Making Remote Work, Work

Laptop, phone, coffee and pad of paper on table

Over the past few months, we’ve often heard from clients and other communications professionals, “How are you handling remote work? How are you getting anything done?” We’ve gathered three leaders with different expertise to share their secrets to making remote work not just survivable, but successful.

Q: Given That Teams Are Working Remotely, How Are You Maintaining Communication, Persistent Contact, and Transparency?

Dan Cohen, FCP Communications: For FCP, much of this is driven by client deliverables. We hold frequent client check-ins, but now are holding even more frequent internal check-ins to manage bandwidth and triage challenging times where client work may be in conflict. We also continually look across the team for opportunities to support each other and ask each other for help. We also use chat tools to stay connected internally.

Andrea Lowe, Lowe Consulting Group: I have ramped up company staff meetings and check-ins. We have a brief formal check-in every two weeks as opposed to every month, and I check in with newer staff weekly to review tasks, and answer questions. I also try to ensure that there is a fun aspect to our bi-weekly check-ins (i.e. we played Kahoot with personalized questions about each staff, a virtual form of Pictionary called and asked staff to share new hobbies/skills they have learned during SIP). During one-on-one check-ins, I make a point of reviewing how each team member is personally doing, checking in on their family, and answering any questions they have about their employment status, how SIP is impacting the company or any other items on their minds.

David Yahid, Penguin Strategies: As a company culture we have a lot of transparency to begin with. We know who is working on what projects and regularly celebrate milestones large and small across the group, so the team whether involved or not in certain projects knows what is happening and where things stand. In addition, we’ve put together a very clear and strong message across the company that we encourage trying new things. If something goes wrong, communicating with management will not get you in trouble. Instead, we’ll put together a quick stand-up with anyone and everyone who can contribute and brainstorm as a team the best way to address the problem. This ensures that both good and bad news spreads throughout the company quickly and everyone is in the loop on whatever is important. We’re also a team that is very comfortable with Zoom, use Slack regularly for all internal communications, and have dedicated channels for each project so information is shared quickly and efficiently.

Q: How has your leadership changed their approach to employee (and customer) Communications due to COVID?

Andrea: Our leadership is me, and I have tried to be less task-oriented and more individual-focused to ensure that I am supporting my staff individually. Some have lost family members, others are feeling isolated as they don’t have family in the area, and everyone is struggling with the loss of personal interactions and feeling overwhelmed with balancing all that is happening.

David: Naturally, this is a time of uncertainty and that leaves people anxious and uncomfortable.
On the external level, our CEO has personally called each client and discussed with them where we stand, expressed that we are here to help and support in any way we can. Although we are a services business, we have gone above and beyond to accommodate unique needs that just popped up during this period. These are things that surface during a conversation and otherwise would not be known. All account managers were also instructed to communicate with clients on a more frequent basis than usual. Better to over-communicate than under-communicate.

Internally, management has made it a point to address all employees in an open company-wide discussion every time there is a significant update. Sometimes this happens day after day, and the irregular frequency actually helps establish that information is communicated ASAP, which helps reduce rumors.

Dan: From the start, we committed to being very transparent with everyone about what we knew…and what we didn’t. For employees, this meant using public guidance as our litmus test. We are also practicing extreme caution to protect the health of our employees – and clients. For example, we delivered a video project for a client – where the videos were shot” using online conferencing tools instead of with a live video camera.

Q: What are the biggest HR and communications challenges you see organizations having to overcome during the COVID-19 crisis?

David: I think the biggest issues HR faces at the moment is the uncertainty, and lack of job security almost everyone in the company feels. Everyone knows that there is a crisis going on. Everyone knows that most companies are making cuts. The general feeling is uncertainty. People are working longer hours and being hyper-productive to prove their value, however, that’s not sustainable in the long run. The challenge is communicating news in a clear way, bad and good alike, that keeps rumors and uncertainty to a minimum, and at the same time doing it with empathy.

Dan: For all our clients, it’s managing the unknowns and conflicting information surrounding customers and the public. Our public health clients have found that a key is managing and maintaining a sense of trust among the people in their region. For our consumer brand clients, it’s finding the balance between when their voice is needed, and when it’s time to just quietly go about their business. We have also heard from brands and nonprofits that many are retrenching their efforts now to focus on building and strengthening their relationships with their most valued clients and donors – leaving aside new customer / donor cultivation for later.

Andrea: Maintaining connections with peers and co-workers, supporting new mediums for team collaboration, and balancing work overload; the reality of being overworked while at home is very real. Organizations will need to support staff mentally and emotionally as we transition back. The coffee shop where you normally chatted with co-workers may be out of business, friends may have moved out of town due to loss of work or others may struggle to adjust with the new office configurations that will be required. We will need to define the new normal once we do return to the office. While this will change for each organization and need to be customized based on customer/client needs; I think we can all expect that the way we work will need to evolve.

Q: How can you hire effectively and communicate your culture virtually? What lessons are there from the pre-covid Era? What has changed?

Dan: Organizational culture has always needed to be a 24/7 thing. I think of a client for whom their network of charter schools wasn’t just public education, it was a way of life. Their teachers embodied it. Their parents trained in it. And their students lived it inside and outside of school. Watching how they have navigated COVID-19 has been a marvel. Since their key audiences were already bought in, they simply changed the venue of communication without changing the content. We can all learn from this – as a reminder to be clear and intentional about communicating our culture and expectations in advance – and consistently delivering them across every platform of engagement.

Andrea: This will definitely be a new skill. As a small business, we don’t have an HR department or formal on-board manuals and procedures, much of our new staff training is done one-on-one by existing team members. Organizations that are fortunate enough to weather the COVID-19 financial impacts and hire new employees will have a wealth of candidates to choose from given other industries that have enacted reductions. It will be important to set clear expectations and outline tasks and deliverables to ensure there is a match between worker skills and job demands. Yes, this was true in the pre-COVID era, but the challenge will come in communicating and evaluating virtually. Relying on referrals from clients or existing staff maybe even more important now, as these individuals can convey your organization’s culture and norms or industry expectations that when not communicated often result in mismatches.

David: I think the main lesson is that it COULD be done. While many companies had a limited work-from-home policy, many were afraid of a fully remote team. In fact, it’s added to productivity and can help shape a culture going forward with more emphasis on work-life balance. People gained an extra 1-3 hours a day that they don’t waste on a commute, people are more available at any time as they spread their workdays out and intersperse more family time throughout the day. With all the time saved on shorter meetings, less commuting, and less time wasted chatting at the office, there is also some time the company can block aside on a weekly level for things like a company-wide water cooler breaks or sending DIY kits to employees’ homes and asking them to send in pictures of their completed masterpiece. Also, everyone now knows each other a lot more personally having been in each other’s homes and meeting their kids as opposed to just some small talk in the office.

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