After a few weeks of ramping up work-from-home efforts, Minnesota business leaders and workers are finding ways to adjust.

Technology has made it possible. But learning new tools and adjusting to a virtual work life has added layers of stress to ongoing concerns over the coronavirus outbreak.

Real life — dogs barking, children needing attention — is punching through those carefully crafted walls that workers tried to erect between work and home.

It can exact an emotional toll.

“Something I didn’t anticipate was how consuming it is to be on remote video calls, sometimes all day long,” said Mary Morse Marti, executive director of Move Minneapolis. “First you learn the technology, then you realize that without the daily interaction that’s so natural in the workplace, you have to do all kinds of extra communicating. I can’t just give a wave to someone over the cube wall and say, ‘How’s that project going?’”

Businesses accustomed to one set of tools for internal communications have discovered they often needed to learn different platforms based on their clients’ comfort levels. Or they found themselves coaching others who weren’t equipped for remote meetings.

“If you’re not someone who has used Slack or Trello or Zoom or Teams, if that isn’t part of your daily interactions, it’s a big hill to climb,” Marti said.

There’s a fine line between using technology to stay connected, and overload, said Jen Shadowens, partner and strategist with Minneapolis marketing agency Zeus Jones.

Though the 50 or so employees at Zeus Jones are already skilled at moving among various workplace tools, she allowed that the firm “probably swung a little too far” in the early days of the full-on, work-from-home schedule.

“You need to get reaction and dialogue visually, but you also have to make time for deep work,” Shadowens said. “You’re making choices between, is this a written conversation or is this a Zoom to jump on? Is this a meeting where we need to engage people? How do we break it up so we aren’t just talking or typing all the time.”

All the while, real life is bleeding through, and imperfections are seemingly in full view.

“It has opened a halo of compassion and vulnerability,” said Shadowens, whose company works with such companies as Nike, Facebook, General Mills and 3M.

“People are having to put themselves out there, saying: I don’t know how to do that. You’re saying ‘hi’ to people’s dogs that just came into the screen,” she said. “You’re seeing everyone in their living room … or even in the bathroom, where someone was needing to find a place where they could shut the door.”

Supervising remote employees can become more of a challenge, said human resources consultant Janice Dowling.

“It starts with you setting clear expectations,” she said. “When there are kids at home, it might be a conversation around flexibility, and what times are you available to me. Trust that agreement and build in check-in times.”

“There’s the tension of managing my own anxiety and figuring out what’s appropriate to share.”
Business consultant Karen DeYoung

Business consultant Karen DeYoung and her four employees have been working from home twice a week for at least a year, so a recent Zoom video meeting that she led from her kitchen table wasn’t so rare.

But as new projects have been postponed amid the uncertainty of the corona­virus, DeYoung is having to recalibrate.

“There’s the tension of managing my own anxiety and figuring out what’s appropriate to share,” she said. “I know they’re worried, as I would be. I’m thinking about cash flow and what happens if this lasts for a while. We’re discussing what our options are now.”

DeYoung has connected with other small-business owners to share ideas and to serve as emotional touchstones. One of them planned a Zoom meeting to discuss best practices for working with various technology tools; another put DeYoung in touch with her company’s human resources manager.

“Having those resources is really helpful,” DeYoung said.

She has found that spending a few hours each day working at her now-deserted office in downtown Minneapolis gives her a different perspective and helps her focus. She gets out of bed a half-hour later at 7:15 a.m., and has found an online fitness class to relieve stress.

With some of her company’s project work now on the back burner, DeYoung is encouraging her staff to focus internally.

“We’ve got all this time now; how will we use it to build for the future?” she said. “Things are changing rapidly. They’re self-starters. They know what the needs are. I’m encouraging them to come up with things they feel passionately about and have been wanting to do.”