Remotely Connected at CCAHEC
by Robby Ruggles, IT & Communications Manager
You may not be aware, but Central Colorado AHEC is a big proponent of working from home. This was made evident to me when I first started working here in 2015. The Executive Director, Lin Browning, encouraged us to work from home at least once a week, if not more, to support our organizational culture of wellness Within a few months, and for reasons beyond the scope of this article, I moved to Wisconsin and thought my time with CCAHEC had come to an end. Fast forward a couple of years and I rejoined the CCAHEC team in January of 2018. However, this time my address wasn’t in Colorado; the great state of Wisconsin is now my home. I live in the often cold, forest covered northern part of the state 1,100 miles from Denver, but it doesn’t feel like it’s that far away while I’m working.
“I appreciate the flexibility offered by Lin (CCAHEC Executive Director) to allow employees to work remotely.” – Kathleen McInnis, Professional Education Manager
Over the last year and a half, we’ve worked to increase efficiency and improve communication for our permanently and temporarily remote staff. Currently, our 14-member team consists of four remote full-time employees and AmeriCorps members, two remote part time employees, and on any given day multiple staff members could be working from home temporarily. This type of dispersed workforce comes with a host of challenges to overcome, communication being chief among them.
I think most people would agree that strong, effective communication between team members is a leading cause of success. Without the ability to walk over to your coworkers’ desk and get their opinion or advice on a task, you have to find creative ways to mimic that behavior. We live in an age of asynchronous communication: you send an email and wait for a response, read that text but don’t respond until later. This is how people communicate now, and when you are working remotely it is even more evident.
I was asked a few months into my current tenure with CCAHEC, how we could improve communication with our remote staff. I had thought about this before and realized that in a relatively short period of time we had done a great job putting into place systems for communication unique to our circumstances. We utilized email, one-to-one video meetings, and even a chat program called Teams that is reminiscent of instant messengers from a decade ago but built for the workplace. In fact, Teams allows us to have either asynchronous communication or an instant conversation if necessary. I use Teams daily to communicate with my direct supervisor, and other members of our team have started to use it as well. Email is email, no one likes it but we all have to use it for now. My dream is an email-free world, but I’m not confident that will ever happen. I mentioned the one-to-one or even one-to-many video meetings we have utilizing one of the best tools available: Zoom. With Zoom, our team can meet as if they were in the same room using nothing more than a laptop and an internet connection. All of us at CCAHEC meet regularly with coworkers, supervisors, Board members, and community partners; all of which continue without interruption regardless of staff location. Kathleen McInnis, Professional Education Manager who works remotely every day, said that Zoom has been a game-changer for her. She loves to see co-workers and community partners up close and personal.
So, when I was asked how we could improve communication, I initially said we were doing great. We were using available digital tools effectively, but I realized something. I was still rarely physically speaking to many members of the team. Most of my communication with the bulk of the team was through email or in group meetings. Ultimately, my suggestion was that we shouldn’t forget about one of the oldest forms of communication: the telephone. I think that talking to someone directly is an important form of communication and one that is often lost in our modern world. Since I made that suggestion, there has been an increase in phone conversations and more one on one video meetings with team members. Also, and perhaps most importantly, I now know the members on my team on a more personal level. Having that personal connection has led to a deeper understanding of what each member of the team needs and values, which is very important in my role as IT & Communications Manager. Kathleen also shared with me about her struggles with communication. She said, “I have gotten to know my team really well with video conferencing and daily emails and phone calls. Not being in the room for staff meetings has made it more challenging to get to know other co-workers.”
While communication is the most important, there are other issues we needed to solve and are still working on. One of them was file sharing and collaboration. We live in a digital world and we’ve decided as an organization to embrace that. Over the last couple of years, we’ve made great strides in getting rid of paper and moving to the cloud. The side effect of less paper is more efficiency, especially for our remote and work-from-home team members. For instance, our Accounting Manager, Pat, can now more easily work remotely because she doesn’t have to print receipts and forms regularly. We primarily use Microsoft’s cloud storage solution, OneDrive, to accomplish this. With OneDrive and other services like it (Dropbox, Box, Google Drive) we can share, store, and collaborate in real time on files and documents. I can get a newly designed flyer to my supervisor instantly, she can approve it, and send it on to the next level without needing to rename, re-save, or print the document.
Mostly what I’ve been discussing here is the technical side of working from home, but what about the practical side. Do I like it? Is it hard? Is it as great as everyone thinks? The answers to these questions are not as obvious as some may think. Initially it was amazing and very easy. I didn’t have a commute, I could be home with my kids for lunch, I wasn’t being “directly” supervised. However, over the course of the last year and a half I have learned a lot about myself, and specifically I’ve learned how wrong I was initially.
“I love working remotely. I get so much done and have more personal time for exercise and cooking a healthy dinner since I don’t have to commute to town.” – Kathleen McInnis, Professional Education Manager
Working from home is great, but it is not easy. It takes another level of discipline that I wasn’t aware of initially. For one, even though I don’t physically go to work, I still must “go” to work. Mentally, it is necessary for me to be in “work mode”, so this means getting dressed for work as if I were in the office. Having a space where I can think and work free from distraction, which has been a constant challenge with two kids under four at home who don’t understand that I’m “at” work. I also need to be extra careful about work/life balance. I know that sounds crazy, but when you work where you live, it is much easier to just work all the time. I found that I need to force myself to “leave the office” each day. I change my clothes, put my computer to sleep, leave my phone in another room, and/or go for a walk to separate work time from home time. I was also very wrong about the commute; navigating strategically placed Legos and action figures on the way to my desk can be very challenging! Kathleen shared some of the same insights, she said “I love working remotely. I get so much done and have more personal time for exercise and cooking a healthy dinner since I don’t have to commute to town. I’ve learned that it is best to get up early and exercise before work. Otherwise, I’ll just keep working and be so focused I forget to take a break!
Overall, I am very grateful for the opportunity to do work that I love for a cause that I’m passionate about at an organization I’m proud to call my employer from the comfort of my own home. I hope more people get the opportunity to try remote work, because for the right person it can be an awesome way to make a living. At CCAHEC, our mission is: within an innovative framework, CCAHEC partners to create and implement educational programs, addressing the dynamic needs of students, providers, and community members. The progress we are making on seamless remote work and towards a digital-first culture is part of that innovative framework. If we can effectively work with our team members and partners dispersed across the state and the country, we can confidently serve the students, providers, and community members who are likewise dispersed across the state and in other parts of the country.
As a part of this story, I asked Kathleen to answer a few questions about her remote work experience. I wanted to share the full question and answers here at the end.
What are the biggest struggles for you working remotely?
I have gotten to know my team really well with video conferencing and daily emails and phone calls. Not being in the room for staff meetings has made it more challenging to get to know other co-workers. Lin suggested I schedule 15-minute zoom meetings with each team member, which I did- and that helped a LOT! Traveling to Denver for three days and working in the office also helped! I feel a lot more a part of the team, even if I’m not physically present.
What have you learned about yourself while working remotely?
I love working remotely. I get so much done AND have time to have personal time for exercise and cooking a healthy dinner, since I don’t have to commute to town. I’ve learned that it is best to get up early and exercise before work- otherwise, I’ll just keep working and be so focused, I forget to take a break!
What tools/resources do you use to make working remotely more effective?
Zoom has been a game-changer for me. I love being able to see my co-workers and community partners up close and personal! I also use instant messaging and email- lots of email!
What are the benefits of remote work?
- I love having my 2 furry kids as my office partners!
- Not having to drive into an office saves me about an hour per day- each minute is a gift!
- Fewer interruptions allows me to get a LOT of work done in a shorter timeframe.
- I don’t have to share my coffee with anyone! ?
Any other comments?
I appreciate the flexibility offered by Lin to allow remote employees. While technology does not always work perfectly, I love utilizing it to max capacity to make it feel like I am in the same room as our co-workers. Technology shrinks our world and I feel like Denver is just around the corner!