Empowering employees through language

Designscapes Colorado is tackling communication problems head-on with language classes for employees.

Designscapes offered a $200 bonus to be awarded upon graduation from the courses.
Photo courtesy of Designscapes Colorado

After 25 years in business, we realized we had an important challenge that needed to be addressed here at Designscapes Colorado. With more than 250 year-round and seasonal team members, we needed to address our communication problem. This was not a typical communication problem, such as a lack of clear direction from management, that typically impacts companies in other industries. This particular problem involved the confluence of two distinct languages: Spanish and English.

We consulted with our bilingual staff members and soon determined the best course of action was to empower both our Spanish- and English-speaking employees by enrolling them in company funded language classes. We wanted to not just get our Spanish speakers in English classes, but also our English speakers in Spanish classes because we wanted to increase the level of communication and camaraderie across the company.

The process.

Since it was our first time implementing this type of program, we decided to start small, so we selected a language school located in Denver. We enrolled 10 Spanish speaking team members into English classes during the summer, and 13 English speaking team members into Spanish classes in the winter. The classes were held at the language school once a week for 14 weeks. Even though it was an established language school, with a long track record and their own methods and curriculum, the school still agreed to customize both classes to emphasize the vernacular of the landscape industry.

We immediately saw the benefits of our efforts. Long-time team member David Flores Ramirez, from Guanajuato, Mexico said, “I used to have a difficult time at work understanding what the project managers were telling me. I could understand a few words here and there, but it was hard. After the first round of English classes, I feel much more comfortable understanding not only my English-speaking coworkers, but our clients as well.”

As for management, we saw an immediate decline in problems and delays due to miscommunication and noted that mistakes made due to language also decreased. English speaking team members noted that simple directions were more clearly understood on the jobsite, which prevented problems such as placing a new planting in the wrong area or adjusting sprinkler times in the wrong zone. But while the investment in the team was deemed by all parties to be well worth it, it came with challenges.

The company buy-in.

Travis Sommervold, our commercial construction assistant manager, spearheaded the project. He comprised a committee of several office and field staff from managers to first-year team members to help facilitate what the employees wanted to get out of the program, to garner interest and to decide which days/times were the best options for classes.

The committee decided that the program needed some ground rules. They wanted to ensure that those who were selected for the classes would take full advantage of the opportunity. But they also wanted the rules to be fair and reasonable, and to promote personal accountability. This is what they came up with:

  • A $200 bonus to be awarded upon graduation
  • Full attendance strongly encouraged
  • Two excused absences would be allowed
  • But, students who missed more than two classes would subsequently be responsible for course tuition, which was roughly $500.
the pros.

All 23 employees who participated graduated. And while the English speakers only missed two classes combined, even better, the Spanish speaking employees did not record a single absence the entire semester. The obvious pro is that our crews, office staff, and managers are communicating more effectively, which has reduced onsite frustrations and improved project completion times. But, as noted, the program also increased camaraderie.

The students quickly came to appreciate the culture of inclusion and personal advancement that our CEO Phil Steinhauer had worked to create over the last 25 years. Team members from all levels across the organization were encouraged to strive for personal improvement and came to understand that the company would help them in the process.

The program has given an immeasurable boost to morale and has reaffirmed that the company truly cares about individual development.

the cons.

Admittedly, nothing is perfect, and we saw that establishing the program posed its own set of challenges. There were actually more employees interested in taking the courses than could initially be enrolled.

Other difficulties included gauging the true interest of employees, deciding who would be enrolled, having to prioritize one employee over another, and finding an accessible time for the class that allowed all participants an equal chance of success.

Addressing these problems was no easy task, but we had to prioritize potential students based on seniority, skill set, and the employees responsibilities in the company. Due to the limitations of the class size, we decided to send mostly crew leaders, or up-and-coming crew leaders to the classes. In addition, we wanted to ensure that everyone who was selected would be just as invested in the program as we were, which is why we can up with the attendance requirements, as well as letting the group choose what time worked best for them to have class.

Moving forward.

Since we have determined their first-year language program to be an unqualified success, we are already looking to expand. We’ve had such an overwhelming number of Spanish speakers that want to learn English, they are in talks to bring the program (and tutors) to the office to both accommodate more students and to make attendance easier.

And if better working relationships and smoother project management weren’t enough reasons to try this program, we’ve also discovered increased employee retention. Making everyone feel a part of the team is so important to Designscapes Colorado that one of their company core values is in actually only in Spanish and doesn’t have a literal English translation. “Echale Ganas” an oft-repeated phrase around the firm, roughly translates to “give it your all.”

In an industry that relies on non-English speakers for staffing, it makes sense to give employees another reason to stick around, to provide opportunities for growth and to give the gift of education to the people who are essential to the success of the industry.

The author is the business operations analyst at Designscapes Colorado.

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