Creating a teleworking culture.

While much of last year seems like a blur, but one thing is clear: Business is never going to be the same after the remote-working revolution.

For many small companies, the COVID-19 pandemic upended business as usual and forced quick decisions about how to maintain operations with employees sequestered at home. And now, as we collectively come to understand the long-lived nature of this pandemic, a lingering question remains. What can business owners do to ensure their remote operations stay strong over an uncertain and likely extended period of time?

As the president and co-founder of a privately owned small business that launched over a decade ago, I’m relieved (and proud) to say our pivot to a new teleworking culture was relatively painless. It turned out we were more prepared for the pandemic than we knew—and that preparation enabled a seamless shift to fully remote working.

I count our business among the lucky ones, and my heart goes out to the more than 100,000 small businesses that have shut down in a shockingly brief period of time. Meanwhile, many of the small businesses that have managed to remain afloat this year have taken a “wait and see” approach to permanent teleworking. But it’s becoming increasingly clear that remote work is poised to stick around.

The sooner small business owners accept the reality of this new labor market and proactively adapt to it, the better off their companies will be—particularly when it comes to attracting and retaining top talent in the post-pandemic world.

With that in mind, I wanted to share my company’s successful strategies for sustaining business operations and employee morale during an extended period of remote work. Small businesses are vital to reviving America’s hard-hit economic growth and without mutual support, the road to recovery will be arduous. A rising tide lifts all boats, after all.

To adapt and thrive in the new out-of-office era that has taken hold at companies of all sizes, small business owners should focus on three areas: Take stock of your fundamental operations and identify weaknesses, focus on communications to keep goals on track, and most importantly, maintain team unity.

How to Plan for Disruption

While it’s impossible to anticipate every potential crisis, understanding your business’ fundamental weaknesses in the face of disruption is a one way to prepare for the unexpected, and it’s well worth reassessing on a regular basis.

That’s become very clear to me this year. In fact—though I didn’t realize it at the time—a simple Tabletop Business Continuity exercise our company conducted well over a year ago has turned out to be something of a saving grace during this pandemic, enabling us to maintain our regular operations without skipping a beat during a rapid transition to fully remote working.

As a SaaS company, our in-house technology development grew organically with our customer base over the years. To better understand and identify potential weaknesses in our expanded operations, we conducted a business continuity planning (BCP) exercise last year to game out what would happen if our business were disrupted by outside forces.

You may be thinking the BCP process is daunting and expensive, but I found online resources were easy to find and use, and our team completed the tabletop exercise in a single morning.  We outlined two scenarios: a cyberattack and a natural-gas explosion. In running through how we would handle these crises, we identified some potential problems and created action items to fix them.

The issues we identified—a legacy internal file server accessible only via virtual private network (VPN), an antiquated accounting system, and communications limited by a standard in-office phone system—were the first things we addressed early in the pandemic shutdown.

By shifting these systems to cloud-based solutions, we were able to easily maintain our client services remotely and keep our team projects on track.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find that implementing a cloud-based softphone system was much more cost-effective than when I first researched this option a few years ago. So if it’s been awhile since you considered an upgrade, it’s smart to revisit your options right now.

Communication and Execution Best Practices

Heading into the pandemic shutdown, we were fortunate to already have  a strong foundation with our internal communication processes, which helped us pivot from in-person to remote work without missing a beat or losing sight of our bigger goals.

We use the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS)—for those unfamiliar, it’s a business framework utilized companywide to clearly identify the company’s vision, consistently create goals, align communications, facilitate cohesive teamwork, and boost transparency and accountability. This framework provides the added benefits of documenting all company processes and facilitating seamless virtual cross-training of team members, which allows for much-needed flexibility in case of extended illness or childcare-related scheduling challenges.

With our team operating together under the EOS, meetings across all departments remain purpose-driven with set agendas. This consistency helps tremendously with clarity and focus, especially amid the upheaval of working remotely.

We have also been able to keep our long-term and short-term strategies on track with quarterly and annual strategic planning around our VIPs (very important projects) to help meet our key company goals during this period of telework.

Taking Care of Team Members        

Our company provides CRM software and marketing automation services for the mortgage and real estate sectors, and providing white-glove customer service is a cornerstone of our business. But if our team members are struggling with remote work, that affects their ability to perform at their best and meet our clients’ needs.

To that end, we hold regular, casual check-ins with team members and survey them about how they are feeling, and ask about their home-office setups to make sure they have the equipment and resources they need to work comfortably and productively. We understand that circumstances are in flux, and it can take time for employees to fully articulate what’s missing and how we can help. It’s important to give your team a voice in the decision process so they are part of the outcome.

Our company culture has always been tight-knit and rich with team activities. And despite quarantine and telework, we’ve been able to keep many traditions alive, whether it’s encouraging virtual coffee breaks, sharing origami kits, moving our monthly Thirsty Thursday happy hour to Zoom, or our special quarterly events—like Afternoon at the Movies (now socially distanced) and Virtual Tiny Campfire, complete with s’mores and ghost stories.

Major unexpected changes are always challenging, but small business owners across America can take control of their fate by embracing the remote-working revolution. Taking a measured and honest look within is the first step.

Chris Harrington is President and Co-Founder of Usherpa, a Customer Relationship Management / Relationship Engagement Platform that empowers mortgage lending professionals with intuitive automated marketing, engagement tools and customized content. She has more than 25 years experience in high-tech real estate and mortgage relationship management, developing state-of-the-art CRM platforms combined with automated content marketing services.

Teleworking stock photo by yu_photo/Shutterstock