Moving Forward

How to find competitive advantages to retain your best customers and employees in this new organizational climate.

It’s fair to say COVID-19 has effectively turned our world upside down. In my May column, I wrote about the challenges of managing a business during this crisis. A few months later, we find ourselves settling in (somewhat) to the new normal, yet still managing some very difficult scenarios. The dramatic changes of these past months will undoubtedly affect the way we manage our businesses in the future. As we tackle some of the problems that confront us now and those that we’ll certainly face moving forward, I suggest you consider these best practices.   

Customers

The manner in which you have dealt with your clients since March will likely affect your shop significantly. If you’ve been able to adapt in servicing the needs of your customers with some rather innovative solutions, then you’re likely going to reap the benefits of long-term relationships. On the other hand, if you’re struggling to meet their needs in this difficult business environment, they may migrate to other options and you’ll have a hard time winning them back. Adaptability and flexibility in your customer relationships are even more critical than pricing or perhaps even quality. You must figure out a way to solve the issues they’re currently facing and provide for their needs. Darwin nailed it back in the day; this is truly survival of the fittest.

Employees

More than half of our employees are working exclusively from home due to the pandemic. This includes our customer service, design, development, IT, and marketing teams. While the initial weeks of working from home proved to be rather challenging, our team members adapted and, with minimal exceptions, quickly became very efficient and productive. And guess what? Nearly all of them would now like to work permanently from home.  

Robert Half released the results of its survey, “COVID-19 and the Workplace: Employees Weigh In.” The management consulting company surveyed 1000 workers normally employed in office environments in the US. The following are some rather telling points to note regarding employees now working from home:

Of the total surveyed

  • 77 percent are currently working from home;
  • 63 percent now realize their job is doable outside the office;
  • 60 percent say their work-life balance has improved;
  • 43 percent are more comfortable using technology;
  • and 20 percent report stronger relationships with colleagues. 

Keep in mind, this survey was done on April 30, after less than two months of dealing with COVID-19. The numbers reflected here are now probably higher in terms of employees both wanting to work from home and being comfortable with the quality of work they’re able to complete. We certainly have seen that dynamic within our own business.

If you’re in the same boat as us, you should prepare for an environment that accommodates several of your current and future employees telecommuting. One of the keys to making this process work is to ensure you have the proper tools in place to measure results from your employees. If you build a system that effectively tracks results and will hold your employees accountable to their job expectations, then you will find much more success in managing this process.

In a similar vein, one option many companies are considering is creating a work schedule that allows employees to be broken into teams that rotate working from home and at the office. For example, you could split your customer service team into Team A and Team B, and have one team working Monday, Wednesday, Friday with the other team working Tuesday and Thursday, then switch the days out every other week or every other month. Another alternative is to have Team A working Monday and Wednesday, Team B working Tuesday and Thursday, and Fridays are telecommute days for all team members. 

The advantage of this approach is it allows your employees to work from home part-time, but also enjoy team collaboration, which is important to any organization. It also creates the benefit of only having to provide one-half of the work space that would be necessary if everyone worked in the office. 
Of course there are also challenges associated with this approach. For instance, verifying that your work-from-home employees have a proper space to effectively complete their job is paramount. You will likely need to provide them with workstations that may include computers, high-quality monitors, desks, a well-functioning phone system, etc. Your employees need to have high-speed bandwidth connections to work effectively. You may or may not choose to provide that service as a part of their employment contracts, but it is something to consider. 

Company Engagement

As you make changes to the nature of your work force and some employees end up working remotely, engaging your employees becomes more of a challenge. As we’ve been in COVID-19 mode, we’ve tried multiple ways to keep all of our employees connected with the overall company, their individual departments, and with each other. In the initial stages of the pandemic, as the world was changing daily, we held staff meetings once a week. Eventually, we moved to every other week just to remain in touch with everyone. Of course these meetings are held virtually so all can participate. Our department managers hold weekly meetings and, in some cases, even hold a brief chat each morning to discuss the daily plan. 

We continue to host company lunches at least twice a month with fun options like snow cones, milkshake and taco trucks, and other activities that allow our employees working remotely to come into the office, eat free food, and socialize with each other, even if it’s only for an hour or so. We have provided company-branded face masks and neck gators to all employees in an effort to make everyone feel like they’re part of a team and safe. Some of our managers have held departmental events for their individual teams, like a video clip activity called “Meet My Pet” (pretty self explanatory). Reinforcing relatedness and belongingness through the company can be challenging in this new organizational climate, but it can be executed successfully if you put in the effort. 

Hiring Practices

At this point you may be saying to yourself that eventually we’ll beat this pandemic and things will get back to the way they used to be. While I completely agree that we will overcome COVID-19 and will happily go anywhere we want “mask-free,” I disagree with the notion that things will just go back to the way they were before. I believe our work environment is going to be different as we move into the future. 2020 will be remembered as the year when a lot of things changed. This will become evident as you reach back into the workforce pools and begin to hire additional employees. Here are a few questions that your top candidates in marketing, customer service, design, technology, etc. may ask you as a potential employer:

  • Will I be able to work from home all of the time or at least part of the time?
  • What kinds of technology will you be providing me to effectively work remotely?
  • What is your approach to building teams that work primarily from home?
  • What will my interaction with my manager and upper management be like?
  • How will my performance be measured as I work remotely?

Those who have the capability of working remotely as a part of their job will demand that as a criteria for belonging to a successful organization.

Like all of you, I look forward to the day when we are able to again function with some sense of normalcy. No doubt, we will get there and hopefully sooner than later. But until we do, we must focus on making the best of our current situation and make certain that relationships with our customers and employees are being managed the best way possible. This requires adaptability and flexibility on your part. If you fight this process, your business may fail in the long run. If you embrace it, you can create some valuable competitive advantages that can guarantee the long-term success of your company.


Marty McGhie is CEO/partner of Signs.com, an online provider of custom signage based in Salt Lake City. You can email him at martym@signs.com

View more from this Big Picture issue