Financial Co-Op Keeps Family-Like Culture While Working Remotely

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek April 2, 2020
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​Welcome to the SHRM Online "Share Your Story" series, launched for HR professionals to share their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic.  

This story comes from Susan Halstead, SHRM-SCP, HR manager, and Amber Pratt, director of marketing and public relations, at Alabama Ag Credit's headquarters in Montgomery, Ala. It is a borrower-stockholder financial cooperative for farms, timber and forestry operations, agribusiness, landowners, and rural homes and homesites in 40 counties in central and south Alabama.

While Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day won't be observed in the office this April 23 as individuals work remotely to stop the spread of COVID-19, the employees of Alabama Ag Credit can practice a form of it now when they have to come into one of the organization's sparsely populated offices—or as they work from home.

"We have very remote offices in some of our locations and that means our employees have remote challenges," said Amber Pratt, director of marketing and public relations. Amber Pratt, director of marketing and public relations at Alabama Ag Credit

More than half of the 80 employees now telework, but they can't do all of their tasks from home.

"In order for them to process a payment or something like that, they need to be able to come into the office." When they do that, it's OK, she said, to bring their children. Pratt, for example, had her 7-year-old daughter with her when she made the 45-minute drive to the office on Tuesday. 

It also gives children the opportunity to complete online schoolwork they are unable to do at home. 

When the co-op pivoted from five of its 80 employees teleworking full time to 48 teleworking full time, it invested $17,000 in equipment to outfit those workers with the technology they needed. That included Chromebooks, laptops, monitors, dual screens and, in some cases, Wi-Fi hotspots.

Alabama Ag Credit had the technology in place and a continuity plan, including a budget, to scale telework to all of its employees, said Susan Halstead, SHRM-SCP, HR manager. 

Susan Halstead, SHRM-SCP, HR manager at Alabama Ag Credit

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Flexible Work Arrangements]

In the post-pandemic world, telework is definitely "something we're going to be looking at, as to how much of this we can continue," she said. "Overall, the experience has definitely been a learning one."

It has been eye-opening for department heads, Pratt said, and they are now "able to say this is possible. We are producing the same amount of work" and providing customer service without being in the office.

Employees enjoy the flexibility that working remotely provides, Pratt said, but miss the social aspect of being in an office.

"We do feel like family, so it's just missing seeing each other's faces, the socializing aspect," she said, but staff are keeping things as lighthearted as possible by connecting online and sharing photos.

"All of our employees are pretty essential people," Pratt said. "We're used to them getting out and talking with the farmers and people in our industry. I do think it's been an adjustment for those working [completely] remotely and keeping that interaction on a personal level when we're not able to see them."

Adding to employee stress are five tornadoes that have ripped through the state in recent days. While no workers have experienced property damage, some have helped clear downed trees and other debris. The latest tornado directly impacted co-op customers in Eufaula, Ala., where two dozen homes were destroyed.



Managers have been conducting weekly conference calls and check-ins with team members. So far, "I don't think a financial [impact] has hit the bulk of them," Pratt said. All employees are being paid at their full salaries, she said, but an internal survey to ask about additional stresses showed that a few employees will face some level of income loss due to their spouse's employment situation.

Alabama Ag Credit has adjusted its employee assistance program (EAP) to make counselors available around the clock to help employees and their families in a variety of ways, including with stress management and financial challenges, Halstead said.

While usage was not strong initially when the EAP was rolled out May 2019, there has been more participation in the past month or two as the co-op has reminded employees about the program.

"A lot of our employees are dealing with the stress of having their family at home, too," she observed. "As an organization we're understanding of that. If you have a baby in your lap while you're talking to us [in a video call], that's OK. Having that flexibility has been very important for our staff."

What is your organization doing to stay connected? Drop us an e-mail at ShareYourStories@shrm.org

More from This Series:
Share Your Story: Company Reaches Out to Housebound Employees


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