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How newbies and old hands make telecommuting work

Cinthya Chavarria, medical biller at E Central Medical

Cinthya Chavarria, medical biller at E Central Medical Management, works at her table in Hempstead alongside her daughter Payton, 7, and son Jayden, 10. Credit: Cinthya Chavarria

A year ago, working from home might have sounded like a dream come true. No commute, comfy clothes, more flexible hours. But in the age of COVID-19, with many workers suddenly setting up  laptops on their kitchen tables, it's become clear that keeping up productivity and morale can be tough.

“Not every manager is built to manage remote employees, and not every employee is built to work remotely,” said Rob Basso, chief executive of Associated Human Capital Management in Plainview, which handles payroll and HR functions for about 1,000 small and mid-size firms. “Can they muddle through for at least a couple of months? Yes, I think they could.”

Businesses  now working fully remotely include medical billing firm E Central Medical Management in New Hyde Park.

“We have the capabilities of having our employees working remotely all through VPNs into their work stations,” said Bert Lurch, chief executive of the company, which handles medical billing for independent physicians.

3 at the kitchen table

For Cinthya Chavarria, a medical biller at E Central Medical, working remotely presents a new set of challenges.

“This is  ... my first time working from home,” said Chavarria, who lives in Hempstead with her two elementary school-aged kids and her parents.

“The best way to keep everybody kind of in check and to make sure they don’t go running off is to keep everyone at the same table,” she said. “It’s first grade on one side, fifth grade on the other, and it’s me at the head of the table, kind of directing traffic.”

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When working from home – especially for those unexpectedly looking after children – "it’s really important to create boundaries," said Eileen Lichtenstein, chief executive of Balance & Power Inc., a Uniondale-based coaching, training and consulting firm.

For some companies, preparing for the worst-case scenario is par for the course.

Seeing your co-workers

“We’ve always had contingency plans,” said Lee Mandel, chief executive of IntraLogic Solutions of Massapequa, a high-tech security firm that provides monitoring and security services to 84 school districts on the Island. About half of its 30 office workers are working remotely.

IntraLogic has made investments in video conferencing tech. “It creates a better environment when you’re able to see the people you’re talking to like you would in the room,” Mandel said.

At accounting firm EisnerAmper, the key to making remote operations work is flexibility and communication, said Mark L. Meinberg, partner in charge of the firm’s Long Island operations. To handle child care during current school closures, for example, the firm allows employees to work a schedule that makes sense for them.

“People work different hours and they communicate that to their team,” Meinberg said.

While some offices, through previous investments in mobile technology and a move away from paper documentation,  were more prepared to transition to remote operations, others should set realistic expectations for productivity as they make the transition, said Rick Maher, chief executive of Turning Point HCM, a Coram-based human resources outsourcing firm.

Those not truly prepared will have to understand, he said, "that they’re going to take some level of a hit on productivity and that could mean upset clients.”

“Managers and leaders are facing a stark reality that if they’re not already prepared for this then they’re most likely going to face some hardship because of it,” Maher said.

Tips for employees

Stick to a schedule similar to your office schedule. If you took lunch at a certain time, eat at that time at home.

Set boundaries with family members. If there’s a time of the day you can’t be interrupted, make that clear.

Take frequent breaks, such as a short walk outside, if feasible. It's good for you and can clear your head.

Tips for employers

Set realistic expectations for yourself and other managers about productivity levels. Employees may be working without all the tools they are used to, at least initially.

Prioritize big, important accounts, especially if your resources are spread thin.

Schedule regular virtual meetings, either over conference calls or video. Keeping in touch with employees helps maintain a sense of urgency and teamwork.

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