Lessons Learned During Shelter-in-Place
When shelter-in-place or stay-home rules became the norm in most states during the COVID-19 pandemic, the good news was that pest management companies were deemed an essential business that could remain open. However, business owners faced the challenge of maintaining operations while employees worked remotely.
Important lessons were learned during the transition from office-based to remote staffing that can be applied in future emergency situations. The preparation for—and success of—continuing business operations remotely differed from company to company.
“It was a seamless transition for most of my team members who work remotely covering different regions of the country,” says Aric Schroeder, vice president of national accounts for Terminix Commercial and Copesan Services. Although several members of the national accounts team work remotely, all employees who routinely worked in an office began working from home. Service technicians stopped going into a branch office every day, opting to only visit a location to pick up necessary supplies while following the social distancing guidelines of local authorities.
“We know what it takes to work from home because we have so many people already set up to work remotely, so our IT staff worked with employees to make sure they had the technology they needed to continue their jobs,” says Schroeder. “Because the company relies on voice-over-IP for phone service, digital records and a cloud-based server, the key was ensuring that everyone had internet service and a computer,” he says.
The Copesan/Terminix IT staff worked with employees to access the internet, which required setting up cell service hotspots in some cases until internet service could be established, and either provided laptops or walked employees through the set up of software needed on the employee’s work computer. These efforts resulted in access to files and information employees needed to stay connected and continue working, says Schroeder.
When Sheri Spencer Bachman, owner of Spencer Pest Services, had the opportunity to hire a former customer service representative for her company in South Carolina in 2014, it was the beginning of her company’s move to all digital records, VOIP and processes that supported remote employees to enable the CSR to work from her home in Florida.
“She continues to work remotely and I have lived at my home in Georgia while running the business in South Carolina,” says Spencer Bachman. “Our past experience with video leadership and staff meetings and the CSR performing all of her responsibilities as if she was in the office—including answering the phone—made the transition to stay-at-home easier for everyone.”
In 2020, Spencer Bachman’s company was able to start preparing as much as three weeks before stay-at-home guidelines became commonplace because she attended a conference that was at a hotel where the Utah Jazz team had stayed when a player tested positive for COVID-19. Even though the conference was cancelled, Spencer Bachman and others who had already arrived at the hotel and had been in meeting rooms used by the basketball team were told to self-quarantine for 14 days.
“This experience made us realize that there was a real possibility our employees would have to work remotely, so we surveyed everyone to see what they needed to work at home,” says Spencer Bachman. Although the company had moved to a 100% paperless environment and had used Google Docs to share information for several years, she explains that they needed to know if they had to plan on providing computers and phones to employees and if employees needed help setting up a home office. “When businesses were told that employees had to work from home, we were ready,” she adds.
The positive effect on the business has been increased productivity, says Spencer Bachman. “Inside sales’ close rates were way up for April and overall productivity has risen for all employees because there are no distractions from other people so everyone can focus,” she says. “We also quickly identified one area in which we had not prepared properly.”
While most office-based jobs were welldocumented and the employees knew exactly what to do, Spencer Bachman discovered that one job related to bookkeeping was not documented well enough to guide the employee, who had relied on walking across the hallway to have a question answered. “We scrambled to put together a comprehensive checklist that identified which tasks had to be done daily, on the first of the month and at certain times of the month, and provided detailed instructions on how to do them,” says Spencer Bachman. “This is something we should have done earlier, but when everyone is in the office together, you don’t recognize the need for it as easily.”
Another lesson learned during the experience was the need to accommodate employees’ family situations, says Spencer Bachman. “Some people had their school-aged children with them all day, so we flexed schedules to reflect times that another adult was available to watch young children, while still making sure the ‘office’ was covered,” she says.
Even though none of the 35 employees at Cowleys Pest Services work remotely, except for sporadic, specific reasons such as a sick child and no childcare, during March and April, all but three or four office staff members worked from home, says Bill Cowley, owner. The few who came into the office did not have access to the internet service needed to work from home. “We set up the office so they were separated and followed social distancing guidelines,” he says.
Other than the need for a certain level of internet service speed, it is easy to operate the business with staff working remotely, says Cowley. “I work from home quite a bit and use software that gives me access to my company desktop,” he says.
Cowley saw the work-from-home mandate as an opportunity to leverage the remote access software for more employees. “Our contract IT person installed software on everyone’s computers that provides access to the office desktop, from any computer or location,” he says. “Since everything we do is in the cloud and we use VOIP, it was easy to move our offices.”
Cowley points out that the use of VOIP means that his employees just carried their office phones with them and plugged them into their computers at home. “Customers call the same number they always call and the phone is answered as if we were in the office,” he says. “Business has been good—in fact, we were up by 11% in March, when everyone worked from home.”
Although employees missed the face-to-face interactions with each other, other types of communication—text messages, telephone conversations and Zoom meetings—were used to check in with each other and address questions that employees had. “Video conferences allow people to see each other and teleconferences, which are ‘old school,’ also help keep stay in touch,” says Cowley.
Managing employees in a remote situation requires planning to ensure that managers and all employees understand expectations, says Schroeder. “It is easy to monitor results-based employees such as sales, but you also have to determine how you monitor productivity of task-based staff, such as billing and client services personnel.” Performance expectations that set a base level of performance—timeliness of bills or client services metrics or other tasks that must meet specific timelines—need to be developed before the employee works remotely.
The lessons learned during the COVID-19 pandemic will make sure the company is better prepared to work remotely in future events that keep people from coming into the office, but Spencer Bachman suggests that the experience may also make people look closely at how they do business today.
“Our technicians always take their vehicles home at night and start their workday from home, but they typically come into the office for training and to pick up supplies,” says Spencer Bachman. This process changed to a “drive-through” situation in which technicians ordered supplies online before arriving for a set time for pickup. Once in line, techs stayed in their car while a few employees loaded the trucks with their supplies. “Everything worked so efficiently, that we ask ourselves if we need all of the office space,” she says. “Maybe we don’t need a training room or large space for gatherings that happen infrequently because there are meeting spaces that can be rented on an as needed basis, and maybe not all of our employees have to come into the office every day to do their jobs.”
COVID-19 resources for the pest management industry can be found at www.pestcontrolcoronavirus.com.
BY SHERYL S. JACKSON