Tucked away from the sweltering Miami sun, children splashed in a small indoor swimming pool with bright goggles and big smiles glued to their faces. Their swim instructors at Ocaquatics Swim School sported smiles too, but theirs were carefully protected behind a plastic face shield.
Businesses in this year’s Top Workplaces survey are finding creative ways to keep camaraderie and company culture alive and set new standards for operating during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some utilized technology to move their offices completely online. And some, deemed essential, pushed forward with new safety regulations and standards. To stay open, they had to adapt to ensure that customers — and employees — were protected from the contagious coronavirus that was rapidly spreading.
Ocaquatics owner Miren Oca said March 14 was the hardest day of her life. She had to lay off her part-time staff before locking the doors of the swim school and closing indefinitely two days later.
At the time, no one knew what the future would look like for businesses like hers. After being closed for 12 weeks because of COVID-19, requiring face masks, social distancing and smaller groups was the only way for Ocaquatics was able to reopen.
Oca used federal money from the Paycheck Protection Program to keep paying her full-time staff. Teaching swim class in person still wasn’t an option, but Oca and her team found creative ways to keep connected. They launched online classes that taught swim safety and created personal development training for employees.
“We had cooking classes online with lots of people and we did online workouts. Some people learned languages,” Oca said. “It was really interesting. I mean we never ever, ever would have had that opportunity had it not been for this bizarre time.”
When they finally got the greenlight and reopened on June 8, Oca started safety training and health screenings to prepare for the new standards.
“I just can’t even believe how our team has come together in this really, really complicated and difficult time,” Oca said. “Without the team, I don’t know how I would have made it.”
Pat Matthews, principal consultant at Workplace Experts, a human resources consulting firm, said that if camaraderie and teamwork was an important part of a company’s culture before COVID-19, it’s crucial for leaders and managers to have found ways to replicate those aspects post-virus.
“Companies are having to focus more on their mission, vision and values,” Matthews said.
She added that the key areas she’s seen managers focus on throughout the pandemic have been communication, trust and flexibility.
Matthews emphasized the importance of communication and flexibility for workplaces that moved to working entirely remotely.
“We can have Zoom meetings, we can send emails and we can make phone calls,” Matthews said. “But, there is Zoom fatigue going on. It’s a real thing. And some employees just missed that interpersonal interaction.”
Flexibility is critical because every employee has their own situation. Some may have children to teach or take care, some may not have home offices. Everyone is in a different situation and managers need to be mindful of that, Matthews said.
“One of the biggest challenges with remote work is these workers weren’t hired to do remote work,” Matthews said. “They weren’t and weren’t interviewed, they weren’t screened, and now suddenly, they have to do it.”
The next normal
All-Star is a South Florida healthcare recruiting firm with about 250 employees, who match healthcare professionals with workplaces. CEO Keith Shattuck said the transition went so smoothly because they had been consulting with infectious disease experts and preparing for almost a month.
“We really started preparing for worst-case scenario by mid February,” Shattuck said. “So when this hit in March, we were still hoping for the best when it hit, but we were super prepared.”
Even with the smooth transition and continued productivity, Sattuck said it has still been hard to virtually recreate the spirit of an office.
“When you’re in an office, you create energy. There’s people playing music, people walking around,” Shattuck said. “Making sure that we can still somehow get that energy across while working remotely has been a little bit of a challenge.”
He echoed Matthews’ call for flexibility and communication saying that he recognizes that his employees all have different situations when it comes to working remotely. Recognizing that and accommodating people differently is a big part of maintaining the company culture. He’s been running surveys to gauge how staff is responding to the changes.
One survey found that 80% of staff wasn’t comfortable returning to an office in October.
The concept of going into an office for eight hours, returning home and leaving work behind is and old concept, Matthews said. With the growth of technology, she’s increasingly seen more companies moving away from that model.
“I don’t want to call it the new normal,” Matthews said. “I’ve been calling it the next normal. The next normal, you’re going to see a lot more of that fluidity where it’s possible.”
Some workplaces can’t be mimicked on a computer screen. Deemed as essential businesses, these companies faced a different set of challenges when adapting to stay open.
Kaufman Lynn Construction, which is based in Delray Beach, continued its construction in projects throughout Florida, North Carolina and Texas, but had to implement new layers of safety to protect employees from the virus. Some of these new precautions were things you would imagine: signage, masks, gloves, hand washing stations and extra tool sanitation.
But vice president of marketing Elaine Hinsdale said there were other things affected that you wouldn’t traditionally think of, such as the food trucks that usually provide lunch on sites for the workers. She said they had to stop allowing the food trucks on the sites until they could provide pre-packaged meals.
“It’s required, not just the construction industry, but the supporting industries to also kind of reconfigure how they serve their clients,” Hinsdale said.
The perk of being essential workers, Hinsdale said, is that they do get to continue to interact and move forward with their jobs when so many others were put on hold.
“The benefit of being an essential worker is that they’re actually able to continue to perform their jobs, to do their trade, their craft, whatever it might be, every day,” Hinsdale said.
When Ocaquatics finally reopened swim school on June 8, Oca was thrilled that her employees could trade in Zoom classes learning how to make flan for getting back in the pool.
“So we try to do as much as we can to show them what we’re doing and to show them how we’re protecting them and trying to keep it the healthiest environment possible,” Oca said.
And on that late summer day, as kids kicked off their shoes and lined up six-feet apart bouncing eagerly while they waited to get in the pool, they were just as happy to be back.
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