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Business
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Navigating the new world of working at home

As the weeks pass, those still employed are getting used to working from home.

For many, it was an abrupt switch. COVID-19 quickly caused businesses to close and remaining workers to be productive in their homes.

Luckily, some say technology is making the change easier.

Chaska resident Greg Swan is no stranger to wired work. He currently heads the digital team at the Minneapolis advertising agency Fallon, and works with social engagement and PR for Brainjolt, a media publishing company based in California. Each week Swan blogs about trenching technologies.

He's written about Zoom video communications and advice for virtual meetings — priming him for technology tips for those less apt to working from home.

But before he offers guidance, he wants to get one thing straight: let go of perfection. Our homes aren’t offices, and that’s OK.

“We all have kids or dogs or doorbells ringing. We’re all working from home. We’re all here,” Swan said. “It’s OK and you can laugh and acknowledge them, or you can also ignore them at this point. It’s so just a given now.”

NEW TECH WORK WORLD

Lots of people aren’t used to new tech-savvy expectations, and he said many are being thrown into a world they’re not used to. But again, he said perfection isn’t the goal.

Swan reminds folks to “give grace” to those people, maybe setting up a one-on-one meeting to walk those having difficulty through certain tools.

It’s even a change for Swan.

He’s been a digital marketer his entire career, but says he’s never been on camera this much and this often.

“I tend to want to multitask and not look at the camera or not worry as much about what’s in the background, and with a few small tweaks, it really changes the experience for you and everyone that you’re involved with online,” Swan said.

Those “few small tweaks” might look like some ideas Amie Krone has. A Chaska resident, she’s been the director of operations and HR at TopRank Marketing for over a decade.

CHANGING THINGS UP

Krone's first tip is to branch out of the ordinary and see what works for each company.

“Don't be afraid to test things,” Krone said. “It’s just what works for you. There's not going to be one thing that is going to do it all, unfortunately, but just, ‘What is it that’s wanted from your employees, and how can you make it easier to help them stay connected?’”

Krone said her company has a few different platforms. It uses Zoom for conference calls, Slack for quick updates or questions, and another project management system for connecting.

“That’s all online and digital, so people don’t have to walk over or talk to somebody to see what’s actually needed,” she said.

But perhaps her most crucial tip? Keeping up employee morale.

Krone said TopRank made a three-times-a-week cadence to break up the monotony of being at home. It starts with “mixtape Monday” where staff make shareable playlists. A few days later is “walkabout Wednesday.”

“Get on a conference call and go out and walk, if it’s nice out, and chat on the phone,” Krone said. “Just to sort of get out and have a break. It’s harder when your commute is five steps away.”

The end of the week brings a virtual happy hour. It’s a chance to decompress, hang in and not talk about work.

In the absence of these spirit-boosters, Krone isn’t sure employees would be at their best.

“Otherwise you kind of just sit at your desk all day and you never leave,” she said.

SETTING UP AT HOME

Those home desks, though, have seen some improvements for TopRank employees. Krone said a handful of people brought their office chairs home, and got an extra monitor or keyboard to keep their desk setup the same.

When that was done, Krone and the team worked out the kinks. They spent a few days making sure everyone had what they needed.

“We’ve had quite a few conference calls with, ‘What’s working? What’s not?’ conversations to make sure people are still comfortable and still able to work effectively and efficiently,” she said.

For Swan, an effective desk looks something like this: A carved out section of his bedroom for an “office,” experimenting with a standing desk, and a borrowed LED ring light from his daughter (for better video resolution and quality). He said the latter is especially helpful for those nights when putting work away before midnight isn’t an option.

Overall, Swan said there’s a few things everyone can do on video calls to make life easier for everyone.

Stay on mute while not talking, he said, and look directly at the camera while speaking — not at the screen. Another tip?

“Give nonverbal feedback,” Swan said. “Now that you're on mute you can't just say, ‘Uh huh,’ or, ‘Got it,’ every time so you need to nod and give a thumbs up and laugh.”

In the end, he said being able to work during this time isn’t anything to take for granted. Though there may be stressful bumps along the road, he said it’s important to remember the context of the situation.

“Compared to a lot of folks, those of us who can work from home — and are only inconvenienced by WiFi signals, crying kids, or barking dogs — really have it pretty well off,” Swan said.

“Working from home is a gift. But I have to say I can't wait to get back into the office.”


Education
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EDUCATION
How's distance learning going?

In just eight days, schools have changed the way they educate students. It’s a challenge schools have never faced before.

As students across the region, the state, the country, adjust to learning from home, teachers and administrative staff, too, are working to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“I’m blown away by the creativity and thoughtful lessons the teachers have created while maintaining our high academic rigor,” said Melissa Livermore, dean of Academic Support at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria. “We’re staying true to who we are and keeping relationships at the front and center.”

WORKING TOGETHER

No matter the grade level, or the class subject, or the school itself, the one constant is the importance of organization and communication with distance learning.

“Routine is your friend. Students like to ‘know the game plan’ more than ever now,” said World Literature and Creative Writing teacher Carlee Kocon at Holy Family Catholic High School. “I also think students have learned that they have to actually open their email and read it, since, when you’re at school, assignments are said aloud, posted on the board, posted online, etc., but now the physical reminders aren’t there.”

Communication from student to teacher also has showed what is working and what is not. Kocon said everyone is learning together. “(It) doesn’t have to be scary, but it does mean we have to follow directions and work together to find solutions,” she said.

KEEPING THE CONNECTION

So much of a school day is about the interactions between student and teacher, and student and student. Keeping that connection is something teachers are trying to do.

Sometimes it’s a video message each morning to an elementary class. Sometimes it might be a Zoom meeting. Ian Parzyck, science teacher at Holy Family Catholic High School, has used social media to connect.

“I’ve created a Twitter account (@WhiteBoardMrP) that has become my virtual ‘whiteboard’ in a way that has daily plans posted, pertinent links, and funny daily items to keep some sort of connection. I’ve been willing to share more of myself on social media to show a side of me that my students don’t normally get to see that much. For instance, I’ve been doing training videos with my son and posting them on my track and field Twitter account.

“Seeing their old coach with a blown-out hip slugging his way through workouts with his rambunctious 8-year-old son I think is comedic gold. And I hope that it brings a smile to my students and athletes to just keep slugging away in whatever situation we are dealt in life,” he said.

SUBJECT TO SUBJECT

What works with Parzyck and science might not work with other subjects. Holy Family Catholic’s Shelagh Gamble, who deals with all things clay, painting and drawing, teaches a very hands-on course.

“Each course has been designed with multiple interactive assignments online. The goal is for students to have daily engagement with something, this includes video work (via Flipgrid), collaboration posts (via 365 teams) and sketchbook entries. I will often respond to students individually or as a group on these platforms,” Gamble said.

She also meets live on Zoom or 365 Teams once per week for “show and tell.”

“This live session allows me to interact directly with everyone, and also for them to see their peers, which I’m sure is a very missed part of life right now,” Gamble said.

HOW IS IT GOING?

The first week of distance learning was met with some challenges. Online learning sites have seen server interruptions.

Balancing working from home and helping children with their school work also has made for long days for parents.

“The teachers did a great job in preparing materials. But it’s tough! Hard to keep focus for elementary kiddos, and hard for two adults to continue working while trying to assist the distance learning. But it’s just week one! Hoping that we find a routine,” said District 112 parent Gina Rutter.

“My fifth-grader is doing really well; the teachers have communicated the work clearly, they gave a schedule to keep routine, and even gave some extra items to try for additional learning. But she misses connecting with friends,” said District 112 parent Patti Williamson.

“So far so good. Our teachers have been great! They have laid everything out so well. A few kinks that needed to be worked out the first day, but all going well since. The kids are engaged for a couple hours a day. It is not too overwhelming so far,” stated parent Michelle DeBolt Donahue, on the Chaska Herald Facebook page.

“My students have stepped up big time,” said Annie Lund, a biology teacher at Chaska Middle School West. “I had near 100 completion of their first assignment. I made a video giving directions and background. The kids seemed very eager to get started and I think they understand this is a unique time in our history and they are doing their part for this country by putting their best foot forward. My own kids at home are going above and beyond as well. These kids are going to surprise us!”

NORMAL ROUTINE

Juli Currie of Chanhassen has been a homeschool teacher for her seven kids, the oldest now married, the youngest at the end of elementary school age.

She agrees a daily routine is necessary. Students need structure, whether in the classroom or at home.

“A starting time in the morning is a good beginning. Whatever works with your family. I know some that start at 7:30 and we start closer to 9 a.m. Treat it as if you were going to ‘real’ school. So, whatever your morning was like (work out, shower, breakfast, etc.), complete and be ready to roll at the designed time,” Currie said.

A specific location in your home for work is also helpful. Expecting a child to work on the couch with the TV feet away is an unnecessary distraction.

“Whether it is the kitchen table or a child’s desk, a place to be at the time encourages getting to work,” she said.

Currie suggests writing out all daily assignments as a checklist. Let your child work as independently as they can be. If a child is struggling with a particular assignment, take a break from it and come back later.

“Our house rule is school work first. So no other activities until your work is done. I have had kids miss practice/after-school activities because they choose not to finish their school work on time,” she said.

Her No. 1 takeaway from her experience of teaching her kids from home was the bond that was formed.

“I have found it is not worth screaming at a child for any lesson. My relationship with that child is way more valuable than any math or whatever subject. And don’t forget to laugh! I try to remind myself of how lucky I am to spend all this time with my kids. It is time that I never regret having with them. I especially appreciate this as yet another graduates (fifth of seven) in a month,” Currie said.