(Editor’s note: This is part one in our series about how Kentucky businesses are responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19. See the full report.)
By Lorie Hailey
When Kentucky first began using social distancing measures to help slow the spread of COVID-19, businesses faced a challenge unlike any they had ever seen: Quickly convert to a remote workforce, continue to serve their clients and customers, and weather a global pandemic that is putting immense strain on health care systems and weakening the economy.
Some businesses already employed remote workers, so they were prepared for the challenges that might lie ahead. But for others, the very idea of converting to a remote workforce was completely foreign and required strategic, innovative thinking — and a lot of support from IT professionals.
The Lane Report is talking to companies across the state about how they took on the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the efforts to stop its spread. We’re sharing stories about what their new normal looks like, along with tips for businesses who are still working out all of the kinks.
Perhaps one of the first companies to allow the majority of its staff to telecommute was Kentucky Employers’ Mutual Insurance (KEMI), the largest provider of workers’ compensation insurance in the state. Before COVID-19, about a third of KEMI’s staff telecommuted. By March 18, the majority of employees in the company’s Lexington and Louisville offices were working from home, said Ryan Worthen, KEMI’s director of marketing and communications.
For the first story of our series, Making It Work: How Kentucky’s business leaders are responding to the challenges of COVID-19, The Lane Report asked Worthen to share KEMI’s story, discuss the challenges of telecommuting, and offer tips to other businesses.
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The Lane Report: When this situation arose, how did your company come up with a plan and how quickly did you implement it?
Ryan Worthen: KEMI was in the process of updating our business continuity plan when COVID-19 hit, so we quickly shifted our focus to activate plans that were organized by our strategy, innovation, and marketing (SIM) team and implemented by our business continuity committee.
TLR: What were the biggest challenges in getting things set up?
Worthen: The biggest challenge was simply overcoming the uncertainty and concern as the COVID-19 situation rapidly evolved. To help mitigate this challenge, our initial focus was to try and help everyone remain calm and plan for the possibility of everyone needing to work remotely. KEMI is committed to taking good care of our customers, but we knew in order to continue this we had to make sure we took care of our employees first.
TLR: What was required to convert your staff to telework? Did you have to purchase new equipment or conduct special training for employees?
Worthen: Over the course of one week, the vice president of our SIM team, Elizabeth Paul, coordinated directly with each business unit throughout the organization and worked with our systems manager, John Koenig, to make sure every employee had the tools needed to telecommute.
TLR: What is a typical workday like now for your telecommuting workforce? Do you have video meetings or conference calls? Do you do a daily check-in? Do you use any special messaging software to communicate?
Worthen: KEMI’s executive team has two video conference calls each day, and most other meetings have moved to conference calls in order to keep operations moving along as smoothly as possible. While KEMI has several communication tools for phone and video conferencing, we’re also encouraging employees to casually communicate with each other in ways that are comfortable to them (for example, FaceTime or text message).
TLR: What has the reaction been from your staff?
Worthen: Like most organizations, we’ve had our share of bumps in the road, but our employees have expressed their appreciation for the efforts KEMI has made to provide flexible work accommodations and help reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission.
TLR: In what other ways has COVID-19 affected your business? What plans have you made to deal with the challenges presented?
Worthen: One of our first actions was to announce expanded [workers’ compensation] coverage for first responders and medical personnel employed by a KEMI policyholder affected by COVID-19. We also know that many of our policyholders are experiencing significant business interruptions and may face financial hardships as a result. We do not want businesses to close or employees lose their jobs as a result of a business not being able to pay their workers’ compensation insurance premiums, so KEMI is actively working with our customers to provide flexible payment terms and revise payroll estimates.
TLR: What steps can other companies take to make this a smooth and successful transition?
Worthen: Over-communication is key in the midst of this unprecedented time, and it’s critical that your employees communicate regularly with their coworkers, supervisors and company leaders. It’s also important to remain flexible and understand that for many employees, telecommuting is a new experience, so it will take some time to adjust to a different way of working.
Share your story
We want to hear how business leaders across the state have responded to the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the efforts to stop the spread of it. If your business would like to share its story, email Lorie at [email protected].