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TAKEAWAYS: Heath Alloway, director of Upstream Academy, leads a March 16 panel discussion on human resources needs and remote work issues that have emerged in the past two years. He's pictured, from left, with Karen Shannon of Ollis/Akers/Arney, Elizabeth Hurst of HR Advantage, Rachel Anderson of the Efactory and David Church of Campaignium.
Provided by SPringfield Area Chamber of Commerce
TAKEAWAYS: Heath Alloway, director of Upstream Academy, leads a March 16 panel discussion on human resources needs and remote work issues that have emerged in the past two years. He's pictured, from left, with Karen Shannon of Ollis/Akers/Arney, Elizabeth Hurst of HR Advantage, Rachel Anderson of the Efactory and David Church of Campaignium.

Panel stresses flexibility in current biz environment

Speakers expect hybrid work model will remain

Posted online

 A recent panel discussion reflected on lessons learned and best practices to navigate the current business climate that has endured two years of COVID-19 pandemic-related challenges. 

The Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce hosted the March 16 event which included business leaders and human resources executives sharing tips to adapt to the frequently changing work environment amid the pandemic. Open communication, priority management and how to make effective changes were among tips shared. 

Health Alloway, director of consulting firm Upstream Academy, said change is difficult in the workplace for employers, be it their workers, the office environment or internal initiatives. Alloway, who was the panel moderator, said many business leaders question why change is needed if the company is successful. 

“The problem is, other organizations are [changing],” he said. “They’re looking for ways to continually get better. If you’re not open to change and something comes along, you can have this perfect plan laid out and all of a sudden, you’re just knocked right off the road. Things happen that we don’t see coming our way and we have to be in a position to adapt to that.”

While the panelists said professional adaptation has been essential the past two years, several noted changes they made in their workplace or career just before the pandemic have given them added insight. 

Go remote
Elizabeth Hurst, business development manager at HR Advantage LLC, said she joined the company with a fully remote workforce three years ago. For Hurst, it initially was a challenge to take on a remote job before it became more commonplace the last couple of years.  

“From a full office environment to a fully remote, completely autonomous situation – what a transition that changed my life,” she said. “I definitely experienced a transition that you would think of it as positive.”

Hurst said her position deals with financials, which she delivers to clients whether they’re watching her on Zoom or not. Some of the clients have remote workers for one to three days per week, but most remain fully in the office. 

“COVID was a remote work situation on steroids,” she said. “Having been a remote worker prior to the pandemic and going from that to having my 3-year-old at home with me while I was trying to work is quite different.”

Hurst was joined on the panel by Karen Shannon, vice president of business consulting at Ollis/Akers/Arney, Rachel Anderson, director of the Efactory, and David Church, a partner at Campaignium.

Ollis/Akers/Arney decided to start a flexible work arrangement program in 2019, Shannon said, noting the insurance agency’s office had numerous identical workspaces, allowing employees to come and go as desired. 

“We still had some people that had dedicated offices and workspaces but for our adviser and sales teams, it fit perfectly with their role,” she said, adding the company initiated a work-from-home protocol in 2020 when COVID-19 arrived. “Part of what we help our clients do is make that transition of flexible work arrangements.”

Church said Campaignium is maintaining the hybrid work model it started in 2020 for the foreseeable future. For employees of the digital marketing and creative services company, continuing to offer a choice of their work environment is best – a strategy he recommends for other employers who have the option. 

“Let them figure out what they want,” he said. “Some people just thrive in the social environment. They need to fill that cup up in the morning and talk to people at the office.”

However, Church said he’s the type of employee who feels more productive sitting in front of a computer in silence and working through tasks. But he said there are times when workers are asked to come into the office for in-person client meetings for those that request them.

Nationally, employees have a strong interest to continue remote or hybrid work. Job finder company FlexJobs noted in its 2021 survey that 58% of respondents want to be full-time remote employees post-pandemic, while 39% want a hybrid work environment.

“I don’t think there’s any one-size-fits-all approach to this,” Hurst said of in-office and remote work. “It may continue to evolve and change over the next few years.”

 Be flexible
Hiring challenges persist and employers in some industries are competing against one another to fill openings or scale up staff, said the Efactory’s Anderson. 

“It’s not a good community to only think I’m just going to recruit somebody from this company,” she said. “In regard to economic development, that’s not going to be the community we want to create. We have to have different strategies and try different things.”

Anderson said employees have a power of choice now that didn’t previously exist. She noted when she was in college roughly 15 years ago if someone wanted to work in certain industries they’d have to live in certain cities. 

“Location is no longer an element that it used to be,” she said, noting employers also need to look at productivity of their staff, not specifically hours worked. “I don’t do my best work at 7:30 a.m. but rather at 10 p.m.”

The pandemic also has brought mental health issues more to the surface, Anderson said, adding workers are doing more in their days and hours than ever before. Employers or managers need to understand that communication to every individual of their team about mental health is going to be different.

“Some people might want to talk about it, some might not,” she said. “But it’s important to create the environment where everyone feels supported and included and can take care of themselves.”

Open communication
Hurst said clear communication with employees also must be individualized for remote work to make sure they have all the essential needs at home to be successful. She said some managers probably ask themselves: “How do I know they’re working?”

“You don’t know. This is a big, big challenge for folks on a management level to shift mindset, or for owners to shift their mindset in to how we manage performance and how we manage individuals,” she said, suggesting changing the focus more to quality over quantity. 

Employers also need to check in with their staff often without micromanaging, Hurst said. 

Shannon said building relationships should be done before you have to engage in hard conversations with employees.

“When I’m coaching clients or our own managers, are you having one-on-one meetings with your staff every single week? We want to be building strong relationships now,” she said, adding that can be 10 minutes, an hour or whatever the worker needs. “When you have to get to a hard conversation, you’ve then already built a relationship.”

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