Creating a Successful Post-Pandemic Corporate Culture

Meet Forward Financing, a Boston company that has culture on lock.

“It’s a huge miss for companies that just do things the way they’ve always done them and don’t adapt.” – Shannon Braley

Meet Shannon Braley, VP of People at Boston small business funding company Forward Financing. With a whole slew of awards celebrating Forward as one of the best places to work in Boston and across the US (not to mention its 90+% employee retention rate), we can’t help but wonder: What is it that makes Forward a force to be reckoned with in corporate culture?

The answer lies in the fundamentals. It’s a deep sense of trust, listening, and a belief that Forward’s people are a “culture add” rather than a culture fit, Braley says. These practices are especially valuable as companies grapple with how to operate in a post-pandemic world.

Keeping culture while you scale doesn’t have to be a catch-22

Braley joined Forward in 2017 in a leadership role before rising to VP of People last year. When she first onboarded, Forward had 34 employees, a number that has risen to upwards of 200 by the middle of this year. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened many companies’ growth and operations, Forward thrived.

Braley says the larger workforce has its own set of needs, which is why she’s “always keeping the pulse on what our employees need.”

Forward proves that the reality of scaling is one where a company can retain its authentic and spirited culture amid growth.

Going beyond average

Thanks largely to the pandemic, hybrid workplaces are a common thread in today’s status quo. Still, many companies are slow to adopt truly flexible workplace policies. Braley says, “Through focus groups and surveys, we found out that people really enjoy having the flexibility.”

For Forward, this meant adopting what they call Employee Choice, where each individual employee reports how often they want or are able to work remotely versus in the office.

Forward uses other strategies, like:

  • Internal Mobility: This “gives the opportunity for people to apply for a role in a different department that they may not have experience in but may have the core competencies for,” says Braley. For example, a recruiter helped Forward integrate their software systems, so they moved her to an operations and analytics role where her value could shine. Forward is also implementing management training to help people transition in their new roles.
  • L&D: Director of People & Culture at Forward Mackenzie Kagel has a learning and development (L&D) background. In addition to the existing $2,000 annual professional development budget for each employee, Kagel is working to increase the L&D budget utilization rate by building a system people can search to find education opportunities.
  • Goal Tracking: Forward tracks individual goals and how they compare to department-level and company-wide goals. “It gives everybody a sense of purpose,” Braley says. Plus, it helps the company recognize employees for their accomplishments.
  • Forward Palooza: Forward recently implemented the twice-annual Forward Palooza, a three-day event that brings people together in an energetic and welcoming environment. Individual teams also have in-person events throughout the year to build rapport.

Informing decisions from the bottom-up

Braley says Forward has improved over the last few years in a key way: Not making decisions solely at the leadership level.

If they want to make a change to a particular area of Forward, leaders will go down as many levels as they need to ask for insight from folks dealing with these practices day in and day out. “We take all that feedback and then make the decision to change policies,” says Braley.

Through focus groups, surveys, and directly interviewing non-leadership employees to determine how certain changes might affect them, Forward leaders are able to make authentically informed decisions.

Braley sees this in her own role, too. When approaching the executive team (including CEO Justin Bakes and VP Alexis Shapiro), Braley says, “I can come to them and walk them through a business case on why I want to change things, and I feel like 90% of the time they’re going to approve that budget.” For Braley, that support means everything.

This takes a lot of trust and listening to accomplish, but it’s something that can deeply benefit the entire organization.

Forward Financing’s secret sauce: Guardrails and flexibility

“I’m not a big policy person because I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all,” says Braley. “I like to call them guardrails, versus hard and fast rules, because what works for one person might not work for another person.”

For Braley, the magnetism toward guardrails instead of firm policies makes sense. She says, “Everyone has different needs and creating a policy for every single small little thing that could come up is just not something that we spend the time on.”

Meanwhile, Forward has committed to evolving in a way that honors its employees’ ever-changing needs. That’s why the team was not afraid to update its core values, which they recently consolidated to four key points from the previous six. Now, values include keeping it real, driving the mission, acting with kindness, and shooting for extraordinary.

Given Forward’s penchant for evolution, don’t be surprised to see the small business funding firm shift its core values again one day as it adjusts to the world’s latest changes.

Forward proves a successful post-pandemic corporate culture is reachable

With all the adjustments Forward has made over the years, the obvious question is: What’s next?

One key venture is developing the company’s internal communications. Braley says, “In my mind, the more information you can give to everyone at the company, the more successful they’re going to be. They’re going to have the full picture of everything that’s going on and not just in their team. We do a really good job of sharing information and really got good at that during the pandemic.”

In that, Forward Financing proves that a successful post-pandemic corporate culture lies in being willing to evolve and escape the status quo.