To limit exposure to the coronavirus, many companies across the U.S. are urging, and some are mandating, that employees work from home.
Plenty of employees are embracing the new rules, happy to avoid their daily commute and to work in their pajamas. But when a company's employees are suddenly no longer under one roof, it can be a nightmare for managers.
But it doesn't have to be.
Kate Walton, the owner and CEO of Steyer Content, which has its headquarters in Seattle, has decades of experience running a company where nearly all of the employees and contractors work remotely.
"We've, for quite a number of years now, had an online community where we gather every day," says Walton. "That's where we collaborate. That's how we connect in normal times."
But these are not normal times.
When the Seattle area emerged as the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the U.S., Walton canceled the company's monthly lunches. While she was already connected to employees online, those tools became even more important.
Probably the most useful tool, says Walton, is Slack, a messaging platform where co-workers can post and exchange ideas in groups and channels.
While it's primarily used for work, Walton also uses Slack to hold trivia contests, to celebrate birthdays and to ask people to post photos of their pets --not unlike you might see happening in a brick-and-mortar office.
The online exchanges are wildly popular, with people talking about books they're reading, debating the merits of particular fonts and, of course, since this is Seattle, sharing their favorite hiking trails.
Less popular, it turns out, was Walton's invitation for people to take part in an online seven-minute workout challenge. Only one other person has joined her, she says wistfully.
Giving new meaning to BYOB
As the news about the coronavirus became more dire, Walton decided to get more creative. The company recently held its first virtual happy hour, with people joining in on a video call with their favorite drink after work.
"It was quite simply a way for us to shoot the breeze, you know, from a safe distance, to kind of have a little bit of that water-cooler effect that even after a few days we were starting to miss," she says.
The first happy hour was so popular that they held it again last Thursday. And several employees are eagerly figuring out how to make a virtual karaoke party happen.
Such efforts are not time wasters, says Walton. Creating a sense of community helps her attract strong talent, which is a huge competitive advantage.
But it's more than that.
"Tending to the mental and emotional health of our teams needs to be our top priority," says Walton. "I mean, I really see that as part of the response, even before you get to the smaller issue of how to keep a business going through times like this."
Walton says the trick is not to force the connections, but rather give permission to be creative and see where employees take it.
What it comes down to, Walton says, is connections. In times of uncertainty, we want to know we're not alone.
"It's something that humans crave," she says. "I mean, it's that fundamental."
LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
As the coronavirus spreads, a lot of companies are mandating that employees work from home to limit their exposure. That's true for some staff here at NPR. While there are perks working in your pajamas and the close proximity to the refrigerator, it can be a nightmare for managers who still have to keep the proverbial trains running on time. So we turned to a CEO who has decades of experience running a company where nearly all the employees and contractors work remotely.
KATE WALTON: My name is Kate Walton. And I'm the owner and CEO of Steyer Content. And we're headquartered in Seattle.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: As a manager, Walton says, she's always had to create important virtual-office connections.
WALTON: So we've, for quite a number of years now, had an online community where we gather every day. That's where we collaborate. That's how we connect in normal times.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: But these are not normal times. With the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases growing by the day, so too has our collective anxiety, even for a work-from-home veteran like Walton.
WALTON: I think once you're in a crisis, like this - I mean, the way I think about it is those of us who aren't actually on the frontlines of emergency response - and, you know, huge kudos to those who are - it sort of feels like tending to the mental and emotional health of our teams needs to be our top priority. I mean, I really see that as part of the response, even before you get to the smaller issue of how to keep a business going through times like this.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Walton says that, in the past five years, advances in technology have made it easier to keep her teams connected. Steyer Content uses Slack, a messaging program where co-workers can post and exchange ideas in private groups. While it's used for work, Walton will also hold trivia contests, mark birthdays or ask people to post photos of their pets, not unlike something you might see in a nonvirtual office.
WALTON: As of literally this morning, you know, a couple hours ago, there was a movement to get some RPGs going, some role-playing games - not rocket-propelled grenades, just to be clear. So it's sort of taken off.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Recently, Walton decided to get even more creative. This month, employees were invited to their first virtual happy hour, giving a new meaning to the term BYOB. We asked her how it went.
WALTON: We set a specific time, set out a video link and asked people to, you know, bring the beverage of their choice - made it clear that it could be an adult beverage - to the video call. It was quite simply a way for us to shoot the breeze, you know, from a safe distance, to kind of have a little bit of that water cooler effect that, even after a few days, we were starting to miss. And so it's kind of a nice, new thing to have in our quiver.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: Happy hour was so successful that they did it again last Thursday. And now the Steyer crew is working to pull off a session of online karaoke. Walton says the trick is not to force the connections but rather give permission to be creative and see where employees take it. Though not everything has taken off. She posted an exercise challenge and invited others to join her.
WALTON: One of my colleagues and I have been doing the 7-minute exercise routine. But so far, it is literally the two of us.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: What it comes down to, Walton says, is connection.
WALTON: It's something that humans crave. I mean, it's that fundamental.
GARCIA-NAVARRO: In times of uncertainty, we want to know we're not alone.
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