In these unpredictable times of COVID-19, most businesses have shifted their work model to telecommuting. With that change, a new challenge has emerged: staying connected with co-workers and customers.
“Having worked from home for so many years (as a freelance writer), I was set up for it,” says Judy Kneiszel, associate editor of the human resources publishing team at J. J. Keller & Associates in Neenah. “I could do it without missing a beat, but not everyone is set up for that. You have to be really disciplined to separate your home life from your work life.”
These days, most of J. J. Keller’s 1,500 employees are working from home, something not everyone was accustomed to. Aside from having to address logistical considerations (office space, furniture and having the right technology in place), Kneiszel says a bigger challenge is how to remain connected with others.
“Because you are isolated right now … doesn’t mean that you have to go it alone,” she says. “You’re still an employee of your company; you still have that support. If you have a problem, you can still reach out to your human resources people and managers.”
While working from home, employees still have clients to serve and deadlines to meet. Bridget O’Connor, owner of O’Connor Connective in De Pere, says even with all the organization’s employees working remotely, the work of creating messaging and content and handling crisis communication goes on. They still have built-in accountability to clients, budgets and deliverables. “That has not changed,” she says.
“The vast majority of what we do can be done using our laptops,” O’Connor adds. But employees do miss being able to “brainstorm and connect informally with one another during the day and meet face to face with clients.”
O’Connor had some telecommuting infrastructure already in place before COVID-19 sent most workers home. “We invested in a video camera, virtual conference room equipment and signed up with a virtual meeting host,” she says. “We’re really glad that we did. That really triggered our ability to make sure we could function as a team.”
While working from home, O’Connor and her team still must assist clients in maintaining communication with their audiences. For example, client Encompass Early Education and Care needed to understand how to communicate with the public and donors during these unusual times.
Investing in new equipment, like a large-screen video monitor, also has been essential during this transitional period for Gerbers Law in Green Bay.
“Each computer now has video conferencing capabilities, and phone calls are being relayed to cellphones and email,” says owner/attorney Terry Gerbers. “We have done our best to ensure the transition to a remote work environment has been seamless. Aside from discouraging clients from scheduling in-office conferences, our clients have had the same access to our attorneys and staff that they would have at the office.”
No matter what companies do, however, Bill Marklein, founder of Employ Humanity, acknowledges, “there are going to be challenges with our small businesses, with our relationships.”
But he recommends embracing resiliency. “That’s where we get our character. I’ve learned the most through failure and through setbacks.”
While telecommuting is the way of the world right now, O’Connor adds, “never underestimate the power of human connection.”
When business does return to whatever the new normal is, she says, “I would expect that we would return to an age of people wanting to meet in person, first and foremost.”
It’s uncertain when employees and customers will be able return to business as usual. In the meantime, managers are faced with supervising remote employees.
Out of sight should not mean out of mind or constant micromanaging, says Judy Kneiszel, associate editor of the human resources publishing team at J. J. Keller & Associates in Neenah. She shares five tips for supervising employees working remotely:
1. Make sure they have the tools. Remote employees must have the equipment, software and capabilities to do the job effectively. This means having the ability to download and work on files and documents, call in for meetings and use whatever project management software is applicable.
2. Set clear expectations. What hours do you expect employees to be available? How often should they check in with you? Create hard deadlines as well as milestone dates to check progress.
3. Have a communication strategy. Decide if instant messaging should be used for situations that require immediate answers or if emails should be answered within 24 hours. Video conferencing may be another option.
4. Focus on productivity, not activity. Don’t worry about how many hours a day you see a person logged in as long as the remote employee is reaching milestones, completing projects on time and accomplishing goals.
5. Respond in a timely manner. Answer remote workers’ questions with the same urgency you would if they popped into your office.