How an all-company annual meeting builds culture across multiple locations

April 26, 2018

This piece is presented by TSP.

In business, relationships are everything. 

Clients expect — and deserve — a personal touch. So do today’s workers, who want to feel connected to the company mission and engaged with one another. Striking the right balance between individual differences and a unified brand identity is even more challenging when employees are in different offices scattered across multiple states. Such structures have become commonplace in fields such as health care, finance and technology.

Fortunately, the tech sector also has produced tools to help handle the day-to-day work. But long-distance interactions can feel as if something is missing: a true sense of company culture. Culture breathes life into a brand’s core values. It demonstrates who the company wants to be and creates opportunities to build relationships in the workplace. Team members draw on that trust so they can have the sometimes-uncomfortable conversations needed to improve products and services. 

“We’d talked before about getting everyone together, but it always felt like it would be too hard to do or too expensive,” said Jared Nesje, CEO of TSP Inc. The firm provides full-service architecture, engineering and planning services across the upper Midwest, with employees in five states.   

Over the past two years, leaders in the privately owned company have embraced Traction tools from the Entrepreneurial Operating System, which emphasizes personal accountability and teamwork to achieve results. Along the way, TSP learned that companies can’t afford not to make big investments in their people.

“You can’t beat face-to-face conversations,” Nesje said. “This is what we needed to help continue shifting our culture and truly become a ‘one-firm firm.’ ”  

That’s why, for the first time in the legacy company’s 88-year history, TSP organized its annual meeting as a companywide affair. The date was announced months in advance so team members could make plans for spouses or significant others to attend too. Executive leadership and the human resources and marketing departments dedicated time to help envision the right mix of activities and create materials.   

Realizing they couldn’t do it on their own, TSP staff members hired experts from The Event Company to help develop the overall look, book venues and vendors, and manage logistics. In the weeks leading up to the annual meeting, each office received a crate of information and promo items to generate excitement around the travel-themed gathering called Navigating Together.  

“I’m in my 18th year with TSP, and I’ve worked on so many projects across the company that there isn’t an office I’ve not been involved with,” said Loretta Haugen, an interior designer from Rochester, Minn. “It was a reconnection with so many people and a chance to connect with some of the newer people I work with on a regular basis.”  

Individuals received printed invitations at their homes and referred to an all-new website for everything from FAQs and the weekend’s schedule to bio information on the keynote speaker. An RSVP form embedded within the website helped simplify the registration process and enabled planners to adjust numbers for hotel rooms and meals.

Team members shared their hopes for the weekend in testimonials on the company intranet and read about the details in the weekly “Around the Square” e-blast — two other channels TSP uses year-round to keep team members connected across its locations.

TSP held the business sessions to two mornings, including the traditional shareholder meeting on the last day. The rest of the time was dedicated to team-building, with plenty of hours built in for natural conversations to develop. Mother Nature threw a wrench in the plans, burying the state with a mid-April snowstorm that closed both interstates. But team members who traveled from beyond Sioux Falls beat the weather and already had checked in at the hotel before city officials issued a no-travel snow alert.  

“In a way, it worked out because it kept people at the hotel,” said Dwayne Meyer, an architect and project manager from Omaha. After scheduled events Friday and Saturday evenings, colleagues and their guests continued their conversations in the restaurant or lobby.

Jake Buckmiller, an electrical engineer-in-training who works in the Sioux Falls office, agrees. “The weather wasn’t ideal, but it actually helped build a sense of unity among the group and should provide a lasting memory.”   

One group exercise challenged team members to brainstorm improvements that will help shape how the firm will look in the near future. Another event took a glance into the past, celebrating decades of work from two principals who have spent a combined 60 years with TSP and will retire later this spring: Rapid City engineer Bob Morcom and Sioux Falls architect Paul Boerboom. Each received TSP’s Cornerstone Medal, the firm’s highest honor. Teammates passed the microphone to share their memories of how Boerboom and Morcom had mentored them, provided guidance on projects or become close friends to many co-workers over the years.  

Now, TSP is laying the early groundwork for its second annual all-firm meeting. Feedback from team members who attended will help determine how the 2019 version takes shape. Until then, the company will continue its weekly Skype huddles. The informal meetings begin with a chance for colleagues to lift up good news from their work or personal lives. Executive leadership will present quarterly reports to the entire firm at once, also via Skype. And team members will keep making road trips to other offices as they collaborate on strategic priorities or project work to develop designs for clients in various communities.  

“If we were to rate it as an L10 meeting, the weekend was a 10,” said Carol White, the office manager in Marshalltown, Iowa, referring to one of the methods TSP has adapted from the Traction toolkit. “We really are good people who want to help each other.” 

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How an all-company annual meeting builds culture across multiple locations

With offices in multiple states and a growing team, TSP used its inaugural companywide meeting to bring people together and advance its goals.

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