By Alexander Carbone

For small businesses, COVID-19 has proven particularly challenging as we have all settled into working from home. In a matter of just weeks, many business owners have uprooted their working styles, relocating in their home offices, kitchen tables, or bedrooms. For many, this has meant a loss of engagement with their coworkers, clients, vendors and/or direct reports. While emails, video chats and phone calls have attempted to replace the in-person interaction many of us have become accustomed to in the workplace, workers are increasingly saying that these methods are falling short. As the COVID-19 crisis continues to put pressure on small businesses, the role of human connection has become more important than ever.

For many small businesses, you may find yourself connecting remotely with a multitude of individuals. These can be business partners, close family whom you run your business with, colleagues, employees, investors, vendors or landlords – broadly, any individual who is a “stakeholder” for your business. Even if you usually work from home, the inability to meet these individuals at their places of work or communal spaces like a coffee shop can create challenges. Below, we’ll provide some tips and tricks for how to maintain engagement at a distance.

Go Beyond Video

While using video is a great way to interact with key stakeholders at a distance, the multitude of free software to collaborate virtually provides many small businesses with the flexibility to go beyond traditional video conversations. While you won’t have the same experience sitting alongside your clients, family members or business partners, there are many ways to share ideas at a distance. Some of these types of software include:

  • Whiteboarding software, where you can draw and collaborate through a virtual whiteboard with your business partners, colleagues or family members
  • Interactive surveying software that allows you to poll and ask questions to meeting participants, which is particularly helpful when connecting with current or prospective clients
  • Sticky note software where you can generate and collaborate on sticky notes to share ideas, including with clients, vendors or business partners

Balance Video with Voice

Few of us are accustomed to 100% in-person engagement when working, and a lot of us have added “dedicated quiet time” as a staple of our working styles. There are many times when it makes sense to close our doors, put in our headphones and hunker down on getting some work done. In times of working remote, there is a tendency to default to video engagement all the time. However, this can be exhausting, as it increases screen times, forces us to be hyper-focused on our appearance and actions, and can be emotionally draining for more introverted individuals.

Our advice is simple – provide a blend of video and phone (non-video) options for your stakeholders. This will help accommodate individuals with different communication preferences and help maintain a high level of energy in the virtual workplace. These individuals might also find themselves looking forward to engaging over video and contributing to building a sense of community at a distance.

Staying Social

Social interactions are a cornerstone of the workplace. In many environments, a quick chat with your colleague or a social conversation with a client at a coffee shop can be an excellent way to destress and maintain a strong sense of community. However, in a world of virtual engagement, most of our interactions are highly scheduled and spontaneity is out of the picture. With this in mind, it’s important to remember to schedule plenty of time for social interactions with different stakeholders. Fifteen minute “virtual coffee” sessions can be one effective way of maintaining this, or even finding 5 to 10 minutes at the start of a longer meeting to connect about people’s lives outside of work.

Most importantly, for business partners, clients or other key stakeholders for your business, finding some time to connect on how they’re coping in times of COVID-19 and how you might be able to help them with this is critical. This could be as easy as finding time for a 15 minute virtual check-in once a week or having virtual office hours where any employee can call in to connect socially or professionally. Often, these informal conversations can also lead to ideas for adapting or innovating your own business model and services.

Next Steps

Finding the right collaboration tools for your business will take a little bit of time and possibly an investment of money, although there are many great free platforms. If you have a business partner or family member who is tech-savvy and has the time, this could be a great task to assign to them and an important way they can help you build a sense of engagement and community in your business. Whatever your approach, don’t forget that maintaining a high degree of engagement in today’s times is more important than ever. Finally, if you’re an ACCESS client and you ever need any advice, don’t forget that an ACCESS business coach is here to help.