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The Walker Group Managing Partners Jessica Rich and Todd Bailey (photo, right) spoke with MetroHartford Alliance Content Manager Nan Price about their experience leading their team through the COVID-19 pandemic.

NAN PRICE: How has The Walker Group responded to the crisis and transitioning to a new way of working?

JESSICA RICH: Early on, we knew everybody’s lives were changing in an instant—and it had a lot more to do with just their work lives. We made it known from the first day of remote working that we wanted every single employee to focus not on their jobs, goals, and targets, but to focus their main effort on helping. That’s helping yourself, helping your clients, helping your coworkers, helping your family. Everything else will fall into place as long as we’re helping.

With our team, we assured them that we know working remotely is different than a typical workday and that’s okay. Let’s communicate. We’ll help you through it. We wanted everybody to know they weren’t alone and they’d be cared for.

TODD BAILEY: In the early part, monitoring the situation, paying attention to the news, and trying to interpret what we were being told was probably a challenge all business leaders were feeling. How seriously do you take the information? You don’t want to have a knee-jerk reaction.

The first couple of weeks in mid-March, when things were being taken more seriously, clients were starting to realize they weren’t prepared. We were getting flooded by clients and prospective clients asking what to do to get prepared.

NAN: How did you respond?

TODD: We were working to respond as quickly as we could to help clients. A variety of things needed to be done. For example, some organizations only needed to increase the licensing for their VPN access.

Another organization wasn’t really prepared from a business continuity standpoint because they had been going through workstation refresh cycles and had been replacing desktop computers with new desktop computers. They suddenly realized how restrictive that decision had become in the face of needing to enable their staff to work remotely. It limited how they could respond. Do they allow staff to use their home personal computers to connect to corporate networks (which is not ideal) or do they scramble to get new laptops? Or something entirely different?

The pandemic definitely created opportunities for creativity and helping clients to gain the access they needed while maintaining high levels of security.

NAN: How did you manage your team at that time while they were transitioning to working remotely?

JESS: It was a very taxing time for our team. Workloads more than doubled for some. That was difficult, especially as some staff were stressed out at home and stressed out with the increase in workload and adapting to working remotely full-time. We pretty quickly moved into a place of needing to ensure everyone was okay.

Photo: The Walker Group Team

We had some large team meetings on Zoom and started doing virtual happy hours. Then we took it a step further by sending a survey to all staff with very specific questions about how they’re doing. We got a lot of honest insight. People are missing each other.

From that, we implemented what’s called “quarenteams,” which are interdepartmental, random groups of six or seven people. They have an assigned team leader who’s not a manager and they have a virtual weekly meeting to talk about whatever’s on their minds. It’s like a replacement for the “water cooler talk.” We’re getting some good feedback out of that, too.

NAN: What’s your plan to transition employees back to the workplace?

JESS: In mid-May we sent a poll to employees to find out how they felt about coming back into the office. Our stance is: It’s not mandatory or even strongly encouraged, but since we have 12,000 ft2, if some employees feel more comfortable working from the office, and they’re willing to abide by the safety rules, we can start to plan for what it looks like to have eight or 10 people in the office.

TODD: Jess and I wanted to let our employees know working from the office is an option for those interested. Some staff weren’t ready to stop remote work for various reasons, including being at higher risk, and that’s okay, too. We’re trying to be helpful and accommodating to our clients and our employees. We allowed employees to bring items from the office to make their home working space more comfortable. Some took home chairs whereas others took additional monitors to work more effectively and comfortably.

NAN: As leaders, what’s your biggest takeaway from this situation?

TODD: One thing I’ve learned during this quarantine is just getting in the car and going for a longer drive was a mental break. Also, just walking into the office recently made me feel human again.

JESS: Todd hit on a good point earlier, too, about creativity. We had to be creative and I think people are a lot more willing to express creativity and they feel more empowered. There aren’t as many barriers around job descriptions. Our employees recognize what needs to be done and where they can help. They also know that if they need something or they’re struggling, they can reach out. Everybody is getting their work done and they’re doing a great job.

The only limit they have is our mission and our core values. Other than that, our employees feel empowered to be able to contribute in any way they can. So, I think that’s a great byproduct.

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