How to Care for Virtual Employees During a Crisis
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, teams across the country suddenly find themselves in virtual work situations. This can pose a challenge to culture-focused companies that want to care for their employees. The good news: the principles of a positive culture translate to sustainable virtual environments, too — and they offer exciting new ways to engage team members and do great work.
In a recent Small Giants virtual workshop, Small Giants leader and CEO of Big Cartel, Anna Brozek, shared how their entirely virtual team stays connected, productive, and culturally aligned. She also spent a good portion of the workshop answering questions from attendees — many of whom had their own wisdom to share too.
In these unusual times, we’re committed to connecting you with the best practices you need to navigate this crisis successfully. Here are the top takeaways and highlights from our workshop on how to care for virtual employees during this crisis.
Tools & Resources At A Glance
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1. Start with a Plan
First things first: This is not normal remote work. This is work-from-home pandemic work.
If this is your first experience with remote work, don’t let this tarnish your experience of the whole concept of having your team at home. Big Cartel has been working from home for eight years, and this experience has been very different from their usual remote work. Drawing on her experience leading an award-winning remote team, here’s Anna’s action plan for successful remote work during this pandemic.
A good first step is to select your tools. Big Cartel primarily uses Slack, Basecamp, and Google Hangouts. They use Basecamp for project management and work communication, Slack for casual conversation and building culture, and Google Hangouts for video calls.
Here’s a little more about how Big Cartel uses these tools:
- Different channels for fun conversation and team building:
- #Music, #Cooking, #Babies, #Fitness, #BookClub
- Celebrate life events and milestones, like birthdays, pregnancies, and marriage
- There’s an expectation that work conversations happen in Basecamp
- Basecamp allows for asynchronous conversation, which is especially helpful if you have team members in different time zones or on different schedules
One of the biggest questions around remote work is how to know if someone is actually working. The truth is, you don’t — you have to trust them. Trust is critical to successful remote work. Hopefully, you’ve hired people you can trust, but good communication will help protect and build trust during these challenging times. Here are a few tips from Anna:
- Write often, and and write with clear expectations
- Set expectations and follow up on them
- Set expectations of where you want people to be working (I.e., Basecamp versus Slack) and how you want them to communicate with one another
- Know when to move to a video call
- During stressful times, it’s easy to read into things and have wires crossed
- Some people are prone to think the worst in a situation
- If you notice any tense interactions, take it to video call
- Be clear about what you want and on what timeline
- Use a project management platform like Basecamp to assign projects and timelines
- This replaces in-person tactics like standing over someone’s desk, making eye contact, etc.
- Take uncertainty out of the equation
- There’s no need to micromanage people to make sure work gets done
3. Keep it Human
The reality is that this situation isn’t normal, and we need to go above and beyond to support our employees during this time. At Big Cartel, that started with giving everyone in the company a week off when the coronavirus became widespread in Pacific Northwest, where many employees are located.
“I wanted to overreact quickly for them, so that everyone knew they didn’t have to come to work and be 100% productive while the world is falling apart,” says Anna. “My leadership team did meet to come up with a plan for making our work feel meaningful and purposeful during this time.”
While employees were off, the leadership team documented expectations in Basecamp, making it clear that everyone’s first priority should be taking care of themselves and their families. Beyond that, they also communicated to employees that they should:
- Find work that feels meaningful and helpful to the world as it is right now
- Talk to their managers about their availability in these new circumstances
- Find a schedule that works for them to get their work done
- Be transparent about their needs and share as much as they’re comfortable
- Maintain work-life balance: working from home doesn’t mean that you’re expected to be on all the time
- Take advantage of mental health resources — Big Cartel posted several mental health resources and telehealth information in a Slack channel
- Take time off. If someone had to cancel a vacation due to the pandemic, they should keep that time off
It's also important to be flexible and do what's best for your team members right now. For example, at SmugMug, the pandemic just so happens to overlap with when they usually conduct performance reviews. But they were hearing from employees that they were too overwhelmed to deal with the anxiety and feedback that comes with the review process.
"It feels like the wrong thing to do right now, but we don't want to lose sight of how we're doing," says President & COO Ben MacAskill. "We're reframing to a more compassionate review — no scoring or rankings, we're just highlighting successes and what's going well, and how we can do even better next quarter."
Check In Personally and Frequently
This situation impacts everyone differently. Some people are high anxiety and feeling overwhelmed right now. Some may be living with a partner and fighting constantly. Others are living alone and feeling isolated. Here are some tips for checking in during this crisis:
Forget the usual “How are you” – we’re all tense, uncertain, and stressed
Instead, ask specific questions about their family, their kids, their parents, and pets
This allows people to get to the core of what's going on in their lives
You know who the sensitive people on your team are and who may be more vulnerable to this situation — reach out to those people daily and make it clear you’re there for them
We can’t take joy out of the workplace and expect our cultures to survive. Keep celebrating employee life events and your team’s accomplishments. At SmugMug, they're not overlooking birthdays just because of the current circumstances. Ben MacAskill's birthday was in late March, and the team surprised him by recording nearly 70 individual videos and creating a gallery of birthday greetings for him. They also got together at the end of the day on Zoom for a virtual happy hour — nearly 100 people attended to grab a drink and just chat with one another.
Virtual celebrations are different, but they still matter:
Announce birthdays, anniversaries, pregnancies and more on Slack
Encourage employees to celebrate with gifs, funny videos, and messages
Ship gifts to people’s homes for milestones and life events
Celebrate team accomplishments with a virtual pizza party
Everyone orders a pizza, jumps on a video call, and enjoys a beer or glass of wine together to celebrate a job well done
Move a typical Monday morning meeting to the afternoon and turn it into a happy hour
Questions & Answers
Q: We hired someone right before we transitioned to work-from-home. How can I continue their onboarding and keep them on track?
A: First, take the time to reassure them that their job is secure and reinforce why you value them as a team member. From there, move your onboarding materials to a project management system. We use Basecamp to onboard all employees: we have a to-do list and documentation about our culture, expectations, and how we work. I also suggest using the buddy system — assign them to a veteran team member who can help guide and support them over the next two weeks.
Q: We have team members in different time zones. I used to visit everyone in person frequently, now I’m not sure how to stay connected and keep projects on track.
A: Slack is a great tool for connectivity and casual conversation. We also have a policy in place to ensure four hours of crossover time within the Mountain time zone. We don’t micromanage it, but it’s the expectation. We do work asynchronously quite a bit, too. It’s okay if not everyone is in the conversation together. You may find you’re having a lot more individual conversations. If you can, find a crossover at the beginning or end of the day. Otherwise, find ways to keep a pulse by leaving video or voice messages and checking in, and let them respond with updates when they log back on the next day.
Q: How should I set expectations for virtual work and how often should we meet virtually?
A: Our expectations are pre-defined. We have a weekly check-in for all teams where you talk about what you’re going to work on that week and any roadblocks you’re facing. Every day, most teams have about a 5-10 minute standup on Google Hangouts. Each team gets together for a quick check-in on what they’re working on today. Any deeper questions or needs go onto a separate call or conversation in Basecamp. That’s how we keep a pulse on things normally — but in pandemic times, we’re asking people to be mindful of taking care of themselves and their families. We have a lot of flexibility around that right now.
Q: Our reward and recognition program is an important part of how we maintain our culture and keep our values front and center. How can we do reward and recognition virtually?
A: SmugMug has been a primarily distributed team for 18 years, and they know a thing or two about building a strong virtual culture. They use Bonusly as a way for employees to recognize one another for living out core values, helping out others, or anything else that deserves a thank you.
Every month, employees get 200 points to distribute to their team members. They use Slack to publicly recognize one another, using a hashtag to tie it to one of their core values, like #ThrillOurCustomers. At any time, you can click the hashtag and see all of the great work people are doing every day.
Accrued bonus points translate into actual dollars that team members can cash in for Amazon gift cards, charitable donations, and more. The program creates a great feedback cycle, and company leadership does its part to reinforce that. At SmugMug's weekly, virtual all-hands meeting, CEO Don MacAskill shares the values-based bonus points earned from the previous week.
Q: We’re trying to keep our culture strong by doing fun icebreakers and conversation starters on Slack, but not everyone is engaging. Should I be concerned?
A: No. Everyone reacts to this situation differently, the most important thing is that you’re consistent. Don’t force involvement, but keep offering opportunities to engage. That might be a weekly virtual lunch where people can pop in and hang out if they feel like it. Slack is a good option, because more introverted folks can type a response or react using emojis – not everyone is comfortable on video. In addition to tech tools, I think it’s important for us to think low-tech as well for personal connection. Send a card in the mail. Give someone a phone call to just say hello. Go old school.
These are uncertain times — the Small Giants Community is here to help. We have several free, virtual workshops and coaching opportunities designed to help you navigate this crisis. Consider us a resource for you, and please don't hesitate to reach out directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.