Earlier this month, we wrote about public engagement during COVID and how transit agencies can move forward with gaining public input during these times. Next week, we will bring you a blog on how transit agencies have addressed service changes and how they are planning to ramp service back up as regions start to reopen with changed ridership levels, travel patterns, and the need for social distancing. In between these two transit planning-related posts, I thought I would share my thoughts as a business owner on running a small/mid-sized professional services business in the age of COVID.
I will start with my love of roller coasters. The physical exhilaration and thrill experienced while subconsciously knowing that ultimately it is a controlled ride is something that I still love as a middle-aged adult; in fact, for my birthday last year I dragged my family to Busch Gardens so I could ride the scariest coasters while my daughters and husband waited for me. I have learned to handle the typical roller coaster ride of running a business. There are real highs: when we do a really great job helping a client, see our plans implemented, bring on a great new team member, and are selected to work on exciting new projects. At the same time, there are some real lows: like when work we have poured our hearts and souls into a plan that must be pivoted due to political pressures, funding, or other reasons; when we have to say goodbye to a beloved team member as they move on to a new career adventure; or when we are not selected to work on a project for which we thought we could really bring value to the community. Ultimately, as a strong and thriving company, even this business roller coaster has a sense of control; until four months ago, the bottom of the hill always meant one thing—that it would go up again.
As with nearly everything else, the roller coaster of the past four months has been a different ride than I have experienced in the more than 14 years since I started Foursquare ITP. We do not know what the future of the industry and the economy will be; anyone who claims to know is just guessing. So, I continue to learn about new ways to approach things and run a business that I have never had to think about before. I have greatly benefited from webinars offered for leaders in the private-sector A&E space as well as ongoing discussion sessions with a group of extremely inspirational and talented female CEOs in the transportation sector, the “Kick Ass CEO Support Group.”
At Foursquare ITP we are strong and bring our scrappy yet professional approach to running the company, maintaining our strong team bonds, and continuing to provide the best services to our clients and their communities. While I am certainly no expert, I thought I would share some of the things I have learned and what Foursquare ITP has done in the hope that something will spark an idea or thought that can help someone else. These ideas and approaches that we have implemented in the past four months—roughly grouped into related items—have allowed us to survive, and even thrive, in this environment.
- We admittedly had a head start, in that our staff already teleworked twice a week, so all our files and systems were cloud-based and online. I am thankful that once we went to full-time teleworking on March 16, it happened without a hitch.
- We have made extensive use of the tools we have at our disposal, whether it was Microsoft Teams or our project planning software Asana, to keep abreast of tasks and easily hold virtual meetings.
Addressing Team Members’ Personal Lives
- As a young company, we have a lot of team members with babies and young children. The lack of childcare and the need to help our kids with school changed some of our staff’s ability to maintain a normal work schedule. Thankfully, we were able to take advantage of the Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) which enabled several team members to reduce their hours and still get paid for part of the time off.
- We increased the flexibility of work hours, allowing people to work when convenient for them, with some parents of young children taking off more time during the day and making it up at night. This extends to everyone, who might want to go on a hike for a few hours in the morning to get out of the house and make the time up later in the week.
- Our management team was already meeting twice weekly before COVID. Once we went to telework, we immediately implemented 15-minute check-ins on the other three days centered around key topics such as updates on staff—was anyone having challenges with the situation and did everyone have the right amount of work to do—and project updates, such as delays due to inability to meet in person or do field work. After the first three or four weeks when we were more in the groove of a virtual environment, we reduced this extra meeting to once a week, so that the management team was meeting three times per week as a group.
- The senior management team, which holds one-on-one meetings with all employees throughout the year, ramped up its efforts and “met” with everyone once in the first four months and is now restarting the process. These conversations allow us to keep our fingers on the pulse of the team and allows team members to voice any concerns.
- Our People and Culture Team implemented “coffee roulette” that randomly matches two people every two weeks to encourage communications among people who may have no opportunity otherwise to engage.
- We held our quarterly retreat online, which certainly was not as good as in-person but still allowed us to have important conversations and breakout discussions on equity and diversity and our strategic plan.
- We have been lucky to be able to collaborate extensively with our clients during this time. We have used Microsoft Teams where we can share screens and discuss information and recommendations; used ArcGIS online and ESRI Story Maps to share data and maps dynamically; and hosted virtual engagement for our projects using a variety of platforms.
- We are staying in touch with colleagues at partner firms and clients through deliberate calls and meetings to make up for the lack of networking events, conferences, and those “catch up after the meeting” opportunities that do not exist anymore.
- We implemented weekly happy half-hours for the first few months, which are now bi-weekly, to give folks an opportunity to chat with coworkers in an informal environment. A few times we have even had special presentations, including how to make yourself look better on a video call, how to make one of my favorite cocktails, a “wine and workout” session, and a crossword puzzle group-solve led by our coworker who constructs crossword puzzles.
- Our People and Culture Team Administrator, an avid yogi and stress management guru, has provided sessions on how to manage stress and recently began a weekly, less than 15-minute guided meditation for relaxation.
- Learning from how companies weathered past recessions, we are focusing on being both conservative and strategic in our approach to the business.
- We are carefully monitoring our work pipeline and using our Payroll Protection Program loan to support payroll.
- In March, right after we went into quarantine, we launched our Data Science Team, acknowledging the importance of big data analysis and tools and the need to grow this part of our business despite uncertain times.
- We have made two strategic hires to bolster both our data science capabilities and transit planning and operations qualifications, while simultaneously planting flags in the Midwest and Florida.
While the roller coaster ride continues on its loop without stopping at the station, small changes like the ones here have helped us stay (mostly) calm and sane along the way. We will continue to do all of these and more as we strive to maintain strong workplace comradery and bring our best to every project, client, and community. One day things will stabilize, but until then, we will continue to do our best to stay on the track and keep our arms and legs inside the vehicle.