stok’s journey to become a transparent company wasn’t easy. It started two years ago, when one of our team members attended Living Future unConference 2014 and learned about the JUST label for the first time. As a culture- and purpose-driven company, JUST seemed like a no-brainer for us to pursue. However, we quickly found that transparency is a difficult and polarizing subject to broach in the workplace. Although JUST would allow us to share our successes, it also required to publicly share our shortcomings. This openness and vulnerability was initially a confronting thought.
About a year later, we went through what one might call organizational soul-searching, and ended up redefining and rebranding our company. Previously known as Environmental Building Strategies, we had primarily focused on LEED consulting, commissioning, energy modeling, and other service lines tailored to a single building or development. Our soul-searching resulted in the realization of the need and value of “zooming out” to offer services that approach sustainable development differently and holistically. From real estate acquisition to decommissioning, we saw the need to define and align sustainability goals every step of the way in order to create a radically better built environment.
We finally saw how we could make great change, and from this we defined our purpose—“to boldly catalyze an environmentally restorative and socially equitable world”—and our core values of autonomy, empathy, sincerity, equity, authenticity, grit, and nature. When it became clear that social justice and equity were inherent to the foundation of our new company, we had no choice but to align our business operations with our new vision, values, and services. It was time to overcome our fear of vulnerability and change, just as we urge our clients to, and to pursue JUST.
Challenge & Solutions
When we first filled out our JUST label in 2014, it was discouraging. We had a lot of categories with zero or one star, which we originally saw as a failure. Letting our employees know we were scoring poorly was scary; publishing it to the entire world was downright terrifying. That outlook created a lot of road blocks and stopped us from publishing our label.
After our rebrand we shifted our perspective around low scores; we chose to see them as opportunities for improvement instead of failures. As a 28-person company, there were a lot of things we hadn’t considered in the past, including maternity leave, salary equity, and giving back to the community. Instead of being disappointed that we were scoring low in those categories, we decided to use the JUST label as a framework for improving our practices and policies. As a small business, that was invaluable. Instead of hiring a consultant or bringing on a full-time employee to improve our HR practices, we were able to do it on our own with the guidance of the JUST label and the International Living Future Institute.
In hindsight, we also realized that the biggest source of the internal pushback against JUST stemmed from a lack of understanding of the program. Because the JUST program is new and still relatively unknown, we found that it was difficult to get the rest of the company on board for something they knew very little about.
We discovered the best way to describe the JUST label was by likening it to something we all know and love—building certifications systems. While JUST is not a certification program, the concept of visualizing the company’s operational attributes was something we could identify with as consultants working on LEED and Living Building Challenge projects. One benefit of certifying a building and having a plaque on the wall is that it educates the occupants; by revealing that one building is performing “better” by meeting certain sustainable design standards, it reveals that most buildings are not performing well. That is what the JUST label does for business. It reveals that social equity is missing from most business operations, and thus pushes that conversation to the forefront.
We spent the last six months of 2015 identifying our areas for improvement, analyzing costs, and prioritizing amendments to our company handbook. Starting January 1, 2016, we now offer the following thanks to JUST:
- Community Volunteering: Our team members previously struggled to make time to give back to our local community. Now, we offer all employees four days of paid time off for volunteering each year, and we created a “Giving Back” committee that connects with local non-profits to plan volunteer days that are open to the entire company.
- Gender Pay Equity: It wasn’t until we filled out our first JUST label that we realized we had a gender pay gap within our company. So we created a salary matrix, or equitable compensation guidelines, that removes negotiations from the compensation discussion to foster equitability across like-for-like skill sets, deletes systemic bias, and levels the playing field for different communication styles. Now our salaries are based solely on our skills and the responsibilities we hold, leaving little room for subjectivity.
- Family Friendly: Before pursuing JUST, stok did not offer paid maternity or paternity leave. We now offer three months of paid maternity leave, and new dads get two months of paid paternity leave. Team members’ family members are also insured, with dependent healthcare and dental options that we previously offered only to employees.
- Continuing Education: Team members now get a $750 annual continuing education stipend (previously $250). In addition to the stipend, we cover 100% of the costs for approved classes, conferences, and other events. So far this year, our team members have used this stipend for InDesign classes, WELL & LEED AP exams, brokerage licenses, countless webinars, and even courses at a local community college.
- Local Sourcing: In keeping with the “buy local” culture San Francisco loves, most goods and services (59%) are bought locally, such as office snacks from Buyer’s Best Friend and Imperfect Produce. Formerly, just 20% was sourced nearby.
To be fair, our pursuit of the JUST label came at a time when we were already rethinking a lot of our internal policies. Making that many changes at once is likely not feasible for most companies. But by viewing the blank spaces on your JUST label as opportunities for growth, you too can begin to move in the right direction and use JUST as a pathway for that.
We’re already seeing results from the changes we made only six months ago. Last month, we took a classroom of first graders to a national park in San Francisco to plant, mulch, weed, and learn about native species. By collaborating with local non-profits Literacy for Environmental Justice and Candlestick Point Eco-Stewards, we transformed a multi-acre piece of land into the city’s second official campsite. For some of the kids, it was their first time being hands-on in nature, and for most it was a rare opportunity to escape the harsh realities of growing up in the inner city.
Before pursuing JUST, this trip would not have been possible for stok. “It is amazing to be a part of a company that encourages me to get out of the office, to connect with some wonderful kids, and to actually dig my hands into the dirt to make a lasting change in the city where I live,” says stok’s Anjanette Green. Lena Wilke, another stok team member, agrees: “Working for a company that not only supports but helps facilitate these activities makes me feel more whole as a person.” Anjanette, Lena, and everyone else that volunteered came back to work refreshed, inspired, and reminded of why we do what we do every day.
In addition to our contribution to the local community, our team members’ families also now feel truly supported. “I love working for a company that allows me to take time to bond with my daughter during the precious, early days of her life,” says stok’s Burke Pemberton, who recently took two months of paid time off for paternity leave. “stok understands the correlation between my family’s health and happiness and the long-term value that I generate for the organization.”
We’ve been getting positive feedback from potential new hires as well. On a recent phone interview, an internship candidate brought up the JUST label after seeing it on our website. He asked several questions about why we had only one star in certain categories, but clarified that it didn’t really matter: the fact that we were so transparent about our business, whether or not we were scoring well, made him want to work for us immediately.
Even with all of the internal improvements we have made, our label isn’t perfect. But through the JUST process, the greatest lesson we learned was to embrace vulnerability. Because with it comes humility: admitting that you’re not perfect, but doing what you can in the spirit of fighting for what’s right and constantly striving toward improvement.
We now believe that our social justice metrics are at least as important as financial metrics. And we humbly invite our employees and clients to dive deep into our JUST label and point out where we have room for improvement as an organization. We’re excited to share our story and hope you will join us and ILFI on this journey to social equity.
stok is a vertically integrated real estate services firm focused on creating a radically better built environment. We balance the financial and performance goals of our projects with social and environmental needs, resulting in restorative buildings, exceptional workspaces, high-performance systems and lasting, trusted relationships with our partners. In all that we do—from tenant representation, project management and strategy to design, certification and quality assurance—we take a broad-thinking, partner-focused approach to solving complex problems.