Caring for Remote Workers during Covid-19

Joseph Volk / 12th November 2020 / Comment / Culture

Photo by Carley Jayne Photography |

As we’ve adjusted to life during Covid-19 social distancing and the abrupt switch to all-remote work here at Wheelhouse DMG, one of the all-stars of our team who has helped make the transition feasible is our Office Manager Hallie O’Reilly.

Hallie’s position has been in many ways especially challenging since she started working at Wheelhouse right at the outset of the pandemic. As you’ll read more about below, this meant changing gears immediately from a role managing our in-person office space to a much more flexible position doing everything possible to help Wheelhouse’s People team take good care of our employees during a crisis.

Fortunately for all of us, she’s excelled in this role, helping spearhead incredible initiatives like sending packages of hand-picked gifts and healthy snacks to our homes, setting up bi-weekly mindfulness and yoga sessions with a professional practitioner via Zoom. Hallie has been an instrumental part of the Wheelhouse team and provided support as our leadership team re-sets our standards around Flextime to ensure we’re all comfortable taking brain (or childcare) breaks when we need them, implementing extra “Mental Health Day” days off on the first Friday of every month, and pairing everyone at Wheelhouse with a “seasonal buddy” to check in with and look out for during the coming months of quarantine.

I recently had the opportunity to chat with Hallie about how she’s approached her role and the guiding principles that have helped her collaborate on and help execute all of the above: we’re sharing an edited version of that conversation now so that anyone else trying to take care of their people can benefit from this collective approach.

I wanted to talk about how you’ve approached your role during COVID: when you first got hired at Wheelhouse, what things were you excited about doing as a more traditional Office Manager?

Well, the whole reason I applied for an office manager role was because I wanted to be in an office with people. What drew me to Wheelhouse was that it was a smaller company with both creative and technical work and a really strong culture. I liked the idea of physically being in the office and learning everyone’s quirks; who drinks what morning beverage, who drinks at happy hour and who doesn’t drink, who’s the owner of what dog, and all of those nuances, and then of course, going deeper into building relationships from there.

I used the word ‘Hygge’ (pronounced Hoo-ga) in my interview; it’s the Danish word for the art of happy living. I was looking forward to bringing that concept into our office space. It’s a term that makes me think of low, moody lighting, candles, books and cozy drinks, baking things and throwing dinner parties. I was excited to bring in plants and design the space in a creative way that also helped bring inspiration for people to be creative and work hard, while also feeling comfortable enough to relax.

So, coming into a situation where you had a clear vision and then everything shifted must have been really difficult. What parts have you found most challenging?

The biggest challenge for me is being a people person and looking forward to getting this new job to be physically in an office again and then having that rug immediately pulled out from under all of us. I had to get mentally and emotionally adjusted to that whole concept.

The challenge has been, how do I connect with people and get to know them in the same way that I would if I was at the front desk, greeting everybody every morning? And how do I do that in an authentic way, when everyone is still a stranger, and I might only get to know them virtually? It’s been tough of course, but it’s also pushed me to be creative and to not be in my head about it. Perspective is a powerful tool. Support from my manager and our leadership team have been paramount to keeping things moving forward for all of us.

I’ve been leaning into flexibility and a willingness to put myself out there and not care about rejection or the possibility of bothering somebody during their workflow accidentally or all the other little things that can create awkwardness or tentativeness. None of that matters because we’re all working remotely. And everyone feels good when somebody takes the time to check in with them and make sure that they are supported in all the ways that they need, or even simply that they’re seen. Those touchstones throughout the week and month help keep everybody feeling like they matter.

When you talk about checking in with people, is that something that you are able to do intuitively? Or do you have some sort of system of tracking who you need to check in with when? How does that work for you?

I’m an empath, so it’s been mostly intuitive. I feel like in the last five months or so, I have formed relationships and friendships with people. Our entire Operations team has elevated how we’re checking in with each other.  I’ve also tried to make sure that people know that when I do check in with them, it’s not only when I need something, but because I genuinely care, “Hey, I see you. How’s your week going? Are you feeling supported? Do you need anything?”

A lot of times, we’re just busy and forget to ask for help. We all need people to pull us out and remind us “you don’t have to do everything alone”. It’s okay to ask for support.

One thing that I’ve been impressed by, and mostly because I know It’s difficult, is the way that you are willing to keep trying different things to connect with folks and keep our morale and our community strong. I see you having this humility and resilience of knowing that not everything’s going to work and that even if something does work, it might stop working next week or next month – I feel like from the outside, it seems like you and our operations team have done a good job of iterating but behind the scenes I’d imagine it can be both an emotional roller coaster and a genuine challenge in planning and prioritizing. How do you deal with that aspect of your work?

Yes, this is something I think a lot about – some of the stuff that that we as an Operations team have implemented, doesn’t always catch on, and that can be hard. But it’s crucial to remember that everyone’s so busy and that the point of anything we do, whether it’s a post on Slack or a digital happy hour, is to be genuinely helpful to people, and if people don’t find something helpful, that’s okay. We move on and try something else!

The point is we’re building a foundation of care, of seeing people so that when they do have time in the day, they might respond, or ask a question, or be helped by something we’ve shared or provided for them.

The way that we’ve worked during this uncertain time at Wheelhouse is to keep being flexible, keep being resilient, protect our culture and our values – that’s very respectable, and it’s not ego-driven for any of us. We genuinely want to find ways to be more generous with one another and with how we serve our clients.  We want to create joy. It’s the DNA of Wheelhouse and that’s been clear from my interview process on – it’s what attracted me to this company and so it’s been a positive to see that mentality strengthen further during this pandemic.

I think one thing that I really appreciate about the way you’ve inhabited the role is your background in health and wellness. It feels like right now that if anyone who works with people hasn’t been paying attention to the holistic health of their team members or just isn’t literate in those topics at all, they’re going to need to change to meet this moment. Can you share how that background has informed your work? And also, for anybody that doesn’t have that background, what are some things you think are transferable, solid principles they can draw on?

Truth be told, I did not think that my holistic health coaching would expand into my office manager role as much as it has. The bottom line is, we can’t ignore the fact that COVID is scary. Where can we start on a foundational level, is to give people tips on how to arrange their workday so that they feel like they’re getting outside or they’re doing a phone call with a friend or family member in between their work calls, or they’re taking care of their immune system?

Basic advice on those topics has been relatively easy for me to offer and I think anyone on an Operations team could start there, but it’s also important to do what our HR team at Wheelhouse has done. We’ve continued to update everyone on our health benefits and all of the resources that are available to us as part of our benefits package.

I think that an effective response to the challenges every team is facing has to involve acknowledging that people are fatigued. They don’t want to be on Zoom calls all the time, and “mandatory fun” activities could make that exhaustion even worse.  We can also work on acknowledging that people feel scared about the uncertainty, many of us are losing sleep over it. We’re all feeling extra layers of stress, especially parents that are working from home.

Team leaders and People leaders have to be honest during this time: none of us know what’s going on. This is evolving every day. We do have a responsibility to let our teams know we have their backs, and that there are resources available. Sharing options, wellness tips, creative ideas for taking care of ourselves and our families. Most importantly, the messaging should be that we see you and support you.

With that foundation, you can layer on outreach, because I think oftentimes, especially with mental and emotional health challenges that we all go through, we can’t always reach out when we’re in a dark hole. We need other people to see us enough to reach out to us in simple ways. In some cases, we can be more comfortable taking a posture of, “Hey, I don’t know how to fix this, but I’m just going sit here with you and hold space”, that’s empathy in action and it goes a long way. Being bold about encouraging people to take time offline, to remove some sense of obligation or stress, use their PTO, etc. That approach has really done wonders for our team.

So, someday we’ll be back in the office. And we’ll all be hanging out and doing normal happy hours and enjoying the office dogs and all that good stuff. And I’m sure when that day comes, that there will be some things we miss, or at least some fond memories of this time. What do you think some of those might be for you?

In a way, I’ll miss doing Slack check ins with our team members. In the office you tend to get more frequent, shorter touch points:  just popping over to see somebody or talking in the kitchen over coffee or whatever the interaction is. Some of the virtual connection I will miss because it has required a bit more creativity and intention, and it has the opportunity to lead to deeper connection. But mostly, I am really looking forward to a time when we can all safely be in the office together!

The Wheelhouse Way

We’re committed to continuing to build a culture of generosity and hospitality at Wheelhouse. If you or your organization have any tips or proven methods for us, we’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

Also, if you are currently facing challenges with nurturing care or dealing with any other People- or Culture-related issues during the Covid-19 pandemic and would like the input of our experienced HR and People professionals and other team members at Wheelhouse with expertise in these areas, please reach out! We’re leaning on values like Hospitality, Generosity and Trustworthiness during this time of crisis and we would love to connect with you or help you however we can.

By Joseph Volk