Share Your Story: Parenting Panel, Online Birthday Parties Keep Employees Connected During Pandemic

Kathy Gurchiek By Kathy Gurchiek May 1, 2020
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dad has video conference while entertaining kids

Welcome to the SHRM Online "Share Your Story" series, launched for HR professionals to share their experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. This story, the sixth in our series, comes from David Mele, CEO of Homes.com, an online real estate company headquartered in Norfolk, Va. See below for links to the other stories in this series

A sleep webinar, online yoga and virtual birthday parties all are ways one company is keeping its 450 remote workers connected during the COVID-19 pandemic. But it was a panel on parenting tips that most deeply touched on a concern of employees at Homes.com.

Many are first-time teleworkers trying to manage the needs of their toddlers or grade school-age children while working from home.

"We had employees raising their hands, saying 'I'm wrestling—in some cases struggling—with being able to do my job and be a caregiver to my children and be a schoolteacher to my children and be the cafeteria [worker] to my children and be the gym director for my children,'" said CEO David Mele.

"We heard loud and clear this was probably the No. 1 challenge" of employees during the pandemic.

A five-member panel of parent co-workers was assembled to discuss and address the challenges in an online live video. Questions parents wanted addressed were collected in advance so panelists could better structure their advice.

"[The panelists] were happy to share their advice and offer themselves as resources," Mele said. One staffer displayed the daily schedule she created for her child. "That was really helpful. It gave them a template of how they could structure a routine" for their children. The panel ended with a 15-minute question-and-answer session.

[SHRM members-only toolkit: Managing Through Emergency and Disaster]

A second employee panel focused on how to adapt to remote work—setting up a daily routine, managing web conferences across different platforms and creating a home office. Some panelists even conducted a virtual tour of their home office.

A significant number of employees had been unable to work from home prior to COVID-19, Mele said, because they didn't have equipment at home compatible with the company's system.

The pandemic threw "quite a curveball," he said. "As we saw the conversations taking place in different areas of the country about moving to a stay-at-home environment, we looked at our workforce" and realized Homes.com needed to make some changes. It delivered 182 laptops in one day to staffers across the country; today everyone is equipped to telecommute.

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Health Care Webinars

Its health care provider has conducted wellness webinars. One looked at good sleep habits; another, on mental resiliency, addressed how to stay mentally strong during an extended disruption to the normal work routine. The company is continuing its yoga sessions by offering 60-minute classes conducted on Zoom. All panels and webinars are scheduled during the workday and are archived so that they are accessible to employees unable to watch the live versions.

The company also is maintaining its tradition of celebrating employee birthdays.

"These have been fun," Mele said. "We have a sort of birthday-celebrating culture. People will decorate [cubicles], do something fun and noticeable for people on their birthday." That has evolved into using video to stage birthday happy hours.

"One department sent out boxes of snacks to open on the day of the birthday happy hour. It's been really refreshing to see our culture transcend to a virtual space. It's [become] a connection point."

Daily Dose is another initiative, consisting of an e-mail giving company updates, videos and recognition of employees and teams, such as a shout-out to the help desk, sales representatives or service team.

These programs have been a cross-functional effort of the company's longstanding Culture Club, which creates a calendar and a strategy for executing ideas that maintain and support company culture.

"This has to be part of your strategic plan in managing" through a crisis such as this; it cannot be secondary, Mele said.

His advice to other organizations for keeping your company's culture alive: "Keep checking with your employee base. Ask for feedback; that has shaped a lot of the content in this initiative."

Homes.com surveyed employees on what they needed to stay connected and followed that with a second survey to learn if it was meeting employee expectations: " 'How are we doing? What's working? What do you want more of [and] what do you want that we haven't done yet?' Keep getting feedback," he advised, "and evolve your program to meet those needs."

Other stories in this series:

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

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