When Chet Goetz learned he could work exclusively from home after changing roles with his employer Cargill last fall, he had no idea he’d be ahead of a rapid global transition prompting millions to conduct business in their houses.
No longer tethered to a physical place of employment, Goetz and his wife considered their options and made a life-altering decision: they packed up their family, left their Twin Cities home and began a new chapter in the Brainerd lakes area. A strong internet connection was an essential feature when searching for a house, Goetz said, along with an office space with the option of privacy in the event of conference calls. Of course, a bigger yard surrounded by the northern Minnesota forest didn’t hurt.
Just a few short months later as the coronavirus pandemic forced many employers to send their workers home, those features emerged as major selling points for people in the position to follow the Goetzes’ lead. So-called “Zoom rooms” — or office spaces with aesthetically pleasing backdrops for video conferences — have cropped up as selling points on real estate listings, according to news website SFGATE. The Star Tribune recently reported a home buying trend surprising real estate agents. The sale of lake homes, particularly those within a couple of hours of the Twin Cities metropolitan area and with reliable internet connections, saw a noticeable spike.
Others looked for ways to convert their own spaces into effective working environments and beef up time management skills, all while navigating home life upheaval wrought by the closure of schools in favor of distance learning and the stress and uncertainty of a major public health threat.
As Goetz and his wife were already homeschooling their three daughters, he said he found himself in an unexpected mentoring role with others on his Cargill Protein-North America team.
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“I’ve offered advice for anybody that was interested in trying to do their own homeschooling, and I’ve been a listening ear for those who’ve been having challenges,” Goetz, 41, said by phone in early August. “For a lot of people, it’s been quite the juggling act, trying to balance everything, having day care issues.
“ … Our company has been great about vocalizing over and over the commitment of being understanding of our coworkers. Everybody is in a unique situation. That includes giving people adequate time for family issues that come up.”
While employees grappled with the new reality of working — and teaching, eating, entertaining children and everything else — from home, companies dealt with the logistics of a dramatic shift in doing business. From lining up technological needs, to ensuring effective communication, to managing physical office space and recognizing flexibility with home-work life balance would be key, employers faced a multitude of their own challenges.
Retirement savings firm Ascensus sent 95% of its national workforce home, including approximately 500 lakes area employees based in the company’s Brainerd location. Although plans to leave the company’s south campus at the juncture of highways 25 and 210 were already in motion, Executive Vice President Steve Christenson said the acceleration into widespread working from home has the company continuing to evaluate space needs throughout the country.
“What gave us the opportunity to do this is for a number of years, we already had a work from home policy,” Christenson said by phone, noting about 15% of the company’s employees worked from home for at least part of the workweek. “This helped in being able to adapt to a work from home policy, but (the pandemic) really changed the scale and we had to do it in a shorter term.”
Ascensus isn’t the only workplace examining how working from home may impact physical office spaces. Northern Tool + Equipment announced in June it would transition 60-plus team members from its Pequot Lakes contact center facility to a remote, work-at-home model.
As a result, the company stated it would close its contact center located in the city’s industrial park since 2000. Northern Tool reported in a news release that prior to the COVID-19 impact, the company had already transitioned nearly half of its employees from the contact center to a remote model and the COVID-19 outbreak accelerated this shift.
“As we move through this change, our primary goals are to provide our team with a safe place to work and a flexible schedule as well as an improved work-life balance, and we are excited to deliver on these promises that are important to our employees here in Pequot Lakes,” Chris Erath, senior director of contact centers at Northern Tool + Equipment, stated in the release.
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Brainerd-based strategic communications company Strateligent — formerly Red House Media — also announced in June its employees would not return to a centralized office after months of remote work. In social media posts and on the company’s website, President Aaron Hautala said not only did the organization’s work lend itself well to a work-from-home model, the change led to increased productivity and improved work-life balance.
“Our Strateligent team started working from home as a way to stay safe, but we’ve found that working from home helps us to serve our clients more efficiently, too. We’ve increased productivity, built stronger relationships, and made our work environment safer. We’ve reduced stress and improved work-life balance. That’s why we are excited to share that we’ve chosen to capitalize on this remote work opportunity and will continue working from home going forward,” Hautala shared in a Facebook post.
“Our business is our people — and where our people are, Strateligent is. From our home offices in Brainerd, Baxter, Cuyuna, Fort Ripley, Nisswa, and Pine River, we will continue to expand our culture of excellence, camaraderie, and customer service, just as we always have.”
Local telecommunications company CTC found itself in the dual role of transitioning a majority of its employees to work from home, while also bolstering its broadband connectivity and Wi-Fi accessibility to improve access to telework, distance learning and telemedicine for the community as a whole. The company established about 50 free Wi-Fi access points throughout its service area intended to provide internet access for those in need to complete homework assignments or visit with medical professionals, for example. It’s also pursuing multiple broadband expansion projects this summer and fall with assistance from federal funds appropriated through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, or CARES Act.
Andy Isackson, CTC’s director of member operations, said they observed a 28% increase in overall bandwidth usage by customers between February and March, when schools closed and a stay-at-home order went into effect in the state. Meanwhile, the company set up 65% of its employees to work from home, purchased a corporate Zoom subscription and ensured remote access to company servers and the phone system.
“We normally see a ramp-up in usage from spring to summer, and then in the fall, it ramps back down,” Isackson said during a phone interview. “This year, it’s pretty much steady across time. …. Overall from last year, we’ve seen a 20% increase (in broadband use).”
At Staples-based Sourcewell, which provides cooperative purchasing opportunities for local governments among other things, employees not only transitioned to the virtual realm to complete tasks, but some also found ways to redirect efforts. The services of Tech Mobile, a Sourcewell educational initiative connecting teachers with technology such as 3-D printers, were no longer needed amid empty classrooms. Marketing Director Travis Bautz said this opened the door for new uses for the machines, such as producing personal protective equipment. Bautz said more than 1,900 pieces of items, like ear savers for face masks, were created through 3-D printing technology.
“I think the thing that’s been interesting to see is how people really just find new ways to make it work and do good work and keep serving,” Bautz said in early August.
Now five months into this new reality, a common theme emerged in the experiences of both employers and employees — finding ways to stay engaged in both formal and informal ways. Often missing from the landscape of video teleconferencing and instant messaging is the chance to connect with employees and coworkers on a more personal level. While weekly companywide addresses were a common tactic to keep employees in the loop on business-related news, chance meetings at the water cooler to discuss weekend plans or share Netflix recommendations are difficult to replicate naturally in remote work settings, company leaders said.
Ascensus’ Christenson said this led to the establishment of online coffee breaks for team members.
“They’re not just business focused, but how are you dealing with day care or dealing with the dogs in the background,” Christenson said. “We have found different ways to not just keep in contact but to keep incentives for engagement.”
Bautz of Sourcewell said the beginning of almost every virtual meeting features a five-minute COVID break for informal chats.
“They’re so eager to hear from each other, just how’s it going for you, how are your kids,” Bautz said. “That has been something I have heard a lot about.”
At CTC, organized activities that normally would’ve meant gathering in one place have moved online, too. Isackson said in addition to online happy hours, employees recently had the opportunity to take a cooking lesson from local chef Matt Annand, complete with a box of ingredients to follow along. Another virtual offering featured fishing guide Jason Freed, who shared tips this spring ahead of the fishing season opener.
Looking ahead, some employers are preparing themselves for the eventual return of at least some employees to offices, with new considerations in place for the health and safety of workforces. Nate Grotzke, senior adviser for commercial real estate company Close-Converse, said while initial indications had him expecting vacant office space because of the pandemic, he’s now seeing a potential need emerge for larger spaces in an effort to accommodate social distancing. Christenson said some employees found working from home to be a smooth transition, but others miss the office environment and are hoping to eventually transition back.
“We’ve had a number of people saying, ‘I thought I wanted to work from home, but I’m ready to go back to the office and get back among coworkers,’” he said. “ … I think that’s going to vary by each individual business, but we’re always going to have the hybrid of having office space and working from home.”
Bautz said he thinks this moment will result in permanent changes for Sourcewell, but how those will look remains to be seen. He noted how much technology played into the success of the work-from-home transition, and if this pandemic would’ve occurred 20 years ago, it would’ve been much more difficult to maintain business as usual.
“We’ve found lots of great ways to work remotely and we will be taking advantage of that going forward. I don’t know exactly how it’s going to land,” Bautz said. “ … How would we have done this without the technology we have today? There’s just a lot of things that are probably going to stick. … We kind of pride ourselves in having a resilient and resourceful team and it’s really caused people to look at their work and reimagining how to do it.”
How to make working from home work
Whether working from home is a breeze or an uphill battle varies from person to person, and the added challenges brought by impacts of the coronavirus pandemic can make it even more difficult for many. Videolicious, a company that helps businesses including the Dispatch create video productions, recently offered tips for success in the home office.
Stick to the rhythm of a routine.
While it may be tempting to roll out of bed and straight to the computer without the motivation to look presentable for the office, Videolicious notes this common trap can compromise one’s ability to get the job done.
“Neglecting personal care can compromise your focus and make you feel sloth-like, which reflects in the quality of your conversations and your time spent on projects,” the company’s newsletter stated. “Be sure to get dressed in the morning as usual and keep your hair and face presentable enough to join video conference requests on short notice.”
Take frequent stretch breaks.
This tip is relevant whether in the office or at home, although it may be less likely natural opportunities to get blood flowing — such as a lunchtime walk with coworkers — are fewer and further between.
“Taking a 20-minute yoga break or simply standing every half-hour to stretch or pace your living room floor will help generate the same positive effects and improve overall concentration,” the newsletter stated.
Separate work space from living space.
It may be beneficial to establish zones within a home to create a brighter line between work life and home life. While larger homes make this easier than apartments or spaces shared with others, Videolicious states it’s still possible to set aside space for a home office environment.
“You can still section off personal space from work space with the likes of shelves, curtains or rearranged furniture, which will help you feel more in control of your schedule and mark natural time shifts throughout your day.”
Fill your body with good fuel.
Don’t let a pantry filled with goodies serve as a lure away from healthy eating habits that assist in productivity and overall health. Fresh fruit and healthy proteins with good fats, such as a handful of nuts, can offer the fuel needed without the possibility of packing on the pounds.
Replace lengthy emails with video.
“Recording video messages for colleagues and customers can help mimic the feel and flow of in-person conversations when you can’t be face-to-face, and also help you express your message better,” the newsletter suggested. “Making a request or providing important feedback are better received with the assistance of body language and voice inflection, which are always lost in text.”
Videolicious stated it may be more likely a message will be received in its entirety this way.
Don’t forget to unplug.
Eliminating the usual routine and removing boundaries between work and home can make it difficult to disengage from email or the computer, resulting in working beyond the usual quitting time. Videolicious recommends sticking to self-imposed deadlines and when the work day is over, shutting down all work-related communications.
“Changing your location by going outside for a walk or switching rooms to make a friendly phone call will send your body and mind a signal that you’re off the clock and help you unwind.”
Source: Videolicious weekly newsletter.