SHERIDAN — While technology has long held an important role in the workforce, its relevance has moved front and center as companies adjust to requests from government and health officials to stay home.
Now, hundreds of employees who normally work from their desks in an office shared with colleagues, instead communicate via technology and share their work spaces with children and pets who often don’t understand 6-foot social distancing boundaries.
WWC Engineering, while headquartered in Sheridan, has offices in Casper, Laramie, Helena and Billings.
The engineering firm’s staff members have become accustomed to working together virtually across community boundaries, utilizing email primarily, but also various videoconferencing programs and communication tools as needed.
Now, with 90% of the firm’s 104 staff members working from home, they’ve started utilizing a private Facebook page, Zoom and other programs, too.
WWC Engineering CEO/President Brady Lewis said the employees have embraced the now necessary form of communication with little to no loss of progress or efficiency.
“Procedurally, communication seems more deliberate than ever,” Lewis said.
Lewis also noted that last week WWC Engineering hosted a companywide training session via Zoom on several safety, administrative and remote work tips, tools and best practices. They had 98 employees logged in from different locations for the training.
Alan Telck, president of AgTerra, said that as a software company, his team of programmers used to work on site at their office on Burkitt Street. Even then, they found instant messaging convenient.
Their familiarity with mobile computing and electronic communications made the transition to working from home relatively easy.
For example, they had used Microsoft Teams regularly when they all worked in the office, but have since learned more about its capabilities. They even used it to connect with staff for a virtual after-hours gathering.
“(It) wasn’t the same as chatting around a table, but was also entertaining as folks let their hair down creating memes, sharing computer screens and showing what their home office environment looks like,” Telck said. “It helps us stay socially connected.”
Tim Carpenter, senior network systems specialist for Collins Communications, said virtual private networks have been crucial to his team’s work and the work of clients now working from home. He said the most common request from clients he has seen is additional support for connections and software.
“It’s been an adjustment for a lot of folks to connect to the VPN first before the rest of the connections will work,” Carpenter said. “We’ve had to deem it ‘Dial-in’ like the old modem days for a lot of people to understand that.”
He noted that initially Collins saw a sharp increase in workload, setting clients and employees up to work from home. Since then, though, the workload has normalized, despite cyberattacks increasing significantly.
“Our clients have all been using encrypted connections to their offices to assure nothing is compromised, but phishing and spoofing attacks have spiked,” Carpenter said. “The other concern is those using their own desktops and laptops to connect to work and having exposure to computer viruses as opposed to COVID-19.
Carpenter noted the importance of users running and maintaining at least free versions of anti-malware and anti-virus software on their equipment to mitigate risk of damage to company assets.
Not all organizations are as used to working virtually, though. The Bighorn National Forest staff, while used to technology, also works a lot in teams and in the field. The forest staff now primarily use Microsoft Teams for group meetings, but has also postponed some events and when staff must complete field work, such as checking timber sales or conducting snowmobile and ski patrols, they’re limiting each government vehicle to just a single driver.
Despite access to and understanding of technological options for communication, organizations around the county have sometimes struggled with employee engagement and morale.
Lewis said he and his team have worked hard to mitigate the challenge.
“We have excellent people and we trust each other. Everyone wants to do their best,” Lewis said, adding that teams and managers are encouraged to be in contact at every other day if not daily.
“We also ask that Outlook calendars are kept up to date on when each person is working, flexing hours and off,” Lewis continued. “Skype is also very helpful in knowing if someone is active or unavailable. Lastly, we can’t emphasize clear, specific communications with clearly defined expectations and schedules enough. We are identifying company needs and asking for help from those with free time.”
Telck’s team has settled into working from home, but family, pets and home activities have provided both entertainment and distractions.
“For instance, with virtual schooling, parents have had to help out a bit,” Telck said. “Cats and dogs are loving the fact their owners are now home; paw prints on the keyboard and hearing dogs in the background seeking attention during an online meeting are proof of that.”
Luckily, customers have understood and have worked with companies to communicate from remote work environments.
Carpenter noted that in talking to clients, friends and family he’s heard about a variety of issues that reach beyond technological abilities. The stress of declining business and time management pop up most in conversations, along with financial stress, marital strain and even sometimes food insecurity.
While most local businesses, nonprofits and other entities admit to home distractions, few indicated a decline in productivity. While parents may need to work flexible hours to care for children and help them with virtual schooling, most are still getting their hours in for work.
Telck and Lewis emphasized this requires trust in your team. In addition, clear, consistent communication has been key for most employers, whether that takes the form of a daily check-in with staff, Zoom meetings or evening happy hours.
“I feel like our productivity has not suffered at all,” Telck said. “But I, like the others, look forward to being together and collaborating face to face again soon. Nothing replaces that.”