November 30, 2020

As director of culinary for Home Chef, Jaclyn Blanc never envisioned she’d spend part of her day plotting out bike routes for couriers. But with her team of chefs stuck at home due to the pandemic, she didn’t see much of a choice. 

If they couldn’t be cooking together in the office, perhaps her team could do it at home — then send each other their newest creations. 

“We honestly couldn’t think of any other way for us to develop new recipes without others on the team tasting the meals,” Blanc said. “I crossed my fingers that the plan would work.” 

It was a success — but it wouldn’t be 2020 without a few minor mishaps. One chef’s meal was stolen from his stoop. Scant grocery delivery times made tracking down ingredients tricky. But there were added benefits, too, Blanc adds: The chefs’ and their families — and eventually, the chefs’ neighbors and friends — loved tasting the new meals and piping up with their own feedback.

“Looking back, it was a really stressful time,” Blanc said, “But I’m so proud of what we were able to accomplish despite the circumstances. We’re a super resilient team and that really helped when we were fully remote.”
 

We’ve always been a scrappy company, and the pandemic has demonstrated just how well we can react, innovate and challenge our processes.”


According to employees, that’s not the only example of how the company has pivoted while working from home. Manager of Special Projects, Organizational Development Katy Martin points to increased learning and development opportunities made available to all employees to expand their knowledge base on topics like mental health and wellness along with professional development skills. CTO Katie Bevier, along with other leaders, solicited feedback through pulse surveys to ensure the company was accommodating team members’ new workflows and were equipped to maintain healthy work and personal lives. 

“I think a lot of the things that make Home Chef a great place to work are even more prevalent while we’re remote,” Blanc said. “We’ve always been a scrappy company, and the pandemic has demonstrated just how well we can react, innovate and challenge our processes.” 

To learn more about how the company has preserved and even bolstered its company culture while remote, Built In Chicago sat down with Blanc, Bevier and Martin. They shed light on the steps Home Chef has made to ensure employee bonding, development and well-being flourishes — even in a challenging time. 

 

Home Chef employees share their creations, pre-pandemic
Home Chef employees share their creations, pre-pandemic

 

How has your team kept up with communication and collaboration since going remote? 

CTO Katie Bevier: Our tech team was already pretty good at communicating, working together and socializing remotely because we had several full-time remote engineers and employees located at our plants across the country. When we surveyed our team this summer, over 90 percent said they felt they could communicate effectively while remote — and that number has been improving over time.

Since going remote, our communication and transparency have actually improved. Decisions that previously would have been made in an in-person meeting now are made in real-time and communicated to the impacted group via Slack. Even tangential observers can stay in the loop about what is going on.

 

Jaclyn, the culinary team is the only group consistently working in the office right now. What’s that like? 

Senior Director of Culinary Jaclyn Blanc: It was challenging at first to change so many of our processes but in some instances, we’ve found the new way to be even better than the original. With face-to-face meetings off-limits, wearing masks while cooking and adjusting the way we taste and provide feedback on meals, it’s a totally new style of working that took some time to adjust to. 

For instance, our photo studio is a small, enclosed room, so we needed to adjust how the chefs and our photography team interacted in order to maintain a safe environment. We were used to workshopping improvements to meals in-person but we’ve now transitioned that entire process to Slack. 

 

Time for a break in Home Chef's office, pre-pandemic
Time for a break in Home Chef's office, pre-pandemic

 

How has the company helped employees stay connected, aside from work?

Manager of Special Projects, Organizational Development Katy Martin: I started a #workout-at-home channel on Slack and we all did workout challenges and swapped advice on how to stay healthy. We also do watercooler chats to share stories and pictures of our favorite houseplants and even give them names. 

Home Chef was thoughtful and sent out fun gifts to our homes. Since a lot of us love to cook, we were sent herbs that we could grow, and we’d all bond over how our cilantro or parsley was doing. We also got a summer gift box with rainbow sunglasses to wear for Pride month. We participated in “ask me anything” sessions with our leaders, which put us in a good spot to ask hard questions and really feel like we were in tune with what our leadership had top of mind. 

Bevier: We’ve also tried to keep up with social activities by playing Jackbox Games, Among Us and even role-playing games via Zoom. In a few of our meetings, we kick things off with a short fun game, like GameMonk for Slack. One of our engineers has taken the initiative to greet his team with a good morning message each time he signs on. Small things can go a long way.

 

Advice for leaders working remotely

For Bevier, successful remote leadership doesn’t happen in a vacuum. “Utilize your peers and other managers to gather best practices and regularly ask your team for feedback on how you could work better together,” Bevier said. “At Home Chef, our teams do regular retrospectives to discuss how we can work together more effectively. We also use a team survey and morale tool called Officevibe to gather companywide feedback and comments.”

 

What has Home Chef done to support employee work-life balance during the pandemic?

Blanc: We’ve done it all: remote trivia, meditation breaks, remote lunches, themed Zoom backgrounds for meetings, wine and cheese tastings and virtual painting. We recently rolled out health and wellness PTO days for our corporate office, which has been great for the team during these hectic times. 

Whether needing a last-minute day to watch your children or just some time to unwind, these days have been really helpful in encouraging work-life balance. In addition, we worked to define best practices for Slack, as it was really easy to always be “on” when working from home. 
 

Even pre-pandemic, I feel that Home Chef kept work-life balance top of mind.”


Martin: Even pre-pandemic, I feel that Home Chef kept work-life balance top of mind. I felt comfortable expressing when my workload was a little too challenging, and others on my team would talk openly about heavy workloads, mental health challenges or anything else that might be bringing them down. 

As of now, our team has put extra emphasis on more flexible schedules to accommodate multiple family members working from one household, plus additional responsibilities that others may have on their plate. 

 

 

What kind of learning and development opportunities has Home Chef implemented since going remote?

Martin: We have a whole learning management system platform where employees can access our training programs and where we can view reports of who has completed those programs. We have created learning courses online from scratch, pulled in great content from our learning library and brought in experts from outside of Home Chef to share insight and knowledge with us. We recently built a custom course on the topic of pronouns, an idea that originated from our LGBTQIA+ employee resource group. 

As a professional development nerd, I’m thrilled that Home Chef invests in these types of opportunities and we can continue to learn and grow while remote. 

 

Food for Thought

Food for Thought was launched in early 2019 by Learning and Development Manager Courtney Lessner. The program is composed of four parts: learning about what’s going on in different departments, leadership development, a spotlight on employee resource groups and overall wellness. Since the pandemic began, the focus has shifted to better support changes to Home Chef’s working environment. “Last month, any given Home Chef employee had the opportunity to learn about using Google Sheets, what the culinary team is working on, suicide prevention techniques and participate in trivia about voting,” Martin said. “It’s done wonders for our team.”

 

What should remote leaders keep in mind to preserve their own company culture?

Bevier: Everyone has different challenges when it comes to working from home. Those dealing with childcare and new routines have a completely different challenge from those who might be isolated in a studio apartment. 

Leading remotely requires an understanding that not everyone will be able to contribute, learn or communicate in the same way, and we need to be cognizant of the difficulties those around us are facing in order to successfully communicate and collaborate.

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