How small Top Workplaces adapted to working remotely during the pandemic

For some of the small businesses on this year’s Star Tribune Top Workplaces list, adapting to remote operations due to the novel coronavirus pandemic was fairly simple, given existing options for employees to work from home.

Institutions like BlueSky Online School, a Bloomington-based virtual charter school for grades 6 through 12, were designed to operate remotely. Others, like Minneapolis public accounting firm Smith Schafer & Associates, implemented flexible work options years before the pandemic.

Throughout the pandemic, the leaders at some of these small firms replicated in-office camaraderie, either through the creation of hobby-focused chat rooms, or continued community service. They also continued incentives for a job well done. Opportunities for workers to advance their careers, or shift into different roles, were also common thread across several companies.

The COVID-19 outbreak didn’t slow growth for Minneapolis-based digital marketing-services company Collective Measures, No. 11 on the Top Workplaces list.

Collective Measures has exceeded its growth projections for several years and currently employs more than 125 people, said CEO Donna Robinson. The company, founded in 2005, has hired more than 25 employees in 2021, and in 2020, during the middle of a pandemic, 51.

The rapid growth has led to upward mobility opportunities for existing employees, Robinson said. Those new opportunities translate into greater responsibility and opportunities to develop more skills, she added. “We tend to hire people that are really young and curious and very bright and we like to feed all of that, feed that curiosity,” she said.

To accommodate its growing team, the business last year expanded its downtown Minneapolis office. Collective Measures took up the entire 20th floor of one of the Fifth Street Towers buildings, giving the company enough space to accommodate 130 employees, Robinson said. The renovation was completed in early spring 2020, and most of the company’s associates have yet to step inside the expanded office.

In addition to a renovated workspace, the company is also entering a new era, having changed the company name from Nina Hale to Collective Measures in 2020. Nina Hale founded the company and sold the business to her employees in 2014. The name change, Robinson said, reflects both the employee owners and the company’s performance-driven vision.

In an attempt to recreate in-office interactions, Collective Measures set up online chat rooms where staff could meet and converse about common interests, like cooking and home improvement. The company will return staff to the renovated office in the fall, Robinson said. They will be able to continue working remotely Mondays and Fridays, but work in the office Tuesday through Thursday.

Before the pandemic, community involvement consisted of food and clothing drives, and providing nonprofits with free marketing services for an entire year. The company upheld this practice during the pandemic, Robinson said.

Being an employee-owned company has created a different environment at Collective Measures, she said. As part owners, it offers an ability for employees to say to themselves: “If I work really hard, it’s going to come back to me,” Robinson said.

Smith Schafer & Associates

Over Memorial Day weekend, the executive team at Smith Schafer & Associates, a Minnesota accounting firm ranked No. 38 on the list, purposefully turned off the company computer servers. Seeing how the lines between home life and work life blended too much during the pandemic, leaders decided it was best that employees couldn’t check their e-mails on their days off.

“You go, ‘Gee, I can just get on the server and do something Saturday morning for an hour,’ and you’re never truly checking out,” said managing principal Steve Erchul.

The company first tested its “technology-free weekend” strategy in September 2020, Erchul said. With most places to have fun closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, along with stay-at-home orders in place earlier in the year, leadership was cognizant of associates being “plugged in” more than usual.

“If we shut everything down, you can’t work, so hopefully you can find something to do,” he said.

When COVID-19 first hit the U.S., Smith Schaefer & Associates was in the middle of a busy tax season. The company had already instituted flexible work options, giving employees the ability to set up their home offices for remote work via a computer equipment reimbursement policy. The flexible work arrangement, implemented four years before the pandemic, included an option to work from home once or twice a week, Erchul said.

The option was initially put in place to accommodate employees who had 30- to 40-minute commutes to and from the office.

“Plans instituted four to five years ago are starting to pay off,” Erchul said.

During the tax season, the firm can employ as many as 115 people, which include seasonal workers. In its less-busy season, the number of associates falls to 90 or 100, Erchul said. The company has three offices, with the bulk of associates working from the company’s Golden Valley location. The remaining associates work in Rochester and Red Wing.

With most of its staff working remotely over the past 15 months, the company has delivered gifts to employees’ homes nearly every quarter.

“It’s nice to get a little surprise on your doorstep,” Erchul said.

BlueSky Online School

The online learning school, which started in 2000 and ranked No. 32 on the list, was well-positioned for virtual operations when COVID-19 lockdowns forced people to work from home. The charter school does have an office location for administrative purposes and a place where staff and students can meet for activities, but the organization mostly operates digitally.

The work-from-home flexibility of the charter school, in addition to the mission and vision of the staff, is a leading characteristic of why teachers have come to enjoy working for the state-funded school, said Amy Larsen, BlueSky’s executive director.

Teachers have flexibility to bring an elderly parent to an appointment, or take their child to an activity without having to leave a campus or building during the day. The school also arranges for substitutes to teach in their absences.

In an online environment, communication is paramount, Larsen said. While leadership conducts online meetings and provides frequent communication about updates and happenings with staff, listening to the teachers, and inserting their ideas into operations, creates a healthy work environment.

“They really have a lot of voice and a lot of say in the decisionmaking processes that happen,” she said. “I think that’s really key.”

J.L. Buchanan

Leadership at J.L. Buchanan, a Minneapolis retail consulting firm for brands and suppliers to Target Corp., ranked No. 46 on the list, has adopted a philosophy that puts workers in charge of their own burnout.

So far, it has been effective.

Several years ago, company executives were repositioning the organization for increased profitable growth, and put some formality around those beliefs. That resulted in the company becoming a results-only work environment, or ROWE, said Lana Jones, the firm’s chief operating officer. One of the pillars of being a ROWE company is offering unlimited time off to employees.

“It’s kind of all based on trust and it’s this balance of trust and autonomy and giving people the accountability and then the space to do what they do and do it well,” Jones said.

That space can be taking the afternoon off to see their child play soccer, exercising in the middle of the day, or taking a vacation “’cause that’s what keeps you jazzed,” Jones said.

The majority of the company’s workforce are millennials, Jones said, and 20 to 30% of those workers experience some kind of upward career movement on an annual basis.

The company also provided incremental mental health benefits at the beginning of the year to provide an outlet and “recognize the toll that this pandemic has really taken,” Jones said.

“And not just the pandemic, right? Everything that has happened in our community and in our lives in the last year,” she said.

Nick Williams • 612-673-4021

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