Kahle Boutte, owner of Prairie Patch Farm, and Earl the Llama visiting the offices of Neumann Monson Architects. CREDIT PRAIRIE PATCH FARM

By Jennie Morton

How do you boost employee morale amid a lengthy pandemic? It’s a question that has exhausted even the most seasoned HR professionals after a year of nonstop change. Yet many companies have found innovative ways to keep their workforces’ spirits up. The key is to infuse activities with authenticity.

Embrace novelty
It sounds like a bad joke – a llama walks into an office. But that’s exactly what happened one February day at the downtown Iowa City office of Neumann Monson Architects. The memorable moment started as a thoughtful gift from one employee’s spouse, but then mushroomed into 20 professionals taking selfies with Earl the Llama.

The popularity of Llama-Grams exploded in the past year for Prairie Patch Farm, which has 50 acres of conserved land in Swisher. Owners Kahle and Andy Boutte started with pet llamas in 2019, then began offering community hikes through their nature preserve. The pandemic pushed llama experiences into a full business. The herd of six llamas and one alpaca has visited schools, care centers, hospices and offices.

“Organizations want to show appreciation for all the hard work and flexibility people have shown this past year,” Ms. Boutte explained. “People love the quirkiness of a llama – they create an instant dopamine rush. Receiving a Llama-Gram brightens up the immense grieving of everything being canceled.”

Strategic Financial Solutions has always emphasized team building, which is why the firm is constantly nominated for the CBJ’s Coolest Places to Work. Though the 14-member company has been able to remain in its downtown Cedar Rapids office with social distancing, it has continued to work hard to show employee appreciation.

“We are serious about having fun!” explained Jamie Meyers, business manager. “Simple gestures can have a big impact, like dropping off gift baskets on people’s doorsteps, holding a virtual contest for who has the best home office or doing a drawing for a DoorDash gift card.”

Strategic even hired a Murder Mystery service. The event was held in an outbuilding on an employee’s property. Everyone was assigned a part and came dressed in character, adding to the enjoyment.

“Get ideas from your entire employee pool – everyone from entry level to senior management. It gets daunting for one person to be responsible for keeping everyone engaged,” Ms. Meyers recommended. “Also recognize the value of having different activities for small groups and individuals. Every option doesn’t need to appease everyone or match their comfort level.”

For example, the firm organized a scavenger hunt using rented e-bikes. Teams were broken into four people and everything was outside. Questions were set up at every clue location, allowing each small group to create connections with each other.

Greenlight passion projects
For Pella Windows & Doors, the past year has been a time to double down on resiliency. With a workforce that includes both manufacturing and office personnel, the company knew that it needed to honor the emotional state of its employees.

“I always think about this letter we have displayed from World War II about keeping our employees engaged during the war. When the pandemic started, our president Tim Yaggi started crafting similar messages of hope. He stressed that we are going to honor our history and use this time to innovate and challenge paradigms,” said Jenny Sharp, senior manager of talent and organization development.

Virtual offerings for physical and mental health were a top priority, including yoga, breathing and cooking classes. Finding ways to continue volunteer work or pledge charity donations was another engagement tool. Zoom karaoke and a digital version of “Let’s Make a Deal” added a sense of fun and normalcy.

“We’ve always been a great company, but I think we became exceptional this past year,” observed Ms. Sharp. “You see an organization’s true character in dark times. For Pella, that was deciding that if we take care of our people, the rest will fall into place.”

For teams that are already used to remote work and digital collaboration, there’s always room to forge deeper ties and strengthen company culture, found Neumann Monson Architects. This was accomplished by renewing its attention on passion projects, explained president Tim Schroeder.

Neumann Monson is helping the Stanley Center for Peace and Security in Muscatine become the first structure in Iowa to earn the Living Building Challenge. The sustainability certification includes a number of challenging design requirements, such as renewable energy, water reuse and carbon offsets. The center’s building is also a former library, which adds another layer of complexity for the Neumann Monson team to enjoy solving, Mr. Schroeder added.

The firm also took the time to earn the Just label, a designation for equitable organizations. The disclosure tool examines six indicators of social justice and requires rigorous documentation. Neumann Monson received high scores for ethnic diversity, volunteering, retirement benefits and continuing education.

“We view architecture as a calling, not a career,” explained Mr. Schroeder. “In many ways, that makes our jobs meaningful no matter what is going on in the world. But working on the Stanley Center and receiving the Just label has helped us sustain that dedication.” CBJ