Small Business Challenges in Implementing and Managing Remote Work

Mark J. Komen

Kodyne, Inc.

Minneapolis, MN

2020’s Covid pandemic has created a host of challenges for businesses.  A 6/15/20 Price Waterhouse Cooper pulse survey of 989 CFOs showed that, back in April 2020, nearly half (45%) expected productivity losses because their organizations lacked remote work capabilities. At that time, many companies were in the early stages of reacting and responding to the Covid pandemic, not yet thinking about recovery tactics.

CFOs needed to decide how they were going to bring people back to a workplace that may have fundamentally changed. In June, just 26% of CFOs surveyed anticipated productivity losses in the month ahead. Many companies have dealt with the immediate crisis and they’ve implemented safety measures, transitioned to remote work where possible and are currently thinking about what they need to do manage and thrive going forward. 

I interviewed several small business owners about their experiences with working remotely.  I was interested in hearing them address the following items:

  1. Have you implemented remote work in your organization or parts of your organization? Why or Why not?
  2. What guidelines (expectations, Do’s and Don’ts…) did you issue upfront regarding getting work done remotely?
  3. How did you know work was getting done on time and at the acceptable levels of quality?
  4. Did you encounter any surprises (pleasant or unpleasant) with moving to remote work?
  5. Do you consider working remotely an effective practice for your organization?
  6. What advice would you give other business leaders regarding remote work?

The owners of the manufacturing companies I spoke with were not able to implement remote work for everyone due to the obvious reason of needing to maintain production lines.  Safety and cleaning protocols were established but people were expected to be on site.  Tyler Thomas of Technical Plating stated that it’s important to have the right people for successfully working remotely and he’d consider remote work for his organization depending on the circumstances and the positions involved.

Some organizations were more successful than others in getting productive participation from staff.  No one I spoke with felt that remote work was desirable for the long-term but they needed to address the current realities and be ready to respond.

Some Success Stories

Geoff Selby of D&D Instruments offered that his staff members who were able to work remotely did a good job of getting work done and, as others pointed out, being able to access company systems electronically was key.  He didn’t create any special requirements or expectations.  He is planning to keep working remotely in place for now and would support using it again in the future.

Jeff Mattson of ISC Companies set some clear expectations with his staff who were working remotely:

  1. Get the job done
  2. Be available or give notice when you won’t be available
  3. Put in an honest day’s work

He implemented daily reporting and overall was amazed at how well the company did in maintaining current business levels.  One practice he implemented was to have some kind of daily fun activities to connect with staff such as trivia games, sharing photos of everyone’s home offices or pets.

 Business as Usual for Some Companies

 Jon Taylor of BayonIT has been operating remotely for several years as the company has offices in Minnesota and Arkansas. Protocols are well established.  Jon has been able to observe productivity by making sure their office technology systems supported being able to see each other’s computer screens remotely.  Staff preferred to be in the office but felt that having a dedicated workspace at home was necessary to limit distractions.

Nick Bartlett of Byte Technology also backed the idea of having a dedicated remote workspace and he mentioned that he liked not needing to commute to the office.  With staff in various places internationally, he is able to use his ticket tracking system to track progress on issues and measure efficiencies.

 Adopted Remote Work but Not Raving Fans

 Some owners stated that they implemented remote work because they had to based on state mandates for office closures and staff fears about Covid-safe working environments.  They agreed it was the right thing to do and all I spoke with established some guidelines regarding what to do should staff be exposed to Covid, at work or at home, such as self-quarantine and testing.  All indicated that employees needed to report symptoms so that precautions can take place.

One owner reported that his staff working from home didn’t always answer their phones when called.  There were lots of interruptions with kids wanting attention and showing up on Zoom calls.  Work didn’t get done expediently and there was a lot of miscommunication that required constant monitoring, oversight and follow up.  His staff missed the collaboration aspects of being together in person. Others pointed out that dedicated workspaces were important when working from home and acknowledged that distractions like kids and house pets came with the territory.

Advice for Others

 Jeff Mattson had the following suggestions:

  1. Be prepared should Covid enter the building – have a plan
  2. Do daily fun and participative activities to connect with staff
  3. Don’t condemn working remotely – trust your people!

Geoff Selby advised organizations to get good at Zoom, Teams, or whatever online platforms work well for your organization and use these tools to manage your team.

Adam Meyer offered that you need seamless operation to make this work well.  In addition, both he and Dick Lindell of Lindell Engineering felt that training new people would be impossible!

Jon Taylor advised others to embrace remote work as it’s going to be around for the foreseeable future.

Mike McGuire of McGuire Benefits recommends that owners need to trust their staffs but verify work is being done correctly and make sure that follow-up with customers is happening

Nick Bartlett promoted the idea of daily check-ins with staff

 Summary Comments

 Remote work has become a fundamental component to doing business these days for the organizations able to implement it.  In my opinion, the future of in-person office environments is cloudy, even as technology solutions such as plasma or ionization systems to improve air quality and safety are beginning to emerge.  My respondents didn’t mention approaches I’ve heard other organizations experimenting with such as only allowing a fixed percentage of employees on site at a given time or trading off staff attendance on certain days of the week.  .  Big questions are in front of many companies about whether it makes sense for them to even keep their workspaces when they might be able to reduce expenses by reducing their physical footprints.  This leads to the question of what is the future for commercial real estate occupancy as remote work becomes standard in many industries?

Getting the bugs out of working remotely for your organization takes some strong leadership, creativity, clear communication and good processes.  The recipe appears to be:

  • Have a plan
  • Implement practices
  • Change as necessary
  • Keep going

 

©2020. Mark J. Komen.  All rights reserved worldwide