On Friday, March 13, 2020, then-CEO Doug McKeown addressed the company via email, announcing that all office employees would shift to work remotely starting the following Tuesday. At the time, six offices in areas with concentrated case numbers were already working remotely. We did not know how long we would be in remote work mode, and our priority became establishing agile policies and approaches that could withstand the impact of unknown duration.
“Our values to put people first and work as one team have already shined through this situation in every part of the company and will be the key to ensuring that we can successfully overcome these challenges,” Doug wrote, and added in a video message, “I think it’s important you are able to focus on your jobs and do your jobs without the worry of what the day is going to bring. These are trying times, but times like these also provide opportunities.”
A year later, our office employees continue to work from home with plans to start returning to select offices in the next month. Our operations staff have continued to run water, wastewater, and water reclamation facilities across the country without a hitch. And those opportunities, for the most part, turned into lessons.
Keeping the water on
While our office staff navigated the “new normal” working from home, our operations staff continued going to their respective utilities to keep critical services operational. Our health and safety team coordinated with these employees to minimize their risk of exposure to COVID-19. We implemented site-specific pandemic response plans as a routine part of our safety program. As leadership reviewed these plans and harmonized them with local, state, and federal public health agency recommendations, adjustments in our daily operations were made to best protect our staff so they could continue to provide essential services in the communities where they work.
In addition to implementing best practices around proper hygiene and social distancing, we took concrete steps to help the facilities we operate remain healthy and safe, such as:
- Limiting access to facilities;
- Maintaining essential supply inventory, including process chemicals, cleaning supplies, and personal protective equipment (PPE);
- Providing documentation to identify operators as essential service providers to navigate local or state restrictions on travel or curfews;
- Coordinating with health care providers to obtain priority testing for staff with possible COVID-19 exposure or symptoms;
- Utilizing certified and non-certified personnel from our consulting team;
- Providing enhanced PPE and disinfection materials at project sites; and
- Coordinating staggered shifts when possible to minimize close contact with colleagues.
These measures combined with the diligence of our employees enabled us to maintain operations without interruption.
Advancing critical projects
Much of our project work is essential to daily life for our clients and communities. Halting projects simply is not an option in most cases. As we did with our operations team, we had to develop protocols to safely advance projects that required teams to be on-site despite the pandemic, such as critical field activities and projects already under construction. We again referred to local and state requirements, in addition to implementing strict procedures around travel, PPE, physical distancing, and increased hygiene for our field staff. It was of utmost importance for us to instill confidence in our field staff that we were doing everything in our control to project them while they conducted critical work.
On the remote front, our teams doubled down on their efforts to support our clients. While juggling upended child care arrangements, remote learning, and caring for impacted loved ones, our consulting teams worked side-by-side with our clients to further our important work during unprecedented and challenging times. We supported city council meetings moving to online platforms and worked with state legislatures to pass laws allowing online voting for local referendums. For our public and private clients, we developed a resource page to provide information on utility operations, public meetings, bidding and construction, funding, enforcement, compliance, and other information.
Shift to home offices
Before there was even a thought of having our staff fully remote, Woodard & Curran had made significant investments in our technology infrastructure that resulted in a robust, secure system, enabling our office-based employees to work remotely full-time. This approach allowed us to transition to our home offices without skipping a beat. Our clients received the same responsive, collaborative, and innovative approach we have always promised to deliver.
The shift did not come without hiccups, however. There was a long thread on our intranet of home office set ups with some very creative solutions. As our work from home directive extended from two weeks to a month, then another month, and now a year, our Health & Safety team developed a process for at-home ergonomics assessments to ensure our staff had properly adjusted workspaces. We issued disaster relief payments to all employees to aid in home office equipment purchases or increased utility cost, in addition to any health expenses not covered by our benefits package or supplies to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
We have developed a formal Return to Office (RTO) plan that will guide us as we make decisions about when and where it is safe to go back to “normal.” It includes a slow and considered ramp up to full capacity, if and when that is safe for our people. It was built with extensive feedback from employees based on their needs and concerns for the process. Concurrently, we created a Flexible Work Arrangement policy that will govern remote work arrangements in the future. Our experience tells us now that it is possible to do what we do outside the traditional office environment, and we intend to leverage that fact to support our people and meet their needs.
Working from home blurred the line between work and our lives outside of work. While we celebrated the outstanding performance of our employees as they adapted, we also began to worry about the potential for burn out and anxiety or depression spurred by the pandemic’s unknowns. Research showed an uptick in mental health concerns early in the pandemic. According to a recent survey conducted by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42 percent of adults surveyed in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety and depression compared to 11 percent in 2019. To ensure everyone felt comfortable bringing their whole selves to work, we started talking about mental health and the unseen toll of the pandemic, offering tips for self care, and encouraging our people to take their well-deserved time off to rest and safely enjoy time away from their desks. This fostered some honest conversations and helped colleagues and managers support each other, not just as coworkers or employees, but as whole people.
No one could have known what this past year would entail, what it would teach us, or how our lives would be forever changed. The way we work has shifted dramatically, but our commitment to each other – to putting people first – has remained the same.