Preserving Organizational Morale and Business Continuity Remotely During the COVID-19 Crisis

In the midst of complete uncertainty and with the understanding that we needed to prepare for a new reality, we convened a management meeting to discuss COVID-19. What is this monster? How will it affect us? How close is it? The heated discussion included issues like whether we should switch to working from home or not (most thought not). How would we prepare the office to meet required hygiene standards (let’s order tons of wipes?)? Can we hold meetings with over ten attendees? Why did we pick an office with a garden!? And more. 

We began to understand towards the end  of the discussion, based on news being published in real-time about moving to work from home and closing education systems, that there were no longer defined rules of play for what’s next. Our reality would change day to day and we needed to be flexible, keep up to date, and make decisions quickly and we realized what’s right for today might not be for tomorrow. So did we let this stress us out? 

First Step

No, no, not at all.

We didn’t panic (just maybe a little since the kids won’t  go to kindergarten and school anymore). So what did we do? After everyone rushed to stock up on food and toilet paper (not really) and after more government announcements made some sense of things, we set up a much more practical conversation with a very clear agenda, starting with setting our goal further and how we reach it. Our CEO Moti was very decisive – the company will continue to exist, with no reductions in salaries or staff. On the contrary, work routines must continue with full steam ahead.

 

In addition, we needed to do everything possible for the employees so they can continue to work uninterrupted, with complete understanding of and practical solutions for anything that “disturbs” the workday in this situation. Objective: After the COVID-19 era, after we defeat this monster, Firedome as a company will still be on track for all of its goals and retain all of its employees.

The various solutions and new work routine I’ll describe in a second, as that is most interesting, but as an HR manager. I immediately realized something key to crisis management – a confident leader who on one hand, sees the global situation and on the other, thinks of the particulars about each employee – makes all the difference. This leadership creates a sense of security and “togetherness.” A CEO who knows where he wants to go, calms the people closest to him, consults and sets tasks together with them is pivotal to managing crises!

How to continue sitting next to my colleague when we’re banned from the office

The first thing that mattered to us was to create a work environment closest to our usual office environment.

What does that mean? We all know the fun part of coming to the office is seeing the team, the colleague who sits next to you, having hallway conversations, chatting in the kitchen, solving professional challenges by “interrupting” your colleagues for help, and more. So what did we do?

We used an amazing web app called Sococo. This app simulates the office perfectly: conference rooms, kitchen, open space. Beyond the fact that it looks just like the office, anyone can move their avatar around the rooms, meet their colleagues, or conduct meetings or video calls. From the first minute, it felt like home! When some colleagues sit in the same space, they can leave their headphones and microphone ON and simply turn to each other spontaneously, just as if they were sitting next to each other in real life. The app even lets you meet every morning in the kitchen, turn on the camera and have coffee together.

What we didn’t realize at first was that for the first time, all employees (35 in three different sites!) shared the same office! Since everyone could now work more flexible hours, we suddenly found ourselves meeting daily with colleagues from the US. For example, employees who usually had to schedule appointments in advance in order to talk. The spontaneity and ease of making a call was felt quickly after we started to all work remotely.

Amidst all the mess, keep thinking about the employees

One of the things I mentioned at the beginning was that what motivated us in the company was to allow a work routine. Bachelors are fine, they have less of a problem. Some like to come to the office, some prefer to work from home and this played to their favor, but what to do with the parents (a good number of the employees) that working from home really sounds like an ongoing nightmare. 

First strategic decision – Employees with young children would receive financial support to spend on digital or in-home activities to help keep their children learning and occupied, to ensure minimum distractions while working. Parents of older children can receive assistance at their request including support for digital tutoring or additional classes or cable / streaming subscriptions. We also offered to purchase gaming consoles or anything else that could keep kids busy. True, it’s a small start-up expense during a crisis and some of you may raise an eyebrow, but it’s to take care of our biggest expense (as well as our biggest asset), our people. If some of them fail to work, the company loses much more. The decision came from day one. Everyone got organized really fast and  we managed to maintain a 100% working system and employees felt appreciated and connected.

On the second day of work from home, I had already set up a  HR Training session for all teams on Remote Management. In my past I managed teams in Eastern Europe from my office in Israel, so I felt very comfortable doing that. We started with a meeting where everyone stated what they thought would be the big challenges in the coming period and together we thought about solutions. We also talked about practical  tools that could help with such management. We concluded that at the end of the most important thing is to maintain communication at the interpersonal level. The practical suggestions discussed were empowering the team leads to be mentors and actively contact their team and make sure they are moving in the right direction, synchronizing meetings of the broader teams and not just the organic team, opening channels for complex tasks that can be initiated spontaneously, setting a dedicated start / end time for work, and setting up the right shared drives and timelines to take care of  documentation of all things and more.

So no more coffee breaks and happy hour?

If you are wondering what we did to replicate our usual coffee breaks (we have a special black carbonated and dietary drink that we won’t advertise here that is actually the flavor of choice for most people in the office),we also dealt with this by adding a “snack” budget for employees. At the other sites, we add stipends for this too.

About Happy Hour – Many ideas flood the web for group Zoom activities. We also adjusted ourselves and were able to come up with entertaining sessions with games, quizzes and even pizza (a family voucher that we sent to each of the employees in the morning with instructions to book the meeting). Of course everything was done at all sites with the necessary adjustments. For all the happy hours, we made sure to invite spouses and / or family and to double down on strengthening the connections of all family members together.

In addition, every few days we tried to think of small things that would create additional communication, for example: Foodies channel in Slack where employees publish pictures of what they prepared to eat (and sometimes recipes). Many employees joined the idea and started advertising, even on weekends!

We even shared physical training invitations once a week for whoever wants to join, family included.

Establishing a Whatsapp Group with spouses / families whose sole purpose is to publish relevant information during the COVID-19 outbreak – Private businesses of family and friends “in need” of exposure, advertising family members with unique professions that can assist eg physicians, lawyers, accountants, etc.

In the three-week summary since the COVID-19 outbreak shut the office down, we can say confidently that we are on the right track! Our productivity has been maintained, employees are motivated and despite the physical distance (or isolation), they maintain high spirit, energy and optimism. Additional insights to conclude:
  1. This effort is ongoing and not only manifests itself in defining the goal and finding technological tools, but the work of management constantly to revisit and improve.
  2. You don’t have to “pour” lots of money in order for employees to appreciate what the company is doing for them.
  3. When choosing the ideas or tools we chose to use, the question always arises – what is right for our company culture and our employees specifically? Not every idea we brought up fit our company values. 

We hope others have found similar success with coping with this unusual situation and hope to read other great success stories from friends and family around the world! Wishing for hope, productivity and a return to normalcy soon for all!

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