How to support your newly-remote employees during coronavirus [Interview]
By John Becker
With so many businesses forced to quickly adopt a work-from-home culture during the coronavirus pandemic, there were inevitably going to be stumbles along the way.
Here at IMPACT, over half of our employees work remotely all the time, so, once the pandemic hit, we leaned more heavily into our culture, spruced up our home offices, and prepared to weather the storm.
Natalie Davis, IMPACT's VP of talent, helped build our remote culture over the past few years.
Here, she offers insights that she's learned along the way.
The mood of the country
John: Could you start by talking about how you think companies are feeling right now?
Natalie: I would say most companies are feeling a total loss of control.
Employees might be working from home, and some companies have never explored that dynamic before. Also, they might have lost control over their physical office space, which they're not allowed to use anymore.
Right now, it seems like the world is changing so much hour by hour.
No matter how much you try to prep and get ahead, nobody knows what's going to happen next, good or bad.
So, businesses are just spinning their wheels trying to plan for everything possible. It's a lot of work and a lot of guessing.
John: Businesses like to plan. So, how can they plan in such uncertainty? How do you move forward beyond just day to day plans?
Natalie: What we're trying to do on the leadership team at IMPACT is, instead of just making plans like we normally would, we try to come up with a couple of different options in different extremes, hoping the reality will land somewhere in the middle.
So if the extreme happens, let's say we lose all of our clients, what do we do then? What can work? Okay, and what happens if we keep half of our customers? What can happens if we actually gain business? Who do we need to pull in? Do we need to hire?
As long as we have our plan for the extremes, we can back up from there.
What companies get wrong about remote work
John: With so many companies being forced into this remote landscape — some that have never done this before — what do you see as common oversights that they might make in this abrupt pivot?
Natalie: I would say the number one thing would be getting the right communication tools in place. And, if there's only one communication tool you're going to get, I would say get a video hosting platform. We use Zoom at IMPACT.
When we first dipped our toes into going remote and we only had one to two remote employees, we didn't even really think about video.
Because of this, a lot people felt completely disconnected from the company.
They didn't even really know what the team looked like. So, today, Zoom is essential.
Beyond video, we use Slack for more quick conversations, and we recently started using Basecamp for company-wide announcements.
It’s important to have a place that your employees know where to go to get the most important updates from whoever's sending out that information.
I would also stress the importance of setting a regular schedule for touching base with individual teams.
We do daily stand ups, which is a quick about 15-minute or so meeting. Everyone just touches base on what they worked on the previous day and what they're working on today.
It connects the team and keeps people accountable. I think it also just makes people feel like they're not alone working by themselves.
John: Can you talk about the logistics around time zones?
Natalie: Yeah, that’s interesting. We’ve gotten pretty accustomed to workers on the west coast.
We talk with people before they get hired about the time difference and we try to bring on people who would be okay with working Eastern hours so that we could all be on the same general schedule.
But now that we have somebody in Scotland, which is five hours in the other direction, that's a whole other ballgame.
IMPACT Lead Strategic Consultant Chris Marr blocks his schedule for when he's available and when he's not — because he still has to have some kind of a normal work schedule, but also a normal life.
In general, the biggest thing I think we've had to deal with is just figuring out how to balance what the company needs from somebody at certain times with what the employee needs and the clients need.
What about remote culture?
John: So that's remote work, but there also has to be a remote culture. Can you talk about how you build a culture that supports, accepts, and nurtures that remote life?
Natalie: Yes. So you can work remotely, you can pump out work, you can get it done, but at the end of the day, I think the culture part of it is how you feel when you're doing that work.
Are you happy? Do you feel like you're connected to your company? Do you care about the customers that you're doing this for?
In terms of remote culture, my goal is always to have a remote employee feel just as connected to the team and company as if they were working in a traditional office setting.
That means feeling included and not forgotten, and having personal connections with people, even though you could be miles and miles apart.
You also need to feel like you have a voice in the company, even though you're not physically there.
To help create this ideal culture, we regularly facilitate employee interactions through casual virtual “coffee chats,” interest-based slack groups, virtual happy hours and games, and weekly all-hands meetings.
These are all intended to increase face-time opportunities to build deeper team connections.
The CEO and I also regularly schedule individual or group meetings either with people we haven’t talked to in a while, or to get real feedback and insight on team morale and issues.
Our intention is to show employees that we want to hear from them and we take their happiness and feedback very seriously.
What do workers need to do?
John: How can newly-remote employees best handle the transition home where they might be lacking the structure, resources, and materials they’re used to?
Natalie: That has been something I have really gotten a good look at because I'm not normally a fully remote employee. I work from home here and there and I don't usually have an issue with it for a day or so, but like most other people, I’ve been thrown into it full time.
I would say the way employees should approach this is setting a routine and a schedule sticking to it.
You need to at least give yourself a heads up of what time it is sometimes, which sounds ridiculous, but I'll look up to check the time and it's three o'clock and I haven't eaten lunch yet.
That's the weirdest thing to me.
It feels like I just don't have any concept of time. So I would suggest setting a schedule so that you make sure you know when you're starting work, when it is a normal lunchtime, and that you're getting up and getting exercise.
Also, set aside the time to actually interact with the people that you're living with, whether that’s your spouse, your kids, your boyfriend, your hamsters — whatever it is that you have at home, you don't want to feel like you're neglecting them even though you're home all day.
And then I think the most important thing in that schedule is deciding when to unplug. It's so easy to pick up the laptop at any hour of the night and just keep working.
At first I thought that was kind of awesome — I just felt like I could get so much stuff done — but I quickly burned out because it was just too easy to get sucked back in and get overwhelmed.
Happy hours and Cribs episodes
John: Can you talk about ways that we or you are trying to build collegiality and lighten the mood?
Natalie: We are trying to do anything we can to keep people positive and connected, and we’ve come up with a couple of different things that we're testing out.
We’ve recently revamped our “acts of kindness” group, and we've been using an app called Donut, which randomly selects two people per week who are in the acts of kindness Slack group.
It automatically sends them a message saying they’ve been selected that week to do a kind act for another employee, and lists off some cost-free suggestions.
We’ve also gotten back into using kudoboards, which are free virtual messages board where you can have as many collaborators as you want to add pictures or GIFs or messages and then ship it off to somebody.
In the end, people get this really cool interactive board maybe for a birthday or a promotion or a job anniversary.
And given that we're all at home, we're trying out new fun virtual stuff: We recently rolled out IMPACT Cribs.
It’s our own version of the old MTV Cribs show where celebrities would do a virtual walkthrough of their house and show off their work space, pets, backyard, and anything else they want to include.
It’s been fun for people to see other people's living situations and get to know each other on another level.
Our goal in everything we’re doing during this chaotic time is to lessen the new personal and professional burdens of our employees and clients, keep morale high, and bring our team to a whole new level of closeness.
If we’re successful and push through, there’s a chance we can even come out of this as a stronger and more effective team than ever before.
Wondering where to begin?