TINYtalk: Step Up For Students - Boosting Culture during COVID-19

9 min read
May 19, 2020

We invited the culture leadership team from Step Up For Students to share how they increase communication and transparency to engage their employees during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Don't miss TINYtalk: Inspiring Team Building Activities While Working from Home.

Click the video above to watch the full interview with Jill LaRose, Vice President of Leadership Development; Gina Caicedo, Organizational Culture Director; and Christine Williams, Organizational Culture Manager. Or enjoy the edited transcript below.

People Are Surprisingly Connecting More — Not Less

Overall as an organization, the COVID-19 pandemic made us stop, pause and think about how to help our employees with work-life balance.

"We seem to care more about one another,  and start our meetings with checking in with each other." 

What I've seen with the managers is that we've learned to focus on all of our employees individually.

We have more collaboration, more connection. We thought that the isolation was going to impact in a negative way because they probably going to feel that they don't have the same connection or the same level of communication. But instead what happened was that people were more mindful during meetings.

They give undivided attention to the older employees and dedicate time to the person in front of them. I think that makes a huge and positive impact.

We also saw a spark in creativity.

"People are developing different things, such as a coffee break with the team where we talk about two truths and a lie and other icebreaker games."

On the other hand, people are connecting more and the teams have been working more collaboratively as well as feeling that they have more connection with the team members, which is the biggest surprise to me because the concern was that, well, the isolation is going to make the communication more difficult, but the opposite happened.

"Instead, what we have is that they are communicating more. We are creating more group meetings to update each department and what they're doing. And now I think I have more information now than I had before."

How Leadership Responded To The Crisis And How You Should Too

Prioritize A Quick And Smooth Transition To Work From Home

The first thing was just how quickly the leadership got everybody home and set up the way they needed to be. I think that as people were starting to hear about the virus and become nervous about what different organizations were going to do, I think our leaders were very quick to say: 

"We care about our people and we want you to be safe and so we're going to close down the offices and get everybody set up at home remotely."

And then throughout this whole thing I think there's been a lot of reiteration of that, just care and support of our employees and our students and families. So any decisions or choices that have to be made, it's going to be made with those people in mind.

People Want More Information, So Open Up Your Lines Of Communication

We saw a lot of feedback about wanting more communication, especially everything is uncertain right now. Not just inside our organization, but in the world in general. People want to know what our leaders are thinking. And so they made some changes to be able to increase that communication.

One of those things is that we typically have stated the business address this with Doug, our president ,maybe once or twice a year. In the last couple of months, we've had two.

I think has been really helpful to people. And we've also in between those had other videos that are different, senior leaders have recorded and sent out to the employees, and so I think that has helped too.

Understand Employees Via Engagement Survey And Take Action Accordingly

"We participated in the TINYpulse COVID coronavirus survey very early on, which gave us a lot of really helpful information from our employees, just in terms of what they needed or what was going well for them or what wasn't."

We learned that while we were fast to get people home, some people were missing their office equipment. They were working from their dining room table, or they didn't have a second monitor or things like that.

We saw that feedback and passed it along to our IT and HR teams. They were very fast to start coordinating with people to come back into the office and pick up what they need, even if that was their office chair, that they could at least be sitting in a good chair at their kitchen table or to take home their monitors and make sure they have all the right chords and got that all set up. 

Try Making Friday A Flexible Day To Catch Up On Life

So we were hearing a lot of people trying to maintain work-life balance and manage working from home, their families, and the children. We've given some days off here and there, but we wanted to make something a little bit more sustainable.

"For the month of May, every Friday at noon, we're shutting down. So there's no meetings, you can catch up with work or do whatever, but there's no expectations of emails. That was the most recent thing."

Again, we've changed the ways we start our meetings. So typically we were all about business and movers and shakers. But now we stop, pause and go around and say, how's everyone doing?

How And Why We Leverage Multiple Communication Methods To Increase Transparency 

I looked at who I was going to showcase and what's the messaging. I know their leadership styles and what they can communicate. So we started off with Doug, our president, and did some acknowledgement communication, such as giving  information about how to use the coaches, how to use outside resources for mental wellbeing.

Then we had another leader, our CFO, to share some real business, as we like to call it, some meat. So we plugged him in, we pulled Doug in again, because we had some changes going on within the organization. And then I had our COO from a very authentic and relating perspective to give some examples and to humanize the situation. We're all going through this, regardless of titles.

"I've been really strategic about the messaging: now it's time for a business update, and now it's time for this type of leader. We do them about every two weeks."

We also use different forms of communication. Gina helps with the video piece of it, but we prepare the talking points we need to hit and not script the speech.

"And then we do pre-questions, so when Doug goes out there, we're really mindful of what do you want to hear? So I gather that, then help create his talking points and then we do a post-survey. What was missing? What do you need to hear next time? So it's a very thoughtful process."

Along with the managers putting that structure in their one-on-ones and the check-ins, in all of the communications, even from Doug, we keep reminding them of utilizing the coaches, our EAP program. Just being able to give them internal and external resources so they can figure out what is a safe channel. What does look like for them?

I don't want to presume that a safe channel has to look like speaking to Jill LaRose, because that might not work for them. They might want an outside resource or feel more comfortable with their manager or Doug for that matter.

"We always communicate that. And then we give them many different choices so they can choose what is safe for them."

Surprising Employees With Gift Cards To Express Appreciation

At least once a year, we try to do something for employee appreciation. And so in the past years that's looked like having lunches, brought into the office or one year we had a mobile barista set up, so people could order their coffee or their tea, how they wanted, we've ordered various gifts for people. So we have some nice Step Up logo on umbrellas or jackets.

We were talking about what we wanted to do to appreciate employees this year, and that conversation was happening before the pandemic started. So we had to change our direction because you can't bring lunch into the office the way that you could before, and so we were very thankful that the TINYgiftcard was an option. Because we were trying to think of: 

"Okay, what do people need or what would be a good sign of appreciation to people during this time?"

People need different things. There's not one answer for what everyone needs. And so it works out really well that with the TINYgiftcard people can choose from restaurant gift cards to support their community. Or have something delivered to their house, whether it's some sort of supplies or if it's just something to brighten their day.

I had one employee tell me that they were going to use the gift card to get something for their children. They were going to get some games, I think for their kids, since their kids were going to be home with them. And so I think it just allows people to choose what they want and feel appreciated in that.

How COVID-19 Permanently Affects Our Culture

The first thing that comes to my mind is, I think there's going to be deeper level of empathy across the organization. I think that's because we've had to stop and think about how does it look from other people's perspective. I think it's built a deeper connection with just employees in general, because when they're stopping and asking, how are you doing personally? What's going on?

I know that coaching lane we've been busier. So now they're looking a little bit as the coaches as the safe place. And sometimes we have the reputation of you're in trouble if you're going to go talk to Gina or Jill.  I think that has changed for the better.

"It also brings us more connected in a sense of when we have projects we rally around and we get things done really quickly. And so in this pandemic crisis, we all rallied around together and really just had that bond. But I just think deepen that bond, we're all in this together. That was our message always. And it was very authentic."

If I Knew COVID-19 Was Going To Happen, Here's What I'd Have Done To Be More Prepared


When we build strong individuals with healthy habits and we talk about our emotional intelligence so that they're prepared for anything that unfolds in reality.

"For me, it was maybe honing a little bit harder on, we don't know what's going to happen in the future, but if we have this strong individual foundation, then we're more prepared to deal with whatever comes in front of us."

We kind of go down that path instead of structuring and strengthening our core selves, so our self care and all of those things that help us be resilient to anything that happens.


I think you will never be prepared for something like this because it's unprecedented. But if I can whisper something to the future, I would just say: care about the people, take care of them and make sure that you are there for them. Also, build lines of communication and connection over time so that when these type of times arise you already have that bond built.


I think I'd be more open to hearing what people have to say. A lot of people have ideas of how things should be handled and I don't think there's one right answer. So it's good to go with your gut and do what you think is the right thing to do, but I think listening to feedback early is also important.

We were very thankful that the TINYpulse survey was presented to us to get feedback from our employees about how they're transitioning to working from home and how they're feeling through all of this. We got a lot of valuable information from that. And if anything I wish I had it earlier, that is if  people are doing okay, and what do they need?

About Step Up For Students

Step Up For Students  is a nonprofit organization that is focused on school choice in the state of Florida. They work with parents and students and help them find appropriate schools and education avenues. They work closely with parents to help low income family with reading, bullying and special needs. We have five different scholarships that we administer, so anywhere from low income to helping them read better, bullying and special needs. So we administer and help with that and work closely with the parents in the schools.

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Do You Have A TINYpulse Best Practice Or Tip To Share With The Community?

We're constantly on the lookout for tactics, and inspiring stories to highlight and share. If you want to be featured with our CEO and have a story that would resonate with the TINYpulse community, please contact Lori Li (lori@tinypulse.com).



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