The disciplined art of sustaining your virtual business

by Beth McDonald, Wheelhouse Group

The COVID-19 pandemic shifted the ground underneath American businesses. Nine months later, we all – mostly – have figured out our routine to get our work done. But in these months of working in pop-up home offices in our kitchens, at the dining room tables or even in our bedrooms, there still lives the hope that one day we could return to the actual office.

That was never the hope of our Wheelhouse team members. From our beginning in 2003, we have all worked remotely a large percentage of the time. This change to full time remote work did not challenge us in the ways it did many businesses. Our entire team is comprised of experienced professionals who bring their own devices and manage their own hours within an allotment. We cultivate a high trust environment by providing the collaboration tools to work autonomously or within virtual teams. Even before the pandemic, our employees valued the many benefits to working from home; dramatically reduced commute, flexible work hours, increased focus and productivity, ability to multitask at home with laundry or meal prep, even the ability to work while visiting family or from a vacation home.

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The challenge for me, in a pandemic or not, is to make sure we continue to support our firm’s culture and ensure the business remains healthy.

For that, we need to ensure our consultants are happy. To support Wheelhouse Group’s human capital strategy, we created numerous initiatives that strengthen connection points among employees themselves as well as with leadership. Wheelhouse Group welcomes new employees with a logoed travel mug, sends cupcakes for birthdays, pop-up cards and flowers randomly, holds virtual wine tastings, and creates special occasions like Movie Night in a Box – a package filled with candy, popcorn, and other treats for a family movie night. We understand working remotely means personal connection points are diminished. Our intention is to create bright spots that break the monotony.

While COVID-19 has created a mainly universal virtual work experience, we also needed to acknowledge the difference between now and pre-pandemic remote work. Our entire family is at home! We all are contending now with the big stressors of existing in the same place and time as our pets, children, spouses. And negotiating for resources like internet bandwidth or quiet workspaces, and trading tasks like chauffer, teacher’s assistant, sous chef, and IT support. For me, I need to ensure I get out of the house. Pre-pandemic, a very busy schedule of back-to-back meetings allowed for down time and space for me to think in my car while I drove. I miss and need that “think space” so I create it by going for a walk or running an errand normally reserved for the weekend. I also miss my clients and team members. To preserve those connections, I schedule coffee chats that replace the hallway conversations I normally would have had on the fly.

I know how overwhelming it can be at times. At Wheelhouse Group, we believe in providing the support that will make the most difference and for that, we supplied the space to have honest conversations about what would be most valuable. The result was Wellness@Wheelhouse, a corporate-wide program that allows our employees to meet a few times a month to learn from expert speakers on topics such as stress management, nutrition and parenting. Employees may also participate in sessions on yoga or meditation. Another corporate-wide, peer-designed program, Inclusion@Wheelhouse, brings together our team to learn about systemic racism and discuss what we can do to become a positive force. We launched a listen, watch, and read group where interested parties listen to a podcast, watch a movie or read a book about systemic racism. The content and the conversations have been emotional and educational and are giving our team members a space to do the hard work of becoming more self-aware.

Over the last nine months, I have continued to remind myself that one day the pandemic will end, and there will be a new normal. To be ready for whatever that is, we need to understand what our employees (and clients) need at that time, provide support that builds trust and give everyone the space to figure out what works best for them.

Beth McDonald

Beth McDonald
President, Wheelhouse Group
Beth co-founded Wheelhouse Group in 2003 to help guide organizations to realize the power of integrated communications and change management to bring about lasting behavioral change. She has more than 30 years of consulting experience in organization transformation, process improvement, strategic communications, leadership development, strategic planning, workforce transformation, and culture change.