Within 30 minutes of a statewide stay-at-home order being issued on a Sunday, planning started on just one day’s notice to transform a staff of 160 into remote workers. By the close of business Monday, employees at BBQGuys were prepped and overnight set up to work from home with help from the company’s IT staff.

“We did everything to virtualize our call center,” said Corey Tisdale, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge-based online retailer of grills and outdoor furniture. “We were pulling computers out of our office and giving them to employees so they could reconnect them at home.”

When the company conducted a test to see how smoothly the work-from-home system was working at 7 a.m. Tuesday, it found the longest customer hold times were 45 seconds. After a few days of working remotely, the online numbers were looking good for BBQGuys, thanks in a large part to the millions of people who were staying home and looking for things to do. Sales were up slightly, social media traffic increased by 50% and orders for grills were particularly strong.

“I’m proud of the whole crew,” Tisdale said. “When there’s a will, there’s a way.”

Scores of businesses across Louisiana quickly adjusted to having the bulk of their employees working from home as offices attempted to keep people from gathering together and interacting with customers as a way of slowing the spread of the coronavirus and abide by a stay-at-home order that has been extended to April 30.

Mohit “Mo” Vij, president of General Informatics, said his Baton Rouge-based IT firm helped about 20 or 30 companies transition to having employees working from home. The moves affected thousands of workers.

“Half of our clients were set up for remote work; half never cared about it,” he said.

Vij said Louisiana-based businesses generally are better prepared to have employees start working remotely because companies are used to making contingency plans when hurricanes are threatening.

“This is not our first rodeo; we’ve been through it a few times,” he said. “We’re in a place that goes through this regularly.”

Even for those who typically are prepared, stay-at-home orders across multiple states presented a challenge.

Jones Walker, the New Orleans-based law firm, has plans for working remotely developed in the aftermaths of hurricanes Katrina and Gustav. Bill Hines, managing partner, said the company has a 25-page disaster recovery and business continuity plan, and has worked on exercises on how to handle natural disasters, terrorist attacks and live shooters.

But the scope of the coronavirus pandemic has been an issue. Fifteen of the firm’s 17 offices are in cities where either the mayor or state's governor has put in stay-at-home recommendations. Just 60% of the company’s software was licensed to allow employees to work remotely.

“You may ask why we never licensed the other 40%,” Hines said. “That’s because we never thought we would have that many people working remotely at one time. Even a Hurricane Katrina-sized storm wouldn’t displace that many employees.”

Hines said he quickly bought the necessary licenses so all 650 of Jones Walker’s staff and partners could work from home.

The disruptions caused by the coronavirus may lead to changes. “Maybe we can do more work remotely,” Hines said. He notes that younger staffers are more comfortable with using the technology to take care of clients from home. “You realize we can do a lot more with technology, and there may be less need to have a big fully built-out office.”

For businesses that aren’t used to having employees work remotely, the biggest issues were cybersecurity and training workers on connecting computer systems and phones.

“Employees had home computers that were not secured or hadn’t maintained antivirus software,” Vij, of General Informatics, said. That was an issue when they were becoming an extension of a company’s computer network.

The key is for companies to have a policy in place for remote work in case of an emergency. That way, you don't have to quickly train employees in advance of a disaster, Vij said.

Emergent Method, an 8-year-old management consulting firm, was long accustomed to using instant messaging platform Slack and was getting ready to start using Zoom, the popular video and audio conferencing system.

“We were used to cloud-based solutions for file storage and management,” said John Snow, a partner with the company. “We had been practicing with this for a while, but we didn’t think we were getting ready for a global pandemic.”

This allowed for the 40 or so Emergent Method employees a fairly seamless transition from working in an office to doing their duties from home. “As long as we have reliable internet, we’re in good shape,” Snow said.

One of the challenges for Emergent Method has been making the employees still feel like part of a team, even though they are scattered among different locations. “It can be easy to lose regular touchpoints and communications between project teams,” Snow said. Using Zoom, the company regularly has meetings and project team huddles.

Annie Landry, a consultant at Emergent Method who handles communications, said while she misses being in the office, keeping contact with her coworkers and supervisors through Slack and Zoom allows her to be productive. Zoom meetings are just as efficient as getting together in a conference room, she said.

“It’s easy to feel disconnected, but I still talk to the same people I do every day at work,” she said. “I just do it virtually. I do think that’s helpful.”

Landry said she’s been able to have some productive days. “There’s a lot of alone time, so you can crank out a lot of work,” she said.

Jason Stutes, BBQGuys' vice president of e-commerce and analytics, said he thinks his productivity has gone up as a result of working from home. Now that he's doing meetings via video conference, Stutes said he can be doing other tasks on his laptop at the same time.

"Some of the distractions have gone away, so the productivity goes up," he said.

Software has also been crucial for keeping Brightside Social Services operating. For the company, which operates outpatient mental health clinics in Denham Springs and Bogalusa, the pandemic was a chance to test the telehealth software program it developed in the aftermath of the 2016 flood.

Evon Roquemore, chief executive officer and co-owner of Brightside, said the company developed Everso as a way of providing treatment to clients and verifying that the sessions actually occurred. Before the pandemic, about 60% of the company’s business involved making field visits with clients.

“We wanted to keep our clients and staff safe and retain all of our staff, so we went 100% to telehealth overnight,” Roquemore said. While it took a bit of education to make sure all 206 clients had smartphones and home computers to allow for the conferences to happen, she said it has paid off.

For one, Brightside had 100% compliance with all appointments that week. Telehealth makes it easier to arrange treatment for patients, especially those with children, who no longer have to worry about traffic and getting to a session.

“I would love to see this rolled out as natural and normal treatment for clients,” she said.

Baton Rouge-based SCI Research, which conducts market research for businesses from attorneys to political campaigns and consumer companies, temporarily shuttered its brick-and-mortar office.

The company typically recruits people for focus groups and mock jury situations for customers but is no longer hosting in-person groups after statewide restrictions were enacted.

SCI Research has one way to make its outbound and inbound call center remote, but it requires workers to install telephones and quiet spaces, which are difficult to do when so many are working from home.

Instead the company has relied on internet surveys for clients and has kept a skeleton staff to keep fielding calls for future business.

"Our clients tend to want to be in front of people, up close and personal," said John Boston, owner of SCI Research. "We're still getting phone calls, but we're turning down some business right now."

Meanwhile, tutoring business Best in Class has adapted to the new reality of social distancing.

The company began transitioning all of its tutors, who are independent contractors, to online sessions. After K-12 public schools across the state began closing their doors and ordering online classes, the company expected a boost in new clients, but that hasn't happened yet. Best in Class typically has about 200 tutoring sessions each week, but it's down to fewer than 100 appointments in the book.

"We lost about 50% of our revenue (since the restrictions), but we are close to what we made last year this month (March). My concern is if this continues," said Stephanie Crawford, owner of Best in Class. "We're going to be able to stay in business because we were able to make the transition to online tutoring."

Still, the company has two physical locations in Baton Rouge and is on the hook for rent.

Demand for standardized testing preparation such as ACT has fallen off because administrators don't know when the tests will be given. The hope is that when LSU students begin online classes once again, demand for tutoring, even remotely, will rebound, she said.

Some businesses that provide services to critical infrastructure companies, such as GIS Engineering and Construction, hasn't seen a drop in customer demand but did transition its employees to mostly work from home.

Some of the work does still require workers to visit customers on-site, but much of the design and engineering is done remotely. The Baton Rouge office typically has 60 employees working together, but now the company is hosting conference calls and workers have taken home desktops and even office chairs.

The business did buy more virtual private network capacity for employees, but expects to save some money on printing costs.

“One team is having two daily calls just to make sure everything is on track," said Bruce Thomas, vice president of engineering and construction at GIS.

The company has been able to continue being productive so far.

"We’re still able to conduct our reviews of design online so everyone has access to seeing the same we would see if we were all in the office together," Thomas said.

The biggest concern is if customers would cancel in-person site visits, which hasn't happened yet. In the short-term, the company expects it could potentially save money by not printing out so many copies of designs.

“We find that we can actually get by without all those printed copies … maybe we’ll reduce our paper use and printing out of drawings and documents,” Thomas said.


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.