forever be a challenge for nonprofits like Cultural Vistas – they can still compete with higher-paying for-profit counterparts by operating in a nimble and employee-centered way. With a strong culture and emphasis on employee engagement through tools like Kudos®, the right employees will feel at home at Cultural Vistas, no matter where they are on the globe.
“That’s the most fun I’ve had all day!” is what David Blain, President of Utah-based advertising agency Saxton Horne Communications, wants to hear from his clients after every meeting. Blain also loves to hear: “I want to work at Saxton Horne; you guys have more fun than anyone!” The latter is arguably much harder to achieve and has been on Blain’s mind, and to-do list for years.
Saxton Horne Communications is part of the Larry H. Miller Group of Companies, which includes more than 80 businesses located throughout the western United States. The Larry H. Miller Group of Companies has subsidiaries in automotive, entertainment, finance, auto insurance, real estate, health care, and philanthropy. What began as a single car dealership in 1979 run by Larry H. and Gail Miller, has grown into one of the largest privately-owned companies in the United States. The group’s primary mission is “To Enrich Lives,” and their vision is simple, to be “the best place in town to work and the best place in town to do business.”
About five years ago, Blain and his team sat down to develop a plan to take the agency’s culture to the next level, in part to live out that broader vision. “The conclusion that we came to was that you could just let culture happen and be what it is, or you can intentionally create it.” said David, “and we decided that we were going to create a culture of recognition.” A culture of recognition is one where everyone’s contributions are celebrated and appreciated regularly.
As a first initiative, the team decided to start Thank You Week. The idea behind Thank You Week was to celebrate Saxton Horne’s people over the course of a week every year. They would bring in lunch every day and give everyone Friday afternoon off. The thoughtful recognition component was even more powerful; every day, employees were asked to write five thank you cards to someone they didn’t typically work with so that every morning of Thank You Week, employees would come in to find thoughtful notes on their desks. Another year, the leadership team wrote a thank you note to every spouse or significant other of their employees, thanking them for supporting their partner in what they did for the company.
The Saxton Horne team experienced the power of recognition every year during that week, and soon realized that they needed to expand the initiative beyond just 5 days per year. David Blain knew the solution - he called Kudos. He knew about the Kudos platform from previously working at an organization that used it, and he recognized that to build the culture he wanted, he needed a robust system in place to facilitate the goal of creating a great culture and measuring process along the way.
Implementing new software can sometimes be accompanied by some apprehension. Still, Kudos was welcomed with open arms by the Saxton Horne team, with the energy and sentiment of Thank You Week present daily through recognition messages flowing between employees and from Leadership. There were even some unexpected benefits of Kudos – including the ability to foster inclusion through the built-in analytics showing the frequency of recognition between employees and observing patterns like who might be looked over or left out.
Then, in the early spring of 2020, The COVID-19 pandemic hit.
Unsure of what would happen to their business, David had to make the difficult decision of laying off staff, reducing salaries, and cutting costs wherever possible.
Unfortunately, that meant that software programs like Kudos had to go.
And while the guilt of the layoffs and salary cuts weighed heavily on management as the whole world watched to see what would happen with the pandemic, something unexpected happened at Saxton Horne. While everyone on the team was working remotely, there was one resounding message coming from staff to David and the leadership team:
“Bring Kudos back.”
And that’s precisely what they did.
“Before our hiatus,” said David, “we didn’t entirely recognize how important Kudos was.” The pause from Kudos showed David and the team at Saxton Horne that everybody loved the platform. “You want to see if something works, take it away and see what happens,” jokes David. “We took away Kudos, and they protested - that told us it was worth a lot.” Essentially, the culture of recognition designed by the company’s leaders was lacking without Kudos.
David Blain, President of Saxton Horne Communications
Now back in action, Kudos is the responsibility of Saxton Horne’s “Culture Club” (formerly known as the party committee before David heard Boy George’s Karma Chameleon on his way to work one day and was immediately inspired to change the name.) The Culture Club’s mandate is simple – build culture. Made up of people from each department in the agency, they are responsible for managing and implementing all culture initiatives, including managing and running programs through Kudos.
The impact of Kudos has been significant, especially with the majority of the company working remotely. While other tools are used strictly for business purposes, Saxton Horne uses Slack and Kudos as connection points for the team. Most Kudos recognition messages are sent through Slack using the Kudos integration. “Just like Kudos was an extension of Thank You Week, it’s also an extension of the connection our team would experience in the office. It creates the conversational, non-formal culture that we want.”
And as for the famous Thank You Week that started it all? It’s still going strong, and this year, assuming the pandemic continues to improve in the US, it will coincide with many Saxton Horne employees returning to the office.
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