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Omaha Magazine

Compassion and Communication: How Female Business Leaders Handled COVID-19

Nov 23, 2020 06:00PM ● By Katrina Markel
Christine Hill at AOI office

Photography by Bill Sitzmann

As the COVID-19 pandemic gathered steam in March, two women at the helm of Omaha companies seized the opportunity to guide their teams with compassion, transparency, and solid planning.

“We stayed on top of publicly available information. And we really didn’t waste time in making the decision to close our offices,” said Carmen Tapio, president and CEO of North End Teleservices.

Tapio founded the company five years ago and employs hundreds of people. The organization provides call center support for a wide range of clients. Some of them are doing critical work during the economic downturn and global pandemic, including the intake of unemployment claims.

“We are a multi-channel contact center and we provide services to clients on an outsource basis,” Tapio said. “We’re in health care, education, banking—so a variety of sectors and a variety of skill sets.”

Tapio said good planning and established business relationships helped the company to transition its employees to a work-from-home environment. One of her leaders suggested obtaining a large number of boxes before they were in short supply, so that staff could easily move workstations to their homes. Managers evaluated the home technology needs of their teams and a partnership with Cox Communications allowed the company to make broadband service accessible to workers who didn’t yet have it. Tapio said they resolved the internet issues within a one-week period.

“Our pace was to make [the move to remote working] pretty early on because we have large numbers of people working in a call center, and common colds spread quickly…so we just made the decision to work from home to be safe,” Tapio explained.

As the North End Teleservices team was shifting to a remote working situation, Christine Hill was facing a different dilemma across town at AOI Corp. Hill, who is the president of the construction and office furniture company, was watching clients close down their corporate campuses at an alarming rate.

“Every couple of days one campus or one job site after another just completely shut down and we moved everybody out of those buildings,” said Hill, who started with AOI 26 years ago and worked her way up.

AOI often has crews on job sites for years at a time. All of a sudden, they had nothing to do.
“We didn’t want to lose our people, because they are our business…People were worried. ‘Am I going to have a job? Can I take care of my family?’ and we weren’t able to answer that for a while because we didn’t know,” Hill said.

The company furloughed a small number of newer employees, and others were able to tap into the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, a form of paid leave offered by the Department of Labor. Ultimately, Hill said AOI paid its staff despite having little work for them. She emphasized that strong relationships with banking and financial consultants gave the management team confidence that the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) would be available to help them retain employees.

Hill also said that the company found unconventional ways of putting people to work and boosting morale. The furniture installers, who were being paid anyway, cleaned up yards and put down mulch for any colleague who wanted it. As a company, they also made and donated hand sanitizer. To keep some people busy, the organization built Habitat for Humanity houses.

“It was crazy honestly, those first 30 days, it seems like two years ago looking back at it,” Hill said.

In addition to leaning on established business partnerships, both executives said that transparent communication with their workforce was critical. Hill said that she sent an email to staff at least once a week—sometimes more often—with updates. She said they wouldn’t normally talk to rank-and-file employees about something like PPP loans, but in this case they were open about it.

“[Communication] was honest and hopeful at the same time, but also included our to-dos. And it came from me personally. So, I tried to, in those emails, act as if I was speaking to each person individually,” Hill said.

By implementing strict safety protocols and giving workers the “why” for those protocols, Hill was able to get her staff back in the office starting in July. The AOI crews have also returned to work sites.

“We used it as a business development strategy and our employees relate to that. So it created the motivation to do the things that we felt like we all needed to do to keep people safe, but also to get those campuses open again,” said Hill.

Tapio described her company as a mission-forward and culture-forward organization. They implemented daily team meetings, which she said were “daily times to connect as a team and make sure that everyone is getting the same information, and then they can relay it in turn to their teams who are working from home as well.”

Included in those daily business meetings were mental health and wellness check-ins. Tapio saw that her teams seemed to be working even more intensely from home. As a way to avoid burnout, the company implemented an 11 a.m. naptime—an extra break that she describes as being over and above any normal break time. They were even assigned accountability partners to make sure the extra breaks were being used. The company also hosted a socially distanced tailgate party for staff, so that they could at least see one another. If a team member was diagnosed with COVID-19, there was a plan in place to deliver meals. 

Hill said that men and women may have different, but equally valid, strengths as leaders. She mentioned that women might be stronger with communication and compassion, but that she also learned compassionate leadership from the men who founded AOI.

“I think our guys tend to be a little bit more no-nonsense...which is great at times, and then maybe that compassionate side [of women] just makes a better, stronger organization overall,”
Hill said.

Earlier in her career, Tapio worked for the travel company Carlson and said that CEO Marilyn Carlson Nelson taught her that it was okay to lead from the heart.

“There’s a lot of strength in doing so,” Tapio said. “And so when people understand how much you care for them, it’s a game changer.”

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This article was published in the December 2020/January 2021 issue of B2B.