Accidental office encounters are important to Hunter Johnson. They’re a huge part of why TONO Group’s headquarters looks like it does, says Johnson, CEO of the Lancaster architecture, design, building and development group.
“We designed it so that you’d have these impromptu, casual encounters. You overheard conversations,” Johnson says. “It not only fostered creativity and sharing of ideas but also learning through osmosis.””
Then came COVID.
“Now, to some degree, we are having to make these encounters happen. Make them intentional,” he says. “You schedule a Zoom meeting or GoTo. These things are not happening by accident.”
Welcome to one of the ways business leaders are having to change tack to ensure that their employees stay engaged and working together as a team when not in the same space.
Clear expectations are essential for keeping everyone on the same page when so many are working from home, says Bobbe Baggio, CEO of Advantage Learning Technologies in Lehigh County’s Coopersburg.
“The Pajama Effect” and “Virtual Touchpoints” — books about teleworking that Baggio published a few years ago — have seen renewed interest this year. She has a new book coming out before year’s end called “#WFH.”
“In a remote environment it’s extremely important that people know what the deal is — what they are going to be held accountable for,” Baggio says.
Many companies are rolling out remote employee agreements, she says, adding that might include hours that employees are expected to be available — not chained to a computer, but reachable.
“It might say that we expect you to get back to us in a reasonable period of time and then outline what is considered reasonable,” she says. “And we promise we won’t text you at 10 on a Sunday night. Once you leave at 7 your private life is your life. We’ll see you again in the morning.”
Telework has changed tradition, she says.
“It used to be you came in early, you stayed late, you’re a great worker,” Baggio says. “That doesn’t work in this environment.
“The people who are the least happy in the virtual workplace are those who are asked to sit in front of their computer from 8 to 5,” she says. “People who can blend their private life and work life and still get everything done seem to experience the most satisfaction, more joy and less stress in both aspects of their life.”
Still, Baggio suggests using visual clues in the home office to signal the brain when it’s time to focus on work. To that end, a framed picture of the team might make a great holiday gift for bosses to give employees this year, she suggests.
In any other year, a bunch of grinning employees gathered in a conference room might have been Derek Dienner’s clue that something unusual was up one day.
Instead, when the Make/Films founder logged onto a videoconference, he noticed more “Brady Bunch”-esque boxes than usual and asked, ‘What’s happening with all these random people joined in?’ ”
Turns out Dienner was being notified of his selection as the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce’s Entrepreneur of the Year. Employees waved hand-drawn signs and balloons at their screens.
Dienner says celebrating accomplishments large and small is important for morale these days. Make/ Films recently set up a “kudos channel” to share positive things that clients say or other welcome news.
“Right now we don’t always see all the good things going on because we’re focused on the crazier, heavier and harder things,” he says. “We’re focused on all the ways to fix things and to grow in all of this. And we might not recognize the wins.”
Dienner says an upside of forced telecommuting was a recognition of possibilities. A key employee recently moved to Florida to follow his wife’s new job. He will still work for Make/Films and possibly expand its presence in the South.
“He’s continuing to work remotely because we learned from COVID that he can work remotely,” Dienner says.
Staying connected will be key for him as it is for those Make/Films employees still working from homes in and around Lancaster, he says. Finding the right way to do that is an ongoing process.
“In the very beginning we were doing remote lunches and remote happy hours all the time. And in the beginning they seemed to be working well,” Dienner says.
He even had Blazin J’s delivered to employees’ homes for one of those events. But excitement faded and those dropped off.
“We all just assumed that by now we’d be doing more in-person lunches,” he says. “But because that hasn’t changed, we’re putting it back.”
The plan now calls for about one remote lunch and one remote happy hour each month.
“I think at the end of the day what works is intentionality, making things special,” he says. “It’s about leaders setting some sort of precedent for everyone staying connected.”
Sharing that sentiment is last years’s chamber Entrepreneur of the Year, Jim Schultz, founder and president of Applied Educational Systems Inc.
That Lancaster company has lately been collecting fun facts about its employees to share at meetings. Simple steps like that can matter in an online meeting — especially for more introverted members of the team, Schultz says.
AES for years now has had some employees teleworking one day per week. They had always been part of the quick, daily 9:47 a.m. huddle.
“Before COVID we had 22 people around a big TV and had our three remote people joining in on Zoom,” Schultz says. “On March 18, all 25 people showed up on a Zoom screen from home.”
The AES office has re-opened to those employees who want to work there with just under half choosing the in-person route, Schultz says. Keeping close contact with those who didn’t is essential, he says.
“I do it. And I’ve seen other managers do it. Once a week I’ll reach out and say, ‘Hey, let’s have a Zoom chat for 15 minutes, one on one,’ ” he says.
It’s a little more awkward and forced than pulling up a chair at somebody’s desk, Schultz says. But it’s needed.
“It’s about reaching out and feeling connected,” he says. “The thing is, we’ve all worked from home now. We all know that it’s different and that it can be very lonely.”
It’s impossible to overstate the amount COVID has moved the needle on telecommuting, Baggio says.
“Companies and really whole industries that were reluctant and resistant to the virtual workplace are starting to see the benefits big time,” she says. “It’s not that they don’t ever want to see face-to-face meetings again. But I see coming out of this a lot more blended approach.”
At TONO Group, Johnson is trying to roll with the changes. But he misses more frequent in-person discussions. Computer screens don’t always cut it.
“People are not two dimensional. We’re not used to interacting with a static, flat image,” he says. “We like that human connection.”
Yet he’s going to max out what he’s got to work with. Johnson says he was shocked to learn from his son — who has a new job with Microsoft — that most of the time his son never actually sees coworkers on video calls.
That wouldn’t work for the elder Johnson.
“Maybe for the first week or two we did not require people to have their cameras on,” he says. “We changed that. We have to at least see each other’s faces.”