Due to the current COVID-19 situation, many local businesses are facing the option of remote-work for their employees, and many businesses may be trying this for the first time.  Sending employees to work at home can seem daunting if you’ve never done it before, but the Goleta Chamber has been working this way for many years, so we thought we would share some of what we have learned along the way.
For the last 10 years, the Goleta Chamber of Commerce has operated a “Virtual Office”. Our professional staff work remotely from their home offices and we gather together at member locations for important meetings and events.   We’ll be adjusting our work schedule, since meetings and events will be postponed, or managed “virtually” for the coming weeks.
Our experience with remote-work has been positive, so we are providing some examples and tips for working remotely.
We made business partnerships and worked closely with some top-notch and mostly local companies to make sure our technology and online presence reflect the professionalism we promote.
Phone systems

One of the first obstacles is the phone – our main number was well published and we didn’t want to change or publish individual cell phone numbers. Impulse Advanced Communications helped us do that with a voice over IP system (VOIP).  We have one main phone number and when a caller selects an extension, the system routes the call to that employee.  Some of our employees also route that call to their cell phone, so they never miss a call. Either way if you do miss a call, the system sends an email with a recording of the voicemail, so you can listen to it on the go, and/or forward it around to other e

mployees.
Cox Business offers a similar system – and either company can make sure your internet connection at the home office is as high-speed as the one at your office. Cox has announced enhancements to their residential internet connections in response to the changing environment.
Another option we use for high-volume call times is an answering service.  These live receptionists answer the phone, instead of the automated attendant with a recorded message.  These services provide a human voice, answering calls live, and can answer a list of frequently asked questions about our company (we use this mostly during the Lemon Festival when we get many calls asking the same questions).  If the answering service cannot answer the question, they take a message and send a written transcript, by email, to the staff member, or members, as appropriate. The messages come in real time, so we can stay up to date all day long.
Connecting with remote workers
Many people ask me how to keep in touch with staff, when you can’t walk down the hall and see them in person.  We have a small staff of four, so we use a group text on our iPhones that we utilize all day long.  From small questions, to big ones, we put it on the chat so that the team really feels like a team and can see what conversations are happening.  I know that many larger groups use an app like Slack or What’s App.  These are much more adaptable and searchable and probably better for larger groups.  But whichever device you use here are the most important policies we use:
  • Empower qualified employees to work independently and take pride in their work
  • Be crystal clear about which decisions an employee can make on their own, and which ones need approval or at least notification
  • Train everyone to give status updates frequently.  This doesn’t come naturally to most people, who want to wait until something is finished and then “wow” everyone with their accomplishment.  Or, people tend not to speak up in the opposite scenario when something is preventing them from finishing a task and they are getting behind.
  • Train everyone to give status updates – good or bad – and then be predictable and consistent in your response. Also show thanks for the update, give positive feedback, solve a problem if needed, and ask for another check-in soon.
  • Schedule daily, or regular, virtual staff meetings.  Whether it’s 15-minutes or 1 hour, schedule a predictable time for everyone to get on the phone or computer and share their progress, questions, and accomplishments.
  • Even though work-from-home hours are more flexible than office hours, we adhere to a certain decorum that respects traditional work flow – we discourage texting before 8 a.m. and after 8 p.m.
  • We also discourage our employees from emailing after hours. Work life balance is important and middle of the night emails do not send the right message of professionalism.
Technology and Software
In the past 10 years, we have a changed a lot of the software applications we use as productivity software has gotten better and better. One we have counted on consistently is the GoTo products.  A local Goleta company, GoToMyPc was an integral part of our early transition to remote-work, and now GoToMeeting is a common part of our work week.  Most people don’t want to be on camera, as in FaceTime or other video conferencing tools, but we often need to share a document on screen and have a conversation with several people at once. It’s easy to download and use. GoToMeeting has put together a toolkit for business and many of their services, such as GoToWebinar are free at this time. 
Getting all of this set up with Latitude 34 Technologies was a great choice we made years ago.  Their on-call tech support applies not just to our desktop computers, but to our entire inventory of connected devices.  They are experts in virtual business and will help protect you from outside threats like viruses, power-outages and spam, as well as common mistakes in user-error and cloud management.
CIO Solutions is another great Goleta company who can help your business utilize cloud technology and keep your remote employees constantly connected. Check out this great article they prepared on helping you prepare your business.
In the Cloud
By moving all of our operations to the cloud, we can access our shared files from any location.  Bookkeeping, membership databases, emails, calendars, and critical documents are all saved in the cloud and each folder has different permissions for each staffer. Just remember that employees should not accidentally save documents to their laptop – keep it all in the cloud for shared use.
Equipment
These days, most employees have a cell phone and probably a laptop. But once you start requiring them to use their phone for work, and make sure it’s on and reliable, a reimbursement for the cost, or part of the cost may be in order.  Company-issued laptops and iPads are common and very useful.  Just make sure your policy manual is up to date and that employees respect that it is a company-owned device and should be treated like business equipment.  Some cross-over into our personal lives is inevitable and frankly encouraged – work life balance is a key component to job satisfaction – but remember to keep sensitive personal information elsewhere.
Home office expenses
Because the Goleta Chamber is permanently virtual, with remote-work employees, we provide a monthly reimbursement for the square-footage of the home office, any storage an employee provides, part of the internet and utilities cost, part of the cell phone cost, and a small account for expenses.  If you will be offering work-from-home options on a temporary basis, you will have to consider how much to offer, if anything.  We pay employees instead of rent, but paying for home offices and keeping the lights on at the main office means you may need to calculate differently.
Comraderie
Don’t forget to keep in touch with some humor and support.  Most of us rely on our workplace for social connections and camaraderie.  Anne Pazier at Santa Barbara Gift Baskets makes a great suggestion to send a virtual break room to your home offices.  What a fun way to say you appreciate your remote-workers who may be working even harder than they do in the office.
We hope this information will help your business during this difficult time. Remember to take it easy, go slow, try things on a termpoary basis, and laugh at your own mistakes. We are all in this together – all trying new things. And who knows, we may learn something during times of stress that we like so much that we end up adopting it permanently.