Inside the new (home) office, remote workers find ways to keep working

April 6, 2020

Wedged between bottles of detergent, beneath a rack of cleaning supplies that has collapsed before and might again, Brady Fopma has arrived at work.

The director of web development at Click Rain estimates he spends 40 hours per week surrounded by laundry supplies in the room that now doubles as his office.

“I’m finding the smell of dryer sheets is going to stick with me far beyond this situation. That’s all I smell at this point,” he said.

He and his wife, Rhonda, who works in IT for a college, are both working from home while their three kids are home from school.

Rhonda already worked most days remotely and had commandeered the actual office in the home. So when Brady left Click Rain’s downtown office with two monitors and a keyboard, the next stop was the family laundry room.

“This particular laundry room, for whatever reason, has a desk built into it,” he said. “And it has a window. So I have a window, a desk and a door, and those are pretty big factors at this point.”

Fopma doesn’t have it to himself, though.

“This is also the space where my dog consumes his food and water, so I’m a foot away from sticking my foot in both those bowls,” he said. “So I have to navigate that at any moment I might have a kid trying to open the door and get help or the dog scratching at the door wanting his water and food.”

These are the adjustments that legions of workers are making in the wake of COVID-19, away from offices and trying to maintain productivity while working from makeshift spaces and juggling family members with co-workers and clients. Generations that fought for work-life balance are now finding the two mashed up for the foreseeable future.

Work goes on, though. At Click Rain, 35-person video calls have helped keep the team together.

“Our CEO, Natalie (Eisenberg) has been very intentional with communicating that just because our team is remote doesn’t mean we’re not going to do scheduled meetings,” Fopma said. “We’re going to commit to meeting, and anything we would have done in the office we’re going to commit to doing and use video as much as possible.”

The team at Bender Commercial Real Estate is taking a similar approach, which is why in one recent video call to talk about deals, it became apparent partner Reggie Kuipers was working out of his garage.

“It’s a basement utility garage, not our actual garage,” he clarified. “I just knew I was going to need some space away from the kids, so the garage has a door. I can lock it. I can get some space so I can take phone calls and have meetings.”

He’s on kid duty at least a couple of days per week too, though, as his wife handles dental emergencies in her office.

It’s clear the garage is not meant to be a permanent solution.

“I just threw up a 6-foot table, plugged in. I’ve got a heater in there,” Kuipers continued. “It’s 64 degrees in here right now. It’s fine.”

Perhaps more encouraging, his deal flow has been a pleasant surprise so far.

“The more established owners and investors seem to be plowing ahead, knowing this isn’t going to last forever,” he said.

It helps to connect with his colleagues virtually, he said.

“There’s still activity going on, and to put the puzzle pieces together, it’s important to connect,” he said.

Firm founder Michael Bender decided to move most staff to remote a couple of weeks ago, leaving a small number of property management and accounting staff in the physical office – which, ironically, the team had occupied for only a few months.

“Business is still going, that’s for sure,” Bender said. “We’re all doing virtual and having meetings pretty often. We’ve been increasing them. Normally, you just go down the hall and talk to somebody.”

Closings have changed, with brokers and attorneys not attending to limit people in offices.

In February, Bender led off his annual Market Outlook event with the idea that this would be a “decade of disruption.” While it seems prophetic, a pandemic wasn’t what he had in mind.

“I didn’t think it would be this disruptive this fast,” he said. “It’s going to be brutal, but I think we’ll get through it. I don’t think it’s going to be something that lingers on and on and on.”

Tax time

Normally this time of year, Aaron Clayton would be on the road four days out of five.

Instead, the Eide Bailly partner who serves as audit department head in Sioux Falls will work through one of his busiest seasons using calls and emails as nearly his entire office is working remotely.

“We’ve got a few administrative people in the office to manage scanning and printing and all that stuff that comes with tax returns being done,” he said.

But Clayton, like most of his 130 colleagues, grabbed two monitors and a laptop and headed home.

For the first week, he worked at his dining room table. When that proved inconvenient, he decided to finally set up a home office.

“We moved here last September, and I hadn’t had a chance,” he said. “But I bought a desk a month ago, so I put it together over the weekend, and now I’m in an office where I’m away from people … so it’s a good change.”

He has been using Zoom or teleconferencing with clients to deliver audit results, which he typically would have presented in person.

“So that’s been a big change, but I’ve been really impressed by our people so far to navigate this and stay productive and deliver on projects we have so we can keep serving our clients,” he said.

“The challenge is I’m the father of three daughters — they’re all kind of locked inside too and definitely anxious to not be in the house But this time of year I travel a lot, so it’s been a neat opportunity for me to spend time with them on a daily basis that I wouldn’t normally get to.”

Keeping the culture

It’s going to be an “HGTV-style video,” Nikki Gronli said, with only a hint of irony in her voice, as she begins giving her SDN co-workers a virtual tour of her home office via Facebook.

There’s her work station, her husband’s and the designated “SDN” work station.

“A little bit crowded,” she acknowledges, as the camera pans across multiple monitors and keyboards, hovering on a sign that reads “Enjoy the Uptime,” an SDN tagline, and ending with the view out the window of her yard.

“Say goodbye,” she said to her chocolate lab, lounging on the floor. “Have a good day, everybody.”

Brightening her co-workers’ days while working remote has been part of this marketing specialist’s mission since her team went nearly all remote a couple of weeks ago.

“I thought, let’s do something that’s going to keep everybody in touch daily and give them something to smile about, and that includes our employees and customers,” Gronli said.

So she stepped up SDN’s Facebook page to include a look into life while working remotely, encouraging co-workers to share their setups.

On one day, employees talked about what their kids and pets were doing. On another, they shared what they wore to work remotely – pajamas pants and slippers included.

“What’s something you’ve never done in the office that you’re doing while working remotely?” Gronli asked one day, followed by a story about bandaging up her stepson who cut himself.

“A co-worker mentioned that his cat had sneezed and he felt like he needed personal protective equipment,” she added, leading to a series of posts from others with their own homemade “PPE.”

Gronli also set aside each Wednesday as “wonderful co-worker day” to praise colleagues who are stepping up to help during the pandemic.

“SDN is one of the rare companies that is really busy right now because we have all these businesses going to remote working and we have to make adjustments to make sure they have the bandwidth so they can continue to do what they need to do, so it does increase our work volume.”

They’re small gestures that have made a big difference in how co-workers feel connected, she said.

“Right now, we can’t all go to the break room and grab coffee and ask each other how we’re doing, so we’re making the best of a difficult situation.”

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Inside the new (home) office, remote workers find ways to keep working

From laundry rooms to garages, the home office now takes many forms. Here’s a look at how Sioux Falls-area workers are making it work.

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