Tag Archives: Management

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Tap into board talent with a survey

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There are many ways to build a great board of directors. The process starts with a nominating committee interviewing and researching the backgrounds of volunteers. The committee may be limited by access to information about the candidates.

If the committee deserts their task, you might hear them advise, “You won’t have to do anything when you get on the board.” And, “Once you’ve served as a committee leader your nomination is a shoo-in.”

Gap Analysis

The BOMA Oakland/East Bay in California does a gap analysis of association needs. For example, if our small staff needs marketing, technology, or creative help, we can call on board members with the expertise.

To acquire the interests and talents of the board, we use a short survey. It is collected annually using a platform such as SurveyMonkey.

“We knew we had talented individuals on the board, but until we surveyed their education and special interests, we weren’t taking advantage of their skills,” Julie Taylor explained about BOMA. “We want to make best use of our board’s talents as we possibly can.”

The survey matches association needs with volunteer expertise. “I found they had skills that filled the gaps to which our association professional staff could tap into.”

For example, a director responsible for technology within their company, can share that expertise to benefit the association. A director who heads a marketing department in their firm can lend their knowledge to the association.

It is often said that volunteer leaders bring with them Time, Talent and Treasure — the three Ts. The survey identifies and engages their talents.

Volunteer Survey

The survey takes less than 10 minutes, directed at members of the board and candidates.

A. Which of the following areas do you have expertise in? (Check all that apply.)

  • Finance
  • Marketing
  • Legal
  • Construction
  • Management
  • Leadership
  • Communication Skills
  • Interviewing skills
  • Social Media
  • Technology
  • HR
  • Training
  • Strategic Planning
  • Project Management
  • Fundraising Government Affairs
  • Investment Management
  • Administration
  • Leasing
  • Sales
  • Other (please specify)

The survey also asks about community connections that could benefit the association.

B. What community connections do you have?

  • Corporate
  • Educational institutions
  • Media outlets
  • Political organizations
  • Philanthropy
  • Small businesses
  • Social Media Firms
  • None
  • Other (please specify)

By identifying volunteer interests, we strive to fill the positions with members who add diverse experience, thoughts, and ideas to our governance and association.

The information from board candidates has made the nomination review process robust and engaging at BOMA Oakland/East Bay. Without the survey, our insights into directors might be limited to reading resumes and LinkedIn profiles.

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Tips for hiring, onboarding and training employees remotely

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As COVID-19 continues to spread within the U.S., many employers have successfully shifted to operating remotely. However, some tasks are easier to transition than others. When it comes to hiring, onboarding and training new employees, some HR departments are struggling.

Fortunately, there are strategies they can use to move more smoothly to working remotely, while improving the outcomes of these essential HR tasks.

In some cases, the solution may lie in modifying workflows previously organized around paper files and face-to-face contact. In others, the answer may be for employers to use their HR software in ways they simply haven’t before. In short, it often comes down to practicing more thorough communication — internally and externally — and leveraging HR technology more fully.

Successfully Hiring Candidates Remotely

In the last few months, the vast majority of businesspeople have become adept at videoconferencing. The same can be said of most job hunters — many who are already proficient digital natives. Shifting in-person job interviews to virtual ones is a relatively straightforward task.

However, decision-makers may also need to update the way they communicate with one another regarding potential candidates. Instead of popping one’s head in a fellow manager’s office or responding to endless email chains, communication should now take place within the employer’s applicant tracking system (ATS). Most hiring software allows users to not only sort and rate applicants, but share interview notes and impressions right within the candidate’s file.

In other words, requiring that all applicant-related communication be funneled through the company’s ATS software is an easy, foolproof way to keep hiring managers and HR staff on the same page, even when not in the same building.

Shifting to Online Onboarding

Fortunately, many employers already had been moving toward a digital onboarding process prior to COVID-19. With this technology, new hires can access the onboarding self-service portal remotely, not only completing all required forms online but signing them via electronic signature functionality.

As a result, HR can ensure accurate tax reporting and I-9 compliance are in place before a worker’s first day on the job. New hires can also read the employee handbook and enroll in benefits, while — thanks to automated tracking — HR can verify that all paperwork has been completed, orientation documents have been reviewed, and policies have been signed off on.

In addition, employers can infuse the onboarding platform with a sense of the company’s culture — by, say, including a welcome video and FAQs, as well as branding its internal content to feel and sound like the company’s “voice.” By educating and welcoming new hires virtually, employers can help set newcomers up for success before they step onsite.

Conducting Effective Training Online

In the wake of COVID-19, many employers are relying more heavily on their HR software’s learning management systems (LMS) to maximize workforce safety. Not only does online training eliminate the group classroom setting, when training is completed in advance, it ensures new hires — and rehires — are ready to follow the employer’s newest health and safety procedures from day one.

In addition, there is evidence that e-learning is highly effective. Because workers have greater control over how — and how quickly — they learn, they retain more information than in classroom environment. And because it takes less time to cover material individually online than in a live group setting, workers are less likely to lose focus.

However, in order to optimize online training, it pays to follow these guidelines:

Keep It Positive: Remember, except for onboarding materials, this may be the first branded content your new hires will consume. Here is where you establish who you are, motivate your new team members, and set realistic goals and expectations.

Make It Visually Interesting: Roughly two-thirds of us are visual learners — i.e., we need to see information in order to absorb it. Liberal use of meaningful images, graphics, colors, etc., will help trainees grasp information. Visuals are also helpful for second-language learners with limited English reading skills.

Keep Sessions Short and Varied: Breaking material down into brief, focused sessions accelerates learning and keeps workers from becoming overwhelmed. And when you vary the media, such as interspersing text with slides and videos, you keep your learner’s interest high.

Another advantage of using your online learning management system: both HR and frontline managers can use the software’s tracking feature to monitor workers’ progress, ensuring the entire team is up-to-date on training. That’s especially important when health protocols and other aspects of the work environment may be changing quickly.

In summary, while most employers are finding pros and cons to operating remotely, with a little flexibility and a lot of contemporary HR technology, they can achieve more than they thought possible — even when it comes to the very important work of bringing new hires and rehires on board and up to speed.

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Marketing and sales alternatives as the COVID-19 crisis continues

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Recently, a couple of business owners contacted me with the issue of how to sell when they can’t connect live with prospective customers as the COVID-19 crisis continues. One is up against company salespeople lock-out policies after depending on face-to-face sales visits for 40 years. The other offers hands-on education kits that the owner claims have always “just sold themselves” to people visiting the company’s booth at summer fairs and industry conferences.

Like these examples — numerous businesses around the country find themselves up against some version of this problem. Obviously, they must adapt how they market and sell, yet how to do that isn’t necessarily obvious or straight forward.

Moving operations online is a good place to start. That’s where people are buying, which is why researchers at McKinsey and Company call it “the great digital migration” in a recent article on consumer trends.

At the same time, there are businesses getting creative with niche, offline and hybrid options that work for their products and customers.

What research indicates about changing consumer behavior

In just eight weeks, consumers leapt five years in their adoption of digital. Two other figures further attest the magnitude of the great digital migration, not only in the U.S. but abroad. Mobile app ordering went up an average of 250% while 13 million cardholders in Latin America and Caribbean made their first-ever online purchases in the quarter ending in March per data from Visa.

The following insights from McKinsey show how COVID-19 has changed consumer behavior in significant ways. Basing strategy around these can help businesses better serve consumers as they shift and change their buying priorities.

With continuing pockets of COVID-19 transmission popping up, buyers are taking health and hygiene into serious consideration in their buying habits and where they choose to take their business. Contactless activities, such as curbside pickup and self-checkout, are growing in popularly.

Supporting familiar, local businesses has also become important to many U.S. communities due in part to greater confidence in their quality and safety according to McKinsey’s ongoing ethnographic research. Along with personal health, consumer-sentiment research shows that economic wellbeing is a top-of-mind concern for people in many countries.

“The near-total shutdown of travel and other current lockdown constraints have made local neighborhoods much more important,” write the McKinsey authors. “Many community social-media pages and forums have been created to connect people with local volunteers and mutual-aid groups.”

This points to the benefits of businesses localizing their marketing which could include messages tailored to different neighborhoods and delivered through the newly established community networks like Nextdoor and Facebook groups. In my own town, the go-to Facebook group in our community recently alerted us that at a specific time and day local women would be selling embroidered face masks outside the community center.

On a larger scale, the ed-tech business that usually sells to schools may want to plug into the newly developing learning pods that are developing in communities around the country.

Using online tools to carry out your marketing and sales strategies

Once you have your strategy clear, there’s an impressive number of online vehicles to help you implement it. A blog by Matter Solutions in Australia lists several online options like livestreaming, email, online classes and courses, affiliate marketing social media and ideas on how they can be used.

Pinpoint the strengths that have helped convert customers in past and use those in the virtual arena. The folks at Matter Solutions did just that. They took what people love about their face-to-face WordPress training and turned it into an online course.

A huge emphasis on quality was one trait that set my client who had been in business for 40 years apart from his competition. In fact, they’d recently invested in a series of videos demonstrating the thorough testing each product undergoes before being delivered to the customer. Getting more leverage from those videos through their social media channels.

The business that usually sells through sales visits could enable a live chat on their website to allow prospective customers to ask initial questions of the sales team before ordering or scheduling a video meeting.

Similarly, with the product that sells itself by being touched video or livestream is the next best way to give prospectives that visceral connection with the product. If you have any doubt about the power of video, watch young YouTubers transform squishes or make slime. YouTube is only one place to get your videos seen. Previously, I shared the benefits of TikTok.

I recommended outreach to current and previous customers via email to both these clients. As Andrew Davis emphasizes in his regular blog the Loyalty Loop, successful businesses gain momentum through the people who already know and love them. These loyal customers can with referrals especially if you offer incentives, and it takes less to convince them to try a new product or upgrade.

Reaching these people can happen through social media like LinkedIn and Facebook groups, but the secret Ann Handley revealed that I shared in a previous article is that email is the only avenue that your recipient, not an algorithm, controls.

Yet if you already use email, it may be time to reassess how you’re using it. In an article for retailers, Kara Holthaus, vice president of client services at SmarterHQ, warns retailers not to resort to blasting their customers with generic messages and deep discounts. Since these contribute to the white noise in their inboxes and could lead to heavy unsubscribes, she says personalization is key right now.

“Target deep discounts and sales to those most likely to buy based on past interest to keep inboxes uncluttered, and incorporate in-email personalized modules to keep blasts highly relevant to a customer’s current activity,” she advises.

Regardless of the marketing strategies and tools you elect now for your business, you’ll need to continually monitor the shifting needs and expectations of your customers and prospects. Adapting your business to this constantly evolving normal means being nimble and bold.

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How to have the difficult conversation when it is needed

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A difficult conversation is any conversation in which there are strong differences of opinion between two people, and which has the potential to become emotional.

Planning is your No. 1 strategy. Not all things in life can and should be planned. But if you are the one initiating the difficult conversation, it is essential that you thoroughly plan for the conversation. And plan for the things that will likely not go according to your preferred plan.

Planning should take place at EACH of the stages below in order to assure that each stage goes as smoothly as possible. For example, you cannot address follow-up in a discussion (and have a plan to offer) unless you’ve committed time to planning it. The riskiest stage is stage 2, since emotions can flare despite your best planning, especially if you rise to the same emotional level as the person you’re talking to. Keeping the conversation on track (as per your plan) is also a challenge, especially if the other person tends to seize control of the conversation or send it in a different direction.

Understanding your objective. The primary objective should be to have a positive learning experience for both of you, a sense of shared objectives in growing past the issue prompting the discussion, and strengthening the relationship between both of you. It should instill a sense of team and belonging. Both of you have to desire to cooperate and move past the issue(s).

In order for this to happen, both must be open to the discussion and willing to be humble. There is no winner or loser in the conversation — both should emerge winners and having become better as a result. This speaks to the INTENT both of you have in participating in discussions that aren’t be easy but will ultimately lead to positives.

Preparing to be an excellent listener. According to Joel Garfinkle in his book “Difficult Conversations,” the No. 1 secret for starting a difficult conversation is not what you say, but how you listen. Listening is an intentional act of the listener’s will, a TOTAL focus on the other person in order to not only understand the words, but also the message communicated in his/her body language, emotions, and delivery.

  • To most people in most cultures, listening equals respect.
  • Effective listening means asking clarifying questions.
  • Effective listening requires your own body language to be open.
  • It requires the listener to intentionally suspend his/her judgment of what is being said until after all is said. This is often the most challenging action to execute well.
  • Live out the advice of Stephen Covey: “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.”
  • Taking notes aids your listening.

Preparing the discussion location. The location should be private, distraction and interruption-free. Seating should be collaborative, such as at a small round table, or around the corner of a table, on a couch, or side chairs at a 90-degree angle. Avoid placing barriers between you, and your seat higher than theirs.

Preparing your emotions and attitudes. Preparation in this area means that you are much less likely to be reactive (and the emotions that can go along with reacting). Because you’ve thought through what could happen, you’ve anticipated the possible negative responses you might encounter and how you want to respond. You may even need to graciously admit you are the one most at fault!

Preparing your discussion points. Think through these discussion points (write them as bullet points):

  • What outcomes you want the conversation to produce.
  • The facts and data to support what is being discussed.
  • Open-ended questions that will prompt a positive dialog and allow both of you to cooperatively explore what happened.
  • Points that you want to make as the opportunity presents itself.
  • Identify the things you might have done that could contribute to the problem.

Practice. Using your discussion points, practice being able to deliver your message with an appropriate tone of voice and body language. Consider practicing in front of a mirror so you can see yourself.

Once you’ve practiced by yourself, ask a partner to play the person you with whom you plan on initiating the difficult conversation. Ask your partner to push back so you can practice keeping your emotions in control and your body language open.

Just before you start. Center yourself by visualizing the process with you successfully conducting the session with a positive outcome.

Open and conduct the discussion.Start off by succinctly stating why the meeting is taking place. You may want to set the tone for the discussion by stating you may be to blame in part for the situation and your intention to have an open discussion about it. Then begin by asking open-ended questions and listening.

“Sue, I wanted to meet with you to discuss what happened yesterday between you and Ed. I’ve had several people in the department express their discomfort with the tension that now exists. I may be partly to blame for the situation, so I’d like us to have an open discussion to learn more. Can you please tell me in your own words what happened?”

Then, execute your discussion plan as you had envisioned and practiced it. Keep your emotions in check…by you being calm but concerned, you’ll set the tone for the discussion. If you get sidetracked on a point, that’s okay, but move gently back to your plan when you can. You may need to restate the objective to help the other person keep the conversation moving forward. Keep asking open-ended questions to explore what is not clear, eventually moving into a problem-solving mode with him or her to address the situation.

Build your next-steps plan and help him/her manage to it. As you problem-solve together, suggest that you both use the time to build an action plan of how to move forward. Both of you should be taking notes. It is his or her plan, not yours — you’re the thinking partner, there to support his or her plan.

As you move toward the close of the session, summarize the plan and detail what is to be done, by whom and by when. Set the date for your follow-up meetings. Thank him or her for remaining open and willing to work through the issues, and your belief in him or her as a valued member of the team.

Keep a close observation on his or her performance or behavior and provide reinforcing or corrective feedback as appropriate. Look for positive progress. Keep your scheduled follow-up meetings and help him or her stay on track. Keep a record of his or her progress. And celebrate the victories!

This article was in part excerpted from module 27 of my acclaimed leadership training program, Leading Through People™, which has made a positive difference for more than 10,000 supervisors, managers, and leaders worldwide.

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Cross-functional team collaborations: How-to

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Businesses have always faced the problem of finding ways to get different departments with different expertise to collaborate. Cross-functional team collaboration can help a business find new ways to solve existing problems and open new avenues of communication.

This story plays out worldwide every day; executives, managers, and team members want to collaborate and tap into the company’s expertise, but there is no magic wand that makes it happen.

What is needed is a tool or set of tools that facilitate communication and collaboration when team members are in different or remote locations. Technology that can help other departments remember that they are all playing for the same team.

More than a plan

An organization needs more than just a thoughtful plan to get the benefits of collaborative technologies. Your team members will only adopt the tool if there is a plan, and if upper management makes it a priority. This is essentially a change management project.

Technology is only useful if people use it. How often have you listened to colleagues at other companies complain about money wasted on purchasing new software, only to see it unused after it is installed?

It is often forgotten that while having new technology is great, if your team members aren’t going to use the technology effectively, it’s just a sunk cost.

I was observing one meeting in a company where the CEO and one of the department managers were touting the use of a certain ubiquitous messaging platform. The idea was a good one, as the company had gone through many mergers, acquisitions, and the like, and the employees were using multiple messaging platforms.

In this case, the newer messaging program was better than what they were using. However, the top executives stopped using the new platform almost immediately because the program’s installation had taken longer than expected. Once upper management stopped using it, the rest followed suit and reverted to their older systems.

The result was a lot of wasted time instead of a collaboration boost.

Incentivize collaboration

A plan must be in place to embed collaborative technologies into company processes, like the new messaging program mentioned above. This requires not just the CEO jumping on the latest tech product bandwagon but having a plan that incentivizes collaboration and the use of the new technology. Management must also think more strategically about the evolution of collaborative efforts within the company. What is the result management wants to see?

This result should not be something vague, such as “better quarterly results.” Every company wants to see better quarterly results, but cross-functional collaboration tools lend themselves better to goals such as “increased inter-departmental communication and [pick a number] new projects.”

There is going to be push-back about the collaboration and the new technology, so have a well-thought-out plan to address these concerns. Some of these concerns might be legitimate; boots-on-the-ground team members have problems and productivity issues that may not be anticipated by upper management.

This is why management needs to show their commitment to the process and the technology while understanding there may be a ramp-up period. The benefits of implementing and sticking with the use of collaborative software solutions include a breaking down of silos, better communication within your company, and more innovative problem-solving, as staffers from different disciplines tackle common problems.

Types of solutions

There are two main types of collaborative software solutions, synchronous and asynchronous. Examples of asynchronous collaboration software are email, newsgroups, and group calendars/workflow. These solutions can reach a group of any size and at any location. Whereas real-time communication may be difficult for far-flung team members, a group calendar or workflow is available anytime to any team member.

The other solution is synchronous collaboration software. This software enables communication in real-time. This might be an instant messaging system, group video technology, chat room technology, or a CRM system for internal collaboration.

Another example is the category of decision-support systems, like IBM’s Tivoli. These systems facilitate analytical thinking through the use of surveys, idea analysis, and brainstorming opportunities.

Ultimately the success of cross-functional team collaboration depends on many factors. Training and feedback are also essential parts of the implementation. Remember that your team wants the organization to succeed as much as you do, give them the tools to help them do so.

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Survey: Bitcoin’s intrinsic properties keep propelling it forward

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When cryptocurrencies first emerged on the scene, led by Bitcoin in 2009, the FinTech industry was just starting to mature.

PayPal was around before that for quite a while, but with a limited country availability, slow withdrawals, and hefty fees. Today, FinTech services such as PayPal, TransferWise, Google Pay, alongside neobanks like Revolut and N26, offer near-instantaneous transfer with very low fees.

In this environment, what is the best deal for the end-user? A new survey from The Tokenist, comparing Bitcoin adoption rates from 2017 to 2020, suggests that cryptocurrencies will not be supplanted by the new FinTech wave. Instead, the trend is to integrate them into the FinTech ecosystem.

Decentralization Has Inherent Value

When it comes down to it, what people want is convenience. Speedy completion of tasks with the minimum effort evolved. In the financial world, PayPal pushed this convenience envelope to the limit, serving hundreds of millions of customers and businesses, ultimately becoming the king of online payments.

However, such a system has a critical flaw that cannot be easily overcome — centralization. PayPal, and many alternatives, are tightly integrated with and therefore highly dependent on the big banks and duopolies such as Mastercard/Visa. If they refuse to offer you their services, for whatever reason, you are effectively cut off from the modern economic system.

In today’s climate of social mobbing and cancel culture, this is particularly troublesome. Across the political spectrum, people’s livelihoods are ruined if they espouse an opinion that some other group doesn’t prefer.

An average person may not be interested in anything more than getting money from point A to point B expeditiously, but as political instability heats up, as trust in government institutions lowers, more people understand the need for a parallel financial system delivered via blockchain-powered cryptocurrencies.

According to The Tokenist survey, this trend is increasing. Over the past three years, the pool of people who trust Bitcoin over banks has widened by 29%.

In particular, male millennials are the most enthusiastic demographic. Female millennials are not far behind, but male millennials are the most confident in Bitcoin’s future, and view Bitcoin as mostly positive.

Across the board, 60% of survey participants viewed Bitcoin favorably, which raises it by 27% compared to three years ago. As expected, people older than 65 are set in their ways, so they show the least amount of enthusiasm, most doubt, and are least likely to buy and use Bitcoin.

Hybrid Integration Boosts Bitcoin Interest

Looking at this survey, it is safe to say that male millennials are leading the charge in Bitcoin becoming increasingly integrated into mainstream trading apps, payment wallets, online retailers, and even employee salaries. Due to popular demand they created, PayPal itself had to concede and give its merchants the option to accept Bitcoin payments in 2018. Following suit, online payroll giants like Freshbooks are looking to integrate bitcoin payments in the near future.

Likewise, Microsoft had to integrate Bitcoin in its Xbox credit store. Online-based retailers like Overstock further fortified Bitcoin’s status as a credible alternative to fiat money. Just last year, New Zealand fully enabled Bitcoin (BTC) as legal tender for employee salaries.

Another source of increased Bitcoin adoption rate comes from the lack of proper competition. Everyone is familiar with Bitcoin. It is the first internet money with its own transfer network, gaining public spotlight via thousands of articles and video segments by the legacy media over a decade. Facebook’s Libra is still floundering, and not many people would trust Facebook due to their numerous privacy concerns and the heavy hand of censorship.

Pandemic Boon

Lastly, the coronavirus situation is a windfall for cryptocurrencies in three major ways:

It exposed more people to alternative payment methods. Most wallets and apps hold cryptocurrencies as an option to be explored just a click away.

Likewise, the usage of free stock-trading apps like Robinhood grew enormously during the lockdown periods, eclipsing traditional online brokers in terms of user base and transaction volume. According to The Tokenist survey, there is a 13% increase in people who would prefer to own Bitcoin over government bonds, stocks, gold, and other traditional assets, which constitutes another growth vector for Bitcoin.

The Federal Reserve exposed their hand by infusing the economy with trillions of dollars out of nowhere. Even the least informed person would take that as a clear sign that Bitcoin has far greater boundaries and sustainability than fiat money. After all, Bitcoin relies on a finite pool of “coins,” which guards it against monetary inflation — not price inflation.

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Online retailers struggle to keep up

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COVID-19 and a lack of foot traffic have forced many brick-and-mortar stores (some of whom were already struggling) to file for bankruptcy or liquidation. Neiman Marcus, J.C. Penney, Pier 1 Imports, California Pizza Kitchen, Brooks Brothers, and Ascena Retail (which operates Ann Taylor, LOFT, and Lane Bryant) are just some of the most recent companies to close stores.

Online shopping has exploded, but as a result of increased demand, many online retailers are struggling with sales and support.

Problems for online retailers

It’s always a good thing when business is booming; however, as a result of COVID-19, many retailers are encountering challenges around fulfillment and support. “Many were still working to move most of their business over to the online environment when COVID-19 hit, and the acceleration created stress,” explains JC Ramey, CEO at DeviceBits. And he says that this caused a fracture in those areas that were not setup for such an uptick in e-commerce.

“Those that were predominantly online before COVID-19 and those retailers that remained open are now more prepared for the volume.” However, Ramey says that some companies are still struggling with the initial overwhelming volume they received — in fact, some of his company’s clients have experienced overflow beyond 400%. “To add to this fracture, some employees have refrained from coming to work and some parts of the world acted independently with their own guidelines and responses to the virus.”

And for many businesses, all of these factors created a perfect storm of disruption in the supply chain. “Today we are seeing major volume spikes in the companies that were shuttered during the early COVID warnings, and now they are struggling with their own fractures, which are prolonging the effects.”

Negative effects of increased wait times

An increase in demand isn’t necessarily being accompanied by an increase in consumer patience. “Retailers are taking hours to answer calls or chats, while some customers are abandoning their purchase based on long wait times or poor customer experience,” Ramey says. One of his company’s clients has already doubled its support staff and distribution to meet the demand. “However, this comes at a significant cost to their business with no real outlook on the future need of that capacity.” Other companies are trying to project the timeframe for, and plan for when capacity will return to normal.

“This is an unprecedented time, and the recipe for how to get workers and capacity correct before the customer experience declines is far from perfect,” Ramey says.

Possible solutions

Self-serve options are one possible solution. “As it pertains to our business, we have been monitoring self-serve channels to predict volumes for our centers and/or agents while expanding the capability for the customer to answer more of their own questions,” Ramey says.

New agent training is another option. “This is critical for higher capacity or backfilling absence and lowering the training commitment time.” For example, Ramey says his company worked with one retailer that went from taking two weeks to train an agent to just a five-hour training period (from start to finish). “This is done by leveraging a Virtual Agent Coach (aka Chatbot for the Agent) to stand beside the new agent when they start taking interactions from customers.”

And the result? “This method has been proven successful in maintaining customer satisfaction and has improved conversions by 16% and average cart value by 7%,” Ramey says.

Written channels for sales and support can provide cost-saving benefits and also higher scalability compared to traditional voice channels. “These channels provide valuable data to retailers on the types of activities customers are trying to self-serve and the likelihood of success,” Ramey says. Companies can use the information obtained via these channels to make improvements and handle even more customer requests.

“These channels are also critical for the call center agents, as they provide the ability to automate agent response by taking the intent of the customer interaction, captured through the written channel, and popping the most likely answer to the agent’s screen.” This type of screen pop could include knowledge articles, account information, and troubleshooting workflows.

Consumer response to chatbots

Some companies are moving totally to chatbots. But how well do consumers respond to this type of customer service? A 2019 report by Helpshift reveals that 83% of respondents were comfortable with chatbot-enhanced messaging — if they can be guaranteed an immediate response. This is up from 76% of respondents in 2018. However, the report also revealed that an agent plus bot combination tends to lead to the highest levels of customer satisfaction. In this scenario, bots are used for up-front interactions, and then agents take over when available.

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What the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act means for small employers

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Signed into law on March 27, 2020, the CARES Act permits eligible small businesses to obtain loans through the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and have their loans forgiven if certain criteria are met. The purpose of the loans is to help small businesses — typically those with 500 or fewer employees — meet their payroll expenses during COVID-19 pandemic.

However, the PPP has been criticized for being too stringent and not sufficiently addressing the longer-term effects of the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, the PPP has been modified to give small businesses more flexibility when utilizing PPP loans and to make it easier for them to obtain loan forgiveness. These changes are reflected in the Paycheck Protection Program Flexibility Act (PPPFA), which was signed into law on June 5, 2020.

Here’s a non-exhaustive look at what the PPPFA means for small employers.

More Time to Use PPP Funds

Previously, borrowers had to use their PPP funds within 8 weeks of their loan origination date in order to have their loan forgiven.

The PPPFA gives borrowers 24 weeks to spend their PPP funds, starting from their loan origination date or until Dec. 31, 2020 — whichever comes first.

This expansion applies to all PPP loans, though borrowers who took loans before June 5, 2020, can choose to keep their eight-week period.

More Money for Non-Payroll Expenses

Previously, borrowers had to spend 75% of their PPP money on qualified payroll expenses in order to have their loan forgiven. Qualified payroll expenses include:

  • Salaries, wages, commissions, and tips
  • Health insurance premiums
  • Retirement benefits
  • State and local payroll taxes
  • Paid leave
  • Severance pay

The PPPFA reduces the payroll expense requirement to 60%. This means PPP borrowers can spend 40% (instead of 25%) on non-payroll expenses — such as mortgage interest, rent, and utilities — and still have their loan forgiven.

More Time to Repay Unforgiven PPP Loans

Previously, PPP borrowers had two years in which to repay any portion of their loan that’s not forgiven.

The PPPFA extends the repayment duration to five years. This change automatically applies to PPP loans approved on or after June 5, 2020. Borrowers with PPP loans taken prior to that date might be able to extend their repayment timeframe by contacting the lender directly.

More Time to Rehire Laid-Off Employees

Previously, to have their PPP loan fully forgiven, borrowers had until June 30, 2020 to rehire employees who were laid off between Feb. 15, 2020, and April 26, 2020.

The PPPFA extends the rehire deadline to Dec. 31, 2020, meaning employers have until the end of 2020 to restore laid-off employees to their pre-COVID-19 employment status.

In addition, the Small Business Administration has issued rehiring exceptions, including when an employer is not able to rehire a laid-off employee. For example, if the laid-off employee rejects the employer’s return-to-work offer, the employer can still receive loan forgiveness so long as they “made a good faith, written offer of rehire” and documented the employee’s rejection of the offer.

More Leeway to Defer Social Security Tax

Under the CARES Act, employers can generally defer their portion of Social Security tax (6.2% of taxable wages) that would normally be due between March 27, 2020, and Dec. 31, 2020. In this case, half of the tax can be deferred until Dec. 31, 2021 and the remaining half until Dec. 31, 2022. However, employers with forgiven PPP loans were excluded from deferring their share of Social Security tax.

The PPPFA enables all employers — including those with forgiven PPP loans — to defer their share of applicable Social Security tax for 2020.

Because the deferral does not extend to Medicare tax, employers must still submit their portion of Medicare tax (1.45% of taxable wages) on time.

There’s also more time to apply for a PPP loan.

Small employers that missed the June 30, 2020, deadline to apply for a PPP loan have another chance, as the cutoff has been extended to Aug. 8, 2020.

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How to improve communication across departments

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Good communication has always been an important aspect of a healthy, thriving business. And yet, with the coronavirus pandemic scattering countless employees, teams, and departments to the four winds, maintaining proper communication channels has never been more critical to success.

As the ongoing situation continues to drag out, remote teams must work to improve their modes of communication from afar in order to keep their businesses running smoothly. Nowhere is this effort more essential than in interdepartmental correspondence and collaboration.

A Trio of Tips for Improving Communication Across Departments

It’s good to address communication both externally with clients and internally within your team members. However, if you’re part of a larger organization, there is a third layer of communication that must be addressed.

If your company is big enough to operate with fully autonomous departments, it’s worthwhile to ensure that each department is maintaining an appropriate level of communication and collaboration with one another. Particularly during a crisis, department-focused priorities, competitiveness, and preferences must be set aside in the name of greater organizational success.

With that in mind, here are a handful of tips and best practices that you can implement within your company in order to make sure that your departments are communicating with peak efficiency.

Improve Surgically

One of the nice things about working with a team is that you’re typically all laboring towards a clear, shared goal. However, that uniformity can often break down when the concept is taken to a companywide level. Sure, everyone wants to work towards profitability and success, but the paths, activities, priorities, and methods can vary dramatically from one department to the next.

A marketer will want to spend money on ads while someone in research and development will want to use the same cash to develop a new product. An HR rep may want to invest in a training program whereas someone in IT could be focused on upgrading software.

With so many different forces pulling in various directions, it’s important for leaders and managers to avoid using broad stroke communication tactics as they attempt to keep everyone on the same page. Instead, look for ways to address the specific communication needs for each scenario.

For instance, the American Institute of CPAs suggests that accountants focus on interpersonal communication skills that can be communicated verbally and in a written format. Therefore, when you’re working on improving communication between accounting and other departments, make sure that these factors are present so that your financial staff can properly and effectively communicate with other departments who require accounting input.

Encourage Transparency

Since the pandemic struck and people moved to work from home, a light has shone directly on the importance of transparency to enhance effectiveness and productivity within remote teams. In addition, articles addressing transparency between employers and employees were a dime a dozen even before the coronavirus was a concern. However, this emphasis on transparency should also be extended to interdepartmental communication as well.

As a larger company, it’s imperative that your departments not only correspond with one another. They must also use their communication channels to work together, too. This can be challenging when you’re operating remotely and everyone is focused on their own goals, objectives, departments, teams, co-workers, and projects.

However, leadership must encourage departments to actively strive to stay on the same page on a regular basis. Department heads should regularly meet virtually. Goals, targets, deadlines, and progress updates should be openly and proactively communicated between departments as well.

For example, if your R&D team is going to miss a deadline, the marketing and sales departments should be notified immediately to tailor their own plans going forward. By consistently remaining open, honest, and current with their information-sharing behavior, your departments can maintain unity and cohesiveness even when everyone is working on different projects from home.

Regularly Review

Finally, once communication has been improved, it’s essential that you take the time to review the state of intercommunication between your company’s departments on a regular basis. With so much adaptation and innovation continually taking place, if this activity is left unaddressed, it can quickly lead to deterioration within existing, formerly robust channels. This can drag down productivity, cause frustration between departments, and even undermine the quality of your work environment — poor communication is one of the top causes for a toxic workplace.

It doesn’t matter if you’re working in healthcare, e-commerce, or any other industry, you’re bound to be impacted by the changes and repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis sooner or later (or even both) and will need to adapt your interdepartmental communications as you go along if you want them to remain effective in perpetuity.

Maintaining and Improving Interdepartmental Communication

The world has focused on the “new normal” for a while now. While there’s a certain inevitability to the concept, though, it’s what you choose to do in the uncertain times ahead that creates the “next normal.” In other words, while shifting circumstances may be out of your control, what you do to react to them is entirely within your control.

This doesn’t just apply to broad, sweeping concepts, either. It includes even the nitty-gritty details, such as keeping up healthy, productive interdepartmental communication, even when your staff is working from home.

If you can surgically address communication issues, maintain transparency between departments, and regularly update and review your policies as the situation develops, you will be able to perpetually improve your internal communication — and, by extension, your bottom line.

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US payrolls add 1.8 million jobs; jobless rate drops to 10.2%

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Employers added 1.8 million nonfarm new hires in July, down from 4.8 million jobs created in June, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. July’s rate of unemployment dropped to 10.2% from June’s 11.1%. July’s numbers indicate the reopening of commerce closed to slow the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number of unemployed workers declined to 16.3 million in July from June’s 17.7 million. Most major worker groups saw their unemployment rates fall. Black workers’ jobless rate changed little from June to July.

The number of unemployed workers on temporary layoff dropped to 9.2 million compared with 10.5 million in June, according to the BLS. For the jobless, returning to the labor force proved a continuing challenge.

“Among the unemployed, those who were jobless less than 5 weeks increased by 364,000 to 3.2 million in July,” according to the BLS, “and the number of persons jobless 15 to 26 weeks rose by 4.6 million to 6.5 million.”

Workers’ hourly pay increases fluctuated in July. “Average hourly earnings for all employees on private nonfarm payrolls rose by 7 cents to $29.39, following large changes in recent months,” the BLS reported. “Average hourly earnings of private-sector production and nonsupervisory employees decreased by 11 cents to $24.63 in July.”

Large companies of 500 workers and up added 129,000 new employees in July versus 873,000 workers in June, according to ADP/Moody’s monthly employment report for nonfarm private-sector payrolls only. Small firms of 1-49 workers created 63,000 jobs in July after 937,000 new hires in June. Midsize firms of 50-499 workers shed 25,000 jobs in July after hiring 559,000 new workers in June.

Goods-making firms added 1,000 new hires in July compared with 457,000 new workers in June. In the economy’s dominant service sector, employers hired 166,000 employees in July versus June’s 1.9 million total. Leisure and hospitality firms added 38,000 jobs in July after hiring 961,000 workers in June.

“The labor market recovery slowed in the month of July,” said Ahu Yildirmaz, vice president and co-head of the ADP Research Institute, in a statement.

The second-quarter gross domestic product fell 32.9%, an unprecedented drop in economic growth. Meanwhile, the $600 weekly pandemic jobless benefit to standard unemployment insurance (UI) benefits have ended.

Currently, workers filing for UI will not receive that extra $600. This decrease will depress consumer demand for the goods and services that private firms provide.

Meanwhile, coronavirus relief talks between Democrats and Republicans slog on in Congress. At the same time, states and local municipal budgets are facing tax revenue shortfalls from commerce closures during the coronavirus shelter-in-place orders.

Public services and jobs for tens of millions of people across the U.S. are at-risk from such budget cuts. A way to avoid that scenario, which would trigger a consumer demand-shock to businesses and the customers they serve, is to use the tool of monetary policy.

The Federal Reserve Bank’s Municipal Liquidity Facility will lend up to $500 billion to struggling states and local governments. “The Federal Reserve established the Municipal Liquidity Facility to help state and local governments better manage cash flow pressures in order to continue to serve households and businesses in their communities.”

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