As Bri Newman sits in The Minery’s co-working space in Toronto’s Rosedale neighborhood, its quiet.  

Like their similar shared space in London, the room used to be abuzz with the energy of entrepreneurs and enthusiastic business leaders. But in the wake of the COVID-19 quarantine, it has taken on a much more hushed and contemplative tone.

On this day, it’s the perfect place for Newman, Vice President of The Minery, to reflect on how the pandemic cast the company into a unique dual role as both a technology company dealing with a disrupted workforce and client base, and a service provider offering guidance and leadership on creating healthy and safe work environments.

Looking back, Newman says that while many companies were slowing down or closing, The Minery was busier than ever. “COVID for us was a really, really busy time, consulting in HR. Our team has worked hard over the past 16 weeks and we were surprisingly able to get our clients up and running a lot faster than we usually do, because there was a such need to get communication and health and safety policies out.”

With a core focus on helping their clients, primarily in automotive sales, create better customer and employee experiences, and an innovative spirit across the entire team, The Minery was fully capable of helping. They quickly pivoted their popular Imprv performance improvement platform to create an audit tool that has enabled companies across many industries, especially healthcare and retail, to assess their needs for signage, communications, policies and procedures.

Now that Ontario is entering Stage 3, and more businesses looking to re-open their doors, The Minery is planning a third iteration of the audit, with additional, up-to-date resources and guidelines.

“The biggest thing with the next stage of opening is that all of the same practices and protocols will still apply, there’s just lessened restrictions and more business allowed to open up,” Newman explains. “Now, some of the industries we built resources for will be able to open their doors. We’ll see an uptick in people finishing their audits and getting organized, especially around office settings.”

“COVID for us was a really, really busy time.”

For the Minery itself, it’s also time to begin to look ahead to what their own return to work, and Newman believes they will do so with many positive lessons learned from the dramatic shift in their operations.

“We talked about September, and doing a slow re-opening, mostly because we’ve found our team quite productive at home and we don’t want to lose that momentum. But we know how important that in-person component is to a lot of our employees, so we’re asking what do people want to do? Do they want to come back? Do they prefer to work at home?”

“The other thing we’ve talked about was having a staged approach, having bubbles of people – your working team in 3 days a week, the other working team in two days a week, and rotating that methodology to ensure that people who want or need that in-person contact still have it. “

When the team does return, Newman is confident her team understands they’ll be returning to a different workplace.

“We’re lucky that our office space in London is quite large, so we can easily practice social distancing and make sure people are spaced out.”

But there will be heightened healthy safety protocols in place, and some of the fun perks that used to define a cool technology company will have been put on hold temporarily.

That will put a pause on hot desks and communal resources, even those we take for granted.

“Sharing forks!” Newman chuckles. “Sharing forks – who would have thought you’d have to bring your own fork to work?

As to perhaps the most beloved perk of all, the loveable office dogs? Bad news for Forrest, Lacey, Bailey, and the other four-legged team members: “The last thing you’d want is an outbreak to happen, so erring on the side of caution is what we’d always suggest.”

But rather than being the end of office culture, Newman sees this is a chance to do what they do best: think different.

“There are so many more innovative ways we can come up with building your workplace culture other than bringing in lunch every day, or coffee. I see a lot of our businesses, either internally or to a clients, they are holding town halls where the leader is addressing the whole team and allowing the team to to ask questions. Ultimately, that forum might not have happened before, so there’s more of that transparency happening.”

“In the long run, if you talk about what people actual see as being engaged in the workplace, it goes a lot further as an emotional deposit than snacks.”

The last thing you’d want is an outbreak to happen, so erring on the side of caution is what we’d always suggest.”

The other major question to address as they plan for the return to work is how to blend the best of remote working with the positives of the in-office experience.

“It’s about finding the new balance,” Newman explains. “We’ve had a lot of flexibility with our team working remotely. Everybody adopted that model, and we’re definitely seeing productivity. If people are fine with it, then perhaps we shift that strategy and have more social get-togethers focused outside of work versus making work our go-to social event.”

The long-term role of remote work won’t just impact The Minery’s employees, but also the HR tools that they offer their customers.

“Our applicant tracking platform has constraints in how you post,” says Newman. “We will work to open up that pool of talent, so that our software is helping clients as their businesses start to work off a more remote workforce.”

With their Improv platform proving itself in a whole new way, the doors are also open for future expansions of the technology, and the industries that it can benefit from having experience and brand consistency maintained across multiple locations.

“We had always known that the platform was pretty flexible to be able to enter into any industry, and facilitate any type of continuous improvement methodology,” says Newman. “This gave us the confidence to say we’re ready to look at other industries where it would apply.”

The quarantine has also allowed the team to strategize around other industries they could deploy it to, and already, they’ve reached out to the provincial government about utilizing the platform in long term care homes, many of which have been devastated by COVID-19.

“This would be a really good tool for the government to have insight into long term care homes, and how they handle health and safety practices that now need to be in place to prevent future outbreaks.”

“Communication. We’ve been saying that since the beginning of the pandemic. The most important thing you can do is communicate with your team.”

As she reflects on her own experiences, and what she’ll bring forward into this next phase, Newman thinks about what she was able to slow down and observe during the quarantine.

“Because we switched to support versus sales, I became more mindful around finding time to recalibrate. You’re constantly trying, as a business, to grow and grow and grow, and hit those targets, and you either lose sight of what you’ve accomplished, or what you accomplished isn’t good enough.”

“It allowed us to recalibrate our strategy, look at what is important, and ask how we acknowledge the small milestones. We were able to lock in processes and say this is how we’re going to do this now.”

“If this hadn’t happened, we would have kept growing and growing — which would have been great — but at some point, you reach your max because you don’t have the right processes. That was a really unique challenge we came up against, and it was good for us to address now.”

The quarantine has also reinforced the need for clear and effective communications, but at the organization level, and in the day-to-day.

“Communication. We’ve been saying that since the beginning of the pandemic. The most important thing you can do is communicate with your team.” Newman says, urging leaders to be transparent and open, and get ahead of employee questions, even if it’s to say ‘we haven’t figured out our plans yet.’

Having key and clear deliverables, communicated between all members of a team, has also helped streamline the remote collaboration process.

“Originally, it might have been ‘come up with a marketing plan to promote this,’ and your team could go and brainstorm and jot on the wall.” says Newman. “Now they don’t have that collaboration, so saying ‘I need five HTML emails on this topic, and this is our audience, and I need it by the end of the week’ is better. Shifting the way you pose the question and putting the deliverables out to your team, it sets them up for success.”

And of course, “being more compassionate.”

“Shifting the way you pose the question and putting the deliverables out to your team, it sets them up for success.”

After a sometimes chaotic and often inspiring four-month sprint, the team are starting to take well-deserved vacations ahead of a busy, and still-uncertain fall.

As Newman looks around the quiet coworking space, she knows that someday she’ll be working side-by-side with her team again, bolstered by the many lessons they’ve learned during the quarantine, and the fact that they never lost focus.

“We made sure our clients really felt our arms wrapped around them.”

“From a distance!” she adds with a laugh.