Company Culture
COVID-19 / Remote work / Workplace culture

Baltimore companies are exploring how to keep employees connected while working remotely

As coronavirus concerns ramp up, here's what Fearless found during a day of testing fully remote teams. Plus, BurnAlong sees increased interest in its connected health and fitness platform.

Fearless' team gathered at its office in Spark Baltimore. (Courtesy photo)

With the COVID-19 pandemic affecting big events and individual supply gathering, companies are among those making changes, with directives to work from home starting to pop up from the largest tech companies that are headquartered in areas where the spread of coronavirus has been most acute.

It’s a lot of change happening fast, and the shift to remote work can mean a lot is different about a workday.

On Wednesday, downtown Baltimore-based digital services firm Fearless gave the process a test run by mandating work from home. That meant no one came into the Spark Baltimore HQ, which is a departure even for a team that allows flexible schedules.

The idea, said COO John Foster, was to allow teams to establish processes, and collect feedback along the way.

“It is an infrastructure test. It is a communications test. It is to some extent a psychological test,” Foster said. “We asked people to really dig deep in how they were going to experience this.”

Typically, flexible schedules are allowed on a team-by-team basis at the company of more than 100 people. Folks aren’t allowed to work from home for the first month or two of being employed there, then teams are empowered to figure out what’s best. Leaders are following that approach as they craft a strategy for more permanent remote work that could come into play, as well.

“While people do often — depending on what’s going on in their life — work from home, there is a psychological shift for teams that see each other every day to go to not seeing each other at all,” Foster said.

Like many tech firms, the company already uses tools such as messaging app Slack and conference software Zoom that can allow for remote work. But the day of working remotely showed how they can be used in new ways.

Foster said someone mentioned missing “water cooler” talk, so they created a Zoom meeting and left it open all day for folks to pop in. It was an effort to replace the environment at the company’s offices, where there are no walls and people can walk up to each other anytime and have a funny or random aside that helps the day along.

Another key area that’s seen change has been hiring and onboarding new employees. The company has been growing at a fast clip, and that continues even amid remote work. Foster said they shifted to video interviews for the hiring. For onboarding, they’re thinking through how to continue to take steps to make someone feel comfortable on day one.

Going forward, Foster said he is having every team gather up the feedback, then outline what their job would look like if done remotely.

Following the test day, Fearless said that folks were allowed to work from home if they didn’t feel comfortable coming to the office. The offices remain open, but the leadership team will be making updates daily.

Even with the uncertainty, the focus for the company, he said, is on empowering people to do what’s best for them.

“We’ve been trying to follow guidance of CDC and the health department here in the city. In doing so we know that they know more than we do so we should not be playing safety officer. We’re in a place where we are trying to empower people,” he said.

Local companies also have tools that can help with the shift in setting. At Pikesville-based BurnAlong, co-CEO Daniel Freedman said the company is seeing an uptick in interest for its connected health and fitness platform. The company’s model was already set up to work with firms that wanted to give employees access to group fitness and wellness classes, and the video technology allows folks to link up and work out together in groups.

It’s a way for folks and their families to maintain their health under WFH at a time when stress and anxiety may be on the rise. It also gives a way to keep a connection, and keep building culture.

“Those daily interactions with coworkers, that love for company is much harder to maintain when you’re remote, Freedman said.

Companies: Fearless / Burnalong
Series: Coronavirus

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