In this Q&A, Natalie Ruiz, CEO of AnswerConnect, discusses how great technology and extraordinary communication are crucial for success with remote work. She elaborates on the fundamentals for remote work, she states why staying human and adopting an employee-first mindset is vital.
Natalie is passionate about encouraging businesses of all sizes to take the leap into remote work. A mother and lifelong learner, Natalie cares deeply about the environment and hopes to see more businesses help preserve the Earth by adopting an anywhere work style.
This interview has been edited for clarity and context.
DB: What is your advice to firms that do not have the necessary infrastructure to support remote work to go about setting up the same quickly?
NR: Making the move from a co-located team to a fully distributed workforce is a big undertaking. Before COVID-19, my advice would have been to transition slowly and iteratively with loads of communication and testing of technology and processes along the way. Of course, we are living and working in an unusual time, and businesses do not have the luxury of being slow and iterative.
A combination of great technology and extraordinary communication can help companies transition to remote work and thrive, all the while mapping out their new ways of working.
DB: What are some of the key factors organizations should consider while preparing and executing business continuity plans?
NR: Organizations should consider their goals, their values, and their culture. These unique core attributes should be a foundation for their approach to remote work. Most work can truly be done anywhere with the right tools, accountability, and communication. Every organization is different, so investing the time to determine what the drivers and non-negotiable aspects will be is worth the effort.
Additionally, given the circumstances we are living and working in due to COVID-19, I suggest companies also look at where they can extend flexibility to their employees, such as scheduling personal well-being time blocks during the day and weekly dedicated time off.
DB: Supporting the health of staff should be a top priority for firms. How can HR teams aid in supporting the workforce and their organizations while enabling continuity?
NR: New guidelines for safety are emerging daily. Staying informed and following advice from the CDC can help. Human Resource professionals should maintain open communication with their workforce and balance the needs of the organization with the individual needs of their employees.
In my organization, this has manifested in more flexibility in scheduling workdays, guidelines on what to do if you are diagnosed with COVID-19, and discussions on how to balance working now that many employees have children home with them full-time due to school closures.
There is no playbook for how exactly to handle what we are collectively facing right now, but we can succeed by staying human, putting our employees first, and by being willing to change our course of action as the challenges we face evolve.
DB: In such uncertain times with numerous departments turning to HR for guidance on policies and other queries and with limited means at HR teams' disposal for motivating and engaging employees in person, what is your advice for our HR superheroes to stay sane and maintain their own well-being while balancing numerous other roles towards their own team, departments, organization at large and their own families?
NR: Our entire society is shifting to a new way of working. There won’t be a return to ‘normal’. I believe that work as we know it has been forever changed by COVID-19, and HR is in the position to shape the future with policies, procedures, and advising on how to adapt to the changing needs of the future workforce.
Everyone is feeling stretched and strained. Work has changed in radical ways, and there’s uncertainty about what the future holds. This can really take a toll. For HR professionals, there is increased pressure from entire organizations, as they are looking at them for guidance, empathy, and help. It is important that HR professionals are taking care of themselves, too. If they’re suggesting flexible scheduling or mental health days for their workforce, they should take them as well.
In order to take care of others, we have to take care of ourselves, and this is equally true at work. Remote work can allow for exercise, catching up on chores, or meditation during break times. Taking advantage of these benefits can boost overall wellness.
DB: What are some of the steps AnswerConnect has taken to ensure a smooth transition to the WFH environment and what in your opinion are the steps to ensure a successful continuity plan?
NR: AnswerConnect has been intentional and iterative in our transformation to a fully remote workforce. We have evaluated what works best for individuals and for specific positions and understood that what works for one person or role is not universal.
We have learned most of our lessons the hard way, and this has reinforced the need to be experimental and flexible in our approach—it has also created a culture where mistakes and failures are not only viewed as acceptable, they’re viewed as part of the learning process. Our biggest wins have come from open communication and collaboration; without these, we could not have moved as quickly or had a shred of the success we have seen.
To be successful, I recommend organizations source ideas and feedback from their teams and ensure the voices are diverse and representative of their entire workforce. I would also suggest that many of the approaches to Work From Home (WFH) be treated as experiments. In this way, what’s working and what’s not working can be gleaned from each iteration with no long-term commitment to one approach.
DB: How do you envision the post-COVID era? What and how much do you think is going to change for the workforce, and what can HR teams do to ensure they're well-equipped for what's to come?
NR: Post-COVID, I hope to see more WFH. I expect many companies will transition to a combination of in-office and remote work. I think work travel will be reimagined, and there will be more virtual events than ever before. I also hope that there will be more compassion at work. We are all going through this massive global event together, and there is an opportunity to be more real, kind, and vulnerable with each other, which can strengthen engagement and trust at work and lead to great results.
HR teams can prepare for this next era by studying companies that had WFH in place prior to the pandemic. There are books, articles, podcasts, and workshops available to source ideas. They should also consult their legal team and update handbooks, policies, and procedures to account for WFH.
DB: How much of an impact do you think the digital transformation will have with COVID catalyzing the urgency for the same? From people's perspective, what do you think employees can do to prepare for this next wave?
NR: COVID changed everything. Previous plans, release dates, and product specifications have been altered to take into account what customers need now. At AnswerConnect, we released products earlier than projected to help our clients, including a new version of our mobile app that can unify distributed teams as well as video conferencing tools to connect people from anywhere with just one click. These are tools we have used internally for years. When we saw the need for them spike as clients left their physical offices and took their businesses to WFH, we pushed to release early and facilitate our clients. I think many companies did this.
We learned we could move faster, and I don’t think we’ll return to our previous, slower pace. Necessity is the mother of invention, and we are seeing many companies utilizing this time as an opportunity to innovate and move quicker.
Employees can prepare by getting their mindsets primed for experimentation and innovation. They can also ask questions and express any concerns they may have to ensure their voices are heard.
DB: How do you feel upskilling can accelerate the digital ambitions of organizations? How can HR teams champion this initiative?
NR: Learning is one of AnswerConnect’s core values. We see the merit of continuous learning and offer a paid benefit to our employees so they can study virtually anything while at work. Since implementing this, we have seen improvements in employee engagement, retention, internal growth, and innovation. I truly cannot overstate the benefits of lifelong learning. With the accelerated pace of transformation at work, HR teams could do well to encourage learning as a habit in their workforce. Curiosity and on-going growth of an organization’s collective knowledge base will help keep up with the pace of an evolving business environment.