Work with Purpose — One of our key values is working with purpose. Specifically, every decision we make in the vineyard, in winemaking, and in our tasting room is intentional. We are generous with our time and our resources, pausing when needed to consider dynamic situations, and consistently asking ourselves how every decision might impact our company and community in as many ways as we can. We are committed to constant learning and to connecting our work to the greater good.
The pandemic pause brought us to a moment of collective reckoning about what it means to live well and to work well. As a result, employees are sending employers an urgent signal that they are no longer willing to choose one — life or work — at the cost of the other. Working from home brought life literally into our work. And as the world now goes hybrid, employees are drawing firmer boundaries about how much of their work comes into their life. Where does this leave employers? And which perspectives and programs contribute most to progress? In our newest interview series, Working Well: How Companies Are Creating Cultures That Support & Sustain Mental, Emotional, Social, Physical & Financial Wellness, we are talking to successful executives, entrepreneurs, managers, leaders, and thought leaders across all industries to share ideas about how to shift company cultures in light of this new expectation. We’re discovering strategies and steps employers and employees can take together to live well and to work well.
As a part of this series, we had the pleasure of interviewing Sarah Pearson, CEO of Wine By Joe & Dobbes Family Estate.
Sarah Pearson is a leader and innovator in the Oregon wine industry. Her thoughtful and intentional approach to growth, as CEO for both the deeply rooted Dobbes Family Estate portfolio of wines and their unconventional Wine By Joe brand, is centered around positive changes in the wine business. Pearson brings a 15-year tenure in wine to her role at Dobbes Family Estate including rich experience in global brand management for some of the country’s most popular wine producers — Freixenet USA, Constellation Brands, and Hess Collection Winery. Pearson moved to Oregon from Napa/Sonoma in 2018 to serve as the VP of Marketing and Sales at Dobbes Family Estate, a role she held until 2021 when she was named CEO of the company.
Thank you for making time to visit with us about the topic of our time. Our readers would like to get to know you better. Tell us about a formative experience that prompted you to change your relationship with work and how work shows up in your life.
Early in my career, I faced a challenge many young professionals face: continuing my growth as a professional while raising a young family. I had already worked so hard in my career, which was deeply important to me, but so too was the responsibility of being a mother. With an equally ambitious husband and two daughters under the age of three at home, I distinctly remember feeling constantly overextended and worried that I wasn’t doing a particularly good job at either role — being a productive employee or an attentive mother. I frequently wished that my workplace at the time was more empathetic toward employees. Back then, working from home was not a feasible or popular option, nor was flex time. I knew that if I had an opportunity in the future to manage a team or a company, I would try to lead with empathy and provide the kind of holistic support for employees I had so badly needed.
Harvard Business Review predicts that wellness will become the newest metric employers will use to analyze and to assess their employees’ mental, physical and financial health. How does your organization define wellness, and how does your organization measure wellness?
We know that an employee who appears productive and seems happy is just the surface of the complete picture of their wellness. At Wine By Joe/Dobbes Family Estate, we have worked hard to develop a culture where every employee can satiate their hunger for strategic and innovative thinking, have fulfilling daily interpersonal interaction, and can participate in larger community involvement. When I see employees being successful in the workplace, energetically embracing additional opportunities and eagerly asking for more, it’s a good indication that our wellness efforts are taking hold. There are a number of tools that we’ve implemented to better measure the health of our employees, including an annual engagement survey, regular one-on-one meetings with our employees to discuss professional and personal development, all-staff meetings to facilitate open communication, and making sure our doors are always open to the team.
Based on your experience or research, how do you correlate and quantify the impact of a well workforce on your organization’s productivity and profitability?
We’ve seen it again and again — employee wellness is directly correlated with retention. We know that high employee turnover has a negative impact on both morale and productivity, thus, we’re heavily invested in promoting from within and in long-term professional development for our employees. As we evolve and grow, we want our employees to grow with us, not just so they can better serve the winery, but because we want to be a supportive and inspirational force in their lives and careers, wherever they end up.
Even though most leaders have good intentions when it comes to employee wellness, programs that require funding are beholden to business cases like any other initiative. The World Health Organization estimates for every $1 invested into treatment for common mental health disorders, there is a return of $4 in improved health and productivity. That sounds like a great ROI. And, yet many employers struggle to fund wellness programs that seem to come “at the cost of the business.” What advice do you have to offer to other organizations and leaders who feel stuck between intention and impact?
The job market, and particularly the hospitality industry, has had a difficult few years. But even before the COVID-19 pandemic, hospitality workers were intensely vulnerable to burnout and declining wellness. When we faced the state-mandated shutdown of our winery’s public spaces due to COVID, I knew that in order to protect and support our teams, Dobbes Family Estate/Wine By Joe would need to quickly innovate ways to provide additional support to our employees, not less. Now that we’re on the other side of COVID, we’ve increased pay and educational subsidies, introduced an empowering program that asks employees to nominate charitable causes to receive company profit shares, and turned up the volume on celebrating team and individual successes through consistent company-wide communications. We added remote and flexible work options and supported employees in retaining their jobs through cross-country moves.
My advice to other leaders looking to align their intention and impact is to do just that — don’t just say you care about the wellbeing of your team, think about how you yourself would like to be supported, ask those impacted what they need and hope for, and then do everything you can to deliver it.
Speaking of money matters, a recent Gallup study reveals employees of all generations rank wellbeing as one of their top three employer search criteria. How are you incorporating wellness programs into your talent recruitment and hiring processes?
From the beginning of the recruiting process through hiring, we make the values of our organization extremely clear, which are focused on people, purpose, and progress. At the start of each employee’s tenure with the winery, I meet with each new employee to discuss our working agreement, which outlines behaviors based on our values. I intentionally say ‘agreement’ here and not ‘expectation’ because it’s essential for every member of our team to be equally invested in the culture of our company.
We’ve all heard of the four-day work week, unlimited PTO, mental health days, and on demand mental health services. What innovative new programs and pilots are you launching to address employee wellness? And, what are you discovering? We would benefit from an example in each of these areas.
- Mental Wellness: Every employee thinks, learns, and processes information differently. Where one employee might do well with long, uninterrupted focus on the task at hand, another might prefer to complete it in sections to avoid monotony or to involve others to allow creativity to inform the process. When working to impact mental wellness, we look first to ensure our employees have concrete and personalized tools to aid in their efforts. We consider if accommodations might be needed and encourage colleagues to ask for additional tools, training, or a change in their physical environment if it could relieve stress. We provide company-wide training on the leading causes of burn-out as well as training centered on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI). And, we plan a special surprise for employees each month to lift morale — last month we arranged for every employee to have a massage at work!
- Emotional Wellness: Managers at Wine By Joe/Dobbes Family Estate regularly check-in with their teams one-on-one and use the time not only to find out how each employee is progressing at work but also about their emotional state. Additionally, managers regularly offer what we call ‘skip-level meetings’ where department heads meet with employees two levels below them to see how they’re doing. These meetings build trust and rapport at every level of the company but they also help us develop a comprehensive, 360-degree picture of the health of our teams.
- Social Wellness: Isolation combined with monotony is a recipe for low morale. We believe employees thrive when their jobs surprise, challenge, and inspire them while facilitating connection with the wider world. To this end, we offer significant paid time off earmarked for employee volunteerism. We plan quarterly, company-wide volunteer days that deepen our team bonds while positively impacting our communities. We ask for employee input when deciding what causes to support and have collectively worked with Habitat for Humanity, the National Autism Society, and AHIVOY, an organization dedicated to mentoring vineyard stewards to move forward in the wine industry through education.
- Physical Wellness: Since the COVID-19 pandemic, physical wellness has taken center stage in our employee programming. We do not require the use of paid time off for any COVID-related work absences, something our employees have told us they greatly appreciate. And we’ve always been a company that relentlessly respects employee vacations, weekends, evenings, and personal days and I try to model those boundaries as much as possible. The message that caring for yourself is part of being successful at Wine By Joe/Dobbes Family Estate is something I strive to consistently uphold.
- Financial Wellness: Not only do we offer highly competitive wages and bonuses but we also offer a 401k retirement savings plan with matching contributions, a rarity in the wine industry. We also support the academic aspirations of our employees by offering up to $1k/year in tuition subsidies.
Can you please tell us more about a couple of specific ways workplaces would benefit from investing in your ideas above to improve employee wellness?
I think the concept of providing more, not less, support to employees in trying times is really important. While we were able to maintain and even improve pay and incentives during our winery’s lockdown due to strong online wine sales, not all companies can afford to do that. Pay is a crucial aspect of employee support, there’s no denying that, but money is just one way to show employees that you value them. The non-monetary incentives we introduced during COVID, like our beloved ‘no meeting days’, the creation of our ‘All Day, Every Day’ cohort which routinely audits our workplace to ensure we’re in alignment with our values, and the building of an internal newsletter used to highlight employees and acknowledge their work have been just as essential to the wellness of our teams.
How are you reskilling leaders in your organization to support a “Work Well” culture?
There are a number of areas of development that we are working on in order to reskill our leaders, including DEI training and time and conflict management training, as well as a lot of work on individual team formation. This has included developing trust, understanding each team’s role and sphere of influence within the organization, as well as understanding each individual employee and their contributions to the team.
Additionally, over the last couple of years, the leadership team has developed an internal organization called ADE (‘All Day, Every Day’) where our mission is to provide employees opportunities to contribute to the betterment of our company and local community. We are particularly committed to sustainability, diversity, leadership, and inclusivity so we can be more aware/proactive as individuals and as a company. ADE develops wellness goals at the beginning of each year and meets monthly to discuss progress. The group has been gaining momentum and I was thrilled recently to volunteer off the clock at a local charity event only to discover a large group of Wine By Joe/Dobbes Family Estate employees had the same idea! I was so proud.
Another example of where we are reskilling employees in our organization is through the innovative development of talent from within. Due to well-documented U.S. hiring shortages, we decided to further develop our part-time associates who have shown potential and dedication to the company, promoting them to co-tasting room leads. In doing so, we filled one position, a much-needed Tasting Room Manager, with two now full-time trainable associates. With a proper development plan for these up-and-coming leaders, we will not only lessen their individual workload but will also provide the organization with more coverage while maintaining the flexibility our employees appreciate.
Ideas take time to implement. What is one small step every individual, team or organization can take to get started on these ideas — to get well?
Ask every individual how they are doing and how the company can help make their jobs easier and more enjoyable. Then, thoughtfully listen to what they tell you and take the time to consider next steps. Finally, be clear and respectful in your responses — don’t promise things you can’t deliver but don’t say ‘no’ right away before you’ve done the work on your own to see what’s possible.
What are your “Top 5 Trends To Track In the Future of Workplace Wellness?”
- Lead with empathy — According to an article in Forbes, Tracy Brower states that “empathy contributes to positive relationships and organizational cultures and it also drives results…The reason empathy is so necessary is that people are experiencing multiple kinds of stress, and data suggests it is affected by the pandemic — and the ways our lives and our work have been turned upside down.” Great leadership is tied to emotional intelligence or EQ. I try to lead Wine By Joe/Dobbes Family Estate towards efforts that encourage empathetic managers and empathy between coworkers. At the end of the day, no problem is too big for us to solve when we work with empathy and relentless respect.
- Lead by example –I am a big proponent of leading by example. If I tell the team we value rest on evenings and weekends but then send emails at 11pm, what am I modeling? These are the moments that seem insignificant but that really go a long way towards creating the kind of culture we want or don’t want. Leading is both a lot of work and a deep privilege and it is critical that we be the best versions of ourselves, and that means following our own advice!
- Work with Purpose — One of our key values is working with purpose. Specifically, every decision we make in the vineyard, in winemaking, and in our tasting room is intentional. We are generous with our time and our resources, pausing when needed to consider dynamic situations, and consistently asking ourselves how every decision might impact our company and community in as many ways as we can. We are committed to constant learning and to connecting our work to the greater good.
- Commit to continuous improvement — To me, progress means that we have the humility and willingness to learn something new every day. Thus, we actively seek out employees that are hungry and committed to continuous learning and we reward their initiative with paid educational opportunities, ongoing training, and investment in their lives both professionally and personally.
- Foster an environment of relentless respect for each other — People are at the heart of who we are. From our employees to our partners and guests, it is our intention to ensure everyone feels welcome and included. We are committed to maintaining a workplace founded on relentless respect, acceptance, and appreciation for all individuals. It is our belief that having a diverse and inclusive workplace is critical, including our ability to attract and retain employees, ensure our employees are thriving and safe, and are better equipped to serve our customers in a culturally competent manner.
What is your greatest source of optimism about the future of workplace wellness?
I am encouraged by the renewed focus on workplace wellness that has followed the pandemic. I consider myself lucky to be part of a new generation of c-suite leaders motivated beyond budgets toward meaningful ways we can impact the lives of our teams for the better. But really, our future leaders are my greatest source of optimism. The next generation of managers, directors, VPs, and CEOs will have come up during this time of workplace re-imagining and I can only hope that ideas that seem radical to us today will be foregone conclusions when we pass the baton.
Our readers often like to continue the conversation with our featured interviewees. How can they best connect with you and stay current on what you’re discovering?
Readers can engage with me at [email protected] or via Instagram @DobbesFamilyEstate.
Thank you for sharing your insights and predictions. We appreciate the gift of your time and wish you continued success and wellness.
Thank you so very much!