• Washington Post Top Workplace 2016

    July 12th

    WaPo-Poster-2016On 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.

    Here are our answers:


    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:

    • Customer Service Hero awards. Each month, employees may nominate a colleague who went above and beyond for a customer. Award recipients receive lunch on us.
    • Bragging Rights! Every quarter, each staff team chooses stories to brag about—we encourage them to select the hidden victories that other teams might not know about. At the Bragging Rights! meeting, staff from each team bring their stories to the front of the room, and shamelessly brag about the work that makes them proud.

    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:

    • Burrito Fridays. Groups of staff gather in the conference room for lunch. Discussion is usually lively and rarely sticks to the realm of the professional. Burritos are, of course, optional.
    • Snow Day Lunches. If you can make it to the office on a snow day, you are treated to lunch by the company, as a thank you for trudging through snow banks.
    • We arrange midday yoga practice sessions in our conference room. Our President is a firm believer in the power of mindfulness, and understands that a mid-day yoga stretch can reenergize you for the rest of your day.
    • Tourism Cares. As a part of our philanthropy, we support Tourism Cares, an organization dedicated to helping preserve the World’s heritage sites. Every year, our Executive Vice President pulls the names of five to ten volunteers out of a hat. This group heads to a US tourist destination and works alongside industry colleagues to clean up the site. We have cleared the woods of brush at Mount Vernon, painted fences in Louis Armstrong Park in New Orleans, and landscaped in Mystic, Connecticut.

    IMG_3751What does your company do to encourage diversity among the ranks, and in leadership?

    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.


    FullSizeRender 5How does your company retain and train employees to grow in their careers?

    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.


    IMG_0940Does your company provide interesting or unique benefits to employees?

    • Paid Time Off. PTO starts at five weeks per year. And we encourage staff to use every last day.
    • Travel opportunities. We offer employees chances to travel worldwide for R&D, staff retreats, tour leadership, or familiarization trips.
    • New Parent Leave. We offer eight (8) weeks of paid leave to all new parents—not just new moms, and not just parents by biology.
    • RD Gras. Once a year, our study abroad division, CET Academic Programs, brings together all staff members from around the world for a staff conference. The original idea behind the event was to provide professional development for overseas Resident Directors, or RDs. (The resulting moniker, RD Gras, was coined in year two.) Now, RD Gras is a well-loved staple of the CET year and provides professional learning and staff collaboration opportunities to 70+ staff members as well as a few close partners. The event alternates location between DC and a site overseas—last year, Shanghai, before that, Prague and Florence.
    • Volunteer Opportunities. We offer three days of paid philanthropy leave. Staff may also participate in Tourism Cares projects and Fund for Education Abroad events.
    • Profit sharing. Our employees work hard at helping the organization grow. We recognize these contributions by sharing our profits, resulting in bonuses that amount to as much as 15% of an employee’s salary in good years.
    • Educational support. Over the years, we have supported long-term, key staff in obtaining graduate degrees. We also have provided IT and language classes.
    • Casual atmosphere. Dress code is casual; you’ll see shorts and sandals worn around the office. It’s also not uncommon to run into an employee with a child in tow—something that comes with the territory in a flexible and understanding work environment such as ours.

    FullSizeRender 6Please tell us about anything else that makes your company unique.

    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.