Think Like a Chameleon

The Post-Pandemic Work Environment Demands It.

By Christine Preusler


Due to an unfortunate position on the food chain, chameleons face their share of challenges, forever dodging the hungry eyes of birds, snakes and mammals.

But instead of rolling over, powerless against external circumstances, they take action — rapidly adjusting their colors and patterns to mimic surroundings or cycling through a spectrum of bright hues to defend their territories.

In other words, they’re masters of adaptation — and in our current and increasingly wild workplace environments, we can look to them as role models of sorts.

MHEDA surveyed its members in June 2021 to gain insight into common pandemic-related obstacles. The results showed the shift to remote and flexible working arrangements to be one of the most significant challenges faced.

Through separate talks with MHEDA members, we’ve come to a conclusion: Those able to go with the flow — like the forever-acclimating chameleon — are often more likely to enjoy favorable outcomes.

Change Your Mindset
“Prior to COVID-19, our company was convinced that being in the office was essential to our business,” said Jeff Harsh, President of the B2B sales development and marketing agency Concept LTD. “However, having been forced to make this change, we took the opportunity to lean into it and found that our business is highly suited to remote working.”

And lean into it, they did. The company downsized its facility from 26,000 to 5,000 square feet and updated its policies in alignment with remote and hybrid working environments. By investing heavily in cloud-based technology and business systems, Concept also enabled employees to maintain productivity and gave managers real-time visibility into employee activity and results.

 ”So far, the decision to move to a hybrid/remote environment has been a positive for our team here at Concept,” Harsh said. “Productivity has gone up, which we believe is due to less watercooler talk. We have also found that HR and attendance issues have decreased. One of the biggest perks to the hybrid model has been our ability to be nimble.”

Matt Ford, President of Site-Seeker, Inc., said his company had adopted a hybrid working environment before the pandemic hit.

“While we reacted like most businesses had to, we already had 50 percent of our workforce in remote, work-from-home situations,” he said. “Our adaptation, therefore, took less time and was less painful and involved than businesses who had 90 percent to 100 percent on-site workers.”

Like Concept, Ford said Site-Seeker has found efficiencies in remote work.

“Productivity has risen; more time is spent on meaningful tasks instead of our team commuting to the office,” Ford said. “We do miss, however, the in-person connection that an office environment brings. Many folks thrive and get energy from being around others, while some prefer the peace and solidarity of a remote space. It’s a fine balance, and we try to provide both. There’s an office space if you need it, but if your preference is to work from home (or the road), do what you need to!”

Maintain Connections, the Remote Office Way
Al Curnow, Vice President of CultureWise, makes a living helping clients become more systematic and intentional in building and sustaining great cultures — and COVID has certainly kept him busy.

His advice: To foster connections in remote and hybrid office environments, leaders must provide a sense of consistency and stability.

“The danger with remote working environments is we lose those informal opportunities where we bump into one another and share ideas and best practices,” he said. “Because that doesn’t happen naturally, we need to create processes and tools to allow us to do that more intentionally. It’s all about regular, consistent communication beyond drab Zoom check-ins.”

Harsh agreed, adding that his team has been forced to think outside the box to build rapport and relationships.

“Microsoft Teams meetings and Zoom calls can only go so far,” he said. “We have been forced to find ways to get more creative in how we onboard new team members and bring them into our company culture.”

Feelings of isolation come at a high price: A seemingly cold-blooded atmosphere, even if unintended, can quickly drain employees of job enthusiasm.

Curnow recommended developing a healthy communication cadence by using right technology — think proprietary systems, mobile apps and engagement-based tools like Slack. “Nothing may ever replace the power of in-person communication, but you can get closer if you’re mindful, intentional and wrap a process around it,” he said.

Ford echoed the importance of a strategic approach to technology. As a digital marketing agency that helps businesses grow via digital platforms, Site-Seeker has helped hundreds of MHEDA members establish and refine their digital presence. Ford said equipping employees with adequate tools and technology is an essential piece of his company’s success puzzle.

“Expecting a salesperson to sell more equipment or services with Microsoft Office, an Outlook account, and limited ability to travel isn’t likely to end in expectations being met,” Ford said. “E-signature documents, collaborative cloud environments, online presentations, and other technologies not only provide efficiency but relieve the need to be in-person in many situations.”

When managing and engaging a remote workforce, beware of shoving square pegs into round holes — instead, evolve and adapt. “Don’t try to manage a remote team as you would in-office,” Harsh said. “Be clear, concise, and frequent with your expectations, policies, and communication.”

But there’s one caveat: Flexibility is key. Yes, structure is vital in providing regular, consistent opportunities for employees to check in and communicate. But not to the degree where company culture becomes rigid or stale.

“We recommend consulting with your legal counsel and codifying what needs to be codified, but remember, one of the big perks of remote working is the added flexibility and nimbleness of being decentralized,” Harsh said. “Focus your policy on outputs, not inputs. In other words, focus on the work getting done, not how it’s getting done.”

Caring for a Skilled Labor Force
The flexible work model becomes murkier when employing technicians and skilled laborers who must be physically present to, for example, work on or install equipment. In such cases, the shift to a remote or hybrid working environment simply isn’t feasible.

“By all accounts, the skilled labor force has suffered the most, having to adapt to controlled shifts, build in capacity restrictions and increase safety protocols,” Ford said. “The use of preventative maintenance plans, along with the ability to order parts online, are some of the ways businesses can continue to adapt and lessen the headaches of the pain this pandemic has brought to the industry.”

The Great Resignation has compounded challenges for an industry that depends on skilled labor. When working remotely isn’t an option, Curnow said businesses must double down on building a culture that will attract and retain the right employees.

“Organizations have been forced to take a hard look at recruiting and retention, doing everything they can to distinguish themselves as an employer of choice,” he said. “I’m admittedly biased on the topic, but I think culture is an enormously effective way of doing that.”

Curnow said culture has been a buzzword for years, but leaders can rarely define it, let alone back up their promises.
“They’ll think, we’ll have a pizza party on Friday, a foosball table in the break room, or free beer and soda,” he said. “That’s great, but it doesn’t change culture; it’s much deeper and foundational than that. It’s something you can be really systematic and intentional about and put a process in place around.”

“It’s one thing to say, ‘We’re a great company because XYZ, but your practices have to back that up,’” Curnow continued. “If they don’t, you might be able to make that short-term hire. But employees won’t stay. They’ll sniff it out in a heartbeat. Culture has to be more than lip service and window dressing.”

Amplify Your Remote and Hybrid Workplace Efforts with These 6 Best Practices
By Matt Ford, President of Site-Seeker, Inc.

1. Realize that everyone is different and ask them what they need to do their job effectively.

2. Keep people connected. We’ve engaged in online lunch-and-learns, happy hours, quizzes, and even “game show” events to bring our team together. When it’s tough to grab a drink with co-workers after hours and build the bonds that help organizations weather economic and other business challenges, we still find a way to connect with our staff, whether through teamwork or fun environments.

3. Communicate clearly and often. With so much uncertainty through the pandemic, we issued a company brief to all employees several times a week containing updates on our health, expense cuts, and subsidies, plus a short- and long-range outlook. Transparency was critical in maintaining trust and togetherness as we came through to the other side.

4. Give people the tools they need to do their job, and show your appreciation for their efforts. People are stressed more than ever. A slow internet connection can be maddening when trying to get work done. Invest in software and technology, and go above and beyond in supporting your staff and the tough job they’re trying to accomplish for your firm.

5. Value your employees and their wellbeing. Communicate with them often and show that you care. Through all of this, we’ve even gone as far as setting up an Employee Assistance Program where employees can access an online portal that provides everything from services that help combat mental health issues to guidance on finances and legal matters.

6. Hiring practices are key. Ask about your employees’ work style and forecast challenges they may face in a remote work environment. Create appropriate platforms and opportunities for those who need and want human connection.