(Editor’s note: This is part three in our series about how Kentucky businesses are responding to the challenges presented by COVID-19. See the full report.)
By Lorie Hailey
Kentucky business leaders who had never considered the idea of employing remote workers – or thought it possible in their industry – are now adapting to a new reality: a telecommuting workforce and/or strict social distancing measures to limit close interaction between employees.
Last month, when Gov. Andy Beshear began announcing executive orders to promote social distancing to slow the spread of COVID-19, small and large organizations alike had to think outside the box to find ways to serve their clients and keep their employees safe.
Social distancing, and anxiety about coronavirus in general, affects every business, no matter their size.
For Fayette Alliance, a small nonprofit dedicated to promoting sustainable economic growth, social distancing means a fundamental change to one of the main ways it conducts business. Fayette Alliance normally promotes its mission through face-to-face interactions and involvement in the community, said Brittany M. Roethemeier, executive director. Both of those activities are now on hold indefinitely.
The threat of the spread of COVID-19 prompted several changes last month for another small organization, LexPark, which operates and maintains the public parking system in Lexington. Part of the Lexington Fayette Urban County Government, LexPark is staffed by a three-person executive team, but most of all its operations are outsourced to a private contractor.
The agency continues to enforce safety-related violations, but it implemented free parking at meters, suspended immobilization of vehicles, suspended in-person citation hearings until April 10 and converted many metered spaces to curbside pickup zones for restaurants. Its staff began a remote working rotation March 16.
As part of our Making It Work series, Roethemeier and Means spoke about the ways coronavirus has affected their organizations and how are responding to the crisis.
The Lane Report: Pre-pandemic, did you have any employees who telecommute?
Brittany Roethemeier, Fayette Alliance: We do not normally have employees who telecommute. We are a small office of three for an organization whose foundation is based in community engagement and interaction, so being in the office as a team and having the ability to have face-to-face meetings with others is critical to achieving our mission.
Gary Means, LexPark: We have not.
TLR: When this situation arose, how did you come up with a plan and how quickly did you implement it?
Roethemeier: As soon as it was clear working from home was the safest option, my first priority was the safety of our team. We began working from home on Friday, March 13. Luckily, that infrastructure, for the most part, was already in place, with the ability to log-in to email and our shared server. Checking with each team member to make sure there were a few projects or some materials they could take home with them while they settled into a new routine was next. We scheduled our weekly staff meeting by Zoom the following week to check in and make a longer term plan about our work going forward.
Means: We have implemented several changes as the situation evolved.
TLR: What were the biggest challenges to getting things set up?
Roethemeier: The uncertainty of how long this setup would need to last – that factor of the “unknown” made it more difficult to ensure you had everything you might need from the office to settle into a longer work-from-home routine than we initially thought.
Means: Conducting remote meetings and making sure everyone had the technology in place to work from home. We have not resolved things like printing/scanning or even checking the snail mail without coming in to the office (one employee per day.)
TLR: What is a typical workday like now? Do you have video meetings or conference calls? Do you a do a daily check-in? Do you use any special messaging software to communicate?
Roethemeier: Our team checks in frequently by email every day. We have a standing weekly staff meeting that we did by video meeting on Zoom the first week we were home, and the following week, we upped the video meetings to two per week. Now that we’ve had more time to settle into a routine, we will be reevaluating how often it would make everyone most comfortable to check-in, but we will likely continue with two video meetings per week. We are going to begin reading a leadership book as a team and have weekly video conference working sessions around that, so I am looking forward to connecting in another way in addition to our regular staff meetings.
Means: Yes, about every other day with internal staff and weekly with external management team. We do a daily check-in by text for now. We are learning to use Microsoft Teams and really like it so far.
TLR: How do you keep critical business functions like accounting, bill payments, etc. going with a remote workforce?
Roethemeier: We utilize online bill payments and outsource our accounting work, so we were already doing much of that work remotely anyway. Our office manager is going into our office routinely to collect mail and do any accounting/bill payments as necessary. Since we are a small team of three, we believe this is still the safest and best way to move forward, as only one person will ever be in the office at a time. Any common parts of the office are sanitized upon entering and exiting by any team member who needs to go into the office. We are learning to adapt as needed and it has been very smooth thus far, thanks to the positivity and adaptability of my team.
Means: Luckily, we were already online with all that, thanks to [our use of business services firm] Dean Dorton. We outsource quite a bit of functions: legal, HR, accounting, bill payments, etc., which allows us to focus on our core functions.
TLR: What steps can other companies take to make this a smooth transition and have success?
Roethemeier: I think in these times of uncertainty, communication with your team, board members, donors and constituents is key. Reaching out and evaluating the best ways to stay connected with each of these groups is the most important place to start. Ensuring that we are able to continue our hard work to achieve our mission involves communication and a commitment to forging ahead with the understanding that we are all navigating new circumstances.
Means: Video conferencing is a must. It really helps keep folks motivated and connected.
TLR: What has been the reaction of your staff?
Roethemeier: The reaction has been positive so far. I will continue to evaluate our team and how I can better help all of us reorient ourselves around this new way of working together.
Means: They’re happy to work from home. Glad to still be 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].