While some businesses were able to temporarily shut their doors during the initial COVID-19, outbreak, this was not the case for most HVAC companies, which scrambled to continue providing services to customers in a way that was safe for them and for employees as the pandemic spread. As is the case in many industries, some HVAC companies may now be looking at making a transition to entirely remote work.
Because an inevitable component of HVAC is having technicians visit homes in order to perform installations, checks and repairs, this approach needs to include an element of ensuring safe practices for both the technician and the customer.
Working from home has a number of benefits for both employers and employees but also presents challenges. Most of these challenges can be met by having a clear plan in place that includes best practices. How an HVAC company meets those challenges is in some ways similar to the way any other company would, but other best practices are specific to the HVAC industry.
Advantages of Working From Home
Prior to COVID-19, employers may have believed it was too risky to allow some, most or all employees to work from home despite any potential financial benefits. With concerns about everything from security to workflow to how to effectively manage off-site employees, most employers simply chose to keep the status quo and might have even denied permission to employees who requested the accommodation in the past.
Since COVID-19 required workplaces to scramble to accommodate most or all of their workforce from home almost literally overnight, many of those potential obstacles have been smoothed out, and the advantages have become obvious. For some employees, working from home actually results in greater productivity. One of the primary advantages of working from home from an employer’s point of view is lower costs. With fewer employees or no employees at all coming in to a workplace on a regular basis, employers save on overhead that includes rent and equipment costs.
Best Practices for Technician Safety in the Home
It is critical for HVAC companies to observe safety protocols to protect themselves and their customers from contracting or spreading COVID-19. These precautions may change over time based on recommendations from health authorities and may include but are not limited to:
- wearing a mask
- wearing gloves
- social distancing
- washing hands regularly
- using sanitizer when hand-washing is unavailable
- sanitizing iPads
Looking to the Long Term
The uncertainty of how the pandemic will progress and what measures will be necessary in the future to contain it combined with the potential efficiency of running offices remotely mean that HVAC companies and managers should be thinking about work-from-home best practices for the long term.
This is going to change the workplace for both HVAC companies and other industries in a number of ways. In fact, while the shift to working from home had to happen quickly and employers have learned on the fly, many of them, including HVAC companies, may now want to look at making the change permanent regardless of the progression of COVID-19.
Some managers and companies place a premium on the optics of having people in place at the office for a certain number of hours daily, with those who put in the most time especially valued. With this no longer possible in many areas, the focus will need to shift to expectations that are driven by outcome. One possible approach to this is to create daily and weekly task lists and ensure that they are completed.
This does create a danger of micromanagement, and this approach is best done collaboratively instead of having managers assign them. This is true for employees who spent the majority of their time offsite prior to COVID-19 as well. HVAC technicians know their territory and customer needs, and it is important to respect their valuable institutional knowledge.
Because employees are now working from home, the onus on the company to respect their work-life balance will be greater as well. The aim should be an arrangement that gives the employee flexibility to accomplish the tasks necessary in their job and not one in which the employer takes advantage of the employee being on call 24/7. Partnering with an answering service can be valuable in this situation, allowing HVAC companies to ensure that their customers and potential customers can reach them at any time, including in emergencies, without putting an undue burden on their work-from-home staff.
Effective managers will need to excel in facilitating clear and useful communication. Furthermore, flexibility and transparency will become critical values as employers and employees continue to adapt to a fast-changing situation.
Trust is an essential component in a workplace endeavoring to prevent the further spread of disease.
Home Office Challenges
The rapid progression of and response to COVID-19 means that few workers had an opportunity to convert a dedicated space into a home office, let alone one that was ergonomic and promoted efficient work habits. Many people are working from dining room tables or similar spots, with family life going on around them. This is unsustainable in the long term, but few individuals have the spare money and space to create an entire home office. Companies may begin working with employees to ensure that they have the necessary equipment to work effectively. This might include but is not limited to:
- ergonomic chairs and desks
- better audio equipment
- better computer equipment
- faster internet
HVAC technicians generally do not need a home office, unless they run their own business, but they might need different or better tools for working in the field if they are communicating with one or more remote employees while visiting customers. “Completely remote” might not be attainable for many offices however. A better solution in many cases might be hot desking, in which employees spend most of their time at home but come into the office to work on shared facilities. In the past, this approach has largely been the approach of more tech-oriented companies, but even more traditional businesses, including HVAC, may benefit from a similar setup.
In fact, remote work is much easier to visualize today than it was just a few years ago thanks to the rise of the “coworking” model and coworking spaces. With the rise of freelancing, so-called “gig workers” and more work-from-home employees, coworking spaces can increasingly be found in large cities. These are usually office spaces where people pay for a monthly membership and are able to come in and use the facilities as needed. Some HVAC companies might look to model their onsite facilities in a similar manner for times when employees do need to turn up in person.
Promoting Culture and Camaraderie
One of the great challenges for a remote workplace is ensuring that employees still feel like a team despite physical distance. Companies that do not already use platforms such as Slack might want to consider opening one or more channels so employees can get quick answers to questions or simply chat casually as they might when encountering one another in the break room. Since this is a cultural shift in and of itself, employers should carefully consider how to introduce and regulate these types of platforms and ensure that they are used appropriately.
Employers may also want to consider scheduling activities that bring employees together somewhat regularly so that they do get some face-to-face interaction. These are best planned with employee input. For example, they should not be mandatory outside of an employee’s regular work hours, but they should also not add to employees’ overall workload and stress by taking them away from their real or virtual desks during busy times.
Remote work means communication skills become more important than ever, and listening is one of those critical skills. Team-building activities should have the buy-in of the actual team.
Some employees genuinely value the experience of working alongside others daily, and the work-from-home conditions imposed by the pandemic has caused a number of employees to feel isolated. For this and other reasons, going completely remote might not be feasible in some cases. Companies might instead want to look at whether some individual roles could be shifted so that they are all or partly remote if there are advantages in doing so.
Realistic Expectations for Fully Remote Offices
A survey by the research firm Gartner found that almost three-fourths of CFOs said that a minimum of 5% of their employees would continue working from home even after the pandemic’s end. Only 2% said that half of their employees or more would continue to be remote permanently. Around one-quarter thought that a significant minority of employees would continue to be remote.
The reality of the situation is that most HVAC companies will not go fully remote, as is the case in most industries. The hurdles are both logistical and psychological. Most employees prefer to keep their home and professional lives more separate than they are able to when working from home. Video, chat facilities and other communication tools can help coworkers stay in touch, but they do not fully substitute for face-to-face interaction, as has become clear in places where full lockdowns have continued for some time.
Furthermore, HVAC is inherently a person-to-person business. Even if technicians employ distancing procedures that include having the homeowner or business owner in another room while working, they still must physically travel to customer homes or commercial buildings in order to do their jobs.
The Role of an Answering Service
Answering services can play a critical role for an HVAC company that plans to go fully remote. Companies that move toward a remote workplace need to either fully or partly outsource some functions. Outsourcing has some negative connotations attached to it in part because some people associate it with reduced quality, but in fact, an answering service can offer top quality service when it is staffed by professionals specifically trained in the industry. Customers who contacted the HVAC company would find experienced, knowledgeable individuals on the other end of the line.
How much a fully or partially remote HVAC company might want to use an answering service would vary. Some companies might want to route all their calls through an answering service. However, for a family-owned company in a small town, customers might rely on speaking to someone they are acquainted with. In these situations, having employees who can answer the phone during business hours and only using the answering service outside of those hours can be an excellent compromise.
In places where temperatures can drop dangerously low or high or in homes or facilities where medically vulnerable people whose conditions are sensitive to temperature changes live, an HVAC issue can quickly become an emergency. An answering service that can guarantee 24/7 coverage helps reinforce customer confidence that any issues will be dealt with quickly and efficiency even in a pandemic and even if the company is 100% remote.