Faced with the threat of coronavirus, many companies have recently asked their employees to work from home. In April, one in five small businesses transitioned part of their workforce to teleworking. Even as safety restrictions are relaxed, many companies intend to shift employees to remote work permanently.
Experts estimate that more than half of the US workforce has the potential to shift to at least part-time remote work. The cost savings to businesses would be significant, around $11,000 per employee. Could your creative business benefit from transitioning employees to remote work?
Shifting to Remote Work
In the United States, employers are required to make reasonable accommodations for workers with an existing disability, including telework or temporary reassignment to a job that can be done from home. In the era of COVID-19, businesses may opt to transition more employees to remote work to protect their workforce, and potentially reduce their legal liabilities.
Employers may ask employees to voluntarily designate themselves as vulnerable or not, based on the CDC’s criteria, and prioritize vulnerable workers for remote work. Importantly, “Employers should never bar vulnerable workers from the workplace just because they meet the CDC criteria,” says the legal consultancy Employers Council. US law prohibits discriminatory treatment based on age, disability, or gender.
The need for remote help at handcraft supply store Freeman’s Creative is clear for owner Amelia Freeman-Lynde. “As the sole person in the shop for [the last] two months, I was the bottleneck on a lot of work,” she said. “Trying to fill orders, do inventory to get items listed, clarify product information, answer phones and questions by email, and continue to plan and adapt… It’s really too much work for one person, so hopefully this is a temporary situation, but I expect we will continue to do some remote work at least for the rest of the year.”
Orientation and Training
Once potential remote workers are identified, businesses should identify what jobs can be done remotely, and which employee can accomplish each task.
Handmade bag and accessory company Stitch & Rivet has shifted their production team to 100% remote work. “We pivoted to making and selling cotton masks about 5 weeks ago, and now my team is cutting and sewing them from their homes,” said owner Katie Stack. Remote workers mail the finished products to Stack, then she handles product photography and order fulfillment.
At Fancy Tiger Crafts, co-owners Jaime Jennings and Amber Corcoran creatively re-tasked employees to keep them safe. “We have four staff members that are immune-compromised, and they’ve all been working from home,” Jennings said. The roles of some remote employees have changed significantly. “One used to be a sales floor associate, and now she’s filming tutorial videos and helping to manage our social media from home,” said Jennings.
Business owners can consult with their regional chambers of commerce for guidance on whether a particular remote worker is an employee or a contractor, which may impact tax liabilities. Switching to online payroll or timeclock software can help transition employees who used to manually clock-in at the office. Whether some or all workers are shifting to remote work, employers should continue to carry worker’s compensation insurance and confirm that employees are covered no matter where their work is performed.
Once a new job description or workflow has been created, employers can train employees and establish new routines. This could be done remotely through a Zoom meeting, or an expanded employee training manual. At knitting accessory company Katrinkles, half of the team has switched to working from home. Owner Katy Westcott says productivity improves when employees understand what’s expected of them.
“Over communicate,” she says. “It takes a little more time but it can prevent a lot of issues.”
Project management tools make remote collaboration easier. Whether it’s Dropbox for storage and file sharing, Google Drive for collaborative documents and spreadsheets, there’s an online tool or app for every business. Asana and Basecamp also offer project management tools for teams that need more structured collaboration systems.
Working from home also presents potential security concerns. If remote employees handle confidential material (like client payment information), employers can offer solutions to improve security. Using a company VPN, a password manager, and shredding sensitive documents can help reduce risk.
Westcott’s team at Katrinkles was already using Trello to track and manage projects, so which made it easier to transition to remote working. “We have boards that we use as to-do lists for designing, a cutting queue for manufacturing, assembly, marketing, and other business tasks,” said Westcott. “Things that used to be a quick discussion in the studio are now communicated through color-coded labels on our Trello Boards.”
At Freeman’s Creative, the team uses Click Up to make remote collaboration easier. “We set up a Shopify site, and that was mostly done by two employees working remotely,” said owner Freeman-Lynde. Her remote staff has been adding descriptions and photos to product listings, researching systems for shipping and fulfillment, and troubleshooting tech solutions from home. Freeman-Lynde forwards purchase order information to her remote staff, so they can add inventory to the online shop as it arrives in store. Her advice for businesses shifting to remote work: build an organized system. “Have a way to track tasks on the way to completion,” she suggests.
Online meeting software like Zoom, Skype, or GoToMeeting offers alternatives to in-person gatherings. Katy Westcott is scheduling virtual meetings with Katrinkles clients, to replace meetings she would have taken at TNNA’s cancelled summer show. “I’ll Zoom in another Katrinkles team member from home for our meetings with customers. Chatting with customers face to face at shows is always such a highlight. I’m looking forward to it,” said Westcott.
Katie Stack at Stitch & Rivet has taken a more low tech approach to communicating with remote employees. “We just text daily and schedule a phone call once a week as a way to touch base and check-in. My team has been with me for years, so I trust them,” said Stack.
When Stack managed production in her Washington DC studio, she could keep an eye on inventory, and reorder as necessary. Now, she relies on her remote employees to report when supplies are running low. If they forget, it causes a slowdown in production.
“With everything going on, I feel like you have to cut people some slack,” said Stack.
It all comes back to communication. “Set clear and attainable expectations. Tell your team what you expect their goals and production to be at the outset and have a clear and quantifiable way to measure it,” she said.
Adapting Company Culture
Distractions and interruptions are inevitable with remote work, especially during a pandemic. Many people are caring for young children or elderly family members at home, and don’t have the same level of privacy at home that they would in the office. Setting an understanding and supportive tone with employees early helps minimize the inevitable awkwardness of a pet or a family member interrupting a Zoom meeting.
Goal setting can also look different for remote workers, without the benefit of “facetime” with their supervisor. Managers can work directly with remote employees to set measurable goals for projects, and stay on track of career development. Without the established office culture to fall back on, employers can be proactive about updating remote workers on important company news, and celebrating employee achievements.
“We’re figuring things out together,” said Karyn Valino, owner of Toronto fabric store The Workroom, where some immunocompromised staff members opted to take a leave of absence. Switching to remote work isn’t always feasible. “It’s hard because [furloughed employees] would be doing a different job remotely than what they normally do in the store. The store is a very active place, and being at a computer all day is a very different situation…That’s not necessarily something they are interested in doing,” said Valino.
With so many extenuating circumstances due to COVID-19, the best practice at this time may be liberal leave policies for vulnerable workers, combined with a remote work strategy.
Erin is the textile designer and artist behind the home décor company, Cotton & Flax. She licenses her surface designs for fabric, home décor, stationery, and other clients. She’s also a teacher, writer, and enthusiastic advocate for small creative business owners. She lives in San Diego, California.