It’s been a challenging couple of weeks for the InterNations Team. The current coronavirus pandemic has changed both our community life and the way we work rather drastically. Find out more about how we’re all coping with the shift to crisis mode.
Due to the spreading COVID-19 pandemic, the situation at the InterNations office has also been evolving rapidly. About two weeks ago, we assumed it would be enough to cancel our events in selected communities and urge our members not to attend anywhere else if they felt sick or had recently returned from a high-risk area. Just a few days later, we canceled all official events and activities across the globe until the end of April and changed our own way of working overnight.
“I fully support the decision to close our offices and the even harder decision to put our vibrant community life temporarily on hold,” says Lauren from our Community Engagement Team. “It’s our social responsibility, and I’m proud to be a part of a company that is taking big steps to slow the spread of the virus.”
InterNations is taking everyone’s health and safety very seriously — thinking of our 3.9 million members around the world, 133 team members in several locations across Europe, and the general public. This is why we have all been staying at home since 16 March and will continue to do so until mid-April, or possibly even longer. Let’s keep calm and flatten the curve together.
We announced that we’d start working remotely on the day when the local government closed all schools and daycare facilities throughout Bavaria until after Easter, the first of many more containment measures to follow. Today, Munich is in lockdown mode, and residents are only allowed to leave their homes to go to work, run errands, shop for groceries, or work out on their own. Similar restrictions apply in Porto, where the InterNations GO! Team is based — the Portuguese government recently declared a state of emergency for the first time in more than 35 years. We also have an office with a one-man team in Madrid, one of the hardest-hit regions in Europe, right after Northern Italy. No matter where we are, a truly exceptional situation has become the new normal.
Fortunately, no members of the InterNations Team have been directly affected so far, and we fervently hope it’ll stay that way. We’re doing our best to keep up morale, to remain productive, and to feel connected in spite of working from our separate homes.
Benefiting from an Existing Remote-Work Policy
In Germany, the media has been reporting a rapid shift towards digitization in the business world. Some journalists even see this trend as a chance to shift away from presenteeism after the crisis. Luckily, InterNations had already introduced an official framework for working remotely, our ReFlex Policy, last summer.
Most team members have since had the chance to gain some experience with working from home. Few, however, made use of this offer for more than a few days in a row — and never before has the entire team worked remotely at the same time! Thanks to the ReFlex Policy, most of the required infrastructure was already in place: the software tools we need for instant messaging, sharing files, making phone calls, hosting video conferences, and so on. And our DevOps Team has been working really hard so that we could all livestream this month’s companywide team meeting, even if we had to postpone it by one day.
All in all, things have been working fairly well for the past couple of weeks, despite the occasional bump along the road. Without a VPN client, there are some software applications and files stored on our office server that we can’t access right now, such as our extensive image library used regularly by Content & Communications, Online Marketing, and Product Management. Some team members can’t connect to our workspace on Slack yet — also due to the lack of a VPN — and we’ve had to improvise a little to include them in our conference calls. And if you live with other people the internet connection may suddenly go all wobbly if one person joins a video conference while their housemate is streaming a movie, for example.
These obstacles notwithstanding, we have been getting our work done, and I think we should all be proud of ourselves. Personally, I am very glad to be able to participate in video chats and am even looking forward to my regular check-ins with the Corporate Communications Team. As I live on my own and can no longer leave my apartment to meet up with friends, it’s nice to see my co-workers’ friendly faces and hear their familiar voices on a near-daily basis.
Reacting Fast in Crisis Mode
At least for me and my colleagues in the Corporate Communications Team, the teamwork itself has also been going surprisingly smoothly, far more smoothly than I expected at first. Our check-ins twice a day help us to stay on track and provide the opportunity to ask for input or advice; we’re also sharing important files in the cloud on MS OneDrive, so we can work on brainstorming ideas together and keep up to date with the latest version of our communication schedule.
After the rather abrupt shift from launching a long-planned PR campaign to crisis communication mode, we have established a new routine to keep our internal and external communication lines up and running. Though I can no longer shout an urgent question across the room, I feel well informed and always know what to do — and to react fast, if necessary. For example, I might receive another request like the one to revise an automatic translation of Angela Merkel’s recent speech in less than two hours, so that we can keep our non-German-speaking team members informed about the government’s official stance.
Other teams have also been dealing with a sudden disruption to their usual tasks and workflows, especially the Community Engagement Team. Though we at InterNations believe in the power of bringing people together, we also believe it was the right step to cancel all events, even in those destinations where small-scale gatherings are still permitted. Since we’d still like to connect expats and global minds around the world, especially in times of crisis, our community engagement specialists have had to improvise a little — okay, a lot — by introducing the concept of virtual events for the first time, from online book clubs to weekend brunches and from Netflix parties to drawing classes.
While it might seem a bit frivolous to organize an online aperitivo or an at-home workout in places like Milan or Madrid right now, nobody — especially not people under curfew — should just sit idle and worry about the news all day long. All of us could use some kind of socializing and distraction at the moment. We’ve even heard of one member, a US American in Switzerland, who has unfortunately contracted the virus and is feeling very isolated right now. For him, joining online get-togethers in our community is crucial to staying connected.
Switching to Virtual Events: Crisis or Opportunity?
Ben from the Community Engagement Team sums up the situation: “It’s been a very challenging couple of weeks. We’ve had lots of questions from our Ambassadors and Consuls about hosting various kinds of virtual events. So, we’ve done a lot of testing in my team and have been trying out different software tools, for example, Zoom and UberConference.”
“It really struck me how willing everyone is to embrace this as an opportunity to keep in touch,” he continues. “But it’s new to everyone — to us in the InterNations team, to the event hosts, and to the members. And obviously, it’s not what people signed up for. Most members come to InterNations because they want to meet people face to face. And our Ambassadors and Consuls want to bring people together in person. I don’t think this will ever change.”
“Nonetheless, once this crisis is over, we’ll probably have to discuss if we continue to expand our offer to virtual activities. It’s in times like these that society adapts and changes, and so do companies and organizations.”
Onboarding and Coordinating a Remote Team
Meanwhile, Nichelle, our Community Engagement Lead, has had to adapt and change a lot too. After nearly five years as a Community Engagement Specialist, she recently stepped up as an interim team lead when a colleague went on maternity leave — and then the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. So, she’s had to juggle getting used to her new role, replacing informal teamwork with formal status updates, phone calls and video conferences, and onboarding some new team members on top of that.
“The Community Engagement Team includes several recent hires, which makes coordinating a team remotely even more challenging,” she explains. “Our newest colleague, Renata, started about a week and a half before we closed down the entire office and told everyone to pack up and leave.”
“We even had to finish everyone’s onboarding sessions remotely; normally, our new team members would get only one day of remote work a month during their probationary period. We want them to come in, be present, and benefit from the shared knowledge of all the people around them. And it’s obviously harder for me as a team lead, too, to keep track of our new team members, to make sure they get all the support they need when they need it. Luckily, the entire team has been very supportive, proactive, and super-helpful. We all keep checking in on each other.”
“In general, I’m really proud of our team, and our Ambassadors and our Consuls for stepping up and making it work,” Nichelle says. “On the one hand, it’s kind of sad that we’ve gone down from 6,000 official events and activities worldwide to about 500 virtual activities. On the other hand, it’s kind of remarkable too. On 16 March, the day when our team had to delete all events, there were literally zero. From that perspective, it’s pretty amazing.”
Next week, we’ll keep you updated about how we’ve been trying to balance work and life when local life is in lockdown and work happens at home. Stay tuned for part two!
Image credits: InterNations / iStockphoto / private (Andreea Mihalache, Caroline Harsch, Hans-Bernhard Streit, Lars Strojny, Malte Zeeck)