Thoughts from a small business on how to make the digital personal

By Kathleen Reid

April 4, 2020

In Switchboard’s early days, work happened around a kitchen table. In fact, in the early early days, there was a lot of internal communication, but it mostly happened within the confines of my own head, since we started as a team of one. We now have a full-time team across British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario, so our internal communication needs have shifted. There’s something cozy about those early kitchen table team huddles, though. If you’re logging in from the kitchen right now, I want you to imagine that you’re sitting in on our huddle. On the agenda: Helping your team members feel engaged and valued, even when you can’t see each other in person. 

External communications get the lion’s share of attention during public emergencies, and in many ways that’s understandable. When we hit times of crisis (or even just the tricky parts of business as usual), internal communications often take a hit. This is especially true within small businesses without a dedicated communications department, though don’t get me wrong: the big companies struggle with this, too. 

When we’re looking at operational/supply chain challenges or the risk of lost relational opportunities with customers, clients and colleagues, it’s tempting to let everything else fade into the background. As we’d be embarrassed to ignore best practices for media relations or content strategy while supporting clients in these areas, we try not to be the “shoemaker with no shoes” when it comes to internal communications initiatives. There are several strategies we use to keep our communications lines open as a team, even in times when the rubber hits the road operationally, or when it seems like the outside world has loose seams. Our processes revolve around routine and transparency. 

Huddle up!

We’re diligent about having a morning and evening team huddle. Since much of our work exists within the tech sector, it makes sense for us to use strategies that are popular within the tech community. We consider each day a sprint, and we establish expectations for that sprint first thing in the morning. This gives us the opportunity to keep each other accountable for meeting goals at the end of the day. Book-ending the day’s tasks with a check-in makes it difficult to forget that Switchboard is, at its core, a group of people. This is a particularly important bit of perspective in the digital age. When we’re staring down a long task list from a desk in the corner of the living room, it’s easy to forget that we’re part of a team. We’ve found that we’re more effective workers when we honour the fact that we’re humans working with other humans. 

Let’s get personal

One of the best ways leaders can honour the humanity in their employees is by really getting to know them. Something that gives me joy as a team leader is taking down mental notes of things that make each member of my team unique, from their favourite bad dance move, to their choice curse word, to their yearly vacation spot, to the bigger stories behind where they picked up skills in our field. I love it! I live for winning new accounts and helping clients share their stories, yes — but when it comes to which part of my job I find the most satisfying, buying someone their favourite birthday cake gives these things some competition. 

It may look different, but there are ways we can demonstrate that a team member is valued while we’re all working remotely. We can arrange curbside pick-up around dinner time, so employees can enjoy a meal with their new in-person team (the spouse, the canine, the roommates, etc.). We can send a care package. We can include drinks on Friday evening’s Zoom huddle. We can do a little extra check-in with the extroverts on our team, who might be feeling less spring in their step. And we can be clear about where we’re at. My entire team is understandably sitting with discomfort right now, myself included, and I’m doing my best to create a (digital) space where people’s feelings are validated when they come up, even just briefly over the phone or over Slack. 

Adapting and Adjusting 

I was struck by a line Jill Tipping (CEO of BC Tech) said recently. She mentioned in her piece on International Women’s Day that one of her 2020 resolutions is to stop arguing with reality. Well, COVID-19 is part of our reality for 2020, and I won’t be arguing with it. I won’t be arguing with COVID-19 by expecting my team to come into work when they could be doing great work from home (as long as I give them the right tools!). I won’t be arguing with COVID-19 by only planning for tech-enabled business practices a week or two at a time. I won’t be arguing with COVID-19 by expecting business to go on as normal.

I’m impressed by the collaborative spirit I’m seeing amongst Canadians, and particularly the tech community. I know that this willingness to work together through hard circumstances is the key to flattening the curve. But, if we hold on to the idea that business as usual is just experiencing a brief interruption, we’re arguing with reality. 

For many industries, this will be a tough pill to swallow. For us in the tech sector, a sudden embrace of change in the general public is a huge opportunity, and I’m excited about that! Companies, organizations and government ministries that aren’t centered around technology are now becoming tech-enabled in their own right, and individuals are adopting change at a rapid pace, too. My grandma, for example, has just learned to use FaceTime. I got into this business to work with changemakers, and as much as I won’t minimize how challenging this time will be for us all, I’m thrilled to welcome more people into the tech community. That excitement is a feeling that I think is worth validating. 

If you’re a small business feeling discomfort during a time of rapid change, we’d love to talk to you about it. You have every right to feel nervous, because 2020 is, indeed, going to look different than you thought it would. By taking your team digital, and learning how to do online communication (internal and external) in a personal, human way, you’re joining a growing group of changemakers. If that prospect excites you a little, there’s nothing wrong with that.


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