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How COVID-19 is forcing Austin tech companies to adjust to remote work, personal travel

(BUSINESS NEWS) There is no consensus on how to treat employee travel and remote work, so here is the spectrum of how Austin tech companies are reacting to the COVID-19 threat.

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Because there is a lot of confusion and misinformation, today, we’re going to talk about how companies are adjusting to the endless unknowns of the spreading coronavirus (or COVID-19) threats.

The jobs report released this morning obliterated expectations, adding 273,000 jobs in February, and unemployment dipping to 3.5%, but this remains a lagging indicator, so the extent of the impact of the virus remain unknown.

Also unknown is how each company should adjust, and having not gone through this in the modern era, we’re all flying blind. Retail employees can’t work remotely, healthcare staff must also interface in person, but tech companies are reacting by sending their workforces home.

For example, Austin’s Amazon team has cut all business travel and cancelled any on-site job interviews.

Also up in the air is the conference circuit, as attendees are staying home, and sponsors are pulling out of conferences due to restricting employee travel.

Our favorite site for tracking conference cancellations is IsItCanceledYet.com which offers a simple yes/no tracking on major conferences.

So far, major conferences cancelled include Google I/O, Game Developers Conference, TwitchCon (Amsterdam), Adobe Summit, Facebook f8, Mobile World Congress, Internet Freedom Festival, IBM Think, and Kubecon.

Not yet cancelled are SXSW (despite widespread criticism and petitions to shut it down), Microsoft Build, TwitchCon (San Diego), Apple’s World Wide Developers Conference (WWDC), PAX West, Coachella, Seattle Comic Con, San Diego Comic Con, and Dell World.

UPDATE: SXSW has been cancelled, as have Seattle Comic Con and Dell World.

Most major tech companies in America have cancelled all business travel, essential or otherwise.

Microsoft, Google, Twitter, and Facebook in Seattle and San Francisco have all sent their teams home for work, and many of their Austin teams are following suit.

Austin tech companies are scrambling to determine whether or not teams should be sent home, given that the city has no confirmed cases yet. That said, there are confirmed cases in San Antonio and Houston, putting pressure on companies to consider their policies.

The spectrum of work from home policies at Austin tech companies:

  • Several companies are sending everyone home 2-3 days next week to test out their readiness, but recalling everyone afterwards and waiting for various triggers (like a confirmed case in Austin).
  • A few companies are being non-communicative, but are testing out all company equipment (like laptops) and using various excuses like an “annual update,” or “in case of weather emergencies.”
  • Some companies are allowing any employee to work from home that wishes to, but most employees are still reporting in for work.
  • Many companies are simply allowing anyone that feels ill with any COVID-19 symptoms to work remotely, but there is no discussion of sending all team members home.
  • Some companies are allowing employees to work from home if they’re pregnant, living with someone pregnant, are immunocompromised, or living with someone immunocompromised.
  • Other companies have requested that employees work from home (for example, Dun & Bradstreet has asked all team members with a laptop work remotely and use a VPN when doing so).
  • Some Austin tech companies have straight up said they’re not making any adjustments, everyone must report in, and employees are simply instructed to wash their hands more frequently.

As you can see, there’s a pretty broad spectrum of responses for remote work.

The only theme we are seeing is that unlike other sectors, most Austin tech companies are at least trying to be communicative with their teams, and are willing to test their readiness in case confirmed cases hit the city.

What is now emerging is how Austin tech companies are responding to employees’ personal travel choices:

  • Most companies have not communicated with employees about their personal travels. At all.
  • The majority of companies that are being proactive are asking employees to observe a 14-day self-isolation period upon return, if visiting any nations that the CDC has labeled with a Level 2 or Level 3 Travel Health Notice. Some are mandating it (like the University of Texas), others are requesting it.
  • A few tech companies have required employees to take work equipment with them during personal travels in case they’re quarantined or isolated and need to work remotely.
  • Several companies are requiring that leadership or HR be notified of any personal travel in advance. Some are simply asking for a heads up so they can consider a response, others are noting that they have to approve that travel beforehand.
  • Several companies, like DISCO, are requiring employees to fill out forms indicating where their personal travels will take them, and will react on a case by case basis.
  • Some have urged employees not to travel at ALL. So far, there are no commands, but several polite requests.

We don’t know what the consensus will ultimately become regarding remote work and personal travel during this COVID-19 threat, or if a unanimous behavior will emerge.

Also still scattered is what the triggers are for ending remote work and personal travel mandates.

The target end date for restrictions is currently unknown by all, and while many companies are saying non-essential travel is restricted through March, other mandates remain indefinite.

Lani is the Chief Operating Officer at The American Genius - she has co-authored a book, co-founded BASHH and Austin Digital Jobs, and is a seasoned business writer and editorialist with a penchant for the irreverent.

Business News

Leadership versus management: What’s the difference?

(Business News) The two terms, leadership and management, are often used interchangeably, but there are substantial differences; let’s explore them.

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leadership Startups meeting led by Black woman.

Some people use the terms “leader” and “manager” interchangeably, and while there is nothing inherently wrong with this, there is still a debate regarding their similarities or differences.

Is it merely a matter of preference, or are there cut and dry differences that define each term?

Ronald E. Riggio, professor of leadership and organizational psychology at Claremont McKenna College, described what he felt to be the difference between the terms, noting the commonality in the distinction of “leadership” versus “management” was that leaders tend to engage in the “higher” functions of running an organization, while managers handle the more mundane tasks.

However, Riggio believes it is only a matter of semantics because successful and effective leaders and managers must do the same things. They must set the standard for followers and the organization, be willing to motivate and encourage, develop good working relationships with followers, be a positive role model, and motivate their team to achieve goals.

He states that there is a history explaining the difference between the two terms: business schools and “management” departments adopted the term “manager” because the prevailing view was that managers were in charge.

They were still seen as “professional workers with critical roles and responsibilities to help the organization succeed, but leadership was mostly not in the everyday vocabulary of management scholars.”

Leadership on the other hand, derived from organizational psychologists and sociologists who were interested in the various roles across all types of groups.

So, “leader” became the term to define someone who played a key role in “group decision making and setting direction and tone for the group. For psychologists, manager was a profession, not a key role in a group.”

When their research began to merge with business school settings, they brought the term “leadership” with them, but the terms continued to be used to mean different things.

The short answer, according to Riggio is no, not really; simply because leaders and managers need the same skills to be productive and respected.

This editorial was first published here in June of 2014.

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Business News

Does Raising Cane’s have the secret to combatting restaurant labor shortages?

(NEWS) Fried Chicken Franchise, Raising Cane’s, has turned to an unusual source of front-line employees during the labor shortage- Their executives!

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White paper sign with black text reading "Help Wanted."

I wouldn’t call myself a fried chicken aficionado or anything, but since chains are designed to blow up everywhere, I have experienced Raising Cane’s.

I’m pretty sure the Cane’s sauce is just barbecue mixed with ranch, but hey, when you’ve got a good idea, keep with it.

In the further pursuit of good ideas, the company has resorted to an intriguing method of boosting staff in a world where the lowest paid among us are still steadily dying of Covid, and/or choosing to peace out of jobs that they don’t find worth the infection risk.

Via Nation Restaurant News: “This is obviously a very tough time, so it was a joint idea of everybody volunteering together to go out there and be recruiters, fry cooks and cashiers —whatever it takes,” said AJ Kumaran, co-CEO and chief operating officer for the Baton Rouge, La.-based quick-service company, from a restaurant in Las Vegas, where he had deployed himself.”

The goal of this volunteer mission, which involves 250 of the 500 executives deployed working directly in service roles, is to bolster locations until 10,000 new hires can be made in both existing locations and locations planned to open.

It’s obvious that this is a bandaid move – execs exist for good reason, and in terms of sheer numbers (not to mention location and salary changes), this is hardly tenable long-term. But I can say this as someone who’s gone from retail to office, and back (and then forth…and then back again) several times – if this doesn’t keep everyone at the corporate level humble, and much more mindful of employees’ needs, nothing will.

The fast-food world is notorious for wonky schedules only going up a day before the week begins, broken promises on hours (both over and under), horrendous pay, and little to no defense of employee dignity in the face of customers with rank dispositions. With the wave of strikes (Nabisco, John Deere, IATSE) making the news, and lack of hazard pay/brutal physical attacks over mask mandates still very fresh in workers’ minds, smart companies are hipping themselves to the fact that “low level” employee acquisition and retention needs to be much more than the ‘work here or starve’ tactics that have served since the beginning of decades of wage stagnation. The best way for that fact to stay front-of-mind is to go out and live the truths behind it.

In Raising Cane’s case, the company also announced that they’re upping wages at all locations — to the tune of an actually not totally insulting $2 per hour, resulting in a starting wage of $15 and a managerial wage of $18.

Ideally, paying people more to cook, clean, and customer service all in one job will actually attract people back to fast food work. Seriously consider the fact that the people cleaning fast-food toilets are the same people making the food that goes into your mouth. The additional fact is that it’s better for everyone’s health when they’re paid enough to care about what they’re doing and stay healthy themselves.

Of course, one does also need to consider how much inflation has affected the price of goods and housing since the ‘fight for $15’ began almost a decade ago in 2012. Now, raising wages closer to the end point of multiple goods still might not be enough!

AJ Kumaran continued, “The chicken prices are through the roof. Logistics are very hard. Shipping is difficult. Simple things cups and paper napkins — everything is in shortage right now. Some are overseas suppliers and others domestic suppliers. Just in poultry alone, we have taken significant inflation.”

That’s global disruption for ya.

It remains to be seen whether this plucky move can save Raising Cane’s dark meat, but I’m very pro regardless. Send more top-earning employees into the trenches! No more executives with 0 knowledge of how the sausage sandwich gets made.

No more leading from behind.

Why not? What are ya? Chicken?

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Business News

Unify your remote team with these important conversations

(BUSINESS NEWS) More than a happy hour, consider having these poignant conversations to bring your remote team together like never before.

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Woman working in office with remote team

Cultivating a team dynamic is difficult enough without everyone’s Zoom feed freezing halfway through “happy” hour. You may not be able to bond over margaritas these days, but there are a few conversations you can have to make your team feel more supported—and more comfortable with communicating.

According to Forbes, the first conversation to have pertains to individual productivity. Ask your employees, quite simply, what their productivity indicators are. Since you can’t rely on popping into the office to see who is working on a project and who is beating their Snake score, knowing how your employees quantify productivity is the next-best thing. This may lead to a conversation about what you want to see in return, which is always helpful for your employees to know.

Another thing to discuss with your employees regards communication. Determining which avenues of communication are appropriate, which ones should be reserved for emergencies, and which ones are completely off the table is key. For example, you might find that most employees are comfortable texting each other while you prefer Slack or email updates. Setting that boundary ahead of time and making it “office” policy will help prevent strain down the road.

Finally, checking in with your employees about their expectations is also important. If you can discuss the sticky issue of who deals with what, whose job responsibilities overlap, and what each person is predominantly responsible for, you’ll negate a lot of stress later. Knowing exactly which of your employees specialize in specific areas is good for you, and it’s good for the team as a whole.

With these 3 discussions out of the way, you can turn your focus to more nebulous concepts, the first of which pertains to hiring. Loop your employees in and ask them how they would hire new talent during this time; what aspects would they look for, and how would they discern between candidates without being able to meet in-person? It may seem like a trivial conversation, but having it will serve to unify further your team—so it’s worth your time.

The last crucial conversation, per Forbes, is simple: Ask your employees what they would prioritize if they became CEOs tomorrow. There’s a lot of latitude for goofy responses here, but you’ll hear some really valuable—and potentially gut-wrenching—feedback you wouldn’t usually receive. It never hurts to know what your staff prioritize as idealists.

Unifying your staff can be difficult, but if you start with these conversations, you’ll be well on your way to a strong team during these trying times.

This story was first published in November 2020.

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