On Sunday, June 19, when the Washington Post featured Academic Travel Abroad as a Top Workplace in their Magazine and online, our collective pride was no doubt beaming through our windows on 1155 Connecticut Avenue in Washington, DC. The award was based on an anonymous survey of our staff conducted by an independent organization hired by the Washington Post this past January. Once the results were in, the Post contacted us with the good news and asked us to answer some questions to shed light on why our workplace is so appreciated by our employees.
Tell us about the culture of your workplace. What practices, work and play environments, icons etc. make it stand out?
We pride ourselves on good management. ATA managers are open listeners and direct communicators, who aren’t afraid to apologize when they make mistakes. There are no management horror stories here. On the contrary, most managerial relationships are mutually respectful and supportive, and reflective of the underlying ethics of our company. Not every decision managers make is based solely on the bottom line. When something goes wrong, we try to fix it, not because we are contractually obligated to fix it (many times, we aren’t!), but because it’s the right thing to do. This ethos permeates our work environment. As a result, staff feel trusted, valued and respected.
The trust we place in our employees is evident in our Empowerment Toolkit. All staff, regardless of position or longevity, may use up to $1,000 to rectify any situation involving a traveler or student. No approval necessary. It doesn’t matter what happened or who’s to blame. We simply want to empower our front lines to do right by our clients, as we do right by them.
Doing right by our employees also means validating the work they do. We understand that staff spend their days making decisions and producing work, much of which is unseen by colleagues outside their immediate team. Because of this, while, like most companies, we take time to celebrate the large team wins—new clients, new products, new marketing, we also create opportunities to celebrate the small victories—the well-handled phone call with a worried parent, the new office procedure that will save all staff 15 precious minutes a day. Here’s how we do this:
Our physical office layout supports this inclusive and respectful work culture. We have spare offices so employees with open workspaces have a place for a private conversation or quiet work. We have adjustable-height desks to allow standing or sitting (actually we even have a treadmill desk!). We have one office reserved for our many telecommuters, to ensure that they have a quiet place to work when they visit DC. We have a lactation room for nursing mothers, a lounge area for all staff, and a kitchen bar for those meetings that absolutely must happen over coffee.
Even with comfortable couches and a choice of conference rooms, we understand that cross-team collegiality still needs some prompting. So we create many opportunities for staff to connect with each other:
Inherent in our work increasing global understanding through travel and education is a respect for the diversity the world holds. We seek employees who can contribute different perspectives to our workplace, either via their own socio-economic, racial, religious, gender, political, or cultural background, or via the life-altering experiences they have had living as a foreign member of another culture or society.
Likewise, we ask all employees, regardless of background or experience, to be open to new ideas. To that end, our President conducts a training on Conflict Resolution that touts the value of resolving conflicts effectively. Conflict can lead to mutual understanding and therefore offers a vital stepping stone to innovation. We also offer an Unwritten Rules session to address head-on the “elephants in the room,” such as our seemingly dominant political, religious, and gender biases. This session encourages employees who are (or feel) in the minority to be comfortable openly expressing opposing views.
Finally, six years ago, ATA owners worked with leaders in the international education field to establish an independent non-profit, the Fund for Education Abroad. FEA raises money for scholarships that allow under-represented students a chance to study abroad. Since its inception, FEA has awarded over 100 scholarships, ranging from $2,500 to $10,000 per student.
All staff attend a wide array of training sessions—from customer service, to providing feedback, to email etiquette. Some of these sessions are conducted by the President herself, so new employees learn straight from the top. Many training sessions prioritize management. We are proud of our excellent management practices, and make sure that we give new managers the tools they need to develop into strong coaches and guides. New managers have a tendency to micromanage, so we work hard to buck this trend.
As a part of our management practices, we go beyond annual performance reviews and ensure that every employee receives concrete managerial feedback on a regular basis. Our mantra: No surprises on the performance review! The annual review simply provides a birds-eye view of the feedback that has been openly raised and discussed throughout the year. Annual reviews also set clear goals and priorities. This entire process keeps teams on track and provides employees with the direction and development they need to feel fulfilled and successful in their positions.
Even with all of the feedback in the world, employees perform best when their talents are a perfect fit for their position. Our belief that the worker needs to match the work trumps adherence to hierarchy. We’ll often tailor an employee’s position to his or her strengths instead of waiting for a new vacancy to serve as promotion. And when an employee has talent and initiative, we provide as much responsibility as s/he can handle, regardless of age, background or longevity at ATA.
When a new position does open up, we hire and promote from within whenever possible. As a result, we have many staff who have moved through all corners of the company—from overseas positions to DC positions, from sales positions to administrative positions. In fact, every member of our Executive Team rose through the ranks. Our CFO was once an entry-level Passenger Processing Agent. Our President was once a China Programs Manager.
Our C-suite is 75% women.
We speak many languages. As you walk down the corridor, it’s not uncommon to hear a phone conversation in Japanese, a chat in French, or one colleague instructing another in beginning Chinese. Log onto the staff intranet and you’ll find discussion threads in Italian, Portuguese and Arabic.
Our staff in DC represent only 58% of our organization. We have 12 US telecommuters, and 25 overseas staff. We are truly a dispersed company, and are comfortable with video conferences, Skype sessions, and on-line discussion boards. In fact, our study abroad website is the result of a collaboration between our Director of Marketing in DC, our Director of Technology in Utah, and our Director of Communications who usually lives in Michigan but happened to relocate to Japan for six months while the website was under production.