By: Marcel Bourdase, COO - The Exchange
Around Christmas of 2019, I started hearing about the possibility of a viral outbreak in China that experts in the medical community were keeping a close eye on. As 2020 began, employees around our office were aware of the Coronavirus, but we never anticipated what was right around the corner.
Most people in the central valley know of The Exchange as an inbound call center that serves as an answering and messaging service for the medical community and businesses across the country. Our award-winning operators are onsite taking thousands of calls 24 hours a day 365 days a year. In addition to our call center, we have an Association Management division which serves as a virtual back-office for nonprofit organizations in California, across the country and the world. Our Association Management team fundraises, plans events, processes memberships, develops websites and provides bookkeeping and accounting services for our clients. In essence, our staff becomes the staff of the nonprofit and assists the volunteer organization with anything and everything they need to achieve their mission.
In January of 2020, I had my first conversation with our Chief Information Officer, Jose Torres about developing a plan for our employees to work remotely. As we strategized and developed a basic crisis contingency plan, in the back of my mind I thought there was no way we were going to get to a point where the majority of our staff would have to work remotely.
Fast forward to early March and we were starting to see signs from Asia and Europe that there was a real possibility that we could see a lock down in the United States. We continued to fine tune our internal plans to ensure our business and employees could continue to operate effectively and efficiently.
While we were making arrangements for employees to work remotely, our Association Management team and the organizations they represent were gearing up for their busy time of year. We refer to the springtime (March-May) as event season, as we are hosting large scale events almost every weekend. At this point, the conversation for our nonprofit clients had shifted to whether or not to cancel their spring conferences, which they had invested so much time and energy into planning. Planning for these events typically starts 12-24 months out. Adrianne Davis, our Associate Executive Director had an annual scientific meeting for psychiatrists scheduled in Monterey, California the weekend of March 13, 2020. Adrianne along with her council leaders made the difficult decision to cancel the event. At the time, I wasn’t sure it was the right decision, but hindsight is 20/20.
It figures that on a Friday the 13th (March 13, 2020) our world as we knew it would change. After evaluating everything going on, we made the difficult decision to institute our emergency contingency plan. All of our Association Management team was sent home to work remotely. They grabbed their computers, chairs, monitors and anything else they would need. They left the office like so many others not knowing when they would return. Our call center team, which services a large portion of the medical community in the Central Valley and other essential businesses would continue to operate on site, but the office setup was altered to ensure the health and safety of our employees.
Operators used to sit at stations in one shared workspace about 2-3 feet apart, but the close quarters would not provide the appropriate distance we needed. Our goal was to spread everyone out as much as possible. We setup 3-4 stations in our conference room. We also moved operator stations into cubicles in the office space previously used by our Association Management team. Lastly, we reduced the number of call center staff onsite and had some operators working remotely.
Over the next couple of weeks and months, stay at home orders were adopted throughout the state and our early efforts and planning had paid off. Our Association Management team had effectively made the transition to working remotely and our call center team was continuing to take calls. Our Association Management employees turned their attention to the financial wellbeing of their organizations and working with hotels and other vendors to cancel the upcoming spring and fall events. I was proud to see that all of our Association Management clients were able to get out of their event contracts without paying any cancellation fees thanks in large part to our employees persistence and efforts.
As time progressed, employees were now wearing masks in the office, we were stocking up on cleaning supplies and the office was being cleaned twice a day. Like so many other companies, employees were testing positive for COVID-19 or had been exposed to someone with the virus which created some challenges. During our weekly manager meetings, we would set aside several minutes to discuss our companies next steps and held routine meetings with staff to keep them informed. Through it all, I am so proud of our teams commitment to show up everyday and put in the work despite the uncertain world around them.
Fast forward to 2021. We have been very fortunate that despite having several employees who contracted the virus, not one of our employees contracted the virus from another employee at our office. Our emergency plan and our efforts to spread everyone out worked. As we continue to see positive case numbers decline, I am beginning to find hope that the summer will bring back a sense of normalcy that has been missing over the last year.
As a company and for me personally, the focus is turning towards the new normal and what that will look like.
- When will we ask our Association Management Employees to come back to the office?
- Will our call center go back to having everyone in one main work area?
- How long will masks continue to be required?
- When will we start holding events again?
- When can employees travel for events?
These are just a small sample of the types of questions our leadership team is asking each other. There has been so much uncertainty and inconsistency over the last year, we are taking a cautious approach to bringing our employees back to the office.
While several of our Association Management employees had started coming into the office on a more routine basis, we officially required all employees to come into the office one day per week. Some employees come in more regularly depending on their workload. Our management team continues to monitor the situation, with the hope of getting back to have all staff in the office 3 days a week by the end of the year. In addition, we are preparing for our first in person client conference in West Palm Beach, Florida this June. While it is exciting, it presents some new challenges that we are in the process of working through.
While none of us know what the future has in store, our decision-making process will continue to put the health and safety of our employees first and foremost.
As I look back at the craziness of everything that life has thrown our way over the last year, I continue to be energized and motivated by my fellow coworkers. I have seen my colleagues juggle the pressures of life and work and despite the challenges they have faced, they continue to show up for their fellow coworkers and the clients we serve.
To each of you, there are not enough words to express my gratitude, but THANK YOU.
Now it is time to finish strong and put this pandemic behind us. I am optimistic that will be sooner rather than later and like everyone else, the scars of the last year will only make us stronger as we continue on our journey.