Technology to the Rescue
Applications support remote work amid the COVID-19 crisis
By Tracy Barbour

hen the COVID-19 pandemic made social distancing compulsory, many organizations were forced to implement programs to allow staff to work from home. They had little choice as the world responded to the health crisis by locking down and staying home.

For instance, Anchorage’s “hunker-down” order initially required non-critical businesses, such as hair salons, barber shops, clothing stores, gyms, and movie theaters, to close their premises and asked residents to stay home as much as possible. The restrictions have since eased, but all businesses—and people—are expected to follow physical distancing and other safety practices to the maximum extent possible.

By the end of May, numerous organizations—banks, professional service firms, utility companies—had employees working from home to help slow the spread of COVID-19. The widespread work-from-home trend is breaking down many of the barriers to telework by requiring both organizations and employees who were perhaps hesitant to become familiar with technology that facilitates remote work, according to Katie Dougherty, communications director of the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation (AEDC). Consequently, many businesses in Alaska ramped up their use of communication and conferencing tools that support virtual meetings, collaboration, and other work activities. Applications like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, and Slack are experiencing a surge in demand, showing just how feasible it is for people to work productively and safely from home.

Thompson & Co. Public Relations is a prime example of an entity that is using technology to enable staff to telecommute during the pandemic. The agency’s twenty-three employees are all working remotely, using various tools to interact virtually with one another and clients. Thompson & Co. was well prepared for the transition since its employees already work from home every other Friday. Plus, the agency is accustomed to interacting with its offices in New York and Texas, as well as workers in five other states.

“We decided to work (completely) from home early, about a week before it was required,” says Executive Vice President Gary Scott. “It was about making the best decision for our employees and clients.”

The ability to work from home helped BDO USA sustain its operations during the pandemic. All of the company’s seventy-five to ninety employees in Alaska were working remotely, at least through May 15. Twenty to thirty of them had routinely worked outside the office before COVID-19 struck, according to Assurance Office Managing Partner Joy Merriner of BDO Anchorage.

Since it already had the software in place, converting to an all-virtual office was relatively easy for BDO. But on the hardware side, a few tweaks had to be made. “Some of our employees did not have good intranet [connections], so we provided Verizon Wi-Fi packs,” Merriner explains. “Some employees did not have enough monitors. We ordered extra monitors and mailed them to employees or delivered them directly to their house.”

At Matanuska Telephone Association (MTA), 90 percent of the workforce is working remotely, representing about 250 employees. As a utility company, MTA is an essential service, but the quarantine emphasized just how essential it is for its members, businesses, and other organizations. “Not only did we have to remain functioning during this pandemic, but we actually needed to increase service,” says COO Wanda Tankersley.

Prior to the onset of the pandemic, MTA employees didn’t work from home. That’s what makes the company’s rapid transition particularly impressive, Tankersley says, explaining: “The workforce flipped to telecommuting while simultaneously conducting an extraordinary number of upgrades and reconfiguration of processes. Employees pivoted rapidly from wheeling their chairs, desktops, and monitors out of the building on Monday to working from their kitchens and living rooms on Tuesday.”

Tools for Telework
The most useful applications for remote work are those that allow teams—both internal and external—to move collaboration out of the office, according to Dougherty. For example, she frequently uses Google Docs, which offers a platform for writing and sharing information in real-time. “This weekend, I was able to work on a document with a colleague—from outside my organization—simultaneously in Google Docs,” she says.

Dougherty is also a frequent user of Dropbox, which allows her to share large or multiple files within and outside her office. This enhances her ability to disseminate information to a broad audience. She says, “Given the increased volume of email traffic—and my role as a distributor of information, including social media collateral—Dropbox is a great place to share those items.”

“We are continually investing in our technology, which allows us to continue to provide support to our clients at full capacity.”
Lori McCaffrey, Alaska Market President, KeyBank
Of course, the role of email to organizations cannot be overstated. From the start of the remote workday to the end, it is most companies’ go-to communication and information sharing medium. “Whatever application you use for email—Outlook, Google, et cetera—email is a staple of the remote work toolbox,” Dougherty says.

Google applications are popular at the Anchorage Chamber of Commerce. For its teleworking staffers, the G Suite by Google is “gold”, says Tosha Swan, manager of programs and communication and director of the Young Professionals Group. “We share our Google Calendars for meetings and Google Drive with various Google Docs, Google Sheets, Google Forms…to collaborate on projects,” she says.

Swan says she’s also lucky enough to have an iMac, a MacBook, and an iPhone at home, which allow her to work with flexibility. “For me, it’s been nice to go from standing at my iMac to sitting with my MacBook and then using my phone as backup when needed,” she explains. “The variety has been a lifesaver. And software like the iCloud and Google Drive allow me to share my files between each device.”

Recently, Swan downloaded the Timely time-tracking app to further enhance her work at home. While she hasn’t used it yet, she feels it could be helpful for freelancers who need to track their time and bosses who want to track what their employees are doing on company laptops.

Tracking employees’ time has always been part of the workday at Brilliant Media Strategies. It’s an essential activity the marketing and communications firm does for client-billing purposes. The company uses an advertising/communications system known as Workamajig, which tracks projects, their status, next steps, and associated costs, along with deadlines and delivery dates. “This system makes working remotely easier as you can check on a project through your phone, iPad, or computer from anywhere there is cell service,” says President and CEO Debbie Reinwand. “So if a staffer goes to the grocery store or steps away from work for a bit, they receive notifications on their phone letting them know when a project is updated or ready for client review.”

digital rendering of coworkers communicating digitally
digital rendering of coworkers communicating digitally
Since the beginning of Anchorage’s hunker-down order, the firm’s twenty employees have been working from home. However, Brilliant Media Strategies previously had a flex schedule and several employees who worked from home one or more days a week, so it is well-versed in telecommuting. It also has staff in California and Idaho and relies on video chat, email, and phone calls to collaborate and communicate.

Brilliant Media Strategies’ employees have gained a better work-life balance and a new perspective from working remotely. “Everyone on the team cares about our work and the clients,” Reinwand says. “We are very productive right now. We all miss the personal interaction I’m sure, but this is also providing some perspective, which I appreciate. Sometimes it’s better to stop when you’re spinning your wheels and make a quiche. Being able to do that has helped me focus, and I find time flies when I’m working on client projects.”

“Not only did we have to remain functioning during this pandemic, but we actually needed to increase service.”
Wanda Tankersley, COO, MTA
Popular Applications for Meetings
A number of applications are emerging as essential solutions for organizations that have stepped up their telework programs. For example, AEDC typically uses Zoom to host regular staff meetings and weekly “Strike Team” meetings, which are fun social calls. Dougherty explains: “We touch bases about what’s going on, both professionally and personally, and we also have an opportunity for ‘face time’ to check up on one another.”

Thompson & Co. leverages Zoom for the benefit of both employees and clients. Zoom is making it possible for senior managers to check in, give status updates, and share other important information. Recently, the company’s senior status update meetings were opened up to the entire staff. “We’ve found that the junior staff embrace it,” Scott says. “They see this as an opportunity to see how the agency functions and see what their future will be.”

Zoom is also bringing the agency’s staff together for its regular Thursday meeting—but without the usual potluck dishes. “We go around the tiles,” Scott explains, “and everyone shares a highlight for the day or for the week and something that’s been challenging.”

Zoom has seen its usage rise significantly during the pandemic, garnering 300 million meeting participants daily. The communications platform has outpaced the competition mainly because of its ease of use—which is also its weakness. Since Zoom didn’t initially require passwords as a default setting, it was being plagued by hackers and uninvited guests crashing private meetings—known as Zoombombing. The company is adding mandatory meeting password protection and other defensive features, which will make Zoom less vulnerable but also less simple to use.

While Zoom is appealing to many organizations, BDO has opted to steer clear of the application because of its potential security issues. Instead, the company prefers to use Skype and Cisco Webex for remote staff meetings. Cisco Webex has historically been a leading enterprise solution for video conferencing, online meetings, screen share, and webinars. Currently, it reportedly delivers more than 6 billion meetings per month.

Cisco Webex is also a favorite tool at KeyBank, along with the Salesforce customer relationship management platform. Both solutions have allowed KeyBank to effectively collaborate and communicate across geographic boundaries during the pandemic. Currently, 11,000 of KeyBank’s 18,000-plus workforce are working remotely. In Alaska, specifically, all of its non-retail staff members are working from home, according to Lori McCaffrey, KeyBank president, Alaska Market and Commercial Banking Sales Leader.

digital rendering of coworkers communicating digitally
digital rendering of coworkers communicating digitally
McCaffrey is impressed with how well the bank’s employees adapted to working from home. “We can continue to deliver compelling, visual presentations of our products and services, as well as provide a high level of engagement and connectivity with each other and our clients,” she says.

Some KeyBank staff already worked remotely prior to the pandemic. So the bank’s technology has been able to support broader requirements for telecommuting. “We are continually investing in our technology, which allows us to continue to provide support to our clients at full capacity,” McCaffrey says. “Our systems are regularly tested, inclusive of periodic employee systems testing while working from home.”

Microsoft Solutions
At BDO, Microsoft Teams is essential for teleworking. BDO’s Anchorage office was using the software in a limited fashion before COVID-19 hit, and it completely transitioned to Teams in May. The firm values the platform’s team communication and organizational features as well as its project management capabilities.

In addition to integrating Teams, BDO has been using Microsoft SharePoint and Yammer more frequently. Yammer, essentially a social layer across Microsoft 365, combines knowledge sharing and communication. Yammer is used to create and edit documents, take notes, and share resources as a group. “It’s internal to our company, so we can share pictures of our workspace, kids, and dogs for more of a corporate culture function,” Merriner says.

MTA is also leveraging Microsoft Teams for its video conference meetings. “We were new to Microsoft Teams at first, but we’ve adopted the tool quickly,” Tankersley says.

She adds: “At the same time, to continue smoothing out our operations, we are aiming to implement software that will enable ‘virtual check-in and location notifications’ for all employees. This will provide transparency and allow anyone in the company to find another employee, regardless of any hierarchies, and quickly determine the easiest way to connect with them. This tool will also have reporting capabilities for managers to track team members’ time, providing the ability to assess resources, balance workloads, and address any concerns in real time.”

More Must-Have Tools
Thompson & Co. also uses a number of other tools to support its virtual operations. The agency employs Mavenlink project management software to track billable hours and monitor budgets. The organization also uses the Google Suite of products.

Employees at Thompson & Co. also use Slack for instant messaging. In particular, the agency capitalizes on the software’s team and status categories to keep employees apprised of each other’s project status, among other things. “We use it for brainstorming all the time, which allows anyone from the company to contribute to an idea,” Scott says. “Now that we’re all away from the office, it’s a tremendous help to our ability to stay connected.”

A Sustainable Trend?
While the transition to remote working has been relatively easy for some, it is not without its challenges. At Thompson & Co., the agency’s staff say they miss being together and are eager to get back together for face-to-face interactions, Scott says. “We don’t intend to stay a virtual office.”

Technology has been a great facilitator of telework, Merriner says, but some technological capabilities are lagging behind. For instance, the quality of audio—the need for less echoing and background noise—and the ability to screenshare needs to improve. Client-side integration could use some improvement too. “There’s some level of technology that needs to catch up,” she says.

At MTA, the short-term impact of remote work has been mostly positive. Employees feel safer working from home and the business is thriving. But it’s not without bumps in the road, Tankersley says. “In the long run, we need to implement systems and software to manage employees’ time remotely, a key element for resource allocation and workload balancing,” she explains.

KeyBank’s McCaffrey emphasizes that maintaining adequate resources and tools—along with powerful human engagement—is fundamental to being a trusted client advisor. She says: “In the midst of this pandemic, I am so very proud of all of our employees for balancing the demands of our ‘new normal’ under incredibly challenging circumstances… I do believe employers will continue to see the value in implementing a work-from-home policy and the efficiencies and flexibility it may afford.”

From a broad perspective, COVID-19 has helped normalize telecommuting, says Swan. “Some people who used to say, ‘Oh, I could never work from home’ are now finding that they are able to work from home,” she says. “I think that many people and companies might embrace teleworking more now. For those who have a hard time paying for their office space, this might push them over the edge of teleworking to save money.”

It’s uncertain if remote work will be a sustainable trend once the pandemic subsides and the state, country, and world return to “normal,” says Dougherty of AEDC. She adds: “It’s hard to know what the future will bring, and the immediate future of telework is largely intertwined with the reopening of business in the state. What is clear is that the world we left is not the one we will return to.”