Today, on Culture Collective, we’re sitting down with Operations Manager Jennifer Soper to discuss workplace culture at Coney Island Prep High School. Jennifer has experience in event planning, community outreach, finance and programming. She is passionate about building community and finding creative ways to meet the needs of community members. She loves living in Brooklyn and is happy to be serving kids and families who live there as well.
What are three words you would use to describe your workplace culture and why?
I would say very high energy. That would be the way I would describe it. We are a high school and we have about 340 kids and we have very long school days. The kids start around 8:05 a.m. and they get dismissed just a few minutes before 4 p.m. So, they have a really long day, which means our staff has a really long day. They do an amazing job of staying very high energy, which you have to be when working with children of any age. It’s very fast paced and everyone’s at the top of their game all the time.
What is your office super power?
I would say I’m a proactive troubleshooter. So, in my particular role I manage a lot of different things — from the school meal system to staff events and certain family events, all of the purchasing, helping with the main office support and making sure everyone has everything they need all the time in the facilities. I constantly have to be aware of what’s going on and what could happen and thinking five steps ahead to try to make sure things run as smoothly as possible. I feel like I’ve really developed that muscle of being a proactive troubleshooter.
Why is company culture important?
When you have a positive company culture, it helps to balance things out for people emotionally when things are really stressful and really hard, especially in a place like a school. It’s intense and we all work really long hours every week. We’re dealing with the emotions of children and there’s a lot going on with families and all kinds of things. So, when things are really stressful and tough in your job — and also exhausting — it’s important to have a really strong and positive company culture, because it sort of helps to mitigate the negative aspects of stress.
What does your team normally do for lunch?
We’re a nonprofit, so unlike a lot of corporate places, we don’t have the budget to provide staff lunch on a normal basis. We use Cater2.me for meals for staff for special events, but on a daily basis, people are sort of on their own. I manage the student meal program and I’m really big on having as little food waste as possible, so our staff will eat the leftover lunches from student lunches.
People’s schedules are all different because there are teaching periods every period of the day. There aren’t tons of people off at the same time. We have a staff kitchen where we have a few tables and staff definitely will eat up there together. I also created a couple of nooks at the top of our stairwells where people will go sometimes to eat. We don’t have a culture where people go out to eat, just because people don’t have a lot of time off. We also don’t have a lot of options in our neighborhood. A lot of people will order in and just eat on campus wherever they can — in the classroom or the staff kitchen together.
What are ways your company brings your team together?
Fridays are our early dismissal days for our kids so they get out at 2:00. Then, we have an all-staff meeting starting around 2:30. We do staff shoutouts weekly in our newsletter where anyone can shout anybody out for something great they did. We also do it in person in our weekly meeting, which I think is really great, because instead of focusing on the negative it’s a good way to recognize the great things people are doing.
One of our teachers also organized a happy hour, so he does that every week. People have to pay for it themselves, but it’s a way to bring people together. We do teacher appreciation week, where we do a whole week of fun events. I’ve used Cater2.me for more than one thing that week! We try to do things like that when we can and we also have company or school-sponsored happy hours a few times a year. We also do staff gifts at the holidays. That’s a way to really bring people together and show them that they’re appreciated.
If you could propose an idea to positively impact any company’s culture, what would it be and why? What is your advice to help improve company culture?
Very small things can make a very big impact on staff culture. They don’t have to be super dramatic. I’ve worked here for just over a year, but something I started last year was doing a coffee of the month for staff. We’re a very big coffee drinking staff and so I give people the opportunity to vote for their favorite coffee and then I feature it for one month. We have these three big carafes of coffee that we brew and it stays in one of the carafes every day. It’s one of those little things that brightens peoples’ days. Giving people the leftover student lunches also really brightens their day, since they don’t have a lot of time to go get food. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about that. I really like personalizing things — finding out what people personally like and then making sure that I make that available to them whether it’s snacks or something like that. Recognizing accomplishments also is really important. I think finding a lot of small ways to recognize people and also give them treats they personally like can make a really big impact on culture, aside from big things like regularly getting feedback from staff and implementing that for changes when you can.