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  • By Amy Halpern Early one Thursday afternoon, there was a friendly knock on legal assistant Tara Fahimi’s office door. Someone was stopping by to take her order for lunch the next day. Every Friday, the law firm of Bregman, Berbert, Schwartz & Gilday brings in food from area restaurants and picks up the tab. Before the pandemic, most of the 32 people who work at BBS&G—attorneys, administrators and support staff—would sit around the large conference room table in the book-lined library and enjoy their lunches together. Now the food is delivered to everyone’s desk. There are no cubicles at BBS&G—even before COVID-19, everyone had their own office. Fahimi will never forget the firm’s lawyers “schlepping boxes from down the road” when she and attorney Adam Moskowitz transitioned to BBS&G in the summer of 2020 from a boutique firm nearby. “They were literally taking a hammer and nail and [helping] us hang up stuff in our office—they wanted us to feel welcome,” she says. Paralegal Victoria Dewey recalls the weeks’ worth of meals the firm sent over after her ex-husband died. “You don’t find too many firms like this firm, where your personal life is first,” she says. “And because they are like that, it makes you want to be even a better employee.”

  • By Amy Halpern When Bill Schwartz joined fledgling Highline Wealth Management in 2008, he didn’t expect the six-person Bethesda advisory firm would grow into one with 14 locations nationwide and more than 150 employees. All he knew was that the folks at Highline were more supportive than those at the huge wealth management firm where he had worked. Today, Schwartz is a managing director in the Potomac office of Highline’s successor company, Wealthspire, which is now headquartered in Manhattan. Most of the people he worked with in the organization’s early days—first in Bethesda, then in Rockville and now in Park Potomac—are still with the firm. Robin Dobbs, a senior vice president who joined in 2008 as the ninth employee, says that unlike at many wealth management firms, employees at Wealthspire work as a team—not in silos. If someone wants to focus on business development, the firm will back them, she says, and “if you just want to be a kick-ass client service person, you’re not necessarily told you’ve got to go out and bring X amount of business into the firm.” Schwartz adds: “Anybody can have a bunch of great snack food in the cafeteria...or have great office space or can have X or Y or Z benefit that can be super cool…but having people that are actually looking out for you…and want to help you succeed…that to me makes it a great place to work.”

  • By Amy Halpern Most of the walls at Octopus Interactive have octopus arms painted across them and sayings like “Let’s Play” and “Let’s Chill.” Arcade games flank a door. A nearby lounge area has a Ping-Pong table with its own set of bleachers. “You are invited to the Ping-Pong tournament tonight,” Operations Manager Michael Marchetti tells a visitor one day this summer. Other Octopus traditions: a water-drinking challenge, Cheetos cakes to celebrate birthdays, and Taco Stand Tuesdays. Marchetti likes working there so much that he has a multicolored octopus tattoo that runs from his left shoulder nearly to his wrist. Like most of Octopus’ 40 or so employees, Marchetti worked for Spotluck, a restaurant discount app created by Octopus co-founders Cherian Thomas and Bradford Sayler in 2014. Three years ago, when Thomas and Sayler sat the staff down to tell them of their plan to “pivot” to developing and installing interactive video tablets for Uber and Lyft vehicles, the entire staff stayed on and helped launch the new venture. [caption id="attachment_256477" align="aligncenter" width="250"] The office at Octopus Interactive features arcade games and a lounge that has a Ping-Pong table.[/caption] “It’s very different than, like, two guys in the basement who came in and said, ‘OK, here’s where we’re at—now we’re bringing in other people,’ ” Thomas says. Today, the creative team at Octopus designs video games that allow ride-sharers to win prizes and get scannable discount codes; other employees handle advertising sales or tablet distribution. Says Thomas: “We put something you might find in Silicon Valley right here in Bethesda.”

  • By Amy Halpern One afternoon in August, Matt Bergman was finishing client calls from the deck of his 39-foot boat, docked on the South River in Edgewater, Maryland. He wasn’t on vacation; for him, it was a regular day at the office. Bergman is a partner at Potomac Law Group, which has functioned remotely since its founding 10 years ago—long before the pandemic sent practically everyone else scrambling to work virtually. Though PLG maintains a receptionist and some “as-needed” office space in D.C., “the firm is roughly 98% virtual,” says Marketing Manager Melissa Meierhoefer. Today, the firm has 125 attorneys and a support staff of about 30. Nearly 20% of its people live—and work—in Montgomery County, she says. Bergman, who lives in Potomac and keeps a small office in Rockville,  joined in 2019, after two decades of traditional law firm life. He says he’d had enough of office politics and “bureaucratic red tape,” and loves that PLG’s virtual structure means less money spent on expensive office space and fancy conference rooms. “I can pocket 80 cents of every dollar instead of 30 cents of every dollar,” he says. Founded in 2011 by attorney Ben Lieber, Potomac Law Group initially set out to attract working moms looking for more flexible schedules. But Lieber, a former associate at D.C.’s Covington & Burling, says men are just as drawn to the work-from-anywhere paradigm. Today, 65% of the firm’s lawyers are male. “Back when my son was in high school playing soccer, I could go watch his game for 45 minutes in the afternoon and come back,” Lieber says. “I think a lot of people value that, and that’s part of what draws them here.”

  • By Amy Halpern On Friday afternoons in pre-COVID days, much of the staff at The Meridian Group gathered on the company’s sprawling terrace high above downtown Bethesda, grabbed beers from the nearby kegerator, and decompressed on comfy outdoor sofas. Sometimes they’d play cornhole. “Everyone from the most junior person to the most senior founding partner” would be out there, says Vice President Adam Farbman, who’s been with the 40-person real estate development firm since 2015. The tradition is slowly returning, as are the catered lunches The Meridian Group has hosted three days a week for the past six or so years. “It’s been intereresting that during this weird transition back to work that people tend to come in on those days more than the others,” says Senior Vice President Cassi Poole Eaton. [caption id="attachment_256475" align="aligncenter" width="250"] Employees at The Meridian Group enjoy catered lunches three days a week.[/caption] Early in the pandemic the firm started sending employees themed gift boxes each month, including one with tools to better organize their at-home workspaces—and another with everything needed to make homemade ice cream. The deliveries stopped early this fall as more people returned to the office. But it’s not the free meals and other perks that make The Meridian Group a great place to work, Farbman says. Rather, it’s that everyone at the company can have an impact, even in areas that don’t align with their job description. “Whether you are on the deal team or the marketing team or the development team…every day we’re collaborating,” he says, recalling a marketing person early in the pandemic who came up with a way for commercial tenants in buildings owned and managed by The Meridian Group to track the occupancy levels of their gyms and other public spaces to help with social distancing.

  • By Amy Halpern The lobby of Bethesda law firm Lerch, Early & Brewer is a serene expanse of tans and grays, with glass-walled conference rooms and panoramic views. It’s hard to imagine the space hosting an after-hours karaoke lounge, Hawaiian-themed aloha night or a giant Jenga game. But a custom system allows the glass dividers to slide back against the outer wall. Several evenings a year—in non-pandemic times—the conference tables are stashed and the space becomes a place for everyone from partners to support staff to cut loose. Often, there’s live music and door prizes. Accounts Payable Manager Ana Lopez says it’s fun to see unexpected people let their guard down, but it’s the day-to-day friendliness of Lerch Early and its 114 employees that she appreciates most. “Even though they’re attorneys, I’ve always called them by their first names… it’s never been Mr. So-and-So or Mr. Whatever,” says Lopez, who just celebrated her 20th anniversary at the firm. Lopez’s immediate supervisor started at Lerch Early right out of high school, and the firm covered the tuition for her college degree. “The way it works for staff is they help you out with half of whatever course you are taking [so long as it’s related to your job at the firm] and if you get an A or a B, they reimburse you for the other half.” Lopez says she receives occasional calls from recruiters trying to lure her to other firms, but she always turns them down. “I’m not looking to work anyplace else,” she says.

  • By Amy Halpern When you open the glass door of the former fire station that’s home to Anthony Wilder Design/Build in Cabin John, Director of First Impressions Rachel Cave is sitting behind the desk. She looks up and smiles. But the best greeting is from Beau, a 1-year-old Bernese mountain dog. “There are at least three or four dogs here every day,” says architectural designer Maria Fanjul, who’s been with the company for nearly two decades. Some of the dogs come to the office so often they are listed along with the employees on the AWDB website. When the firm takes on a new project, Fanjul says, one person is assigned as project manager, but many of the firm’s interior designers and architects are encouraged to come up with ideas for it. “It really opens your mind to different options and things that you never thought about,” she says, “and we all feel connected…we feel like we are a team.” The company, which was founded by Anthony Wilder in 1990, also listens to employees, Fanjul says. Several years ago, she told her bosses she had a dream of living a month at a time in different Asian countries. “If that is your dream, do it,” they told her. She took four months off and her job was waiting for her when she returned. “I know it was not easy for them to accommodate it, but they did,” she says. AWDB President Elizabeth Wilder, the wife of Anthony Wilder, joined the company in 1994 and became its president the following year. “When you are building a culture where you care about each other, some of the black and white rules have to go by the wayside…we expect a lot and we give a lot,” she says.

  • By Amy Halpern “What we do matters,” and that’s one of the things that makes Round House Theatre a great place to work, says Danisha Crosby, the organization’s director of education. Crosby, who has been with Round House for 29 years, says she will never forget the “young man of color” who was so taken with the theater’s spring 2018 production of “Master Harold”…and the Boys—set in South Africa during the apartheid era—that he didn’t want to leave after the show. Or the teennage girl who was so fascinated by Round House’s 2019 production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time—about a teen with Asperger’s syndrome—that she stayed behind to ask the lead actor how he managed to portray so accurately what math class felt like for her. [caption id="attachment_256476" align="aligncenter" width="250"] Master electrician and audio supervisor Chris Hall backstage at Round House before a performance[/caption] “We’re a ‘people first’ organization…whether it’s our patrons or our artists or our staff,” says Ryan Rilette, the theater’s artistic director. He has canceled shows when actors have had family crises, and he turned Labor Day weekend 2020 into “Labor Day week” when he saw that the theater’s 34 staff members were under stress. “By that point, everybody was deeply, deeply overloaded…so we said, ‘let’s take a week off,’  ” Rilette explains. “In our industry there’s the idea that the show must go on; we really try to practice that the show really should go on, but not at the expense of people’s [mental and physical] health.”

  • By Amy Halpern Mike McNeel, who has been a project manager at Sandy Spring Builders for 13 years, says it’s “unheard of” for people to work for a decade or more for one employer in the home construction business. But he says he has no intention of leaving Sandy Spring Builders. It’s not just the fully funded profit-sharing plan Sandy Spring provides—something McNeel says he’d never been offered at any of the previous six or seven builders for whom he worked. Instead, McNeel says it’s the independence he’s given, combined with the assistance he knows is always available, that he appreciates the most. “They let us manage our jobs the way we see fit, and they ask the question: Is there anything I can do for you today?” In the late 1980s, friends Mimi Brodsky Kress and Phil Leibovitz were operating their own home building company when they joined up with a small home builder and reincorporated as Sandy Spring Builders, LLC, with Leibovitz as the CEO and Kress as the COO. “Phil’s the big-picture guy and I’m the detail person—I make sure things are humming,” Kress says. Today, Sandy Spring Builders has 25 employees and operates out of an Arts-and-Crafts style house in Bethesda. Meetings are held in the living room in front of the gas fireplace or around the island in the kitchen of their office. “Mimi and I have the same philosophy,” Leibovitz says. “It’s very important for both of us to be liked by people, and I think that reflects on our place of work.”

  • By Amy Halpern When kids head toward the lobster tank at The Market at River Falls in Potomac, employee Ronald Logan asks if they want to see a lobster up close. One day this past summer, he says with a laugh, “I took it out and [the kids] started petting it.” For Logan, the market’s lead customer service representative, it’s all part of what makes his job so great. “It’s a friendly market—a lot of customers, they keep coming back.” Logan has worked at the high-end market since 2013—more than a year before Potomac residents Jim McWhorter and his wife, Yasmin Abadian, bought the place out of bankruptcy and reopened it “10 weeks to the day after it closed,” McWhorter says. It had originally opened in 1999 under the name River Falls Seafood Market. Logan is one of the store’s longest-serving employees, but nearly half of the 23 have been there at least five years, McWhorter says. “Among our staff we represent four major religions, six nations of birth and three different skin colors,” and the staff treats each other like family, McWhorter says. General Manager David Fletcher recalls co-workers coming to his house with meals, balloons and a get-well-soon card signed by everyone when he was sick with Lyme disease. And Arline Selvas, who’s worked behind the counter since 2017, says one of the store’s chefs taught her how to drive and helped her study for her driver’s exam. But what she really appreciates is how McWhorter and her co-workers look out for one another. Fletcher remembers the day this past spring when a customer began yelling at Selvas, who had politely asked the man to put on a mask, per the store’s COVID-19 policy. “He just went off on her,” Fletcher says of the customer. McWhorter walked over, had a short conversation with the man and ended up asking him to leave the store. “This was a gentleman who was here nearly every day,” Fletcher says. “At the cost of making a sale, Jim would choose to protect the staff.”

  • By Amy Halpern At Capital City Nurses, the company culture can be summarized in two words: “Go Blue.” During meetings of the 45-year-old home care company, staffers share “Go Blue” shout-outs that recognize the accomplishments of colleagues. Blue is the color of the company’s logo and a theme color in its branding. At a meeting in September, Jamie Vela, a home care specialist, praised a staffer who had worked late into the night to cover for others on vacation, as well as a CCN coordinator who had worked extra hard to find the right caregiver for a challenging client living in an assisted living community. “Go Blue” is an acknowledgement of each other’s efforts to go “above and beyond for your teammates, your community…whether that’s a great caregiver, whether that’s a coordinator…it goes with every layer of the company,” Vela says. Since joining CCN four years ago, Senior Client Services Manager Carly Campbell says she’s helped hundreds of families find caregivers for their loved ones. “Every day you feel like you have a purpose,” she says. “You talk to families, caregivers…you make these relationships.” CCN offers its staff employer-paid life insurance and disability coverage, and a choice of three medical plans. “Not every organization [has] the benefits we do,” Vela says. But that’s not why she loves her job. Instead, she says, it’s the “constant feeling of doing for others...that makes you feel proud to work there.”

  • By Amy Halpern “Above all, we’re looking for someone who is kind.” Those words in a job posting four years ago intrigued Reece Quiñones so much that she decided to leave a company where she’d been happily employed for 15 years and join The Hatcher Group, a Bethesda-based communications firm focused on public policy and social change. Now a senior vice president and The Hatcher Group’s creative director, she says kindness “seeps into not just our work with clients but how we deal with each other.” Quiñones says The Hatcher Group encourages employees to confront important and sensitive social and political issues. The firm’s “Lunch and Learn” series to promote inclusion and diversity is an example, she says. The pandemic has forced the monthly educational lunches to be held online, but they remain raw and eye opening, Quiñones says. At a recent session about environmental racism, they discussed “how minorities can feel at odds even on a bike trail with their kids and how people might stop and question them.” About 30% of The Hatcher Group’s 43 employees are people of color, according to Maia Alexander, the company’s vice president of talent and culture. Staff say founder Ed Hatcher and co-owner Angie Cannon had long fostered an environment of compassion and collaboration. When Hatcher and Cannon retired in January 2019 after running the company for nearly 20 years, new owners Amy Buckley and Amy Fahnestock included everyone from the interns to the executives in the process of creating a new strategic vision. “Honestly, I think people were blown away by the transparency,” Fahnestock says.

  • By Amy Halpern In 2018, the Brown family—which has owned Aldon since its founding in 1947—brought in new management. Now, “there’s a lot more support, there’s a lot more training…people get listened to,” says Leslie Gutierrez, who joined Aldon as a leasing agent nearly a decade ago. Aldon, which has 58 employees, owns and manages residential and office buildings in Bethesda, Chevy Chase, Washington, D.C., the Carolinas and Texas. These days, the entire organization—from site-maintenance staff to leasing managers to the corporate team—gathers to “kick off” the first quarter and meets again for an end-of-year “rally.” Since the start of the pandemic, most of the events have been virtual, but everyone is still able to chat with CEO Todd Bowen and learn about the operations. There’s “more structure, better technology and a lot of transparency,” says Gina Junio, vice president of human resources. She describes staff gatherings as “parties with a purpose” because so much information is shared by management. Benefits have also improved, Gutierrez says, including the addition of “floating holidays,” an employer-funded health reimbursement account and a flexible spending account. “My plan is to continue to grow and learn,” says Gutierrez, now a community marketing manager.

  • By Amy Halpern Marcela Compagnet-Orellana, the human resources director at the Rockville nonprofit EveryMind, says there’s a running joke that “nobody would say anything” if an employee wanted to take off on National Margarita Day (Feb. 22). Employees at EveryMind, which provides mental health counseling and support, get nearly 50 paid days off a year—18 holidays, 12 sick days, 10 vacation days, three personal days, two mental health days, and one day each for volunteer work and to celebrate their birthdays. And taking time off is encouraged, Compagnet-Orellana says. “If someone isn’t using their PTO, their supervisors will tell them to do so,” she says. Indrani Dial-Maraj, a manager of crisis prevention and intervention services at EveryMind, often answers the phone for four different hotlines. She says she encourages each caller to engage in their favorite self-care activity right after they hang up. The self-care “action plan” Dial-Maraj discusses with her callers is part of the training she received when she joined EveryMind 17 years ago. She says her employer follows the guidance in supporting its 90-plus employees, making their mental well-being—their self-care—priority one. “If they don’t do it for us,” she says, “what example are we setting for anybody else?”

  • By Amy Halpern Thirty years ago, Jeff Schwaber, an associate at a large Baltimore law firm, was assigned to a case in Montgomery County. For the duration of the trial, his supervisors arranged for him to “bum an office” at a small law firm across the street from the Rockville courthouse. “They didn’t know me from a hole in the wall,” Schwaber says of the attorneys at Stein Sperling, where he set up shop for six weeks, but they were friendly and eager to make suggestions and help him with the case. Soon he thought, “These guys really enjoy each other, they really have a good time,” he says. “And professional happiness helps breed professional excellence—I could see that, and I wanted to be part of it.” A few months later, Schwaber left the Baltimore firm and came to Stein Sperling as a fourth-year associate. Today he’s managing partner. Nearly a third of the firm’s 124 employees have been there for at least 10 years, Schwaber says. “In an increasingly transient profession, this lack of turnover is something we are quite proud of,” he says. Darla McClure started as the firm’s receptionist when she was 21. “Every step of the way they were just very encouraging,” says the 50-year-old, who became a paralegal, went to law school at night, became an associate, and now is a principal of the firm and head of the employment law group. During all that time, she never considered leaving the firm. “There was never any reason to,” she says. “They’re good to their staff…they want to see them succeed.”

  • By Amy Halpern When Rockville-based research company Westat decided it was time to add a fitness center to its eight-building campus 12 years ago, its employees led the charge, “coming up with the specs, the requirements, interviewing the companies that came in, being a part of the decision-making process,” says Donna Atkinson, one of Westat’s associate directors for behavioral health and health policy. Making decisions is nothing new for staffers at the company: Since 1978, Westat has been 100% employee owned. “It makes you a little bit more committed to what you’re doing...because if you are successful you can reap the benefits directly,” says Atkinson, who has been with the company since 2003. Women account for more than 700 of the 1,100 people who work at the company’s Rockville headquarters, and they make up 55% of the executive team. (Westat has offices in six other states.) Since the pandemic, nearly everyone has been working remotely, but they are all still making decisions together, including figuring out when to return to the office. “As [owners] of the company…it requires us to think about the business decisions that the company makes and being a part of that,” Atkinson says. Ultimately, Atkinson is most proud of the work she gets to do at Westat. Over the past several years, her data research has involved COVID testing, the opioid crisis, and the effects of certain health interventions in reducing hypertension and diabetes in underserved communities. Jeanne Rosenthal, a vice president for public health and epidemiology, has been at Westat for 42 years, and says her longevity “is a testimonial in itself” to the company’s collaborative culture and the sense of fulfillment everyone gets from the work they do. Findings from one of Rosenthal’s recent projects were published in The New England Journal of Medicine. It’s exciting, she says, to know that your work “can have an impact.”