COVID-19 presented people and organizations across the globe with unprecedented challenges. Our CEO, Barbara Mckenzie, took some time to reflect on how Business Link navigated those challenges, and where we saw and seized opportunities to further support small business owners and entrepreneurs across Alberta.

In Alberta, March 15, 2020, changed everything.  After several weeks of discussions around what would happen to deal with and control the COVID-19 outbreak in Canada, it finally happened, the announcement that schools were closing. Albertans were being advised to work from home indefinitely and the economy pretty much shut down.  It was scary and uncertain.

Since then, I’ve had so many conversations. How are you doing? Are you working from home? Was it hard? How is your team? How did you make it happen?  My answers, I think have been surprising to many, it wasn’t that challenging, we were ready, we were prepared.  However, it made me think, I have heard so many stories about the challenges that people are having, the days, weeks it took to get systems in place to enable work from home both for organizations larger and smaller than ours.

So, I thought why not put together a synopsis of our experience, what we did, what we did right, what we would change and how we are moving forward in the new “normal”.  A kind of white paper if you will.

Where do we start? Well how about the beginning, and I will set the stage, but first a little about Business Link…

Where We Were

Business Link

Business Link is a non-profit corporation funded by the Government of Alberta and the Government of Canada to support entrepreneurs across Alberta to start, run and grow their businesses. We have a staff that fluctuates between 20 – 30 depending on projects, students, and contract staff. Our headquarters are in Edmonton, AB where about 50% of our team operates out of a 4000 sq foot office in downtown, the rest of our staff is located around the province and work primarily out of their home offices or co-working spaces. A big part of our jobs is people, interacting with them on the phone, via email or chat, in person, and at events. So, you can imagine how social distancing and working from home affect a team that spends 90% of their time meeting with people face to face.

I started as CEO in June 2019. I love Business Link; I have been a client many times in the past when I was running my own business and have referred lots of businesses their way. It also gave me some insight into how the system worked and potential improvements that could be made. When I came on board, they had determined that there was a need for better IT infrastructure, especially cloud-based systems, but weren’t sure how to get there. I, of course, took this challenge head-on in all my nerdy, techy glory. Also, we were challenged with a need to understand how work from home works for everyone not just our satellite staff. I, especially, being someone who likes to work from home and benefits from the solitude and focus it provides away from the day to day meetings and distractions at the office knew we need to address this. Now I wonder if one should be careful what you wish for, maybe there is too much of a good thing.

We set out on a course to be able to set up our IT systems and give everyone access to the resources they needed anywhere and anytime. This meant looking at the entire system top-down. Did we need a server? What solutions were there for cloud services? What were the challenges faced by our remote staff in accessing our systems? What were the system challenges? Could our current systems do what we needed?

So many questions, but it turned out that we had the answers, and with some time and effort, by January 2020 we had rolled out a completely new cloud-based system that allowed us to access everything for anywhere, that plus a solid investment in hardware upgrades in early March, enabled us to jump from working at the office to working from home. I know it helps that we built the system so that our satellite staff could use it, not for our in-office staff. By doing that we knew it would work for everyone at any time.

So, what did we do?

Taking Care of the Nuts & Bolts

Cloud System

First, we moved all our server-based files to Office 365, OneDrive, and Sharepoint – thereby allowing access to all files anywhere at any time. This discontinued the use of a troublesome VPN system, and made file access smoother and more reliable, as well as ensuring we had ongoing backups of our materials. It also allowed for greater collaboration as we could now collaborate on a file in real-time together – yup, just like Google Drive and Google Docs. Amazing. Yes, it took some time to move everything but once there it works seamlessly. No more multiple drafts, hundreds of file attachments on emails, or lost files.

Second, we looked at our systems. We had a lot of manual systems and systems that had to be on a server or onsite computer to work. Doesn’t work very well when you are trying to be nimble, work anywhere, and provide access as needed. We also didn’t have integrated systems, the CRM did not speak to our email marketing platform, or Eventbrite, or any of our other systems, so we were losing productivity moving data from one platform to the next.

Our mission was to find or build a fully integrated system that was not a series of apps that were pieced together, but a system of software that would allow us to share information seamlessly across platforms, better manage the customer experience, and support our team more effectively. Now, I had some experience doing this before having spent 6 months researching and implementing a new system at my last organization, so I knew what road to head down, but we needed to make sure it was the right fit for us. I tested a few systems, and then settled on ZohoOne. Now, no software tool is perfect and this one has its hiccups. We had hoped to use the event and video-conferencing tools, but they aren’t quite where we need them to be yet, though we have seen them vastly improve over the last 6 months due to necessity. However, it has 30 different applications that you can use to manage everything from your books, to email, to files, to marketing, to customer data and staff.

We started with the CRM, which launched in January 2020, allowing us to link to other systems, gather more customer data, build better reporting, and automate some of the processes that were taking large amounts of staff time. This tool is constantly being refined, and I believe we have only scratched the surface of the power of what it can do for us. At this time, we have implemented several tools – CRM, Campaigns, Survey, People, Recruit, Expenses, Desk, Project, and Social.

Third, it was the phone system. Well, maybe not third. All these things happened at the same time over a few months. The phone system was old, and we were getting kicked off of it. We needed a new solution. We looked at VOIP systems and different aspects of how they could support our team to ensure we had a managed system that could run our call center, connect everyone across the province to Business Link, and be accessible across multiple platforms. So, we got some quotes and decided on Shaw Voice. Now it hasn’t been perfect, but without it, we would have not been able to switch to work at home seamlessly and take calls to our 1-800 number with a live person there to pick them up. So even when the implementation or the product is not 100% perfect, we can figure out ways to make it work. Right now, our team can all get access to our phone queue, answer phones call right on their computers and cell phones, and maintain our high standards when it comes to client relationships. It has also allowed us to add staff on the fly as we have had to in order to handle our increased call volumes.

Then, we looked at policy. What did we have in place, what was working, what wasn’t? Since such a big portion of our team already worked from home and remote locations, could this apply to our Edmonton team as well who were situated in our office? Now I am not going to lie, I love working from home. I find I am so much more productive and focused, so for me, this was an opportunity to test if our team could be the same. We implemented the work from home policy one day per week for all onsite staff in Edmonton starting in January 2020. Our team shined, our systems worked, and we knew it could be done. We were all looking forward to having this flexibility in our day to day work, who knew it would be an extended period.

So here we are, and it is fall, and some of our team has returned to the office on a voluntary basis. For the camaraderie, we do miss interacting in person. Well, at least to get out of the house after weeks of isolation. Some staff are starting to meet with clients again in person, following strict safety protocols and we are even supporting some of our partners in running in-person educational seminars. But not because working from home does not work. Nope, we’re good. We’ve got this, we proved it.

Working From Home

Getting Your Head Straight

Another key here is how did we keep the team together, how did we make sure their days were productive, that they felt like they were still making a difference? And as time wears on how we manage their mental health, make sure they can deal with the challenging stories they heard along the way. I think the end of March were the darkest days; how bad was this going to get? People were dying in countries all around us, businesses were shut down, small business owners were scared – no money, no income, nothing. What was going to happen?

In the first week, we implement two weekly all team meetings, our regular Monday stand up meeting and a team round up each Friday at 9 am. We wanted to connect all as a team to share, focus, and to build in a gratitude aspect. It was important that we were not afraid to talk about the hard stuff, but that we were also not afraid to laugh. Teams also met regularly amongst each other and everyone reached out to each out other frequently to share, talk and work through the challenges, the questions, the unknowns. Our management team stayed attuned to issues so we could address them quickly. We made it okay to be scared, we were all in this together.

We're Here For You

We made sure that everyone knew that they could access our EAP (employee assistance program) to get whatever support they needed. We encouraged the team to stay flexible, schedules were not rigid – you need to take a break, a walk, just decompress – make sure you do it. Don’t overwork – this has become a common side effect for many people working from home. When your office is six feet from your bedroom, you go in early, you stay late, you lose track of time. We reminded people to step away, eat, and stop working. As a management team, we did our utmost best not to send email after 5 pm and before 8 am.

We did some fun things: Donut Day, scavenger hunt, Mayday celebration, to keep things up and lively. Two of our team members organize a weekly Zoom meditation for team members who wanted to participate. Each manager did regular, informal health checks. Most of all we listened, and we got to know each other like never before. The insight into our houses, our workspaces, our families, our pets. From kids peaking in on Zoom calls to shared loves of plants, to photos used as Zoom backgrounds, to pets on laps and working from your kitchen, family room, office, spare bedroom or dining room – or , throughout the summer, your deck, cabin or getaway. We all now know a little bit more about each other and it has brought us together as a team.

The Future – Do I Need to Wear a Mask?

Aaron Sun

So here we are – what do we do now? There is still so much uncertainty, no one knows what is right, but we are doing our best. We are back at the office on a voluntary basis and have put in protocols for in-person meetings, we reevaluate constantly. New protections are in order, sneeze guards, rotating schedules, hand sanitizer, cleaning, having lunch together is now not possible. Changing seating arrangements. This is our new world. The question of do we test, or don’t we, is coming up: do we need to wear masks at work and as numbers continue to rise again? Do we shut it all down? The situation is forever changing and we need to be responsive.

Is this the new normal, or is it just what we need to deal with today? As I always say, the only constant in life is change. What we do know is that this has taught us that we are more adaptable and more resilient than we think. It has taught us that thinking ahead, looking down the road, even if you might not need it, can prepare you for anything. It has taught us that anything is possible – we are more innovative, more creative, more idea-driven than ever.

I recently heard someone describe this as a Darwinian event and that we could be dealing with this pandemic and its lasting effects for beyond the 2 -3 years everyone is describing. This is a daunting prospect, but we continue to have a high degree of flexibility, are looking at new ways of doing things on an ongoing basis, and I think most importantly staying flexible, creative, and determined in our approaches, just like the entrepreneurs we deal with every day. Who knows what the future holds?

Barbara McKenzie

Barbara McKenzie, CEO at Business Link