CEOs Talk Workplace: Interview with Ripple Effect COO Jennifer Pohlhaus

The women-owned and flexible staff of the government consulting firm, Ripple Effect, are empowered by the concept of working smarter to perform better.

Bob Fox: Can you share with us a little about what type of work Ripple Effect does?

Jennifer Pohlhaus: Ripple Effect is a women-owned consulting business working with federal, private and non-profit clients, and we support programs and policies at a national scale. Over the past decade, we built a reputation for great work in the federal healthcare and research spaces, and have worked to expand into new areas beyond those.

Bob: Tell us a little about your employees.

Jennifer: Many our staff are scientists and researchers, as well as a growing number of communications and business professionals. In terms of demographics, our workforce spans multiple generations, from post-millennial to millennials, Gen X to Baby Boomers. Diversity in experience makes us all stronger, so we bring in people with different skills, ideas, and backgrounds and empower them to speak up and share. One-third to one-half of our workforce is non-white, and we seek out all lifelong learners—irrespective of ethnicity, religion, age, or gender—who will help us work smarter and perform better.

Bob: I am curious about your heavily-female staff – is that shaped by the work you do?

Jennifer: It just happened! As we hire more, our numbers shift around, but generally we have always had more females than males. I think that comes from being a women-owned business. I’ve heard from many women that want to work with Ripple Effect and they describe this being an attractive work environment where they will feel empowered. There are many women here that say it’s nice to have women leadership and a supportive environment, but it’s certainly not something we screen for. In fact, the demographics of our workforce largely track with the demographics of our applicant pool. Diversity in the workforce is something that continues building once it is started.

Bob: I think that’s interesting because if you look at the demographics of CEOs that we’ve talked to, it’s overwhelmingly male. I’m curious for the insights from that perspective.

Jennifer: We are in the government consulting business and in this field, they do set aside ‘preferences’ or designations for various types of small businesses, like women-owned, or veteran-owned. So contracts we’ve won that are woman-owned small business (WOSB) set-asides have been beneficial, but being woman-owned hasn’t reduced our competition or made things easier. The opposite, in fact—often, competition on contracts features a dozen or more companies with the same WOSB designation, so it’s become even more important to focus our messages and value proposition to set Ripple Effect apart.

Bob: Can you tell us a bit about your culture?

Jennifer: We are all life-long learners at Ripple Effect, and this resonates with our staff. We help our clients succeed, no matter their challenges. That promise guides our mission and motivates each one of us to work smarter. To master the details of our disciplines, adapt and learn, and root out problems. It’s a nonstop focus on improving policies and programs, and always remembering that there’s a better way. Bright people, smart processes that work, and intentional leadership to improve performance and create lasting change.

We are always looking for the most efficient, essentialist ways of doing things, and that connects to our workspace. We wanted a space that houses us efficiently when we are working here, but we also have significant flexibility for our employees when they’re not here.

One of the things that’s great about our culture and our space is the way we work is very matrixed. Our clients are in the program and policy areas of the government. We have people that work on research and evaluation work, and communications and outreach work, but both of those pillars aren’t complete until you consider the programs that the government is offering. When we provide services to the government, we often match up our employees from different functional teams to make a project team for the clients. From this, there is much cross-talk and collaboration, which our open-plan space facilitates. People can sit where they want depending on the project they are working on.

Bob: So it’s the multidisciplinary interaction that provides an added value to the work you do and your space it set up well to facilitate that.

Jennifer: Yes – Well said! We like to say ‘Work smarter. Perform better.” We think our space is helpful for that. I pulled some data of our office on being remote vs. headquarters. One-third work full time at client sites, one-third work fully remote, and the final third work mostly at headquarters with the option to work from home as based on the project need. We try to use the space at headquarters when we need to get everyone together. We have worked through what makes the most sense for people in getting their work done. If they are quiet thinkers, they should spend their time at home because coming in is about interacting with others and having touch-points on project work.

Bob: Could you describe the goals and what you were trying to achieve when you created this space?

Jennifer: One of the big things is efficiency. We feel strongly that we should spend our overhead dollars on things that will give us the best bang for our buck. A space can be that, if done properly. An important feature from the beginning was making sure the space was designed to be compact, yet versatile. We are around 125 square feet per employee. We spend our money on extra-large monitors and Microsoft Surface computers and rotate them out every two years. We also spend a significant amount of money on professional development – sending people to conferences and training.

Bob: You mentioned you wanted the best bang for your buck in terms of your space. Where do you feel like you are getting the most value from your space?

Jennifer: The easiest place to drive square footage down is in an open-plan with ‘rentable’ desks. (Free, of course! We use a reservation software, Robin, for staff to reserve desks and rooms.) I think that is where we get the most efficiency, and we have coupled that with small meeting rooms. The value is in both coming together. If you’re in a private office next to someone and not going to talk to them, the space doesn’t matter. When you need to work with someone, you should be sitting side-by-side or hop into a huddle space or a meeting room. We also have iPads in our meeting rooms so people can easily book them on the fly. If you need to take a private call, hop into one of our four compact TalkBoxes. Need to take a mental break? Use our quiet room with a recliner chair and yoga mats. We are flexible but also responsive to the needs of our employees on any given day.

Bob: Is there a way that you are using the space as a tool to help you grow your business?

Jennifer: All our desks are sit-to-stand and we have one treadmill desk that can be reserved. Our quiet privacy room is helpful for nursing women. We like being able to offer ergonomic features that are in high demand in the workforce. All these features are relevant for recruitment and retention.

Bob: Do you ever bring clients in?

Jennifer: Occasionally. We usually bring them into our large conference room which has white-board walls for brainstorming sessions. Typically, though, we go to our clients.

Bob: Is there any part of your space helping you innovate and come up with new ideas?

Jennifer: The point of being in our office is getting together. We have many brainstorming sessions in our meeting spaces, which all have white-board walls. We have two non-reservable spaces which are my office and the finance office and both of these have white-board walls as well. My office has space for 4 people, and we often host meetings in there. We also have two Brody chairs from Steelcase that people can reserve. The variety in spaces help people connect in comfortable settings and come up with great ideas.

I’ve been reading about how open offices are bad, and the reality is that having an open office floor plan as the only option is a problem. We thought it was important to have places where people can have private meetings or phone conversations. The value of our culture is that people can choose what works best for them, including the remote option. The flexibility is what allows for the innovation.

Bob: With regard to your leadership values, are there any aspects of the space that support or reinforce those?

Jennifer: Our core values are the four I’s: Initiative, Intelligence, Innovation and Impact. As I mentioned, we are lifelong learners. We hire smart people and want to grow, adapt, and do things better. Much of our space supports that culture and value, in terms of the whiteboard walls and the latest collaboration technology

Bob: Do you think of your space as a leadership tool?

Jennifer: That’s the first time I’ve thought about it in that way, but yeah, I like that concept!

Bob: I think in many ways it’s like a lever that can extend to many of those values but you’re right, not many people think of it in that way. What part of your space are you most willing to spend money on?

Jennifer: In the beginning we splurged on making every workspace sit-to-stand, thinking it was important because we didn’t want people to feel like they had to compete to get the best desks. We didn’t have the TalkBoxes when we first moved in and just used huddle rooms. But we found many people needing more private meeting space, so we turned the huddle rooms into permanent meeting spaces and purchased the TalkBoxes.

Bob: My sense is you talk about your space in terms of flexibility and your employees have a variety of choice in where they can work. I’m curious about how the people that work here describe the space to others?

Jennifer: We can ask some of them! No, but really, the one word that was self-supplied in an employee survey we did last year to describe Ripple Effect was “flexibility.” Personally, I like the feature of the sit-to-stand desks and I know many others like this as well; people are concerned about their health working in an office.

Bob: Was well-being considered when you designed the space?

Jennifer: Yes, the sit-to-stand was part of that consideration. The treadmill desk doesn’t get as much use as we envisioned, to be honest. I think we get more value out of it as a recruiting tool.

Bob: Are you collecting any metrics with your new software on performance of the space?

Jennifer: Yes, it is a lot easier with this new software, Robin. We look forward to using the data in the future. Right now, the biggest metric we are tracking is the square footage per person. As we continue providing services to the government, we want to keep our overhead costs as low as possible. As we grow, we need to keep those overhead costs in mind but also make sure the space is still comfortable for all.

Bob: Is there something that your staff values about your space?

Jennifer: One of our Ripple Effect alumna said she misses being able to sit next to a different person daily. You never know who you are going to sit next to, on a given day, or what type of conversation you have. She said she used to be anxious about this in the morning but by the end of the day she was glad she got to connect with someone different. It helps form bonds and make our culture tight-knit.

Bob: Do you have a place for people to store their things since desks are not assigned?

Jennifer: We have lockers (Align Pedestals from Allsteel), which we call “rovers” for those who are here often, and small cubbies for people who aren’t here often. The rover can be wheeled over to your station and we keep more rovers than seats to accommodate our large remote workforce. You are allowed to place your rover at your seat for the next day but if you won’t be in the next day, you put it off to the side in a “corral”.

Bob: You have used the words flexibility and adaptability pretty frequently – where does that come from?

Jennifer: I think it’s been in our culture from the beginning. As I said, we try to work in the most efficient way as possible and, to do that, you need to move forward incrementally. To make that happen, you need to have a flexible mindset. The adaptability piece comes from being a consulting firm. If you can’t wrap your head around what a client is trying to explain, then it won’t go well for anyone! Those are two characteristics that we look for in our staff and it overflows into our space. We recently formalized “Work Smarter. Perform Better” as our tagline and I think it’s a more sophisticated way of describing those concepts.

Bob: Is there anything else that you want to mention?

Jennifer: The building has some great amenities including a big conference room, a café with and open-air atrium, and a gym. We were worried we didn’t have a big enough meeting space for all our staff but the one in the building is great for that.

We’re also seeing that, while remote working is not something that’s going away, people do seek out in-person connections, and we think it will be key for the workforce of the future in terms of providing space for when you’re here, while providing people with the flexibility to work from home if they want to.

Bob: So, it’s the social interaction that people are coming into the office for?

Jennifer: Yes. We try to accommodate that environment as best we can virtually because we have some completely remote staff. We want to make sure we keep getting better in terms of technology since we think the future is going to be more remote. Currently, we have staff in more than half of the states. The less we are bound by geography, the more diversity of thought we have in our workforce and the better product we can deliver to our clients.

Images by Work Design Magazine. 
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