If you haven’t visited our website lately, you might have missed that most of the members of the Next Stage team are sporting new job titles. Our continued evolution as a firm has included locking in an approach to staffing that is really paying off.

Helen Hope Kimbrough, who joined our team last year as a consultant, is now Director, Community Engagement with responsibility for our community voice efforts. That includes stakeholder engagement for clients and community sensing work for our firm. Of late it has been her responsibility on behalf of multiple clients to better understand the impact of COVID at the neighborhood-level.

So, it was particularly troubling when she shared recent feedback from her outreach:

“Too many people are trying to pretend that the pandemic didn’t happen, rushing back to business-as-usual. But we have all experienced a trauma, and signs of PTSD are going unacknowledged.”

Earlier this year, Women’s Health Research at Yale University published a paper outlining how “illness, grief, job loss, social isolation, uncertainty and other pandemic-driven stressors have contributed to psychological distress on an unusually wide scale.” The findings are challenging everything we know about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rushing back too quickly to pre-pandemic activities certainly resonates. I know I am guilty of feeling somewhat liberated by the ability to meet people for coffee again, even with the awkward ‘fist bump-handshake-side hug’ confusion that frankly fills me with more anxiety than it really should.

In our collective desire to return to some degree of normalcy, are we potentially glossing over the long-term effects of such prolonged social distancing?

Highlighting Care in the Workplace

In a new Gallup survey, just 24% of employees said they believe their employer cares about their well-being, a statistic that has eroded considerably from 49% at the height of the pandemic. While at first blush an abysmal statistic, it is particularly jarring to learn that this shift only returns us to pre-pandemic levels. It appears workers in general do not believe their employers care about their wellbeing.

Except during the past two years, when workplace concern increased considerably. What was that? And why was it so fleeting?

Through our research for Profit & Purpose in late-2020 and early-2021, we learned about a fast-growing focus on employee wellness. As we noted then, “throughout our research, leaders who sat for interviews with us spoke sincerely and emphatically about the importance of their employees and ensuring their wellbeing during the pandemic.”

We have unpacked this as a form of empathy on a societal level, and one that we’ve helped nonprofits leverage to connect supportive constituencies to the people the organization serves. Never before have we felt more connected to the needs of disinvested people than when our own families were upside-down, struggling to maintain mental and physical health at a time of such disruption.

It is a unique cultural experience with the potential to create a permanent change to how we collectively perceive the world and our social and economic challenges. But it won’t be realized if we attempt to rush back to create some sense of normalcy, pretending none of it took place.

Embracing Change Management

Next Stage has grown considerably over the pandemic, with several team members I have primarily worked with virtually. Getting up to a whiteboard the other day, it occurred to me that these teammates only know me through a Zoom lens. It was an utterly strange thought.

As our teams return to the physical workplace and re-learn how to be with each other, it is important that we recognize the change that is occurring. What worked as a set of modified processes during our virtual time together may not serve this next phase and getting proactive on that is likely to have a positive impact.

Here are a couple ways we’re coping together as a team:

  • Giving Grace on the Hybrid Model – One big challenge for me personally has been the hybrid work structure. I had gotten pretty efficient with my use of Zoom – perhaps too efficient. It was not particularly healthy that I could conduct upwards of ten Zoom sessions per day, and yet I made good use of that to get the work done. It is entirely different to be back in a car again. In-person meetings take longer, and with travel time baked in, it is easy to consider this analogue engagement as ‘less efficient.’ Except, virtual interaction provides none of the nuance required for strategy construction and relationship-building. We are much better as a firm when we can be with our clients and the community… but now we are living somewhere in between. As we juggle Zoom sessions spliced with in-person meetings, we are working through it together.


  • Achieving Work-Life Balance – It’s been a rough couple years for the Next Stage team. We’ve lost family members. We’ve grown our staffing model. We’ve undergone a firmwide pivot that included publishing a 90-page thought leadership report and launching an online social learning platform. I am so thankful for this amazing group of people who have shouldered so much during such a challenging time. So I have a pretty simple approach to staff management – trust my people. These folks have proven time and again their deep commitment to our mission and new theory of change. I want them to take the time they need to stay in the game. Trust is a huge piece of the Next Stage culture and we reinforce that in all ways, including an elastic time away policy that allows for the unique challenges each person faces.


  • Prioritizing a Team Retreat – In Q2, the Next Stage team will be heading up for a day-long retreat at Well of Mercy, a 110-acre retreat that serves as a respite and ‘ministry of hospitality and healing’ as a part of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas. It is located an hour north of Charlotte just off I-77 in Hamptonville, NC. We are thankful to Community Connections Director Meg Robertson, a friend of the firm, for telling us about it. As noted on the website, “Well of Mercy is not a clinical facility, conference center or meeting place. We are dedicated to serving the individual.” As such, our goal is not to build a strategic plan or check in on our KPIs. Instead, we will be taking a day to ‘just be,’ building connection as a team and repairing in a beautiful setting.

Yes, it is okay to be breathing a sigh of relief that it appears the worst of the pandemic is over. But now the real work begins, of repairing all the damage of the last two years while rediscovering our humanity through in-person engagement.

I look forward to grabbing coffee with you… just don’t judge me if I don’t know how to properly greet you. I’m trying out a little wave for the time being.

Written by Josh Jacobson, CEO, Next Stage