Written by Carla Sorrell and Clemens Rettich
After a year of dealing with the world in a pandemic, many of the ways we used to do business, and the assumptions those ways were built on, have been challenged.
Many things we thought we could never do, we are doing, and doing surprisingly well. One of the most visible changes has been moving to working remotely. Management and staff, colleagues, clients and delivery, opportunities and sales, all have taken on a profoundly different shape.
Douglas brought together a panel of business owners and representatives to talk about how the move to remote or hybrid work took shape in their respective sectors, each with their own constraints and opportunities. We wanted to know: how did we get here, what’s happening now and what might the future look like?
The themes that came out of this conversation may not be surprising but reveal working realities of very different companies.
Facilitating The Change
Sometimes the best solutions are the simplest. Want to keep people from coming into the office? Turn off the coffee machine.
“The most effective thing we did to stop realtors from just coming in to socialize,” says Kevin Sing, president of DFH Real Estate, “which is a big part of our business, was to shut down the coffee machines, so there was no reason to come in and be social.”
One of the biggest challenges in leading a team through a disruptive event is managing the transitions: helping people move from what was to what is, and what is likely coming. The challenge is to do that in a way that acknowledges deep-rooted habits, fears and uncertainty about the future.
Our panel responded to this challenge by communicating a lot, and then communicating even more. “We have 140 team members,” says Caitlin McKenzie of Monk Office. “Although we’re pretty decent at communication, I had to learn that you can’t communicate enough right now.” The communication ranges from “steady hand at the tiller” broadcast messages to personal connections to interactive times for people to voice their particular concerns.
Another important communication message is “those who support, need support.” Managers and team leaders have the double responsibility of ensuring their own wellness and that of their teams. Klaus Diaz at Certn made sure that a part of his focus was on supporting his managers to be accountable and present to their teams.
“When we were transitioning for full-time remote, we put an even bigger emphasis on making sure that team leads were being held accountable for communication with the team members,” explains Diaz. “I was going to team leads asking, ‘What is it your team needs? What’s working for them? Are you asking them these types of questions? Where are we finding gaps? How do we help fix those gaps?’”
A steady cadence of meaningful check-ins helps managers feel like they aren’t in this alone.
For decades the debate on the merits of “management by objectives” (MBO) seemed ivory tower at best to many organizations. In a matter of weeks, for tens of thousands of Canadian organizations, it became a very real issue.
With employees working from home, and far from any opportunity for direct observation, questions of trust, productivity and monitoring emerged front and centre.
The opportunity to equate “being at work” with “being productive” disappeared. No one came to work. Accountability and productivity had to be reframed, and fast. It was long overdue, and it took a pandemic to advance this important management issue. Building better communicating objectives and elevating trust were suddenly no longer optional.
Stories emerged, of course, of organizations that tried to extend their traditional command and control reach into their employees’ homes through tracking software, cameras and sensors. These efforts did nothing but expose failed and failing cultures and were generally excoriated in the business literature.
Our panelists were considerably more insightful in their responses. They understood this was the time to double down on transparency and to support employees in connecting their work to the objectives of the team. Panelists found it advanced their practice as managers.
“I find the most impactful thing has been scheduling those meetings,” says Nicala Hicks of Maven Design + Build, “and agreeing to due dates, and then leaving people to do what they need to do when they need to do it. I find when people are at their own homes, I don’t get into the habit of micromanaging.”
“One of the challenges of working from home is [clarity around] when is it going to be due?” says McKenzie. “It was easier, it helped me [to be clearer] when something was expected to be done because I couldn’t just walk down the hallway [to check]. We think that accountability piece is going to stay.”
One of the challenges raised early in the pandemic was that of getting innovative, collaborative work done when people couldn’t just bounce around the same space. But like our panelists, many were surprised that often the fluidity and “democratization” of video conferencing actually increased participation in group activities.
“Instead of running three separate meetings, we now run one meeting a week, but the participation level was extraordinary,” says Sing. “We would be lucky to get 50 per cent ‘live’ attendance at our regular meetings, and, all of a sudden, we were hitting 85 to 90 per cent of everybody [in the ‘all in’ video meetings].”
Trust was tested, and many were pleasantly surprised to find their efforts to take that chance to increase trust unilaterally were rewarded.
“I think the bottom line is that you really just need to trust when you’re hiring and have that trust with everyone,” says Alexandra Dawes of Virtual CFO Solutions. “Give them guidelines on what to do. You don’t need to oversee them; you don’t need to micromanage. Trust that they can do it.”
The confidence that this was all headed in the right direction wasn’t universal. We are deeply social animals. The human drive for proximity and direct connection is captured
in insights about the negative impact of teams working even on different floors. While there have been many benefits of working remotely as teams, distance still costs us as humans.
“We’re moving to a situation where all of our activities are on one floor versus split between two floors, just because we wanted to get back to that energy level, and which we know has been missing,” says Sing. “And we’ve watched the numbers. It’s really quite apparent that working from home is not as productive as working from the office.”
Just how important communication has become can’t be understated. It’s the lifeblood of every relationship within every organization, inward and outward facing. The pandemic caused lines of communication to multiply and, with it, the subject and subtleties of what needed to be discussed. For the panelists, connecting with employees became more scheduled and purposeful as a result.
The increase in cadence and detail meant finding the right language and tone — a way to bring authenticity without oversharing. “It’s a very effective way to communicate, via email,” says McKenzie. “But I have seen a lot of things get taken a different way. It’s a challenge.
You know, there’s lots of times where you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. So emails have tried to get more direct, but clear, and remembering the audience with whom you’re sharing and what you’re saying.”
The purpose of such touch points in real estate quelled fears that agents were facing about how to continue to provide a high level of customer service when people were afraid of everything they touched. “We’re very much a belly-to-belly industry and to feel the satisfaction of completing transactions, not being able to even shake a hand, has really been difficult for us on a day-to-day basis,” says Kevin, who saw a lot of agents eager to connect and share stories when he added a second weekly catch-up.
Mental health quickly became part of the conversation — it got personal because it needed to be. Working from home inherently personalizes a day “in the office.” But negotiating that balance doesn’t come naturally. “We discussed the mental health of the team,” says Emily Panzenboeck of her conversations within Megson Fitzpatrick. “If there are people that were suffering more than others, usually that would fall on me. I’d reach out and see what we could do to the system, if it was about managing their workloads.”
Although systems like Slack try to replenish the space filled by informal office banter, people still need the attention and fulfillment of a good one-to-one chat. “I have a full day where I say, ‘You can come and talk to me,’ says Diaz of his approach. “‘Let’s talk about professional development, let’s talk about personal life, let’s talk about sports or whatever you want.’ Having person-to-person communication doesn’t just have to be professional.”
The redistribution of office workers cast light on how very different people are: different levels of comfort, different challenges outside of work, different emotional capacities. Family plays a big part in this too, the way that businesses who operate as a family support their employees and what kind of family relationships are factoring into the experience for individuals.
“I find that this whole thing has divided a lot of people,” says Hicks. “A lot of people have family that are compromised at home and some people don’t. It’s hard for people to be empathetic to others’ situations. Just knowing how to keep everybody safe in the way that they need to. [I need to] know what comes down from the government and how to feather that into my business. Half of it’s essential and half of it’s not. Keeping up with all of that has been incredibly challenging.”
Like Maven Design + Build, Monk Office is an essential service, with some of its employees working on the frontlines in retail within the community, while others were working from home. For McKenzie, managing these opposing situations within one company meant educating the team to create a mutual understanding that “just because they’re at home doesn’t mean they are not working.
“Being there for so many different types of personalities, you know how they work and how they don’t work, what works for them,” says McKenzie. “I had some team members who really thrived. Then there are people who were working from home … but certain fears got to them, and they really dug in their feet to return back to the office to be with their colleagues. I was dealing with calls or emails: ‘Nobody needs me, I don’t contribute, Monk is better without me.’ It was starting to dig into their confidence.”
For some, being isolated from daily routines was like losing roots, and the erosion of confidence was a devastating consequence of such a shift in habit. Many of the panelists are looking forward to the time when they can hug again, share the kind of “belly laughs” that don’t make the cut on a video call and celebrate in person (aren’t we all?). Even some of the panel’s digitally native companies admitted it’s not the same celebrating on Zoom.
Optimism is part of the DNA of entrepreneurship, what keeps businesses digging in and innovating, when even the statistics say it’s time to throw in the towel.
The pandemic certainly tested that optimism. But entrepreneurs kept finding those silver linings that drive hope and innovation.
Working from home revealed some of those silver linings. Businesses discovered that they could continue to operate, in many cases quite successfully, with some or all of their employees working remotely, calling into question the need for all that expensive office real estate.
More profoundly, many entrepreneurs began to rethink their entire relationship with space and location. Everything from video conferencing to e-commerce to recruiting created opportunities to do business in places and ways that were literally unthinkable as little as a year ago.
An accelerated adoption of technology drove a lot of new opportunities in human capital management. “Certainly, the greater use of technology has really been great,” Panzenboeck confirmed. “I think from an HR perspective, we have hired three people since COVID started; one out of province, one up-Island, and one of our existing employees has moved off the Island. And I don’t know that we would have made all those hires or approved the existing employee to move off the Island before. But now that we have seen that people can work effectively from home, we have embraced that.”
With the opportunities for many roles to create value remotely, many employers realized that this changed more than where employees set up their laptops. If work could be done remotely, the geographical constraints on recruiting suddenly vanish. We can hire from anywhere. For some panelists this changed who their brands were as employers.
“So for us, the biggest opportunity that we’ve seen, is in terms of how remote work is changing our philosophy and our employer brand, from how to be the best company to work for in Victoria to how to be the best Canadian company to work for,” reported Diaz.
Before the pandemic, many customers had a deep- seated and laudable commitment to local providers and suppliers. All of that was shaken when even a supplier down the street had to act remotely in every way. This created enormous challenges for suppliers and providers but also huge opportunities. If the way we had to interact with our customers didn’t change if they were down the block or on the other side of the country, the role of geography became instantly less relevant.
“Early on, we were really familiar with technology,” says Dawes. “And so being able to pivot clients into the cloud or into a passive revenue stream or selling online was a big piece of that as well. We’ll probably see that continue in the future.”
TIPS FOR WORKING EFFECTIVELY FROM HOME
1.Establish a physical boundary between work and home by carving out a separate space for work, saving your bed for rest and turning off Slack in the evenings.
2.Create a schedule to provide structure for your days. Try the two minute rule, immediate actions for tasks under two minutes, and the Pomodoro technique, setting a timer to manage longer tasks.
3.Allow space for emotional processing. The 20-minute rule can give structure to big emotions: set a timer and give yourself 20 minutes to “feel” your feelings.
4.Working with colleagues and leaders by focusing on your human resources, acknowledging fear and anxiety and being flexible.
5.Coping with your partner and kids means extra patience, empathy and compassion. It also requires deliberate time management and coordination to manage schedules and plan time together and time alone.
6.Create and maintain social connection during isolation with colleagues and friends.
7. Learn how to recognize early signs of anxiety, depression and substance abuse.
8. Know when and where to reach out for professional support.