Communication and connection are the keys to transitioning to working from home

By Common Threads | May 1, 2020

May 1, 2020 – Common Threads is a national nonprofit that provides nutrition education programming in 12 markets. With offices in only five of these markets, many of our 36 administrative staff and all of our chef instructors and nutrition educators work from home regularly, either 100 percent of the time, or at least a few days a week.

As Common Threads began transitioning to a fully work from home atmosphere in mid-March with the advent of COVID-19, the organization’s leadership came together to codify guidance to help employees and managers adjust to this new environment.

“The key has been keeping the lines of communication open and making sure you’re listening to your employees,” said Jordan Fickess, Common Threads’ vice president of communications & culture. “An organization like Common Threads may not be feeling this adjustment as much since so many of our staff fully work from home, but this has still been a ‘shock to the system’ to everyone. It’s best to err on the side of over-communicating rather than under-communicating.”

Below are some tips to help employees and managers work more effectively in a work from home environment.

It all starts with an ergonomically friendly home office. Certified personal fitness trainer, yoga instructor and massage therapist, Eve Chenu, shares “A lot of us are working from home now, often in improvised offices, and even when we aren’t working, we’re spending a lot of time looking at screens. Doing all of this in a way that is friendlier to our body can make such a difference.” Follow Eve’s simple steps and home-friendly hacks to neutralizing accumulated body tension that creeps up during your workday on our YouTube channel.

Use video conferencing platforms such as Skype, Zoom or Google Hangouts: It can feel odd at first if you’re not used to it, but Common Threads staff has used this software for years and staff report that participating with video helps them feel more connected and part of the conversation. Studies show body language plays a big role in conveying your message — 55 percent in fact, compared to 38 percent for tone of voice and only 7 percent for the actual words shared. Many video conferencing platforms offer features such as break-out rooms, Q&A, chat, share screen and poll features to help you keep engagement high with your meeting participants. Just make sure you secure your virtual meeting rooms to avoid intruders.

Give thought to the right cadence of communication. When in doubt, over-communicate. Common Threads has traditionally held a monthly meeting with all staff through videoconference, and has implemented shorter All Staff meetings each week and email updates to keep everyone posted. Managers may also feel that additional dedicated time for 1:1 check-ins with their staff members will be helpful now that face-to-face contact is not possible.

Assign roles in meetings: it can be difficult for the person leading the meeting to monitor the chat window, it can be helpful to assign one person to managing the chat, and perhaps another person to take notes.

Set norms and ground rules: If working remotely is new to your team, we recommend setting ground rules and norms as a group. As much as it is appropriate, remind teams of these rules at the start of meetings (either by saying them, or posting them in the notes). Our team’s norms include:

Be present
We acknowledge each other as equals
Maintain an open mind
Listen with an open ear
Slow down: think, reflect and respond
We embrace our diversity

Discourage multi-tasking: It can be tempting to multitask during video and phone calls. Lead by example and set the norm that the team should be fully present and focused.

Build in a short icebreaker activity into the first few minutes of calls, highlight an exciting piece of news from your organization, or show a short inspirational video. Having some light content to kick off the call can help fill time as people are all logging in.

Give kudos and shout outs: At the end of our All-Staff and Team Meetings we take five to 10 minutes for team members to give shout outs and kudos to each other. This allows for more free-form communication that is present in person but can easily go missing with remote teams. It allows space to celebrate team members, which boosts morale!

Turn on the water-cooler effect, virtually! Encourage employees to gather virtually to catch up with each other and connect. Framed around fun activities, coffee chats or wellness discussions, these 20-30 minute breaks provide a space for connection and support. Common Threads’ Wellness Committee hosts “coffee break” gatherings to talk about our favorite movies, musicians or even play a few virtual rounds of “Family Feud”. In addition, the Wellness Committee opens up the line of communication daily through an organization-wide Slack channel. Employees drop funny memes, inspirational quotes and book, podcast or webinar recommendations.

As we all continue to adapt and respond to COVID-19, Common Threads created a series of weekly wellness programming for our team, friends and partners to promote maintaining a healthy lifestyle from wherever you are. Anyone can join the live stream sessions featuring everything from virtual cooking classes to physical fitness and mid-day meditations sessions. You’d be surprised at your staff members’ expertise! For instance, our El Paso Study Coordinator Letty Salas taught a session on emotional tapping! Wellness videos are always recorded and accessible anytime in our YouTube channel.

Acknowledge that team members are balancing personal and professional obligations, including supervising children who are trying to participate in distance learning. Allow for flexibility when possible. Make sure employees with children know it’s OK if there needs to be a short pause in a meeting, or if soothing a little one means he or she will be sitting on mom or dad’s lap during the video call. We’re all working differently, and that’s OK.

Make sure staff are taking care of themselves and their loved ones. Even if your staff is still fully employed and healthy, the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 is palpable (for a great resource, see this stress management webinar from Julius Rhodes, a human resources consultant with mpr Group. Your team members may likely be dealing with the stress of helping friends or family members who are having a hard time. Now is a good time to share resources such as your Employee Assistance Program, or any community resources. Taking a few minutes to check in on staff before getting “down to business” can help you flag any issues.

The pandemic has been a bit a rollercoaster, and it’s just getting started. This is a good time to listen. Short pulse-check surveys can be helpful in making sure your staff are feeling comfortable. Sometimes small, low cost suggestions can go a long way toward improving staff morale and productivity.

Communication is key to finding the best practices that work best for your team. Listen to your colleagues, continue on with the strategies that work and let go of the ones that don’t. Working 100 percent remotely during a pandemic will probably never feel normal to most of us, but with these tips, it will hopefully make our new normal a little more familiar.