Ready, set, innovate!

In the first days of March 2020, BCRPA recognized that the newly implemented provincial and federal preventative measures to combat the spread of COVID-19 may require our organization, along with so many others, to adopt a work from home approach. Our CEO, Rebecca Tunnacliffe, and the leadership team, moved quickly to create an organization risk assessment and develop our own version of a pandemic plan.

The purpose of our plan was to ‘Mitigate the Impact – Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best’, all with our guiding principle in mind: to ensure that we could keep delivering critical services, operations, programs and resources to BCRPA members and partners.

The plan included several processes to transition our 12-person staff from a traditional office setting to a make-shift home office platform. It was determined that this new Work From Home (WFH) culture needed to take a number of key factors into account: each staff person’s ability to access the information they needed, their expertise and comfort level with online technology, and their ability to create a home office in isolation from the team. Many were sharing space with other adults who were also newly working from home, some also with kids no longer able to attend school. This was truly a new landscape for all of us. In addition to the practical considerations, the primary concern was the ability to lead and motivate one another from afar.

We started at the beginning of March with the development of a Critical Operation Plan that looked at various scenarios our operations could be under: partial shutdown- with reduced staffing due to illness and/or some staff working remotely as well as in the office; full shutdown of office- with everyone working from home; and full shutdown- with the entire city or region in lock down. The main questions we explored were: what are the critical department functions under each scenario, and what were the critical member and fitness leader services to maintain. Each answer included human and technology implications and requirements. This analysis formed the basis of our technology plan to ready our staff and office systems for a complete work at home scenario.

Little did we know the pace of change would see provincial governments ramp up physical distancing measures so quickly. By March 16, it was clear that we would have just a handful of days to implement our plan and make the transition to our new BCRPA WFH reality.

Choose your tools wisely

In the final hours of our planning process, one of our main tasks was to investigate which tools would support our teams to stay connected online, and serve as the framework for our virtual office. We wanted to ensure that these tools supported, not duplicated, already existing tools such as email, and did not decrease our productivity by creating diversions and distractions.

Ideally, we were looking for both a video conferencing tool and a chat tool that would mirror the in-office experiences our team had come to depend upon to feel connected to one another, and the work of BCRPA. It was also clear that although video conferencing provides an important human connection and opportunity to converse in real-time, it would take some time and require some creativity and innovation to help normalize this way of communicating together.

In the end, the team chose Slack and GoToMeeting as our two key virtual office tools. In just a short few days, what were regular face-to-face components of our work culture had now been translated across to our WFH world. Our bi-weekly staff team huddles have now been converted to daily morning check-ins via videoconferencing through GoToMeeting. Within the teams, GoToMeeting hosts our project meetings both planned and “on the fly.” Our physical Recreation White Board, formerly housed in our common kitchen area where we had shared our weekend recreation and parks activities, is now a Slack channel. Our hallway conversations are now GoToMeetings or chats on a different designated slack channel.

Adapting to a virtual management style

Managing teams virtually is a whole different skill set, and managing them during a pandemic, layers on unexpected factors in a period of uncertainty. In addition to adapting work plans for each team member, our leadership team had to, almost overnight, pivot their leadership styles to meet a new set of needs.

Our staff traditionally work together by talking things through face-to-face, asking questions, brainstorming solutions, agreeing upon strategies and roles, and moving projects forward – all with a lot of humour and laughter. That’s not so easy when you aren’t able to simply walk down the hall and make it happen in the moment.

Working remotely changes the playing field. In this new virtual world, it is more important than ever to be thoughtful and deliberate in keeping teams connected, motivated and on-track. For each manager, the aspects of their management style that depended on our real-time office environment to model leadership and expectations, now had to find new ways to be translated across screens and microphones. Communications had to be become more planned, better conceived, and careful to avoid misinterpretation of tone and intention.

Creating a framework for online team management

Here are a some of the key tips that BCRPA managers are now using to support their teams:

  1. Learn how best to support and connect with your team. It’s more important than ever to pay attention to what the individuals on your team need for support and connection and how they would like to receive it. Work out the best strategy for each individual – some may want to check in daily, some more than that and some less. Pick up the phone, text or schedule a video call, but ask your team members what they prefer.
  2. Be available to your team regularly. Plan a daily team check-in to help your staff bring things to the table that they need input on. Just like when you would walk down the hall, this is a chance for people to share their ideas and knowledge.
  3. Allow work hours to be flexible. Some of your team members may need maximum flexibility in their work hours. We established core working hours of 10 am to 2 pm during which we expect people to be accessible. Everyone will be dealing with their own unique home situation with partners, children, or other factors. Your team will appreciate the flexibility and the support that can provide, while also needing the structure of some routine.
  4. Create a team work plan and check in on the progress.This way everyone can see what other team members are working on. It helps you to keep track of where things are at, and also helps to identify shifting needs or priorities.
  5. Be extra careful with your emails and written correspondence. We know, 55% of our communication stems from our body language. The tone of our voice makes up 38%, and only 7% of our message is conveyed by the words we use (Mehrabian, 2007). So what does that mean if we begin to rely on communicating by email alone? It means there is a lot of room for misinterpretation & misunderstanding. People will not always ask for clarity in writing the same way they might if you were face-to-face. For anything that is clear-cut black and white, email away, but for anything more subjective, pick up the phone or arrange a video call.

Make sure to build in the ‘fun factor’

In addition to ensuring the work gets done, we’ve also realized, particularly during this time, the importance of having fun. Is it a distraction? We would argue, no. Supporting our staff to feel levity and have a laugh helps them manage their isolation, improve productivity, and reinforce team bonds. Here are some of the things we are currently playing with:

  1. We created a Slack channel called ‘Random’ where folks can post items unrelated to work. This is a great place to post funny images or memes to bring a smile to someone’s face.
  2. In our morning huddles, our managers often include a photo or some other visual way to say hello. For those folks that are visual learners…this is a welcome break from looking at words all day.
  3. We hold a virtual Koffeeklatch on GoToMeeting at the end of each week. Each one has a new fun theme to ensure we are making time to simply be together and do something unrelated to work or the pandemic. For one klatch, people were asked to create a fun background to share; during another we paired up and ‘interviewed’ each other to find out more about each other, reporting back to the group two interesting and previously unknown facts about the other-you’d be amazed at the collective life experience of your team. Oh, and we also celebrated birthdays!

The new normal

Now four weeks into a twelve week (or longer) home-office workplace, we look forward to our quick daily check-ins. Each staff leads a morning session on a rotating schedule, and brings their own personality and perspectives to the development of our new team dynamic. And we continue to tweak the format based on the changing needs of the team.

Our new self-isolation style of working has created a new level of familiarity we didn’t foresee – virtually we have been in each other’s homes, we’ve seen each other’s family members, we have learned new things about one another, and we’ve shared the merging of our personal and professional lives.

This time is also generating enormous amounts of innovation as we envision how best to pivot our offerings and services to our members and fitness leaders within this new reality, and develop services that can be delivered in new formats and through online platforms.

We’ve made temporary program changes to our fitness registration program to extend renewal dates and requirements during this time, and have worked with our insurance company to support our fitness leaders as they make changes to their business models; shifting from the real to virtual world in delivering their fitness services.

We’ve been able to bring our municipal and regional government members together during this devastating time, via regional video conference calls and private online discussion forums, to share impacts, response measures, troubles and anxieties. These communication channels are vital lifelines in times such as these and allow members to stay connected and informed, able to face their challenges armed with their collective wisdom, experience, and collaboration.

We know that this WFH time will change how we work when we do return to the office. Our hope is that it serves only to strengthened our teams and our purpose, and supports the creation of new, nimble, and vital ways of ensuring our work for our members and fitness leaders continues unabated regardless of where we are.

Resources for Pandemic Planning

Resources for establishing a WFH culture

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