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Vol. 46, No. 3

Even from a distance, bars keep an eye on staff morale

By Dan Kittay

When restrictions stemming from the COVID pandemic caused many bars to shut their headquarters and move to remote work, they came up with new ways to keep their staffs communicating and working efficiently.

But what about morale? As the pandemic lasts longer than many thought it would, questions arise about how the prolonged time working remotely (or in some cases, mostly remotely) has an impact on employees’ mood—and what can help make things better.

"Zoom fatigue is real," says Lori Maher McCombs, executive director of the Association for Women Lawyers of Greater Kansas City. Many bars have relied on Zoom, Microsoft Teams and similar online meeting tools to continue doing much of their work. Without direct, in-person meetings, however, some personnel dynamics get lost.

"Bonding is driven by culture. It's hard when you're not in those environments," McCombs says. While she is the only staff person for AWLGKC, McCombs is also executive director of the Society for Human Resource Management of Greater Kansas City, and talks regularly with executives from other associations and companies facing similar issues.

The power of being recognized and included

One area that can get overlooked is public acknowledgement of staff's good work by managers, McCombs says. "Managers are probably the only witness of the extraordinary efforts by employees right now,” she notes. “Typically, when you're working in groups or teams in the office, it's more visible and more motivating to others to experience that recognition."

Even with Zoom fatigue, recognition can also be given by allowing staff members to be part of online meetings that they might not have attended in person. "Including them in the conversations and keeping them in the loop was often key. They understood what was going on, what to expect, and what was expected of them," says Victoria Connor, CEO of the York County (Pa.) Bar Association and York County Bar Foundation, recalling the early days of the pandemic. "They felt they were part of the solution, as opposed to being on the sidelines."

Not just ‘How are you doing?’

Beyond professional recognition, one key to her bar's coping during the pandemic has been the regular outreach to the staff, encouraging them to talk about how they are managing in their own lives, Connor says. "We let them know that it was OK to express their emotions. During our staff meetings we go around and check what their status is, both professionally and personally,” she explains, noting that this involves a color-coded tool that gives several options. "’Is the workflow OK? Are there resources that you need? How can we help you do what you need to do?’ They appreciate that."

On the personal side, asking key questions can often give you a good sense of how an employee is doing, and help you provide assistance or guidance, says Elizabeth Derrico, principal of Elizabeth Derrico & Associates and a former longtime bar executive.

"If you ask 'How are you doing?' they will likely say, 'Fine.' If you can ask the question, 'What can I do to be helpful?' you may find out where the roadblocks are or where their frustrations are, or where they're feeling not as up-to-snuff as they might be,” Derrico says, “which can be a morale issue."

As an example, Derrico says, if a manager uses this approach, an employee who has to deal with a child's changing school schedule might find it easier to ask about changing the time of weekly work update meetings.

Little gifts mean a lot

Another approach that organizations are taking to keep staff engaged is to provide occasional gifts of practical goods and services, McCombs says. Gift cards for food baskets or takeout meals from restaurants, services such as dog walking, online exercise classes and online entertainment for children are examples of what some companies are offering. "People are really appreciating that right now," McCombs notes.

Extending that approach, The Missouri Bar has used the virtual meeting space to provide entertainment and educational experiences for those employees who wish to take part, says Executive Director Mischa Buford Epps. During the 2020 holiday party, staff could opt to participate in an Airbnb experience (which included a magic show and a virtual escape room game). They could also take part in creative projects, including painting pottery from a local shop and decorating sugar cookies with a kit from a local bakery, while talking in virtual breakout rooms. Both kits were available for staff to pick up from the office, including curbside, before the virtual program.

What is happening as bars reopen their buildings?

Epps has a different perspective on dealing with the pandemic: She became executive director of the 45-person staff two weeks after the bar had shut down because of COVID restrictions. In addition to the usual stress of starting such a position, she had to get to know the staff without having any of the in-person meetings a new chief staff executive would normally have.

"This is all I know," Epps says of the bar's remote work setup. Currently, that arrangement is a "hybrid" model, where a small group of about 10 people go into the office each day, and the rest of the staff works remotely. Departments coordinate who will be in the building, so they can all practice social distancing.

Other bars are also having a small number of staff working in the office, sometimes rotating among employees so no one spends more than a day or two in the office each week. For the Dallas Bar Association, most employees are now working in the building. The staff of 16 is able to spread out in the three different parts of the building, says Executive Director Alicia Hernandez.

Because there is less socializing, bar staff tends to focus on work, and occasionally needs "to remind ourselves to come up for air," Hernandez says. There are evening Zoom meetings for the staff that focus on diversions, such as online bingo games, she adds.

The shifts caused by COVID, such as elimination of in-person member events, have led to people sometimes being moved to different roles, which Hernandez says has had an unanticipated effect. "Actually, I feel like there's been more of a team building in our organization,” she explains. “In a lot of ways, groups of staff members are working more closely together than they did [before the pandemic]. I think they've really enjoyed that."

The future of bar work

That leads to the question of what bar work will look like when restrictions ease and buildings that are still closed can reopen. No one can know for sure, but those interviewed suggested things will not simply go back to the way they were before.

"There are some people who have found that this opportunity suits their workstyle better,” Derrico says, adding that it’s a mistake to think everyone’s morale has suffered because of remote work. “They are not constantly being interrupted by meetings, and while they appreciate the collegiality of the office and being able to collaborate effectively, they are hoping the hybrid model will be the norm."

Other traditional factors, such as long commutes and needing to take care of children or elderly parents, have long been at the focus of those who want more flexibility in where they work. And while many bars have been reluctant to allow remote working on a large-scale basis, the experiences of successfully managing the staff through the pandemic may cause some to rethink their approach.

While those interviewed say some things will likely change, Derrico sums up the situation: "I don't think anyone knows yet what they are going to do."