Making Connections Count: Stanford University’s Transition to Hybrid Work

Why “Waffles vs Pancakes” is a great get-to-know-you game, and other lessons from Stanford’s hybrid work experiment

For our first episode of the Donut podcast, Donut’s community lead Alex Schulte sat down with Angie Hawkins from the Office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education at Stanford University. Angie shares her experience using Donut to stay connected from the lockdown into the transition to hybrid work. This includes: a Watercooler competition, the DEI program that’s helped new hires get up to speed on the team’s culture and values, and building relationships that promote greater belonging at work—and beyond.

Listen to the conversation between Alex and Angie, and read the full transcript below:



Alex Schulte, Donut: Well, hi! I’m so happy that we’re getting a chance to chat about all things connection and Donut. Angie, would you care to introduce yourself?

Angie Hawkins, Stanford: Sure! Hi, I’m Angie Hawkins. I use she/her pronouns, and I work at Stanford University in the office of the Vice Provost for Graduate Education, which basically means I work with grad students.

We’re currently doing a hybrid model, which is three days in person and two days remote, as a base template. Tuesdays have been our day when everyone’s expected to be on site. Those are the days we have staff meeting every other week, so that’s been a good day to just expect that people are going to be around, and there’s a lot of meetings on that day as a result… it’s pretty meeting heavy.

But generally speaking, Donut was actually the way we stayed connected over the pandemic! Because in some ways, I feel like the hybrid work environment has had its own unique challenges as far as keeping track of, where are people, and how how easy is it to schedule with someone if the days they’re in don’t line up with yours or they want to meet in person. Donut and Slack together have really been our anchor for staying connected while fully remote, and now in a hybrid setting too, so thank you for helping us continue to iterate and innovate on ways to do that and ways that keep people engaged over the long term.

AS: Do you have any fun, or funny, stories about Donut interactions — whether those are conversations through Intros or  asynchronous chatter through Watercooler?

AH: There is a really big, now-ongoing debate about “waffles or pancakes.” That has seemed to really take on a life of its own in our office, so much so that we had a colleague retire recently, and the day after she retired she sent the whole office an email, describing in detail how she was making buttermilk pancakes. She really stood by her stance, as a pro-pancake advocate! You know, some people take those as fighting words… like me, very pro waffle.

AS: I knew I liked you! I knew I trusted you right away. Team waffle!

AH: Team waffles, all day. So that’s been fun, and I feel like there have also been some things that people will answer to a prompt, like songs that remind me of my childhood or things that show signs of people’s personalities you wouldn’t see otherwise and you’re like, oh really? That person’s into ’90s hip hop? You just never would have expected that, so it’s been fun.

AS: Yeah, the unexpected Watercooler friends are so good!

AH: It was just really cool to be engaging with folks on something not related to work. And, keeping things relatively light-hearted, in the midst of the very serious and often emotionally heavy things going on in the world. We also have a racism awareness channel in our workspace, and so we have the DEI Watercooler prompts that get sent out every Tuesday and Thursday. Those have also led to some really good conversations as well.

That was something that a few of us took on, right around April, May, June of 2020, to make sure that there was space being created and kept for us as a staff to engage in topics around anti racism, and how it affects our daily lives. So that’s been a really good space to have.

AS: That’s really cool, and kudos to you for for thinking about how to start those conversations and and keep them going.

AH: It’s actually been great for some of the new folks to also see this just built into the way that we all interact online!

AS: Yeah, that’s cool—that almost provides, as part of new employee onboarding, giving everybody the same shared language around what the expectations are for someone who’s going to be on this team: what are you expected to know? We call it core competency here: what is that core competency of being an engaged, and active, and activist team member?

AH: And a good ally! It’s interesting you mentioned core competency because I would say that the jury’s still out on what that looks like, especially as it pertains to internal awareness and discussion around anti racist efforts. But I think Donut and that chat set has been really pivotal in keeping that conversation going and alive because, I mean, it isn’t one that really has an endpoint so it’s nice to keep those discussions going.

AS: Awesome. Well… I was wondering if you’re open to something slightly more open ended. Something that I’ve started asking people: how does Donut make you feel?

AH: Donut makes me feel … optimistic [laughs]. And it makes me feel connected to other people who share the value of relationships in a workplace, because it’s not something that’s universally shared. I saw the other day this Forbes article about how empathy is the most important leadership skill, and I think that the way Donut helps humanize our coworkers, even at a distance, is really important to allowing room for there to be empathy across difference.

And I think, if I can kind of extrapolate that one level further, in climates like today when things like racism and sexism and just bigotry in general are just having quite the field day, I think that the impact of empathy cannot be understated, and the importance of empathy cannot be understated. Because that is also what helps create psychological safety in the workplace. And so for people who are underrepresented, for whole identities that lack privilege in society, I think that connection isn’t just about warm and fuzzy, it’s sometimes also about literal safety, not psychological safety. So I do think that there are real-life implications to this work as well that just go beyond a fun workplace environment, if that makes sense. For some people this is truly a lifeline.

So, for you all at Donut to also know that you’re playing a part of these bigger, more societal and individual impact levels is really important, too. So Donut to me makes me feel like I’m not just like reinventing the wheel or trying to come up with things that people are just going to say, “Oh, well that’s just your idea.” There’s actually a team of people whose job it is to think about these things and to think about the importance of team-building and the impact of team-building, and what it can have on productivity and just staff morale and things like that. So, I feel like I’m not alone in that, like we have a good partner and advocate that wants us to succeed at those things. And that is Donut.

I feel like I just have a really warm and fuzzy, positive affinity with Donut because it’s been such a great resource. The Office Hours have been super helpful, and interactions with staff like you have been fantastic, and it’s just been really nice to feel like, especially in these times when relationships are having a moment of heightened importance, and heightened attention, it’s nice to know that there are resources out there like Donut to help cultivate those things in a sustainable way for organizations like ours.

AS: Okay well for the second time today you’re making me a little bit teary [laughs]. That’s so cool, thank you for sharing that! And I loved what you said — I’m maybe summarizing and paraphrasing, let me know if I’m misunderstanding, but it sounded like you were saying something I think about a lot which is: culture is everybody’s job. One person can’t make a culture great; that’s not how it works. And that’s so often put on one person, or one team, and that’s not how it works! I’m really honored that you feel like Donut’s supporting you in this.

AH: At the Office Hours yesterday, one of the comments that one of the speakers made was, “relationships are the synapses of culture.” I feel like that summarizes it: you can talk about culture, you can talk about assessing what the culture is, and changing it, and what you want it to be, but none of that’s going to matter if the relationships aren’t there. The relationships are what make it come to life.

So… yeah! I think what you’re doing is super important and impactful, so thank you.

AS: Thank you, and shoutout Josh Levine for that nugget, in his book Great Mondays… always like to give him a pump-up.

Angie, thank you so much, this was SO delightful. I’m so glad we got to have this conversation. Thank you so much for being part of our community, and for being an incredible customer and advocate!