In the end, your culture makes your company. And that maxim has been tested over the last year in ways we never imagined. As we’ve recognized, then understood, then reacted to and then adapted to a COVID world, the process has reinforced two big things for us: 1) details can change, but culture must be constant; and 2) innovation and adaptation can be applied to pretty much anything.
Pre-pandemic, we spent decades creating “The Elliott Way”—a culture driven by a core belief that interaction leads to effectiveness. When we first heard about this potential virus problem early last year, our president Jordan Elliott promptly scheduled a Pandemic Prep Day—everyone would work from home for a day, to assess the challenges. It was counterintuitive to our interactive culture, but we survived it. A week later, schools closed and sheltering began; as Chief of Staff for NAI Elliott, my job changed immeasurably.
What we now think of as Phase I of doing “COVID business” involved getting enough equipment and software to our people in their homes to get them through what we anticipated would be a month or so of remote working. It soon became clear the horizon was much longer, but we needed a plan that wouldn’t damage our culture—because that would in turn damage our effectiveness.
An important distinction here: We look at effectiveness as our measure of productivity, not time spent at a desk. This helped as we transitioned to remote work, because we simply asked the same baseline question: Do our people have what they need to succeed both professionally and personally?
We’ve learned how to deal with a pandemic-impacted business world and still create success for our staff and clients. Along the way, several general principles stood out within our overall learning. The first is that we need to capitalize on every possible resource; nobody figures out solutions on this scale in a vacuum. Everyone is experimenting, failing and succeeding, and we need to learn from it all.
Second, we must embrace uncertainty and discomfort as a core principle. If you’re willing to ask difficult questions, you can produce fruitful results. It’s also crucial to leave behind the concept of “normal” that we operated under previously. Every successful business changes over time, along with what is considered normal; this situation is just a giant leap into the next normal.
As a company we’re redefining how we work, while still maintaining the core of our culture in every possible way.
The best adjustments
Here’s some advice, based on the most successful things we’ve done in response to the pandemic.
Create a pandemic handbook addendum – We’ve updated our handbook to reflect changes in protocols, processes and policy. Rooted in various government-agency guidelines, it covers everything from how to interact with the office dogs to new travel protocols. A regularly updated handbook reduces uncertainty, increases confidence in leadership, and allows staff to connect to the decision-making process.
Be prepared for any eventuality – Our leadership team is constantly looking for trends, patterns and the first hint of infrastructure changes. We work daily to provide guidance that’s proactive, not reactive. This extends beyond our staff; for example, we quickly amassed concrete data for our Real Estate Managers to send to clients, and we’ve increased our contact with clients, tenants and vendors to reduce uncertainty wherever possible. We try to strike a balance, not predicting impulsively or acting prematurely—but we’d rather consider something that doesn’t actually happen than be blindsided by something we weren’t prepared for.
Develop a company-wide scheduling system – Using Microsoft Teams, everyone can see who’s where, and when or if they’ll be in the office. We can control the number of people in the office at once, and do accurate contract tracing if needed. Some people come in to perform essential duties, some to avoid burnout at home. I organize and track everything, so that there’s a gatekeeper.
Restructure the office environment – You can do an amazing amount to create a safer office environment. We upgraded HVAC air filters, installed hand sanitizer stations, retrofitted toilets to auto-flush, and converted to sensor soap dispensers. We also installed convex mirrors in traffic corridors, created a one-way walking loop through the office, and installed spacing-reminder signs. We use “Occupied” cards to track use of restrooms and breakrooms. Staff now sanitize meeting rooms after each use, and we have optional “hot desks” available when people with adjacent desks are in the office simultaneously.
Maintain a balance of professionalism and humanity – COVID made things even more personal with our staff; we learned more about their homes, families, technology and social activities. We broadened our professional relationships to account for discomfort, isolation and quarantine, and it brought us even closer. We added a second staff meeting each month, devoted to our employees’ experiences, with 6-8 staff members sharing their personal situations and challenges. This created a space of acceptance for processing changes, showing our collective willingness to begin conversations on challenging topics. And we increased the activity of our “Happies Committee,” by adding virtual events such as live bingo, virtual quizzes and holiday gift-giving, to maintain our collective camaraderie.
Provide continuous IT support – Technology is an even more integral part of business now. To make sure everyone could navigate the technology and remain productive (and sane), the IT manager and I teamed up to survey the staff, assessing their knowledge levels and equipment availability at home. We offered group and one-on-one training on video conferencing, Teams, GoToMeeting and more, as well as providing stipends for home internet access, and we regularly check in with staff individually.
Consider “home ergonomics” – The ergonomics of working at home for an extended period are challenging. Once we realized remote working was going to be a long-term situation, we surveyed staff to share their insights and list their needs. Then we sourced and delivered desks, chairs, keyboards, monitors, tablets and more, based on individual needs.
Create a comprehensive re-integration plan – At some point we’ll begin increasing office occupancy, but first we’re planning it thoroughly. We need to be aware of the mental and emotional factors in play, not just logistics. We started with a re-integration survey to assess staff needs—to factor in children at home, vulnerable populations, essential workers, etc.; we’ll include vaccination as it progresses. Now we have an articulated plan for staff numbers in the office at one time, and a dynamic schedule of shifts, because things will continue to change.
The logistics of doing business at NAI Elliott have certainly changed, but by making adjustments like these—and focusing on how we can maintain our culture throughout—the way we do business hasn’t.