Here’s how Utah’s leading workplaces have stayed connected even while working from home

Employers say they’ve relied on technology, communication and special events during COVID-19 to build community despite physical distance.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Michelle Brown, who works from home and thinks it has many advantages, including cleaner air, is the coordinator of resource stewardship for the state's Department of Administrative Services.

Miki Adams, president of CBC Mortgage Agency, said her company was reluctant to embrace telecommuting ahead of the pandemic — and that when COVID-19 forced its hand, she worried that employees would feel a sense of isolation.

To combat that, the agency started doing employee spotlights, interviewing individual workers about themselves and emailing the video recordings companywide. It started holding monthly virtual lunches, mailing out waffle-making or pizza kits to employees and then cooking together over Zoom.

The agency collected fun facts about employees and staged trivia games. It even organized a “pet day,” when workers submitted photos of their dogs and cats and then everyone tried to match the right animal with the right person.

“They’re silly little games, but just taking that hour to be silly together I think really kept everyone together,” Adams said. “Even brought everyone together more than when we were in the office.”

Roughly a third of all workers across the nation reported telecommuting in May and June 2020, when the pandemic forced many businesses to switch to remote operations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while those numbers have since come down, the number of Utah job postings offering telework options this year is still several times what it was in 2019, a state analysis shows.

That increased flexibility is “hinting that the acceptance of teleworking may be here to stay,” the Utah Department of Workforce Services reports.

In this new reality, companies have been embracing creative ways to maintain a strong workplace culture and relationships among their workforces, according to some of the businesses ranked as top employers for 2021.

Joshua Christopherson, CEO of Orem-based Achieve Today, said the business focused on training managers how to “maintain the positive attitude and connection” with people who were working remotely.

The company, which specializes in personal development and education, also relied on technology to help bridge the gaps left by physical distance. Christopherson said the company used a tech tool that sends periodic check-in text messages to employees, asking them how they’re feeling and if they’re struggling.

(Provided by Joshua Christopherson) Joshua Christopherson, Achieve Today CEO.

The tool also offers personal development courses, he said, and meditations designed to help them manage any anxiety they feel.

About a third of the employees have been doing their jobs from home during the pandemic, he said, and it was critical for managers to understand the additional pressures and stresses that can come with remote work.

People were balancing their jobs with caring for sick family members or kids who were doing their coursework remotely, he noted.

“A lot of that stuff doesn’t come across when you are in a Zoom meeting,” Christopherson said. “We were training our managers how to connect with people remotely and really understand some of the challenges.”

Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank, said flexibility proved key in helping work-from-home employees adjust to these new complications. Sometimes, she said, these workers just needed a break in the middle of the day so they could help their kids.

“Focus on family first,” she said.

(Courtesy photo) Ginette Bott, president and CEO of the Utah Food Bank.

Stratus.hr, a human resource management firm headquartered in Sandy, swiftly adapted to a work-from-home format in the early days of the pandemic. And the company is still giving employees flexibility to strike a balance between in-person and remote days, said Kristen Neilson, the business’s communication manager.

Neilson acknowledged that the shift had its challenges.

“We like to chat and see everybody,” she said, “so that was definitely an adjustment.”

To help keep a feeling of connectedness, Stratus.hr mailed employees “care packages” filled with popcorn, candy and a Redbox rental so they could enjoy an at-home movie night, she said.

Adams of CBC Mortgage, a South Jordan employer that offers affordable housing programs, said the monthly lunches and virtual events they’ve hosted have been surprisingly effective at bringing people together — despite the physical distance.

In June, once COVID-19 abated a bit, the company flew in employees and families who worked from outside Utah and held a picnic at its corporate headquarters. Adams said the agency had annual holiday parties in the past, but this particular gathering was special because of all the ways workers have been socializing remotely during the pandemic.

“Having already done all of those virtual fun times, bonding times together, it was just different,” she said. “I think everyone felt so much more comfortable together.”