That Human Touch

Company leaders engaged in a frank chat with KBDN about how they kept employees in communication and their spirits up during the pandemic.

by Autumn McGarr

Though the exact dates vary, for a majority of the kitchen and bath industry, spring of 2020 marked a mass exodus from the office or showroom to the home office (or, in many cases, the sofa or kitchen table). 

As the months dragged on with no real end to the pandemic in sight, aside from the obvious issues that design firms and their employees found themselves wrestling with – communication, workflow, supply chain issues and ongoing projects – many found themselves facing new challenges, such as feelings of isolation, burnout and other mental health issues.

While methods varied, many industry leaders found innovative ways to not only keep their companies moving forward, but also to ensure their employees’ wellbeing. Kitchen & Bath Design News chatted with a few of these company leaders about how they met these challenges.

Keeping in Touch

It perhaps goes without saying that, for most businesses, technology was the key to staying productive during the worst of the pandemic.

“It just became a totally new world and, as an owner, I just had to open my mind and go with it.”
Amy Hart, owner and principal designer, Dovetail Design & Cabinetry

“It was a big hit to us when we finally said, ‘oh my gosh, we all have to be remote now,’ so we scrambled a bit,” recalls Amy Hart, owner and principal designer of Charlottesville, VA-based Dovetail Design & Cabinetry. “First we were on Zoom for a few months and then we upgraded to Office 365 with Teams…I hate to say it, but that was a good thing about COVID: it really forced us to be more savvy with technology.”

For the team at Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath in Chevy Chase, MD, digital communication was key to keeping things moving during the pandemic, but was best aided by a strong in-person facilitator. “Our manager [Helen Maga] went to work almost every day during the lockdown and kept up with her work,” says Jennifer Gilmer, CKD, owner. “She was there to help designers by sending them information that they needed that was on their desks, printing out contracts for emailing, sending out invoices, accepting deliveries, etc. She was the glue that kept it all together.” Gilmer adds, “Having a manager who was so dedicated and so helpful was key.”

The Neil Kelly team, spread across four locations, found that, while they had long had digital communication infrastructure set up, working efficiently during a pandemic necessitated a re-imagining of what team communication ought to look like. “We broke down a lot of previous geographic barriers that we had. We used to have a Friday meeting just for our Portland-based team. One of the things that we realized is, why does it just have to be the Portland-based team? So we’ve now opened that meeting up; it’s held virtually, but it happens throughout the entire company,” explains Bob Hestand, chief information officer and chief human resources officer at the company. “So, we get to see the projects that people are working on and we celebrate those successes. [We ask employees,] show us what you’re working on. How are you working on those sorts of things?”

Embracing the Unpredictable

Intriguingly, the imperfections of work-from-home life seem to have provided companies with a way to connect with employees on a more human level. “Kids are going to be screaming, dogs are going to be barking. Cats are going to walk across the keyboard,” Hestand says. His advice for dealing with potential distractions as a manager? “Don’t try to pretend it’s not there. Welcome it in.” 

By encouraging employees to show off mischievous pets and children, Hestand says, Neil Kelly “met people where they were.” He says, “If [someone had] a dog and the dog was barking in the background, we introduced the dog… So we understood those things and we were very flexible on time. People wanted to work later at night because they had Zoom school for their children during the day. That’s the world we’re living in and that’s fine.”

For her part, Hart took this a step further even as the world began to open back up – for an employee whose children were still schooling remotely, Hart and her husband built a school room in the company’s showroom. “Amy wanted me to feel so comfortable with this uncharted territory that she built out a little spot in the back of our showroom so that my kids could come and do their virtual school and that I could still come to work,” chimes in the employee, Business Operations Manager Lindsay Nader. 

“People seem to be happier when they have the option to work at home, whereas before, I was skeptical…”
Jennifer Gilmer, CKD, owner, Jennifer Gilmer Kitchen & Bath

In fact, Nader’s young daughters became something like unofficial employees, greeting and bringing beverages to showroom visitors when not doing schoolwork. They even received unofficial ‘promotions’ to office manager and chief compliance officer.

“It just became a totally new world and, as an owner, I just had to open my mind and go with it because I’m kind of the person who says, okay, this has worked for me before, so I’m going to stay in this lane. And sometimes it’s hard for me to get out of process and protocol,” Hart adds. “And this really was good for everybody.”

For Gilmer, meeting employees where they were meant occasionally running interference with clients on their behalf. “There were numerous employees who were struggling with childcare while working at home. We let [employees] know that if they had a hard time meeting deadlines, we’d explain to our clients the need to be patient due to the circumstances,” she says. 

Human Connection

More than the typical remote happy hours and holiday parties, or even grand gestures, however, it was perhaps the little things that meant more to the employees of all three companies – small moments of connection to remind everyone that there was still a world out there.

“I think [it’s crucial to hear] from leaders, whether it’s good, bad or ‘we don’t have an update today’.”
Bob Hestand, chief information officer and chief human resources officer, Neil Kelly

Hestand made an effort to personally reach out to employees as often as possible. “Of course, when the HR person calls you, it’s generally not a good thing,” he jokes. “But I’d be like, ‘Hey, you know, just checking in with you today, how are you?’ And I’d take a few moments to talk. In fact, what I would do whenever I could, time allowing, rather than send an email, I would make a point to either do a video call or a phone call with people just to keep that connection with them. I’d try to keep the morale up a little bit, laugh a little bit, those sorts of things, rather than just send one more email that you then have in your day to deal with.”

For Hart and her team, humor was key to maintaining sanity during quarantine. “We [exchanged] lots of gifs,” she says. Additionally, she encouraged her team to cultivate a healthy work-life balance wherever possible. “I know this might sound so minor, but we were always still encouraged to dress professionally when we got on the [remote] meetings. And it really did give a sense of boundaries – like ‘you are at work now.’ And we really did keep our hours – we didn’t slide into, you know, 7:30 p.m.” 

Moving Forward

One of Gilmer’s main takeaways from pandemic-time workplace adjustments was a new outlook on remote work, as well as a greater appreciation and trust for her staff. “I’m grateful for my excellent staff, who are all dedicated to doing a great job no matter what they have to deal with,” she says. “I learned that people seem to be happier when they have the option to work at home, whereas before, I was skeptical of giving employees that kind of freedom.”

This has prompted an ongoing evolution in workplace structure, she adds. “Now, we could go back to everyone at work every day, but it’s not required since we are comfortable knowing that they are going to get their work done, whether from home or in the office.”

Dovetail Design & Cabinetry’s ‘Golden Cape’ program enables anyone to award a peer with recognition for great work.
Hart believes that coming together for a charitable cause creates a stronger, more empathetic team.

For Hart, reorienting her view on the workplace meant learning to connect with employees on a more personal level. “I love how COVID broke down the barrier and the stigma of mental health for so many people,” she says, adding that there is something very humanizing about having to interact with employees in their homes, even remotely. “You have to really see people and embrace them.” 

Hestand points to a need for transparency as one of the best lessons leadership can take from COVID. “I think [it’s crucial to hear] from leaders, whether it’s good, bad or ‘we don’t have an update today,’ but at least knowing that we’re not ignoring the pandemic…just being as transparent as we possibly can whenever we can is very important.” 

He also points to the importance of fostering a sense of unity, especially among separate offices. “As much as we like to think that we’re four different offices, we’re really one company first. So anytime we can break down those barriers…it’s better for everybody. People learn they’re not alone.” ▪

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