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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 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 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 “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 “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.