In this episode, our guest is Kristina Pressley, who became Orion’s HR Manager in January 2020 and spearheaded the effort of starting Orion’s Learning Pod after the announcement that remote learning would be how the school year would start throughout the state of Washington. Kristina and Orion’s staff formed a cooperative to provide a safe, supervised space and learning resources for children of employees. Orion's Learning Pod includes 20 kids from 13 families and 6 school districts. The children are completing their online learning according to their school and grade level.

She is an Air Force Veteran, having served for 12 years as a Spanish Linguist, an Intelligence Officer and Military Training Instructor. She is a certified personal trainer and health educator and owned her own small fitness business.

Below is a short excerpt from the conversation. For more insight, please listen to the podcast, either via the player above or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or Google Podcast.

Agnes Uhereczky: Before we get into the pandemic response and the Learning Pod, may I ask you Christina to tell listeners a little bit about the context of Orion Industries? Could you explain to our listeners more about the sector your company operates in, the size of the workforce and where you are based? So that people know a little bit more about the organisation before we go into more specifics.

Kristina Pressley: Absolutely. So, Ryan Industries is called a social enterprise. The enterprise part of what we do is that we are an aerospace part manufacturing business, so, we make aeroplane parts for Boeing and other companies. That is the business piece of it. The social part of that is that we are a non-profit. We have been in business since 1957 and our social mission is that we offer paid job training and job placement opportunities for people with barriers to employment. So, people who may have a disability or history of addiction or homelessness or something that's keeping them from being actively employed. What we do is we bring them in and we offer them paid training in our manufacturing business and then once they established some history, some employment history with us, and gained some of those soft skills that we know help people steadily keep jobs, then we help to place them into jobs out in the community. And we have been doing this work since 1957. We are in the suburbs of Seattle. We have two locations: we have staff in Seattle and a town called Auburn Washington. And then we also have a location north-east of Seattle in Mukilteo. So, two facilities offering the same sorts of job services to folks and then making aeroplane parts.

Agnes Uhereczky: You have reacted to the pandemic in a way that I think only a very few employers have. So, would you like to take us through what happened when the pandemic started for you there in the US, and school closed? What were some of the supports that Ryan Industries and you have decided to put in place for working parents and employees in general?

Kristina Pressley: Yes, so, it's coming up almost exactly a year ago that States decided to close the schools here and start to move to an online format. At first, it was just something that we had to adapt to pretty quickly. For the most part, I think, at that time we were just under 400 staff members at Orion, at that point. We didn't have anything in place to assist with this. So, we were scrambling a little bit and allowing people to take negative PTO if they needed to do that to be able to stay home and care for children or figure out a plan for their children to be able to accomplish their online school in this new way. In addition to the challenges of the pandemic - we also make aeroplane parts - and Boeing who is our biggest customer was facing some challenges as well. So when they shut down production of the 737 MAX that had a big impact on us as well. We were hit doubly during the pandemic with the challenges in the aerospace industry. So, we came into a plan and time where not only were our children being left at home to do their school work we were facing business challenges as well. And so when things closed in the State of Washington pretty quickly and when Boeing decided that they were going to have closure then that was when suppliers like Orion decided to do that too. We were closed, our businesses closed between the end of March and the middle of April 2020. That allowed parents to stay home with their kids and be allowed their schoolwork that way. And then when we came back to work it was a challenge in terms of making sure that people were given flexibility in their scheduling so that they could take care of things at home that they needed to. We, unfortunately, had to make some difficult decisions along the way through 2020. We ended up laying off about 50% of our workforce, so we are now less than 200 employees but we are still in the position where we needed to be able to support that number of staff members as well. So, it has been a challenge over and over again to meet the ever-changing landscape of employment throughout this past year.

And then as we came upon the beginning of the new school year - I have kids right, I have a 15 and a 10-year-old - and faced with knowing that as they were entering their new school years they were going to be doing that virtually created a challenge really for me as well to figure out what I was gonna do with them. And so I looked back through my toolkit, my parenting toolkit, when my children were younger I was part of efforts to put preschool co-ops for my children. That was something that I did when I was a stay at home mom, so, out of that need to figure something out for my own family, I reached back to that. It fell together that we had space in our building here in Orion and knowing that I was challenged with figuring out what to do with my kids I knew other parents will be experiencing that as well.

Then I landed on this idea of the Learning Pod. That is how it started, my own need to figure out what to do with my kids.

Agnes Uhereczky: How did the creation of the Learning Pod take shape? What was the first step in the process, how do you start such an initiative?

Kristina Pressley: We have a Facilities Manager here and I was throwing out the idea that I was thinking of putting together some sort of co-op and he identified that we have space. Another component of our business used to be that we have a call centre here. And, that closed a couple of years ago, so we had this space in our building that wasn't being utilized. It was a pretty technical space, there have been a lot of computers and phones in there in the past. So, we knew that we had space and the idea of it was just the matter of getting the senior leadership on board in support. So, I presented the idea to them, with the culture of what we do here, we always try to be creative and find ways to help people. Especially through the pandemic that was a big focus for us for our staff members. So, it is a no-brainer, that this was the right thing for us to do. And then it was just about being able to navigate how we would get all the things that we needed, and the biggest concern for us initially was getting our insurance company to be on board with allowing this to happen in our building. There were a lot of concerns about that and I worked closely with our insurance providers to answer all of their questions with regards to the safety of the children and who is going to access them and were the facilities sufficient to be able to offer this service in this space.

Agnes Uhereczky: When I read the article where I stumbled upon this great work and project you did with the Pod, I was so surprised because this is something that I haven't even thought about. That you had to also look at the background checks of the people they would come in contact with, and they would have to have a separate toilet and facilities. That was something that I never thought would be something that would have to be considered.

A student attends classes in the Orion Learning Pod | courtesy photo, Orion Industries
A student attends classes in the Orion Learning Pod | courtesy photo, Orion Industries

Kristina Pressley: Luckily, with regards to the background check that is something that we do anyway for all of our staff members because of the nature of the work that we do with people with disabilities and other challenges. So, that piece of it was already in place. And then yes it was a matter of making sure that we have separate bathrooms and another one of the requirements the insurance company made for us was that we needed to have abuse training given any of the volunteers who are going to be working with the children. So, there were a few things that we had to get our ducks in order with a few things before we were able to push forward and launch. But we were able to answer everything sufficiently and as soon as we got the approval from our insurance company then everything was a go.

Agnes Uhereczky: How long did that take?

Kristina Pressley: I would say I worked through August with our insurance company answering all of their questions, making sure that we had documentation of the background checks. And of course, there is the COVID consideration too, right. So, there were a lot of safety things that we had to be concerned about. So, I had to make sure that we could space things out appropriately that we had measures in place for sanitizing the space and making sure that children were wearing masks and all of that. Those were things we were doing in the manufacturing business too so it's just extended to what we were doing in the Learning Pod. There were also some agreements that we had to come to with regards to how the Pods was going to function. So, at this time as well, so within the last year, we have been doing what is called shared work. And, it is within our unemployment insurance programme here within the state. Because there is not as much work as there was before, and because of the challenges of COVID, we have our full-time staff members, for the most part, working a reduced workweek. So, instead of working 40 hours of the week, the majority of them are working 32 hours a week which meant that they had a day that there would be volunteering to supervise in the learning pod. So that was sort of a condition of participation when we said: "Yes, your kids can come here and do their school and it's free, so there is no charge for it. But it is a requirement that you participate and help out with supervision on your days off."

Agnes Uhereczky: What was the age bracket of the children?

Kristina Pressley: We had all the way from 6 years old - who was the youngest - and 16 the oldest. We ended up when all was set and done assisting 13 families and there were as many as 15 children in the Pod on any given day.

Agnes Uhereczky: Did you have any other major obstacles? Was there something where you thought: 'okay, this is never going to work'?

Kristina Pressley: I feel like every day I was "oh my God how much longer are we gonna be able to pull this off?". But remarkably it was a success. What I was concerned about is that people would just become uninterested and not interested in coming in when their days were off even if it is free for their kids. But we did not do that at all. Everything that we pulled together was a true collaboration of effort and pulling together. It created a connection that wasn't there before between our senior leadership, management-level folks and then our staff members. So, it just became this place where people volunteered even those who did not have kids there, they wanted to come and teach our classes. And, we had so many school supplies, I just sent out an email and said: "Hey, we need some school supplies up in the Learning Pod" and it was instant. The next day we had snacks and we had all the paper and pens and markers, hand sanitisers that we could need were all donated by our wonderful staff and their families here. It was a remarkable way to bring people together in an effort that assisted the people that needed at the most.

Agnes Uhereczky: Is the Pod still in operation or the situation has changed and schools are open again?

Kristina Pressley: The schools are in the process of reopening and towards the end of last year, we started to see attendance dropping off and so we did another survey and asked - is this something that is still needed? We were prepared to be in this for the long haul. There wasn't a stop date on this for us for the leadership here at Orion. But once I did a survey and learned that parents had come up with their own solutions. It evolved over the 4 months that we had the Learning Pod open so people were able to come to their own plan about how to handle it. I think that the Learning Pod served as a bridge to help people from not knowing what they were going to do to have figured something out on their own. And so just before the end of 2020, we closed it down, lightly closed the doors with the understanding that we didn't know how things are going to go in the new year but it appears that everyone still has their plans in place so we haven't had the Pod open yet in 2021.

Agnes Uhereczky: Coming to the last question which is more or less always the same here on the WorkLife HUB podcast: If I could ask you Kristina to advise other organisations or HR leaders or senior managers who are maybe still on the fence how they can support working parents what would be your advice? How can they support their employees through the pandemic? Do you have your lesson learned or advice that you could give them from what you have learnt from what your experience was in supporting employees and parents through this?

Kristina Pressley: Yes, so, what I have learned is - and I was about to say - that being hands-on is important and I say - in jest - because we are not supposed to have our hands dirty right now with the masks and everything but as the HR leader that I have learned to be in this last year, it's been important for me to ask people what they need and be present and to try to be creative in finding solutions to these challenges. You have to be willing to take a chance and have I not brought up our senior leadership this crazy idea who knows what we would have done? And so I think being fearless, think outside of the box, just be creative in your ways thinking about how you might be able to support each other.