Communication and the human connection that comes with it — albeit virtual rather than physical during the COVID-19 pandemic — are vital to working and running a business remotely, according to business and academic leaders on the Eastside and beyond.

Even businesses whose employees were no strangers to working remotely, at least occasionally, before the pandemic, are stressing the need to engage regularly during a time when so many factors – from kids off-school to sick family members, economic stresses and fear of the unknown – are taxing people far beyond the typical work and life challenges.

Aaron Blank, president, CEO, and partner of The Fearey Group public relations firm in Seattle is running the business from his Eastside home, but that’s not stopping regular face-to-face video contact with his staff. He emphasized the need for connection with employees now working remotely full-time, not just part of the time. Those video-check-ins on employees’ mental and physical well-being are important for everyone, but especially younger staffers who may live alone. While they may have video connections to family and friends, face-to-face time is also important for the people managing and coaching them, he said.

“You’ve got to do everything you can to figure out what your staff needs and just take care of them right now,” said Blank, whose firm counts clients throughout the region. “It’s more than just business, it’s really personal. You’ve got to be there right now for your people.”

That also means maintaining continuity. The normal Monday morning staff meeting is by video. The normal Friday staff lunch Blank provides is now delivered to staffers’ homes ahead of a virtual sit-down lunch, including a planned virtual meeting of a staffer’s new baby that no one has met yet because of the coronavirus, he said.

“You’ve got to make sure you can continue to do what you’re doing, just in the new way,” Blank said.

Christy Long, assistant vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer at University of Washington Bothell. (Photo courtesy of Christy Long.)

Christy Long, assistant vice chancellor for IT and chief information officer at the University of Washington Bothell, is putting a premium on connecting with her team and on her team doing the same with their staff.

“I’ve really been emphasizing that this isn’t just work from home, it’s work from home plus a pandemic, which means it’s a whole other type of work,” Long said via video from her home. “There are a lot of stresses placed on people that are above and beyond the day-to-day that they would normally face at work or even working from home,” so it’s important to ensure staff feel supported, she said.

Long starts her daily IT leadership team meetings via video conference the same time and same way: asking three questions, typically four on Friday.

She first asks her team how they are and how they’re feeling. It’s about them first, Long said. Next, she asks them how their teams are doing — if anyone’s feeling stressed or struggling, which might lead to questions about sickness and coverage issues. Third, she asks her team about their work priorities for the day. Friday, she’ll ask about their weekend plans, activities like movies or walks, that they plan for themselves.

“I’m just reminding my leadership team to put people first, to be patient, and remind people to be patient with each other, because stress can be really high right now for all kinds of reasons — could be work, it could be family — encouraging them to be kind to one another and to take care of each other and also to take care of themselves,” Long said.

Similarly, she’s noticed that people in their digital engagements aren’t just jumping right into business like they may have in the past, instead pausing to ask how someone’s doing, checking in at a human level first.

In addition to video conferencing, UW Bothell also has a collaboration and messaging tool that, aside from business use, has a channel that acts as a virtual water cooler. While that channel was lightly used pre-pandemic, it’s getting a lot of use now, Long said.

“I think that’s been really great to see,” she said. “That has emerged because folks are looking for that connection and we had a tool and they sort of found their way.”

Penelope Adams Moon, acting director of online learning strategy and affiliate faculty at UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences. (Photo courtesy of Penelope Adams Moon.)

Penelope Adams Moon, acting director of online learning strategy and affiliate faculty at UW Bothell’s School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, also stressed the need to remain connected, whether to a team, supervisor, or staff. Meaningful connections are possible even when people don’t share a physical space, she said.

“I think it’s important to remember that because I actually think we’re in a remote learning situation/remote working situation that could be much longer than we think … so finding those ways to make connection and knowing that it’s possible, I think is important,” Adams Moon said.

While video may enhance that, some people may not have the bandwidth for video at their homes or may be uncomfortable being on camera in their home for any number of reasons, she said of being sensitive to asking students or coworkers to turn on their cameras. Email or instant chats, for example, might be better alternatives for checking in with some people.

Managing time, of course, is important whether you’re a remote employee, manager or student.

“When I teach students in a fully online environment, I often tell them that they’re going to need to step up their time management,” Adams Moon said, noting distractions at home, especially now. “So making sure that you’re able to manage chunks of time, where you can really drill down and cross some stuff off your list of things to do, I think that’s important.”

Websites, forums offering help, ideas for businesses

One of The Fearey Group’s recent staff lunches was delivered by an Ethiopian restaurant as part of his effort to help businesses during the pandemic. Blank had promised the restaurant owner that if he figured out a way to deliver, Fearey would order lunch delivered to all staff. The restaurant came through and so did Fearey.

Aaron Blank, president, CEO and partner of The Fearey Group, right, is interviewed on Fox Business about the new Facebook group, “Business Saving Business,” he helped start in Seattle. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Blank.)

That’s the kind of business-helping-business initiative emerging from a private Facebook group, “Business Saving Business,” that Blank created March 10 with Bob Bagga of Bellevue-based bartering currency and network BizX. The Facebook site for business owners is a forum for questions, tips, and advice among businesses to help navigate the coronavirus crisis. On Monday, the group already had 1,628 members.

The group is intended for business owners/leaders in the Greater Seattle Area who can help other business owners, the site reads, adding it’s also intended to drive a virtual conversation in the community. “Please help the community thrive. If you have a challenge, or need help thinking about a new idea for your business, this is the place for that!” it reads.

Posts have included questions, answers, and links to the SBA’s streamlined application for the Economic Injury Disaster Loan program; a link to an online seminar on navigating sales during crisis; technology tips; business ideas and shout-outs; and more.

It also includes helpful podcasts by longtime radio reporter Josh Kerns, Blank said of the many efforts to build community, help businesses, and learn.

Blank wants to help a personal chef’s business by delivering meal ingredients to Fearey staff who would prepare meals through an online class with the chef.

He’s also reaching out to Fearey clients to remind them how important they are. The firm recently had Trophy Cupcakes of Seattle deliver cupcakes to homes of clients with children, who could then decorate the treats.

“This gives us the opportunity to be personal in a time of crisis that further connects you to the relationships that are so important to you and your business,” Blank said.

Tacoma’s SiteCrafting Inc., a full-service digital agency that does everything from designing and creating websites to digital marketing support, created a “Small Business Thrive Guide” to help customers and other businesses during this challenging time, including ideas on staying connected with customers and the community, and digital marketing tips.

“Small businesses are essential to our future,” SiteCrafting founder Brian Forth said in a letter introducing the guide. “We want the [region] to remain vibrant after COVID-19. We need businesses to be here when it’s over and we’re in for the fight with you. Our team created this Thrive Guide because we want businesses to be able to do more than survive the current challenges — we want you to thrive. We hope this helps boost your spirits and your business.”

Tech tips to help remote work

Fearey’s Blank said it’s important to know what communication platform customers want to use. He uses plenty, including Microsoft Teams, Amazon Chime, Google Hangouts, FaceTime, and Slack for inner office communication. But he’s a big fan of Zoom video conferencing, particularly its Pro level, which expands allowable meeting durations and includes cloud recording, more data, and more.

Aaron Blank set up a makeshift office in his Eastside master bedroom. Note the weights, which he said are important at this time. (Photo courtesy of Aaron Blank.)

“What I say to people, too, is don’t just settle on the free version” of a communication tool, whose positive impact could be well worth the investment, he said.

He’s also discovered ways to save money through the Facebook group, including learning about a Vonage connection that can route calls to cell phones, reducing the need for traditional office phones.

A fun discovery he recently made is a free scanner built into the Notes function of the iPhone.

“I’m like, ‘Holy cow, that’s just revolutionary, because we need to scan documents all the time,’” Blank said.

He also has discovered SquadCast as a good tool for podcasts he’s doing.

Nick McDonald, external affairs and communications manager for Comcast Washington, said Comcast’s broadband network has the technology and teams to support the current work-from-home demands.

“We understand we are playing a critical role in providing reliable services, keeping people connected to what matters most, and helping important business operations continue during this time,” McDonald wrote in an email. “Our network capacity is engineered to handle spikes and shifts in usage patterns, and we continuously test, monitor, and enhance our systems and network to ensure they are ready to support increased work-from-home usage.”

Customers working at home can see the status of their home network and services by signing into their Xfinity account site to find more information about their services and network performance.

Comcast created Xfinity xFi as a tool customers use to manage their home network. Xfinity xFi provides a digital dashboard for customers to set up their home Wi-Fi network, find their password, see what devices are connected, troubleshoot issues, set parental controls, and pause Wi-Fi access during dinner or bedtime using their mobile device.

Xfinity xFi also comes with free xFi Advanced Security, a service that monitors, blocks, and informs customers of online threats to their home network, and helps provide seamless protection for those working at home on company-sensitive information, McDonald said.

The company also offers xFi Pods to solve Wi-Fi “dead zone” problems in some areas of homes.

“For an increasing number of customers, they have been a game changer,” McDonald said of the xFi Pods, adding they’re not just for customers with large homes. Some homes have brick and plaster walls that Wi-Fi can’t easily penetrate, and many row homes in urban areas have multiple floors, and if the connection to the company’s network enters through the basement, the Wi-Fi signal may not reach a third-floor guestroom or out on the back porch, all of which the xFi Pods solve, he said.