In February 2020, Gradient Learning employees said goodbye to each other after an impactful and collaborative three days in St. Louis, Missouri.
At the time, it was expected to be the first of four company-wide “Stepback” work trips in 2020. But one month later, the unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic suddenly closed schools and halted all travel plans for the foreseeable future.
As much as people missed seeing each other in person, Gradient Learning’s positive remote culture, cultivated prior to the pandemic, didn’t skip a beat. It was sustained through regular social events on Zoom, daily pleasantries on Slack, and occasional gift packages to the homes of employees spread across 28 states from coast-to-coast.
“We’re very deliberate about building relationships, building connections, and making space for people to still feel connected to not only the team, but also to the work despite that remote nature,” said Drew Moriates, a Professional Development & Facilitation Specialist for Gradient Learning.
Finally, after 18 months of interacting solely over screens, it was time for Gradient Learning’s team of educators to reunite in-person for an uplifting—and safe—Stepback gathering.
With the pandemic ongoing, employee safety was the top priority for Gradient Learning as it prepared for a trip to Colorado in late August. No detail was too small and the logistics evolved to ensure that travel guidelines were rooted in the latest recommendations from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
First and foremost, Gradient Learning employees had to show proof of a negative COVID-19 test—regardless of vaccination status—within 72 hours before traveling and everyone had to take a rapid COVID-19 test upon check-in at the hotel in Aurora, Colo.
Once on site, all employees received personal protective equipment (PPE) that was recommended by the CDC such as masks, hand sanitizer, and wipes. Meals were eaten outside, masks were required, and team-bonding activities—such as axe-throwing and jumbo Jenga—were held on an outdoor lawn with ample room for social distancing.
All of the behind-the-scenes work to ensure safety also created a welcoming environment that eased the nerves of those leaving the comfort of home offices for the first time since the pandemic began. Moriates, who admitted to being “a little bit hesitant” about the trip, felt instant relief and satisfaction from seeing his coworkers in person.
“My initial thought of having to slowly dip my toes into the water to get reacclimated was completely smashed and I was right at home again,” said Moriates, who joked that his cheeks hurt from smiling so much under his mask on the first day. “I realized right then that that’s what I’ve been missing for some time, to be in a healthy, positive social setting outside of the one that I’ve just gotten so used to.”
For some newer Gradient Learning employees, the experience marked the first time they were actually seeing their coworkers face-to-face after being hired over Zoom.
“It felt like the first day of school all over again,” said Reem Semaan, a School & District Success Manager for Gradient Learning. “I was getting the jitters. It was a nervous excitement about being able to finally meet everyone.”
Dr. Catrice Reese, Managing Director of Operations & Employee Experience at Gradient Learning, said the planning for a potential in-person event began in earnest in January 2021 when her team immersed itself in COVID-19 resources. When the event became more realistic, detailed travel guidelines that prioritized safety were put together and updates were regularly provided to the organization as new information became available. Also, employees who didn’t feel comfortable with traveling quite yet had the option to opt out and participate remotely via Zoom.
In all, the three days spent reconnecting and collaborating in Colorado provided a much-needed boost for a seasoned remote workforce that craved in-person joy and belonging. It also offered further validation that having genuine relationships between employees is vital to the company’s overall mission to inspire change in education.
“We are definitely not just an organization of co-workers,” Reese said. “We’re an organization that is passionate about the work, we’re passionate about what we do, and we innovate with that passion.”